Morris Eight

It wasn't pretty and it wasn't fast, but for the average man on the road the Morris Eight was just fine, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The first famous Morris motor was the Minor (pace the Bullnose), introduced in 1928 as a direct rival to the ubiquitous Austin Seven. In very basic form, its cost was brought down to £100, and with a feather-footed driver at the wheel, it once travelled the straight and level roads of the Midlands for 100 miles on a single gallon of petrol, yet, without too much tinkering and falsification to the working parts, a single-seater version was persuaded (again, once) to reach 100mph.

The first famous Morris motor was the Minor (pace the Bullnose), introduced in 1928 as a direct rival to the ubiquitous Austin Seven. In very basic form, its cost was brought down to £100, and with a feather-footed driver at the wheel, it once travelled the straight and level roads of the Midlands for 100 miles on a single gallon of petrol, yet, without too much tinkering and falsification to the working parts, a single-seater version was persuaded (again, once) to reach 100mph.

These achievements were, however, not enough to dent the popularity of the little Austin and, in 1934, after fewer than 90,000 had been sold, production of the Morris Minor ceased.

The new Morris Eight was, in saloon form, rounded and humped, wider and with more room than the Ford, but not a pretty sight; as an open tourer it was rather more dashing at the rear, more so in two-seater guise than four, and looked almost pretty with the pram-hood down - though its engine put an end to any sporting pretensions that the driver might have. This long-stroke, side-valve lump of 918ccs, producing 23.5bhp at 3,900rpm, gave the saloon a performance that was, as Autocar gently pointed out, "not of paramount importance".

Wholly unaerodynamic, it weighed over three-quarters of a ton and did well to reach 55mph with a following wind; acceleration was at best tentative, and for anyone to get it to 50mph in 50 seconds was something of a triumph.

The gearbox was appalling; with only three forward speeds and no synchromesh, the ratios were far too low for anything that might resemble long-distance cruising. In top it could, like Daimlers and Rolls, trickle along at fast walking-pace and then accelerate to maximum speed without a hint of snatch - but this condemned the car to local pottering. The car's other flaw was suspension - even the most charitable passenger would feel compelled to describe it as frisky on uneven roads, though the car cornered well enough when the road was smooth.

My recollection of the much lighter two-seater is that it was quite a different character - a nimble little slogger, better balanced than the saloon, with accurate steering (my then girlfriend could hold the wheel with her knees while dragging on a cardigan), spoilt only by the beastly gearbox. When, by 1938, some 218,000 of this first Morris Eight had been made, perhaps 30,000 of them tourers, the second, the Series E, was introduced at the Earls Court Show that year. For its period, its looks were astonishingly modern at the nose, its radiator a waterfall of chrome distinctly American in style, though from windscreen to rear bumper it reverted to the boxy shape then common in small English cars. The engine was little changed from its first manifestation in the revised Minor of 1931; with the power raised to 29.5bhp at 4,400rpm, its performance was marginally better than in the first Eight, but the body weight was much the same and, in spite of the smart radiator, not noticeably more aerodynamic. The gearbox was given four speeds with synchromesh and, as another Autocar scribe put it, "asked for no skill in changing'' - though the whippy lever was much criticised.

After the Second World War, Morris immediately put this Eight into production again, virtually unchanged - and why not when it still looked so modern? Tourers, alas, were dropped from the range, which was limited to two- and four-door saloons, of which 114,000 were made.

A luxury version of the four-door saloon was put into production by Wolseley in 1946, with the classic radiator of that marque and separate headlamps, removing all that was daring in the original 1938 design, but it had significant improvements to the engine.

That Wolseley engine was intended for the Morris Minor, introduced in 1948, a car of which epoch-making and iconic are, for once, suitable hyperbole, but it was too expensive for a mass-produced car and instead the existing side-valve unit that had first appeared in the 1931 Morris Minor, lived on in dwindling production until 1953.

Were I looking for an amusing classic in this cheap quarter, I'd choose the Morris Eight Tourer circa 1939, or the Wolseley Eight of 1946-48. Classic? I never thought I'd write the words "Morris" and "classic" in the same sentence, but, as Disraeli told us long ago, "Change is inevitable in a progressive country".

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