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Morgan returns to its roots Add to ...

Luddites rejoice! While some might call it the worst of both worlds, British car maker Morgan recently announced it will be building a three-wheeler powered by a Harley engine.

That's right; the iconic manufacturer recently said that it will build "new" three-wheeled vehicles for 2011, and the powerplant of choice will be an 1,800-cc Harley-Davidson V-twin.

"The time is right to re-launch this exceptional design," says Morgan on its website, adding that the company will be expanding its range for 2011 and going back to its "roots."

Morgan - the oldest privately owned car manufacturer in the world - originally got its start by producing three-wheelers, back in 1909, and manufactured them until 1953, selling some 30,000 over the years. In that time, they were propelled by everything from air-cooled motorcycle engines, to small-displacement Ford four cylinders. In the 1930s, Morgan actually offered buyers a 990-cc water-cooled Matchless V-twin engine, so the choice of a Harley unit for the new trike isn't that out of line.

A few specs about the new Morgan trike: The engine, tweaked by Harley's Screaming Eagle performance division, will develop a purported 100 horsepower, giving the 500-kilogram three-wheeler an estimated top speed of some 185 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of around 4.5 seconds. It will be mated to a five-speed manual transmission taken from a Mazda5, and will have disc brakes all round.

There will be seating for two and the body configuration will be the classic "beetle-back" design the company used on its Super Sports Aero model, manufactured in the 1920s and vigorously campaigned in motorsports events by intrepid privateers even now.

Let's hope the new version is more user-friendly than the old. Driving the original three-wheelers required a manual dexterity and attention to detail that few of us can imagine today.

In his book Morgan (Osprey Press, 1994), author Rowan Isaac describes the startup procedure for one of the early models:

1) Turn petrol tap on

2) Flood carburetor by depressing device on float chamber

3) Close air lever

4) Open throttle lever slightly

5) Half advance ignition lever

6) Turn on oil drip feed

7) Insert starting handle in bevel box just forward of the rear wheel

8) Check gear is in neutral

9) Hold valve lifter lever open

10) Wind starting handle and hope for the best

Once under way, the driver had to contend with a rat's nest of motorcycle-style throttle cables, manual oil feed valves, cable-operated brakes and, sometimes, an engine with a total loss lubrication system that spewed oil right back into his face. Thus, the goggles drivers often wear.

As time went on, things became more civilized, of course, with new-fangled features such as electric start, reverse gear, front brakes, and three forward gears becoming standard, but even at its most refined, the Morgan three-wheeler was prone to rollovers and abrupt changes in direction.

During city driving, the rear wheel could sometimes get stuck in trolley tracks, which took away the driver's ability to make a turn. The remedy: stop the vehicle, get out, lift the back end out of the rut and carry on.

In the wet, it was treacherous and windblown, and creature comforts were minimal. That said, in the hands of the right driver/mechanic, a modified Morgan three-wheeler could be made to go like the clappers, with spectacular handling and braking.

Getting back to the present, the new three-wheeler will have leather seats, Brooklands-style "flyscreens," an all-aluminum body wrapped around a tubular frame, twin roll-bars and wire wheels.

More importantly, it will be homologated - or classified - as a motorcycle, thus avoiding the mandatory crash tests that conventional four-wheelers must undergo.

Interestingly, one of the reasons Morgans aren't currently sold in this country is because Transport Canada requires any prospective dealer to crash test at least three cars, which, if your yearly inventory is half a dozen units at best, is costly and prohibitive. For reasons that aren't easily understood, the government agency is more than willing to adopt crash test results from the U.S.-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for major car makers, but insists on putting boutique manufacturers through the hoops.

Anyway, despite its apparent eccentricity, re-introducing a three-wheeled vehicle in the 21st century actually makes sense.

It's not as though no one else is doing it; Bombardier, for example, with its CanAm Spyder, is enjoying some success these days and Italian manufacturer Piaggio has had a three-wheeled scooter on the market for several years. As well, Harley-Davidson has been selling trikes for ages, and now that its traditional market is getting older, is enjoying improved sales with its Tri-Glide models.

As Morgan explains: "The future of road transport in the 21st Century has two big issues: the conservation of precious resources and the protection of our beautiful natural environment. Downsizing and a philosophy of simplicity are ways of dealing with these problems. The Morgan Three-wheeler is a proven answer to these problems."

And what better partnership than two long-established manufacturers, whose combined experience in the art of building cars and bikes exceeds 200 years?

According to Morgan's sales manager, Mark Ledington, 150 people have already purchased one of the new three-wheelers, with another 1.700 registered to buy. Although Morgan will be exporting some 70 per cent of their production run, whether the three-wheeler will make its way to Canada is unknown at this point. If it does, it will likely be priced in the mid-$40,000 range.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

With room for Corgis or groupies, this top-of-the-line luxury car has it all, says Peter Cheney

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