Two wheels good, three wheels better!
May 9, 2013 6:31 PM   Subscribe

Moggie? Moggie? No, Moggie! The Morgan Motor Company, not to be confused with MG (Morris Garages), is a lesser-known British sports car manufacturer building Morgan cars in scenic Malvern Link, Worcestershire, since 1910. Perhaps most famous for selling cars with wooden frames to this very day, Morgan continues building their most traditional cars alongside their swoopiest new offerings. The founder, H. F. S. Morgan, started out building three-wheelers in what is known as the tadpole configuration, and their production continued until 1952, when Morgan moved entirely to four-wheelers. Until 2011.

That was the year (2012 in the US) that the 3Wheeler returned for sale at £29,950 ($45,000). With a legendary 2.0 liter S&S 120 bhp V-Twin engine hanging off the front connected to a Mazda Miata transmission, they're capable of 0 - 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 115 mph, all the while returning about 40 mpg highway, due to their low weight (sub-550 kgs) and slippery profile. Want even better mileage and don't want to offend Mother Nature? Well, the smaller-framed can opt for the Morgan Pedal Car, available for £2510, or add £250 for a leather interior.

And while all their models are great fun to drive, in the traditional British roadster bugs-in-the-teeth manner, just remember that the tendency to place potholes and road debris in-between your tires as you would in a four-wheel car will result in the 3Wheeler kicking you swiftly in the ass. Still want one? Current waiting lists are anywhere between one and two years, longer than most Ferraris, for the privilege of driving a truly unique vehicle.
posted by Purposeful Grimace (47 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I always get a smile on my face when I see a Morgan. This is what motoring is all about.
posted by arcticseal at 6:40 PM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

And while all their models are great fun to drive

Not quit as fun as the Reliant Robin.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:42 PM on May 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

"I hear, I said I hear, my good man, that there are automobiles that are faster than ours!"
"This is true, m'lud"
"Are they... lighter than ours?"
"No, m'lud. Al-lew-min-ee-um and crabon fibre is still heavier than steam-bent ash."
"Ah. I see. Buy a V8 from BMW, convert it to natural gas, and don't bother to wake me until we've sold out our... right, then. Already sold out. Good job. See you in another three years."
"That's leadership, that is..."
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:00 PM on May 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Way back in the time when a Morgan's price was only three digits I collected my built-for-me Morgan from the factory with the hood down, naively thinking it would be trivial to put up. I was very wrong.. Soon after starting the 200+ mile trip home, it started to snow and it took me a very long time to figure out how to get the top on. Another pleasure of the old Morgan was the bucketful of water in my face after driving through a deep puddle.

It really was terrific fun to drive, though, if a little like princess-and-pea in that even small pebbles on the road were noticeable. The seats were leather, cushioned by a rubber bag which you blew up to whatever firmness you found comfortable.
posted by anadem at 7:03 PM on May 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

There's a Morgan dealer on my block. Those three wheelers look incredible with that big V twin hanging off the front all proud, skinny wire wheels, long exhaust pipes. A look reminiscent of an old open cockpit airplane. Sound pretty nice, too.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:11 PM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

That's not a Morgan, that's a Harley with training wheels.
posted by 445supermag at 7:26 PM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

"No, m'lud. Al-lew-min-ee-um and crabon fibre is still heavier than steam-bent ash.

Not actually true for the same given design parameters. 550 kgs is not that light for a car built to the same size and spec as the Morgan three wheeler with the same (CHORTLE CHORTLE GUFFAW) 'crash worthiness'.

They've always been pretty, but no way, now how would I want to hit anything else in one. Hitting trees really shows the strength of wood versus steel, but that's a solid piece of wood. Not a wood frame. I have a vision of splinters.
posted by Brockles at 7:32 PM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

*cackles and menaces Brockles with wire-spoked knock-off wheels*
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:38 PM on May 9, 2013

A Minor Moggie, too!
posted by carter at 7:43 PM on May 9, 2013


My dream car.
posted by prettypretty at 8:00 PM on May 9, 2013

Oh bloody Morgans. My dad had a few of these that came through his repair shop over the years pretty regularly, including one 4/4 1600 from the mid 70s and a late series +4+. I remember these things were nightmares of weird parts, with Triumph TR4 engines in some, Moss gearboxes in others, and some had Rover parts (!). And don't even get me started about the kingpin style suspension they use.

