At this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, size definitely mattered.
Most manufacturers put forward new, high-tech compact and subcompact models of one type or another and North American car makers, in particular, may finally be getting the message that big isn't necessarily better.
But away from the main showrooms, nestled down in the Lower Concourse Hall alongside Lotus and Aston Martin, was a manufacturer that's been pumping out low-tech, pint-sized runabouts for more than a century.
Morgan Motor Co. is still the oldest privately owned car maker in the world; it started selling its iconic three-wheeled runabout in 1910. Vestiges of this car still remain in the form of the front-suspension layout in some of its models, and in L.A. this year, the newest incarnation of the trike, now known simply as the 3 Wheeler, was front and centre in its flying tiger livery.
Now available in the United States, the 3 Wheeler is powered by a front-mounted, Harley-Davidson-derived, air-cooled, V-twin that displaces 1,990 cc and develops 80 horsepower. Mated to a Mazda five-speed transmission, this is enough to take the 3 Wheeler from zero to 100 km/h in four-to-six seconds, which is right up there with various turbocharged Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes, the Mustang Mach 1 and others. It may look peculiar, but this is a quick little puppy – old tech all the way and easily the fastest trike on the market. Top speed is 185 km/h if you have the nerve.
All the usual British motoring clichés are in evidence: twin Brooklands "flyscreens," leather interior, wire wheels, toggle switches, exterior body badging and my personal favourite: a "bomb release" starter button. This car is not for shy and retiring types, but if you've got $40,000 or thereabouts, slip on your driving goggles and head south. There's one waiting for you at one of several dealers in the United States.
Morgan heir and managing director, Charles Morgan, drove one of the new 3 Wheelers across the United States in the 2012 Gumball Rally – more than 5,600 kilometres from start to finish. He didn't win (far from it), but aside from going the wrong way in New York City and losing some exhaust manifold bolts near Death Valley, the run was trouble-free. As he noted in his diary, Harley-Davidson riders were particularly intrigued as he roared past, frequently cruising in the 130 km/h neighbourhood. This car was not specially prepared for the rally, but taken off the line at the factory and shipped as is overseas.
The resurgence of the 3 Wheeler isn't the only thing happening at Morgan these days.
The company recently opened its first dealership in China, in Shanghai, and parked alongside the 3 Wheeler in L.A. were an Aero Coupe and Aero SuperSports. These two, priced at more than $150,000 to start, are powered by a BMW V-8 engine with a six-speed ZF gearbox and an electronically governed top speed in excess of 270 km/h. Zero to 100 km/h is reached in just more than four seconds and these are truly state-of-the-art European supercars with the same kind of presence as a Ferrari or Porsche.
But the unmistakeable styling harkens back to the original Morgan 4/4, which was introduced in 1936. Flowing fenders, a snubbed rear deck and full-sized doors have replaced the glorified cycle fenders and externally mounted spare tire that identified the older models and, today, the Aeros feature an all-aluminum frame and bodywork, with upscale, leather, wood, and mohair interiors that rival that of a Bentley. Made in limited numbers, these are the most expensive models in the Morgan stable.
Which still includes the redoubtable Plus 8, these days propelled by the same 367-horsepower BMW V-8 as the Aero models. With a dry weight of 1,100 kilograms, it's as quick as ever, but now you can get it with an optional automatic transmission that features Sport or Auto modes, that, in the former setting, "blips" the throttle when downshifting. You can also order – gasp! – air conditioning. Good lord, what's next? GPS?
And let's not forget the traditional models: Roadster, 4/4, Four Seater, and Plus Four, which, depending upon the model, come with either a Ford V-6 engine, Ford Duratec four-cylinder, or Ford Sigma 1.6-litre four-cylinder. Even the least powerful of these – the 4/4 – still moves out at a decent clip and offers respectable fuel economy, thanks to lightweight construction. Believe it or not, this model has some of the lowest CO2 emissions on the market. The 4/4 is also being offered in 75th anniversary livery, with a larger engine and special paint.
Alas, it's not easy to get your hands on a new Morgan. There are dealers in New York, Virginia, Colorado, California and elsewhere throughout the United States but, thanks to strict Transport Canada crash-test requirements, nada in Canada.