1936 Morgan Super Sport. Click image to enlarge
In spite of the virtual collapse of the British automobile industry in the latter part of the 20th century, the tiny family-owned Morgan company has survived for almost 100 years making basic sport cars. What is amazing is that for the first 25 of those years Morgan cars had only three wheels!
The first Morgan prototype came to life in 1909, the brainchild of 25 year-old Henry F.S. Morgan (known as HFS in the industry), a garage owner and son of a local vicar in Malvern Link, Worcester, England. He fabricated a tubular frame and mounted a Peugeot vee-twin motorcycle engine between the two front wheels. Power went to a two-speed transmission, and then via two chains to the single rear wheel.
The little single-seater had independent front suspension, a very advanced feature for the day, comprised of sliding pillars and coil springs and inspired by the front suspension of the French
Decauville. It would, with refinements, remain a Morgan hallmark for some 90 years and was renowned for its sturdiness if not for its riding comfort.
Encouraged by his car’s sprightly performance due to its good power-to-weight ratio, Henry organized the Morgan Motor Co. and displayed a car at the 1910 London Motor Show. It was well received and a few orders came in, but the single seat limited its market appeal.
Morgan realized that to be successful he needed two things: two passenger accommodation and a competition record to prove the car. He entered his car in the Exeter Two Day trial, receiving a gold medal and much good press coverage. He fitted a more extensive two-seater body to his car and displayed it at the 1911 show. With its competition record and two seats the Morgan was an immediate success.
Owners began successfully racing their Morgans and the resulting favourable publicity brought so many sales that the little factory’s production fell behind its orders. It was a condition that would be the norm rather than the exception in Morgan’s history.
Encouraged by its competition success, Morgan introduced a Grand Prix model in 1913. This added even more race wins to the Morgan’s record.
Production slowed during the First World War while Morgan was engaged in military work. When peace came Morgan was able to return to full scale production sooner than other manufacturers.
The fitting of a quick-change rear wheel was a vast improvement. Electric lights became optional in 1924, and an electric starter in 1927. A three speed transmission was fitted in 1930. There was also a Family model available with two tiny back seats suitable for small children.
While several manufacturers built three-wheelers, the Morgan was by far the most popular. Over the years it came with a variety of air and water-cooled engines, and with side valves and overhead valves. These included JAP (from J.A. Prestwich), Anzani, Blackburne, Matchless and Ford.
One of the reasons three-wheeled cars remained popular in Britain was that if they weighed less than eight hundredweight (896 lb; 406 kg) they were taxed as motorcycles. This meant that the annual road tax for a Morgan was half that of a small four-wheel car like a Morris Minor or Austin Seven.
By the 1930s it was becoming apparent that the three-wheeler’s days were coming to an end. More good four-wheel cars were becoming available at lower prices, and Morgan was having a harder time competing. Also, in 1936 it was announced that the taxing advantage of the three-wheeler would disappear.
To counter this trend Morgan introduced a four-wheel car in 1935. They continued to build three-wheelers, although in diminishing numbers. A few were even produced following the Second World War, the last one being in 1951.
Three-wheel cars have continued to exist at the very fringes of the market. The most successful was the British Reliant, which grew out of the 1930s Raleigh when Raleigh decided to abandon the car business.
Reliant managed to stay in the three-wheel market until December, 2000, when the last Reliant Robin was produced. One of its advantages was that it didn’t require an automobile driver’s
licence; a motorcycle licence was sufficient.
While long gone now, Morgan three-wheelers were cheap, fast, and in spite of having only three wheels, remarkably stable. That’s why they remained popular for so long, and why they are still prized collectibles by many Morgan enthusiasts.
Morgan is still in business turning out sports cars, four-wheelers of course, in the old fashioned way at its small, red brick factory on Pickersleigh Road in Malvern Link. And it is still very much a family business. Peter Morgan, son of founder HFS, became company chairman on the death of his father in 1959, then passed the chair to his son Charles in 1999. Charles has since relinquished that position, but is still active in the business. Peter Morgan died in 2003 at age 83.