But I'd still rather work on one of these than a Volvo from the 80s.
posted by strixus at 8:26 PM on May 9, 2013

The stamped-steel aesthetic on their Aero models is just incredibly hot. The wood frame just seems dumb. Is it cheaper to build? Not likely. Better strength-to-weight than other common materials? No. Why? Is it just the Saabs-will-always-have-their-keys-in-the-center link to the past? That's a bit sad considering what they might be giving up staying with it.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:29 PM on May 9, 2013


I don't even like noisy vehicles, I'm not all that extroverted, and I live in a place with, you know, winter, but if I ever came into a heap of money I'd probably blow some of it on a Morgan three wheeler.
posted by gamera at 8:37 PM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wonderful idea, ruined by the idiotic 45° v-twin.

90°? Ideal. 60°? Imperfect but acceptable. Hell, Honda built a 52° v-twin with a split crank, as well as an 80° v-twin.

Why Morgan decided to use the worst-of-all-possible-worlds 45° engine I'll never understand, but I'll sure as shit never entertain the idea of owning one while they do.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:51 PM on May 9, 2013

Why Morgan decided to use the worst-of-all-possible-worlds 45° engine I'll never understand, but I'll sure as shit never entertain the idea of owning one while they do.

Actually, Morgan uses S&S's X-Wedge engine (PDF warning), which is a 56° V-Twin. Start the entertaining.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 11:01 PM on May 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not quit as fun as the Reliant Robin.

My sister-in-law lives in Sheffield and drove a Reliant Robin back in the day.

She got shut of it after the first time she flipped it while driving home from Liverpool on the Snake Pass.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:46 AM on May 10, 2013

A friend gave me a quick ride in his 3 wheeler in December- just circled the block in midtown NYC. Super loud, pretty terrifying- you are eye level with SUV hubcaps- and I was laughing like a hyena the entire time. Thanks Alex!
posted by T10B at 5:26 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The ultimate fate of my rust-mangled Citroën Dyane that's reclining in my backyard as the last survivor of my once-prodigious fleet of Saabs and Citroëns is likely to be as a donor for a Lomax 223 kit, which is a sort of perfect crossover Lotus 7/Morgan slouchy little sportster powered by the glory that is the Citroën A-series air-cooled boxer twin engine.

The two up-front STEERING with the driven wheel in the back (you never, ever steer with the single wheel either in front or at the rear, despite Buckminster's passenger killing "brilliance" or Bond/Reliant's stability through shame approach) is quite stable and fun, too. Drive a Messerschmitt KR200 sometime if you don't believe me. Wheeee!
posted by sonascope at 6:11 AM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I once pulled a couple out of their shattered Reliant Robin after they rolled it down an embankment. Man, that thing just disintegrated.
posted by arcticseal at 7:44 AM on May 10, 2013

Not quit as fun as the Reliant Robin.

It should be noted that Top Gear is an entertainment show and their showcase of the Robin was somewhat exagerated with intentially mismatched wheels and strategically placed mass to enhance it's tippability.
posted by Mitheral at 9:36 AM on May 10, 2013

I bumped into one of these at Whole Foods in Cupertino a day or two ago…

Lovely car, but the owner detailed the following problems:
• Headlight mounting hardware on upside-down, causing the headlamps to droop
• Loose bolt wedged between engine and transmission housing
• Loose bolt pressing on body panels
• Poor ECU (ECU Swap allowed more power)

He also told me it's a blast to drive.
posted by caphector at 2:46 PM on May 10, 2013

Actually, Morgan uses S&S's X-Wedge engine (PDF warning), which is a 56° V-Twin. Start the entertaining.
posted by Purposeful Grimace 16 hours ago
A 56° v-twin with a shared crank pin? Ugh. Nothing entertaining about it. I will never understand purposefully mis-engineering such things.

Also, 120 hp out of 2 liters? 120 horsepower? That's it? *sigh*
posted by TheNewWazoo at 3:35 PM on May 10, 2013


The owner I talked to told me that Morgan used the cheapest ECU for this engine. He reported more power with a better ECU.
posted by caphector at 3:47 PM on May 10, 2013

Also, 120 hp out of 2 liters? 120 horsepower? That's it? *sigh*

Out of an air-cooled engine without any forced induction with pistons the size of one liter cans? With a great record of reliability? I assume you can show me better?
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 5:19 PM on May 10, 2013

Sure! Ducati makes one today that meets current emissions regulations, even. It's an 1100cc mill, and it's rated at 100 bhp. It's a 90° twin, too, so you can rev it without it shaking itself to bits. Once we dispense with the silly air-cooled restriction, we can start talking about real power. :)
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:09 PM on May 10, 2013

Ducati. Gearheads come in two varieties - wrench turners and stat nerds.

