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Tri-Star: the Morgan three-wheeler

  1. There is a line between retro and vintage that it is perilous to cross. Retro is the memory-smoothed chic of the recently superannuated, and vintage, well, vintage is just old. I do not - as a general rule - fancy wrinkle-infested, extra-mature ladies, and the difference comes down to a simple-ish rule of thumb: ‘retro’ is the automotive equivalent of dating a cougar. You’ll still have some relevant points of reference, and will probably learn something practical. ‘Vintage’ is a relationship with a lavender-scented pensioner. Nothing works like it used to, and even though it was probably terrific back in the day, now it smells a bit musty and is terribly vague. Put it this way, if something - anything - requires a cranking handle to get it running, I’m not interested.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Photography: Lee Brimble

    This feature was originally published in the October issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Which is why Morgans come across as a bit suspicious. For Morgan, ‘the present’ feels like it stalled in about 1950 and failed to restart. Ok, so there have been flashes of Batmannish brilliance - the Morgan Aero SuperSports looks insane, the Eva GT concept very slick - but the staple are the Plus series cars, which come across a little bit… vintage-lite.

    So why, when strapped into the heinous time warp of the ‘new’ Morgan 3Wheeler, am I immediately grinning so widely it looks as if I’m trying to swallow my own head?

  3. Maybe it’s because it makes a noise exactly like those mid-life-crisis Harleys I like so much, but would never admit to - a kind of slow, wet thud of big two-cylinder. A glutinous gargle of V-twin, a sticky, gluey thing that rises to a roar of feline challenge anywhere over 3,000rpm. It might be all over by 5,000rpm, but it doesn’t matter. This is basically the soundtrack to Easy Rider without the annoying bike licence.

  4. Maybe it’s because I happen to be driving a dark-green version sporting RAF-inspired WWII shark’s teeth, and the first people I encountered at the Morgan factory while doing a small burnout, rear wheel in a frantic localised pyre, were two German men (I swear I’m not making this up), at which point I started a rousing - and rather loud - rendition of the Dambusters theme. Pointless, juvenile and yet…funny. You modify every action and reaction immediately on wedging down into a 3Wheeler cockpit. Like Mr Benn dipping into his little Tardis of fancy dress, you instantly become someone else. And that person is called something like Ace. Or possibly Ginger.

  5. But first some facts. The new 3Wheeler isn’t so much an homage to the original as a re-creation, a steel-tube frame with a parasitic wooden structure, clothed in aluminium panels and with a 2.0-litre Harley Davidson V-twin up front birthing 115bhp and 100lb ft of torque. The motor is quite literally up front, too - the gleaming, square spires sit proud of the front axle and drive the singular rear wheel via a miniature propshaft and a toothed belt similar to the ones you find running superchargers, or actual motorbikes.

    And that’s pretty much it. There are two seats in the cockpit - I refuse to refer to it as a cabin - a couple of dials, some toggles, a wheel and a gearstick, two surreptitious little flyscreens and the feeling that you’ve just strapped yourself into a torpedo, or the world’s fastest canoe.

  6. It should, all told, be rubbish. For which I was entirely prepared. I brought along flying goggles and a flat cap, better to embrace the vintage vibe, and gently take the piss. But after a bit, I chuck them into the passenger footwell and resort to sunglasses. The Three is better than that. But first we have to understand exactly what we’re dealing with, because, be warned: compared to pretty much anything modern with a performance bent, the Morgan 3Wheeler is not particularly fast, adept, accurate or dynamically impressive.

  7. It’s brisk enough through the gears, but snap away from a standstill, and you can easily get the belt to jump a couple of teeth, making for a clacking, stuttery exit from a junction. Turn in, and the Avon front tyres - super-skinny and apparently robbed direct from a motocross bike - cant themselves over like tired drunks on convenient lamp posts, squeak briefly and then throw themselves into fervent understeer.

    Any attempt to cure this enthusiastic dynamic flaw with aggressive throttle will, unless it is very wet, very slippery or actually snowing, result in yet more linear ploughing and eventually scratchy and inconvenient pain as you try to chop down a hedge with your face.

  8. The gearbox is fine, robbed as it is from a Mazda MX-5, but the clutch operates entirely in the first seven millimetres of travel, maximum torque arrives from 500rpm, and the pedal box is small, so those with large feet better have packed small shoes. And, as for space, it’s on the snug side of claustrophobic - for your lower body, at least - though one unexpected advantage is that I’m pretty sure I didn’t need the three-point seatbelt because, even if I did crash, there was no way I was being thrown free without the assistance of a giant tin opener and an industrial catapult.

