Motoring / Road Test: Dashing down memory lane: Bored with the smooth, swift, soporific ride of modern cars? John Simister urges us back to basics
Cars become ever faster, smoother, quieter, more comfortable, and less demanding to drive with each new model. But at the same time pressure groups and politicians call for ever lower speeds and ever greater restrictions on what you can sensibly, safely and enjoyably do in cars.
These opposing forces mean that driving can be a dull business. If you keep within the speed limits in today's cars, you need stimulation to stay alert; but all you get is frustration. So what can you do? You can succumb to the inevitable - or you can buy a Morgan.
A Morgan is living history. It is not a neo-Georgian house with a plastic portico, but a real Georgian house, updated with the motoring equivalents of mains electricity, central heating and a damp course, but with its fabric - and its soul - unaltered.
The cheapest of the three Morgan models available is the 4/4, yours for pounds 16,256 before you start adding extras such as leather upholstery. The name tells us that its engine has four cylinders and its chassis four wheels, giving the Morgan a common bond with probably 80 per cent of cars on the road today.
This is not as daft as it sounds. Before 1936, when the Morgan Motor Company introduced its first 4/4 with a Ford side-valve engine, all Morgans made do with a single wheel at the back, and earlier examples used two-cylinder motorcycle-type engines.
Since then, the 4/4 has stayed with middle-sized Ford engines, using whatever was current. So today's 4/4 marries Ford's 1.8-litre Zetec unit - 121bhp, twin-cam, 16-valves, fuel injection - to the ash-framed body, traditional chassis, and minimalist suspension. This engine normally powers the front wheels of an Escort XR3i; here, it drives the rear wheels via a Ford Granada gearbox.
The engine is new; so is the padded, projection-free cockpit, required by safety legislation. But the hand-built car looks almost exactly as Morgans have looked since the mid-Fifties. That was when it gained its last styling update, with a rounded front grille and faired-in headlights. These apart, you could be in a car as old as the Munich Crisis, were it not for the fact that today's version is a great deal faster.
A relic, however, it is not, although it proves people had more fun in the old days. In the Morgan you can rediscover roads you thought you knew, and enjoy them without having to travel at anti-social speeds. Nothing puts you in the picture like a Morgan - no, make that a hologram: a picture has two dimensions, and the third is crucial to the Morgan experience.
In most modern cars, a road's little bumps and slippery patches are masked by sophisticated, anaesthetising suspension systems. You are insulated from reality, the topography of your surroundings, cocooned in your smooth, quiet, warm and comfortable box. A Morgan ensures that you bond with a road's history and purpose, the shape of its corners, the undulations of its straights. If, like me, you are a map junkie who loves to trace the old roads that have been rendered redundant by bypasses and route renumberings, the Morgan will perfectly match your mood.
What you do not bond with, much of the time, is the road surface itself. This is because the wheels are forever hopping and sliding in a lively dance: the Morgan is talking to you. At first you might be unnerved by it, but you soon realise that the Morgan is not going to fling you into the undergrowth in the middle of a fast bend.
Once you have overcome your apprehension, you can start exploring the limits of the narrow tyres' modest grip, confident that the Morgan is telling you exactly what is going on underfoot. Before long, wet roads will have you doing all that balancing-on-the-throttle, four-wheel-drift stuff Stirling Moss used to do.
Add to this the 4/4's surprising pace, lusty pulling power and fruity exhaust note, plus the exhilaration that comes from being in your own hurricane, and you will never want to drive a modern tin box again. At least, not until it rains (the hood is primitive) or you hit a pothole (intimate contact with the road isn't always pleasurable).
There is a whole generation of drivers who know nothing of such pleasures, drivers who have been brought up on front-wheel-drive cars of ample grip, numb controls and a narrow dynamic repertoire. If their cars slither, they panic.
With this in mind, I have a great idea for raising driving standards and improving road safety. Make every driver drive a Morgan, roof down, on a damp, twisty, bumpy road for a minimum of two hours. Follow them to make sure they are travelling briskly enough to get into the rhythm.
And if they are not smiling broadly at the journey's end, take their licences away]
Morgan 4/4 1800, pounds 16,256
Engine: 1,796cc, four-cylinder, 121bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 110mph, 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds. 28-33mpg.
Caterham Seven 1.4 K-series, pounds 14,995
Nothing compares directly with a Morgan, nor has there been for 40 years; but the Caterham Seven comes closest. Born in 1957 as the Lotus Seven, today's Caterham offers a Rover K-series engine giving 110bhp, and a 2.0-litre Vauxhall unit of 165bhp, among its engine options. It is smaller, more rigid and racing-car-like than the Morgan, but is edgier to drive and even less practical. Others have produced Caterham-like cars, based on the Lotus Seven; two of the best are the Westfield (ZEi 1.8, pounds 12,999) and Tiger (Super Six, about pounds 12,000). Both have the same Ford Zetec engine as the Morgan.
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