With all of the high-strength steel and aluminum that cars are made from today, it’s mind-blowing to think that quirky Morgan is still making its car bodies on a wood frame, essentially the same way it has for more than 100 years. But that quirky construction, although it’s a big reason Morgan fanatics love their cars, comes with considerable caveats.
Wood body maintenance has haunted Morgan sports cars for a century, when the company was first building three-wheelers. Today, however, it’s most apparent in cars built since 1953. That’s when Morgan began using excellent Triumph and Ford engines, spawning a surge of production as well as a change to a more sleek, curved grille. Most collectible Morgans are Plus 4 and 4/4 models from 1955 onwards, and the long-term stability of the body is critical to their values.
Ratty examples of the 10,000 raffish roadsters built from about 1955-1968 still turn up for as little as $12,000-$15,000, and you have a lot of choice between $25,000-$35,000 (not counting the expensive drophead coupes, the 26 Plus 4 Plus unicorns, and the 101 hot Super Sports).
It’s all about the wood
It’s not about finding owners, though. Morgan die-hards adore the kidney-belt ride, the sliding pillar front suspension, minimal weather equipment, and a certain Nigel Shiftright image. The issue is more about the durability of the concept. If you’ve had any experience with wooden boats, you know it can be a desperate rear-guard action.
Simply put, a wood-and-aluminum body represents a perpetual challenge. Construction involves building an ash frame separate from the beefy chassis and nailing, screwing and bolting aluminum panels to it. These days, wood preservatives have improved to the point that Morgan says the body should last the life of the vehicle, but 60 years ago, technology was not so advanced.
In fairness, the issue affects any car built in with alloy/wood frame construction in the last 120 years, from exotic Hispano-Suiza, or Isotta Fraschini; Rolls-Royces from coach builders like Hooper, H.J. Mulliner, Park Ward and James Young—even the humble Beardmore taxi of the 1950s. If there’s ever a case when you should buy the best car you can, that goes double for wood-framed cars.
Durability is particularly acute with lightweight roadsters. The combination of harsh suspension, wet weather, and inescapable flexing of the body tends to work panels loose. First you may notice squeaking, doors will drop when they open, twist, or not fit well. Fenders can loosen. Tightening screws and bolts can be catastrophic, where after half a turn and they drop in your hand. After a point, the crisis accelerates at a frightening rate.
Righting the wrongs
Eventually, the only solution is complete dismantling and replacement of the ash frame inside the alloy panels, which has been likened to putting bones into a boneless chicken. Anyone who has replaced a wooden bed in a pickup knows that at some point you are surrounded by pieces, and you’re not going anywhere until you’ve finished.
Happily, Morgan makes replacement wood frames and can identify which one you need from the VIN of your car. But don’t get too excited, it’s still going to be a long winter. You might as well replace the wiring harness and take care of any basic mechanical issues “while you’re in there”—a thought that chills the heart of anyone paying for the work.
Rick Gauthier restores and maintains the RK Private Collection in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has seen the inside of more classic cars than Castrol oil. His knowledge is hard-won, but his advice is encouraging if you are faced with a wobbly wood-framed body.
Gauthier recommends finding original drawings to work from, and checking whether your car’s dimensions correspond with them. Replacement wood kits quite often need fettling and bucks can be made to help fit panels. Whether you use oak, ash or maple, it must be kiln dried to be stable. Lap joints are most common and good epoxy should be used to keep them from coming loose. They should be secured with proper wood screws or carriage bolts, as originally built, if possible. All wood surfaces must be sealed with a spar urethane or shellac to keep out moisture.
The ones to get
These same rules apply to MG T-Series cars from 1936 to 1955, but Morgans are a better bet because they have more modern mechanical components. The best bet is a Plus 4: Triumph TR2 engine from 1953 on, TR3 from 1956 on, TR4 from 1963-1969. The Plus 4 returned with a Fiat four-cylinder engine in 1985-88, but a Fiat engine doesn’t seem right. The Rover four-cylinder from 1988-2000 wasn’t sold in the U.S.
The 4/4 returned in 1955 with a side-valve 1172cc Ford engine, but it gained the superb 995cc OHV 105E Ford Anglia engine in 1960. It was gradually increased in size to 1340 cc, and 1499 cc in the 1960s, eventually getting the fantastic 1600cc Ford Kent engine through 1982.
Then there’s the Plus 8, which was introduced in 1968. About 4000 were built through 2004. It offers the rugged Morgan experience but about twice as fast, and $40-60,000 buys a decent driver. Body issues remain, but Morgan spokesman James Gilbert reports that newer models have much better preservation technology. Plus 8s generally led better lives, due to their initial expense and higher income of their owners.
Adding the Rover V-8 meant widening and lengthening the chassis. The 3.5-liter ex-Buick aluminum V-8 yielded 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds and a top speed near 130 mph, and alloy wheels were used from the start. A Moss four-speed gearbox was replaced by a Rover 3500 all-synchro box in 1972 and a five-speed in 1976. Steel bodywork was fitted at first, but aluminum was optional from 1977. Fuel injection debuted in 1984 and rack-and-pinion steering in 1986. The 190-hp, 3.9-liter V-8 arrived in 1990, at which point 0-60 mph took 5.6 seconds.
You either get it, or you don’t
Driving a Morgan is a wonderfully raw and pure driving experience, and the car’s light weight makes it a joy to maneuver.
But if you really want to know why Morgan buyers love their cars, look up Sir John Harvey-Jones’s BBC Two TV series Troubleshooter from the 1990s. Sir John was the retired Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries and advised British companies in difficulties. His most famous episode was when he visited Morgan and recommended that the company modernize, hire more workers, and buy material in bulk, so people wouldn’t have to wait several years for a car.
Chairman Peter Morgan leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. Sir John didn’t get it. Why would Morgan sell a car to someone like that?