BMW boxer, Moto Guzzi transverse twin, Harley V-Twin... you can use a handful of mud instead of motor oil at every service interval, and they will get you wherever you need to go.

Ducati, well... this is free on Youtube, but I remember a time when a video like this went for a quarter grand on the back pages of Walneck's. And this process is only good for 3000 miles, and then you get to do it again.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:35 PM on May 10, 2013

Then, all you do is add a fourth wheel, and this thing will corner like nothing else...
posted by 2N2222 at 7:41 PM on May 10, 2013

Slap*Happy, well, yes, but this isn't the 80s and Ducati engines are as reliable as anything else. I used that example simply because it was in my head, but the 1200cc BMW opposed twin you cite as running on mud makes 125 hp and Guzzi makes a 1380cc engine with 96 horsepower, both mostly air cooled. 120 hp from two liters in a configuration that is only very slightly better than the worst possible in terms of primary and secondary imbalance is... well, abysmal inexcusable.

Perhaps I'll start a cottage industry of fixing what Morgan screwed up. I'll probably make tens of dollars. :)
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:48 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

(and as an aside, the 1100 evo engine requires valve checks at 12,000 kilometers, or about 7,500 miles. That's less frequent than my old GS500 needed.)
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:50 PM on May 10, 2013

Also, 120 hp out of 2 liters? 120 horsepower? That's it? *sigh*

You can have torque or horsepower. Not both. This engine has a smooth torque curve that is higher than its HP curve. I bet it's plenty fast. Maybe you can't go 120 mph in it, but it will feel nice and responsive.

(And 1 HP per CuInch used to be a nice standard to meet, didn't it?)
posted by gjc at 8:19 PM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

OK, here is where I point out that the latest and greatest desmodronic Ducati power plant pumps out 160hp with its top-tier motor, and almost 95 ft/lbs of torque.

The X-Wedge gets you 115 ft/lbs of torque.

Now, I'm an old Caddy guy. I had a '69 Fleetwood droptop fitted with a pre-emissions 500cui motor, MTS headers and a massaged set of carbs atop an MTS intake. On the open highway, everything could eventually overtake and leave behind my old boat.

From the stop light, man, I would go pony-car hunting. How you like these luxo-boat tail-lights, kid? Torque gets you go-fast off the line, and the old Caddy mills got you plenty.

For a runabout powered by a bike engine, you want torque and you want it now. You don't want to row through all five cogs just to keep ahead of traffic.

(or what the guy above me just said)
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:27 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

(And 1 HP per CuInch used to be a nice standard to meet, didn't it?)
posted by gjc
IMnsHO, not in the modern era. Better than 1 hp per 10 cc is more or less the gold standard nowadays for something performance-oriented (in my mind, that threshold was crossed with the 200 bhp 1.8L Honda B18C5 in the Integra type R, but ymmv).
For a runabout powered by a bike engine, you want torque and you want it now. You don't want to row through all five cogs just to keep ahead of traffic.

(or what the guy above me just said)
posted by Slap*Happy
But we're not talking about a vehicle in the vein of a Ford Galaxie, we're talking about something much closer to a Messerschmitt KR200 or, yeah I'll go there, a Lotus Seven. Winding the engine out is half the fun. Tapdancing on the shifter while you traverse a plateau of torque is what makes the power predictable enough that the handling isn't risked. It's about balance. Smoothness. A horrific lump of American Iron is the antithesis of that.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:44 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the reasons the 2CV is such a perfect donor for such things is this. Everything mechanical is on that flat little chassis, suspension included (all horizontal and interconnected), and to make a three-wheeler, you just chop the rear horns off the chassis, rotate one of the rear arms 180 degrees with a bit of a mod at the end, and build yourself a body. Winding up that magical boxer makes a wonderful noise indeed, while the body will roll like a little boat, it won't go over unless you hit something along the way.
posted by sonascope at 10:57 AM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me, at least, part of the coolness of having that V-Twin up front is the extremely cool noises and vibrations it kicks off. If I want smooth and quiet, I'll get a sewing machine. Did anyone else watch gamera's video? This vehicle is pure throwback, with a pedigreed history and it hits more car ganglia in my brain than a good deal of other exotic cars (no no, LaFerrari, don't worry, you will always be my dearest hybrid). Hell, even starting it makes it sound like 1/6th of a Spitfire warming up.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 4:03 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the things that puts me at odds with the worlds of gearheads out there is that I come at my mechanical fetishes from a desire for things to work better and to be the product of inspired engineering, not just to be rough and loud and burdensome in a mechanical presumption of masculinity.