  9. On the motorway, the vibration is such that the wing mirrors shimmy themselves into a position perfect for viewing the section of road just beneath the tub, and the gearbox whine makes the bones in your ears tremor so violently that they shatter, rendering you immediately deaf. Small pebbles become lethal missiles aimed exclusively at your forehead, and you are assaulted by the strange and pernicious threat of discarded fag ends as they whirl like errant tracer rounds into the cockpit, to roost alarmingly in your crotch.

  10. After a few hours of driving it, I become convinced that it’s possibly the most relevant performance car currently on the market.

    Some suspension of disbelief may be required. Bear with me. You can buy any number of hatches for well under £30k that will tear this little car to pieces, and do so in air-conditioned, leather-lined luxury, with a stereo that’ll make your face fat tremble. But stretch any modern performance car in fourth gear - deep into three-figure speeds for pretty much all of them - and you’ll be at the mercy of constant camera anxiety, that feeling after you’ve driven somewhere quickly that you missed a camera and will soon be receiving a letter informing you at which prison you will be losing your virginity.

    The Morgan ‘Wheeler delivers adrenalin from another angle entirely. Not from sheer speed - a decidedly one-trick pony after a bit - but from a kind of multi-platform sensory overload. A physical bombardment. A visceral Blitzkreig.

  11. The Morgan is so exposed, so low and petite, that everyone pulling up alongside is invited directly into your personal space. No tin-box armour in a traffic jam. And that’s strangely liberating. People - and I’m using the word in its widest possibly context - love the Three. In darkest Birmingham, a man with a voice like beautiful, dirty treacle introduces himself as Exodus and compliments me on the car. As do several kids wearing trousers belted somewhere south of their actual buttocks, finger-snapping their appreciation and hooting their approval. On the motorway, a brand new, black Audi A8 long-wheelbase slides nonchalantly alongside, the older, regal, bewhiskered chap in the passenger seat considers the 3Wheeler for a moment, languidly pulls the thick log of a Monte Cristo from his mouth, and gently makes an ‘O’ with his index and thumb. I bare teeth in a crude approximation of a grin, and… salute. It seems the appropriate thing to do.

  12. In the little Mog, you become a profound participant in any journey, rather than just viewing it through the windows in nearly real 3D. Reach out, and you can burn yourself on the exhaust pipe, rip the skin from your fingertips on the road, grasp the other side of the cockpit without even stretching. Look down, and you can sight over the top of the engine, view bits of suspension jinking and breathing, actually see the bone-twisting vibration and the spiky teeth of the RAF decals reflected backwards in the domes of the headlight surrounds. It’s like watching part of the Battle of Britain live in the back of a spoon.

  13. The warm, coddling cotton wool of modernity has been removed, and you become acutely aware that a 3Wheeler will not make you look good, or flatter, or wrap you in the comforting embrace of electronics. If you take the mickey, you’ll spatter. If you embrace the experience, you’ll go through a corner laughing your head off like a drunk muppet. And still at only two-thirds the potential safe speed of a Kia Cee’d diesel. It makes everything else feel like a corpse.

  14. The trouble with truly vintage cars is that they tend to be precious, and that encourages caution. The trick with the new 3Wheeler is - although it looks venerable - it should be driven everywhere like a total mental. Accelerate hard, commit to roundabouts, arrive everywhere in a cacophony. Rev pointlessly, and double-declutch the upchange for no reason other than it feels good to hear that engine pop and bang. And because this isn’t some £100k piece of near-irreplaceable history (the basic 3Wheeler is £25k, plus VAT), you feel that you can. You can fire it up and use it as God intended - hard.

  15. “They don’t build them like they used to” is a phrase you hear a lot. Well, good. Because things used to catch fire and break down. The 3Wheeler starts on the button - literally the button from a jet fighter, accessed under a bombs-away-style flap - and incorporates modernity only where it’s really necessary, like the Mazda gearbox. The rest is so simple, it barely requires explanation. I don’t think anyone’s ever tried, but I suspect that S&S Harley engine would run on diesel just as happily as petrol. Which, again, removes a great chunk of anxiety from the ownership prospect; it feels like you could have a 3Wheeler in the garage, leave it for 30 years, and it’d still fire up when required.

  16. So. If we’re talking about a high-days-and-holidays car, would you prefer it to be something that goes insanely fast but you fear using to the fullest, or something like the 3Wheeler? A car that isn’t that fast, can’t really go round corners, hurts a bit in lots of ways, leaves you wet and makes you deaf? I know which I’d choose. Because even though it’s missing a wheel, the Morgan 3Wheeler hasn’t lost the most important thing of all: joy. And if a car can give you that, it wins every test worth taking.

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