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3-wheeled Runabout fueled a family business

January 18, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

More of a motorcycle than an automobile, the Morgan Runabout earned the public's admiration and helped popularize three-wheeled vehicles.

Today, Morgan remains a family-owned operation that completes fewer than 1,000 cars a year. Despite the recent introduction of an all-new model powered by a BMW V-8, the company remains committed to making cars the old-fashioned way. It's an unhurried process that is admired and appreciated by a continuous line of prospective buyers who patiently wait for the object of their desire to roll off the Malvern Link, England, shop floor.

Since its founding in 1909 by H.F.S. (Henry) Morgan, the factory has created small batches of simple, straightforward products of the three- and four-wheel variety that are as much fun to drive as they are fast.

The three-wheeled car that began it all nearly 100 years ago was both simple in design and innovative in its engineering. The seven-horsepower Peugeot two-cylinder engine was positioned ahead of an independent coil spring front suspension (still in use on Morgans to this day) while the dual-speed manual transmission (no reverse gear) resided behind the driver's seat, directly in front of a single chain-driven rear wheel. The lightweight chassis consisted of a series of steel tubes that supported the running gear and the rudimentary single-seat convertible body with wooden floorboards. Two of the tubes also doubled as exhaust pipes, a design that was quickly abandoned after it was discovered that the corrosive effect of the exhaust gasses caused the tubes to rot away.

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Since the engine was held in place by just four bolts, servicing or repairing the Morgan's key mechanical component was a relatively easy process.

The original Morgan's extremely favorable power-to-weight ratio would become a hallmark for future models and a key reason for the car's early success in hill-climb races and other events. A photo taken during a 1911 cyclecar competition depicts H.F.S. Morgan, grinning from ear to ear, accompanied by a riding mechanic, sliding his machine around a sharp turn. Morgan would go on to set numerous class speed and endurance records in his early vehicles, earning widespread praise (and a significant sales boost) for his three-wheeled wonder.

By 1912, the Runabout, as it was called, was beginning to make a name for itself in England as well as on the European continent. The car's low purchase price and a top speed that exceeded 60 mph ensured a strong demand. In fact, Harrods, London's premier department store, lured shoppers to its establishment by placing a Morgan on display in one of its store windows.

Following the First World War, Morgan created a four-seat three-wheeler that sold alongside his two-seater model. For a time, this Family Runabout was extremely popular, helping bring total production to 50 cars per week.

By the 1920s, numerous improvements had been made to the Morgan, including electric lights, front-wheel brakes and the availability of an electric starter. A variety of V-twin engines were also employed, the most popular being the eight-horsepower 1.1-liter J.A.P. motor that could propel the Runabout to speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Such was the demand for Morgans that, by 1920, a licensing arrangement with the French Darmount company resulted in the car being produced in that country for nearly 20 years.

By then, two distinct Runabout models were being constructed: exposed-engine sports models; and the Family series, with their motors contained inside the bonnet (hood) and optional four-place seating.

The little three-wheeler was thoroughly updated in 1933, including a pair of small doors and the option of a 10-horsepower Ford four-cylinder engine. Three years later, the first four-wheel Morgan, called the Plus 4, was added to the lineup, allowing the automaker to compete against more modern and powerful sports cars from MG, Triumph and Singer. The Runabout was suddenly obsolete.

Morgan continued to make limited numbers of its original model right up until 1951, when the tap was finally turned off. For H.F.S. Morgan, the Runabout was far from dated. Instead, he claimed it was public taste and the public perception that spelled the end for his three-wheeler.

In any event, the Runabout's durability and performance had made it a popular choice for much of its life and helped make the Morgan company a successful family venture that continues to this day.




Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' historical writer.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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