I've got three motorcycles on the road just now—an Indian-built Vespa PX, a BMW F650ST, and my late father's '72 Triumph Daytona T100R. I love the raggediness of the PX, which idles with that br-brrm-b-ting-br-b-b-ting-pop-brrrmm-b-brm-pop-brmm popcorn irregularity of an engine contemplating suicide, but which becomes a smooth and steady buzz at speed, as if to say "let's go see the whole world!" The Austrian-built Rotax engine in my BMW, on the other hand, is like the sound of stability. It's quiet and smooth and tickety-boo with an extra helping of tickety. At idle, it sounds like it should be pumping well water in Nairobi, and at speed, it sounds like a steady and relatively quiet drone. No one is ever impressed by this bike, beyond seeing the BMW spinner and mistaking it for a high-dollar luxury, and that's just fine. I don't ride to be seen—I ride because I like being in the real world, the gas mileage, and because hell is other people.

The Triumph, on the other hand, gets oohs and ahhs and let-me-tell-you-a-rambling-endless-story-about-this-bike-I-had-in-1975 and while I can listen to a room full of people talking about Citroën hydraulics for hours on end, the latter makes me want to run for the hills, but I can't, because the bike is British and therefore won't start unless I've kicked the starter until I've torn my pants. Fortunately, once it's running, you don't have to have conversations because it's so fucking loud that it sounds like you're getting ready to escort bombers across the English Channel. I rescued this thing from a shed and managed to spend a couple grand on it in the process of realizing that my father pulled one over on my mother in '76.

"Jane, it's just a small bike to cut down on our gas expenses while I'm commuting," he said, but he left out that the small bike in question was Triumph's factory flat-track racer, and almost forty years later, I was dumb enough to fall for the line, too.

Thing is, when you set up an engine for racing purposes, it will never run with any degree of refinement, and I'm an exploring sort of rider, not a racy sort, and I'm happy to chug along and let the world roll out around me, except this fucking limey shitscaffold is too busy roaring and clacking and clunking and rattling and making some sort of didgeridoo noise from somewhere under the tank and nothing electrical works except for the horn, which sometimes goes off while I'm shuddering at a light as if to say "dear boy in that car up front, I do hope you'll notice that I'm here, representing myself for the honor of the glorious Empire," or worse, to start a football hooligan incident. It's not happy unless it's storming around, as if one could storm around with the totally muzzy focus you get when you're always wondering what each horrible little noise is in a machine room symphony that sounds like a gamelan orchestra and Einsturzende Neubauten threw a house party, drank a bit too much, and introduced a quantity of meth-amphetamines into the mix.

I do talk to the bike, though, when I'm out on my forced bonding therapy sessions.

"I hate you, you fucking English piece of junk," I say, raising my voice to be heard over the didgeridoo. "It's no wonder all your car manufacturers are now owned by Germans, Indians, and Malaysians, you vainglorious vandal! It's too bad the IRA isn't still bombing your damp, shitty little island, you repellently rusty ratfucker!"

It's all heat of the moment, of course, but it's absolutely criminal that a bike that handles as well and has such perfect poise on the road can be so astonishingly crappy in virtually every other regard, and it makes me even angrier that every man of a certain age or teenybopper boy on a bike gives me a big grin and/or a thumbs-up.

Oh, don't congratulate me, please. This bike is a punishment for my sins.

"Why don't you just sell the darn thing?" my mother says, and I always point out that I foolishly put more into the thing than it's worth before I realized the enduring cosmic joke my father pulled on me from the confines of the coffee can where his ashes rest, but on some level, the continuing struggle comes down to a juvenile core disbelief that someone, somewhere would purposely make something so enduringly awful and that the vast majority of American motorcyclists are really so easily entranced by something as loathsome as the chorus of a muffler with a few less baffles than necessary as to think that this monstrous mountebank is worthy of more than pity.

