The Discrete Charm of a Decaying Car by Peter Egan (roadandtrack.com)
Seduced by the idea of a cheap Morgan 4/4, our intrepid hero discovers the horrors that hide beneath the shade tree.
This article originally appeared in the November 1983 issue of Road & Track.
“Forty-five hundred dollars for a 1962 Morgan 4/4,” I said loud enough for my wife Barbara to hear. She was seated nearby at the breakfast table, reading that questionable part of the Sunday paper that contains no used car classifieds.
“Is that a good price?” she asked, trying hard not to look like a person who is about to have half her joint life savings wiped out by a single check.
“I haven’t seen one that cheap in years,” I responded. “If the car’s any good, that’s an excellent price.”
For nearly a year I’d been setting money aside for a project car, preferably something with the words Jaguar, Morgan or Lotus on the grille. The money was building up in my savings account much the way voltage builds up in a static electricity generator, and the first car to come along with the right credentials was going to get zapped with a bolt of greenbacks. In one year I’d saved literally tens of dollars. The rest would be borrowed against our Datsun.
I called the owner of the Morgan and got directions to his house. He lived in the foothills north of Los Angeles on a five-acre horse ranch, way back in one of those steep canyons that make the evening news three times a year during the fire, flood and mudslide seasons. A place where the occasional earthquake is just gravy. Two hours later we pulled into the ranch.
The Morgan sat on the front lawn in the shade of a huge oak tree, strategically placed to melt the resolve of tight-fisted car buyers. It was dark green with black fenders and a leather strap across the hood. From our vantage point in the driveway, the Morgan looked beautiful. I let out a low whistle. “I think we may have found ourselves a car,” I said.
The owner, a pleasant fellow, appeared and showed us around the car. Up close the Morgan had a few rust spots along the fender seams and the interior looked fairly weatherbeaten, but overall it appeared sound enough. It would be fun, I thought, to paint this car and reupholster the seats in nice leather.
We looked under the hood at the Ford 109E engine, which was covered with oil-soaked cobwebs. The oil appeared to be the product of excessive blow-by from the valve cover. I shrugged. The English Fords were sound engines, easy to work on and fun to rebuild. We looked in the trunk.
The trunk had problems. I wiggled a piece of the ash frame and a large chunk of the inner wheel arch came off in my hand. When I tried to put it back in place, the wood crumbled in my fingers like a slice of week-old pound cake. I apologized profusely, but the owner was quite good-natured about it. “Oh, that’s okay. All the wood is worthless in this car. Dry rot. It needs a whole new body frame. You can get one from a place out East for about $800.”
I got down on one knee and looked under the car.
“The steel chassis rails are all rusted out, too,” he added, “but you can still order a whole new chassis from the factory for less than $ 1500.”
He suggest we take a test drive, so I opened the driver’s door and the door came off in my hand. “Dry rot around the hinges,” the owner explained. I latched the door back in place and he said, “I’ll have to give you a push down the hill. The teeth are all gone on the ring gear and the battery’s pretty low anyway.” The car roared to life in a cloud of smoke, and settled down to the most complete collection of mechanical noises I’ve ever heard from a single running engine. Big-end rod knock, small-end rod knock, main bearing rumble, timing chain noise and deafening valve clatter. The only functioning instrument on the dash was the oil pressure gauge, which hovered between 3 and 5 psi when the cold engine was revved. I slipped the gearshift into 1st and we were off. “Skip 2nd gear,” the owner shouted over the absent exhaust system. “It’s missing a few teeth.”
“What’s that shrieking noise?” ”The rear end is bad.” As we motored up the canyon road, thick clouds of blue smoke began pouring from the hood louvers and from under the dash. After a mile the smoke got so bad I couldn’t see the exact location of the road. It was like driving through the boys’ room at a high school basketball game. At halftime. I looked over at the owner, who smiled at me pleasantly through the haze, apparently oblivious to the choking fumes. I wondered if I was the only person who noticed the smoke. Was I dying? Maybe this is what it’s like, I thought. The car pitched wildly into a corner, and the man warned me to be careful because the sliding pillar suspension was badly worn and the spokes were all loose.
We clattered back to the ranch on 1 lb of oil pressure. I carefully parked the car beneath the tree, turned off the ignition, removed the door and got out.
“Well, what do you think?” The owner asked.
Having just been recently gassed, I struggled to collect my thoughts. What did I think? I thought the car was a wonderful collection of dreams held together by cobwebs and green paint. I thought if the car were a 1962 Ford or Chevy you’d have to pay the wrecker $35 to haul it away. I thought how wondrous it was that Morgans and a small handful of other cars in the world had such charm that a man could even hope to sell one in this deplorable condition. For money. With a straight face.
“Well,” I said, “the wood-rimmed steering wheel is in nice shape and the front fenders seem pretty sound . . . but $4500 seems like a lot of money for a steering wheel and some fenders. I think the rest of the car needs to be replaced.”
The owner looked at me with a mixture of amusement and genial pity. “The car is completely shot, of course,” he said, appealing to my sense of reason, “but a nicely restored Morgan will cost you two or three times what I’m asking. At $4500 I’m sure someone will buy the car and fix it up.”
I thanked the man for his time, and for the first time in my life I did the unthinkable. I turned around and walked away from an opportunity to buy an overpriced, worn-out, nearly unrestorable facade of an old British roadster that looked good sitting under an oak tree. Age, reason—something—had finally overtaken my usual witless optimism. Maybe it was the smoke. The owner was right, of course. There really was someone out there who would buy the car for $4500 and fix it up. But this time it wouldn’t be me.
As we drove back down the canyon toward home I felt oddly elated, remarkably carefree and suddenly wealthy. We stopped for lunch at a hamburger place. “Milkshakes all around,” I said to the waitress. “My wife and I have just come into a large sum of money.”
Barb stared out the cafe window and shook her head. “I really wanted that car when we first saw it,” she said. “How could such a neglected, worn-out old car look so good, sitting there on the front lawn?”
“It’s a Morgan,” I said. “And no one ever throws a Morgan away.”