Pulling up in front of the shop beside Jim Williams' home near Stirling, Ont., at the wheel of my 1968 Morgan 4/4, my eyes were immediately drawn to a familiar white shape pointing nose foremost out of one of the bays.
The flaring front fenders and fared-in headlamps framing a vertically slatted grille immediately provide the appropriate visual clues, and the personalized licence plate "MORGAN" should have removed any doubt as to what it was. But wait a sec, isn't that grille about half-again as wide as it should be, along with the hood behind it? And aren't those headlights much wider spaced than they out to be?
Williams had allowed, while chatting over the phone, that his 1958 4/4 Morgan was "highly modified;" what he hadn't revealed was that it's very possibly the only fully hot-rodded Morgan on the planet.
Closer inspection reveals that under the classic Morgan bodywork that's been widened by about a foot, the original wooden cabinetry it was once nailed to, the flimsy chassis that supported it and the small-bore four-cylinder engine that powered it are long gone. Replacing them are a 1951 Ford frame with a straight-up, 400-hp-plus shot of 355-cubic-inch Camaro Z28 V-8 wedged between its rails with a Muncie four-speed back.
The shudder of horror running through Morgan purists reading that is almost palpable, but in fact this is a story of resurrection rather than desecration.
The hot-rod Morgan tale unfolded after Williams, who grew up in Malton, Ont., moved in the late 1950s to Stirling where his grandfather had been a blacksmith. And then, after studying industrial engineering at Ryerson in Toronto and getting married to his high school sweetheart Sue, worked for the nearby Bata shoe company before moving on to management roles in other area industries.
He was 23 in 1963 when he and his father Ray were wandering around a local wrecking yard and he spotted the Morgan in the weeds. "One fender was white, everything else was rust because it had burned out. I said to dad, 'Look at that.' He said, 'What is it?' And I said, 'I don't know, but I love it, and I've got to have it,'" recalls Williams.
After dickering with the yard owner, a price of $95 was agreed, which Williams borrowed from his father. "It was a lot of money, about a week and a half's pay."
After dragging the remains home and doing some research into a car very few Canadians had even heard of, it was determined it would be too expensive to restore, so he decided to employ the talents developed as a teenage hot-rodder.
Williams says he's had gasoline in his veins for as long as he can recall and grew up as part of the Toronto area hot-rod scene in the 1950s. "Before we were 16, we'd buy these $10 and $25 cars and drive them in the fields." His high school rides, paid for with a job at an Esso station across from the airport (that's still there), included a 1933 Ford Roadster and a highly customized 1951 Meteor convertible.
With not much left of the Morgan to work with Williams found a '51 Ford frame and "Z-ed" it, an old rod-builders trick involving cutting and welding to drop the front section, in this case to make the Morgan bodywork ride at the right height. The Ford suspension and rear end were retained, but the four-cylinder engine (Williams recalls a flathead Vauxhall, but a flathead Ford four would have been original) was replaced by a Chevy Power Pack 283 V-8.
The bodywork was "cut right down the middle, not a big job as most of it was burned wood" and widened, and a complete new hood hand-rolled by Williams. Other panels that had been warped by heat were made true again and attached to a metal framework. A new grille was fabricated, bumpers and taillights provided by an Austin and an all-red interior created.
Williams put the hot-rod-Mog on the road in 1967, beating by a year Morgan itself, which rolled out its V-8-engined Plus 8 in 1968.
With its new Z28 V-8, it's a missile that will spin the rear tires in third gear. After a lapping session on the Shannonville track recently, Williams says, "it took me a week to stop smiling."
The Morgan, which is what it's still registered as, was used by his wife Sue (now passed on) to take their two girls to a Huntsville family cottage and, despite myriad other projects, is obviously still a favourite.
"I just love to build stuff. You've got to do something when you get up in the morning or you just vegetate," says Williams, who retired in 1980. "I decided to play, and I've been doing that ever since," he says.
And to prove he's been doing so successfully, his shop walls are hung with framed snapshot collections of cars, bikes, boats and other things he's turned his rarely idle hands too.
"Things" that include the large replica steam train engine that sits in Stirling's park, a recently completed miniature train with towed dining car, goods wagon and caboose along with a working carousel for his grandchildren. Plus a very neat-looking motor home made from an Airstream travel trailer and a truck chassis and cab, a 1935 Mercedes-Benz 500k kit car and a 1978 Cadillac "pickup."
And one of the more off-the-wall vehicles you'll likely ever see, which Williams calls the Spider and was created from a 2001 Honda Civic that was chopped in half behind the windscreen and the rear replaced by a structure that mounts a pair of side-by-side rear wheels. Driver and passenger sit in tandem on a motorcycle type seat with the former using the now mounted-in-the-middle Civic wheel to steer.
"You can build a lot of stuff in 32 years," he says, looking at the Spider and grinning.
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