Still, I roll it out of the basement a couple times a week, bust up my ankle kicking it until it deigns to start, and go for a short, brutish ride, but I feel like I want to carry a stock of pre-printed cards with an unnecessarily verbose explanation of why I'm riding a vehicle I dislike on one side and a full-color photo of my genitals on the other for when someone wants to be all garrulous and chatty about the good ol' days, which weren't really that good at all.

I'm riding this because I made a bad decision and it's loud because they came that way, not because I'm working out my shortcomings, the card would explain in words and pictures, but I suspect very few people would want to receive that card, so I just nod, thunder away from the traffic lights, and continue fantasizing about pushing the rusty old dear into a ravine.

Give me a clean, precise boxer any day. I'll take my soundtrack by Kraftwerk over Zeppelin or Skynrd when it comes to hitting the road.

Mind you, my if-I-won-the-lottery cars are the Citroën Ami and the Panhard 24, so I readily cop to being a hair off the mainstream as gearheads go.
posted by sonascope at 5:12 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's too bad the IRA isn't still bombing your damp, shitty little island,

That's a pretty thoroughly objectionable thing to say. Maybe file that one under 'maybe I shouldn't wish for scores more of people to die pointlessly just because I don't like my bike'. I liked a lot of your post but that jarred as such an entirely inappropriate and clueless thing to say that I think you should revisit how you express displeasure over your piece of machinery.
posted by Brockles at 8:40 AM on May 12, 2013

sonascope, I suspect you and my two-item collection of Honda V4s would get along swimmingly. Soichiro is my hero.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:49 AM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having grown up with the Triumph factory a few miles down the road, the IRA shooting up my home town and had a family member shot whilst on patrol, I'm willing to cut Sonascope a break. It was mildly insensitive but not harshly meant.
posted by arcticseal at 1:27 PM on May 12, 2013

What I said, speaking to to my motorcycle, was "I hate you, you fucking English piece of junk," [I say, raising my voice to be heard over the didgeridoo.] "It's no wonder all your car manufacturers are now owned by Germans, Indians, and Malaysians, you vainglorious vandal! It's too bad the IRA isn't still bombing your damp, shitty little island, you repellently rusty ratfucker!"

That's a pretty thoroughly objectionable thing to say.

I would point out that shouting histrionics at a piece of particularly problematic and vexing equipment tend towards outrageous excess, and I'd place it fully within the realm of overblown tongue and cheek in the same vein as well-known Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift advocating that we feed the Irish poor to the rich. It ought to be pretty obvious that I don't actually wish terrorism on the English for the crime of torturing the world with bad engineering, but if you've spent time on the side of the road with a series of British vehicles trying to figure out why MG windshield wipers don't work in the rain, why Spitfire headlights don't work at night, or why in God's name Triumph used those insane little "ticklers" instead of a proper freaking choke, you tend to develop the ability to spin wild, hateful skeins of rage with ease. Mind you, if I were truly thoroughly objectionable, I would just say I wish British Leyland was once again the dominant automaker in Britain.

As it happens, it's surprisingly hard to offend a motorcycle, no matter how vile your invective, and remember, I'm talking to a motorcycle that's just soaked me with petrol, burned the shit out of me, torn my pants, and will not make it eight miles to Bed, Bath, and Beyond without throwing a drama fit. By the time I'm quoting Lost In Space for robot insults and sarcastically wishing for the return of regular terrorism to a perfectly reasonable country, it should be clear that I'm trying to hurt the feelings of a piece of equipment and therefore am deep in the bitter realm of the low comedy of the powerless victim of mechanical spite meted out by a machine that is, for the moment, being a total dick.

I used to shout about the Maginot Line and the Vichy Government when my Citroëns gave me grief, but I'm the cursing sort of gearhead, alas. About the only vehicles I've ever owned that didn't get the screeching Basil Fawlty treatment were my Saab 95 wagons and 96 sedans, which were so polite and brilliant that all I ever said, even when they were not on their best behavior, was "Well, isn't that clever!" and "Are you kidding me? It comes out just like that?" My Miata got around it by being flawless for three years, despite being twenty-plus years old, so I generally just said "Japan rocks, my little Takumi Mazda!"
posted by sonascope at 5:49 PM on May 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Soichiro is my hero.

One fine day, I shall add a CX500 to my assortment of two-wheelers, no matter how industrial they look. I just wish Honda had the same commitment to keeping their vehicles on the road almost forever that led me to buy a mongrel mashup of an Aprilia with a Rotax engine and BMW reengineering because I know parts will be available (albeit at BMW prices) for decades to come.
posted by sonascope at 5:55 PM on May 12, 2013

Oh, the CX500. That's actually got an hilarious engine that I alluded to earlier. You see, Honda decided that Americans would never buy a bike with an engine so refined as they build, and which had none of the spitting-snorting character of the Moto Guzzi it was aping. So they did the next best thing to building a crappy engine: they injected some primary and secondary vibrations by making it an 80° v-twin.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:16 PM on May 12, 2013

I do love that Honda roughed up the engine on the CX and still ended up building an indestructible bike beloved of commuters and long-haul explorers (barring the stator issues). I dearly wish we'd get past the needing-to-impress essence of motorcycle design so that manufacturers could regularly produce miracles of smoothness like the BMW K75 without being trapped in the morass of nostalgic engineering and hyperconservative fans that pretty much defines the entire design department of H-D (though, notably, the BMW fans freaked at the possibility of losing the boxer, so we're all insane).

If someone, somewhere, would just say "maybe we should try to make the best engine ever" instead of going to the marketing department and focus group testing...but alas.

Same thing happens in music, as it happens. All the synthesis tech at our fingertips and here we are, forty years later, building the Minimoog over and over and over, because it's "warm." Sheesh.
posted by sonascope at 4:48 AM on May 13, 2013

One of the things that puts me at odds with the worlds of gearheads out there is that I come at my mechanical fetishes from a desire for things to work better and to be the product of inspired engineering, not just to be rough and loud and burdensome in a mechanical presumption of masculinity.

I don't think most people have a problem with inspired engineering. The problem lies where we've managed to engineer the soul out of automobiles and turn them into appliances. To the point where people think my Tiburon is some kind of wild sports car because it has a little fender bulge. Used to be discussing cars was an acceptable and go to small talk item. There was always some little thing that you could bring up or ask about: "So Fred, manage to get that stumble figured out?" "Greased the car this weekend." "Bloody ignition resistor went last week half way between Crackerland and Jerkwater; good thing I had that spare so we were back on the road in just a few minutes." New cars have become so reliable that they don't give people anything to talk about. I mean what are you going to say: "So, Fred, saw you putting windshield washer fluid in the car yesterday. How'd that go for ya?". Modern affordable cars are about as much fun to talk aobut as the average refrigerator.
posted by Mitheral at 8:51 AM on May 13, 2013

I'm not sure that engineering necessarily obliterates soul—it's more the sort of culture of marketing blandness that does that. Last fall, I sold my 1990 NA Miata, partly because I need to be able to carry more than an overnight bag, but mostly because it's three inches too short for me and I have a pinched nerve that makes driving a slightly too-small car excruciating. That's a car that should be well into the soulless area, but owning and driving it was an absolute dream—I sang the whole damn time I owned that car, took long, aimless trips, and found the way it was on the road to be just exceptional in every way.

A car is a machine. It has no soul, even if you sometimes feel like it does. I don't think we've engineered the soul out of these machines as much as we've engineered the wildness and the sort of sense of place out of them. A VW Beetle was a terrible car, but sitting in one felt like a thing. Being behind the wheel of an old Saab, or a Citroën, or a lovely old Fiat 500 was a thing, too. You had a sense of being connected to the machinery and to the road, but auto journalism and marketing forced those things to go away. All the years they would blather on about the "vaultlike" sound of a door closing as an important indicator of quality got us three thousand pound Honda Civics.

The panic brigade's insistence that only passive safety mattered got us heavier cars, more distant windshields, and inside space that closed around us like plastic vises. There's a magic to the cabin of a '72 Saab 96 that's not possible anymore, because go forbid we have a column shift that allows a cabin with no monstrous center console around a non-existent transmission tunnel. The airy interior of a 2CV is possible because the doors close with the sound of slapping cookie sheets together. An original Mini is larger inside than a giant, heavy BMW Mini because it was built around the notion of safety through a competent platform. We're safer, sure, but where did the road go?

We've also become addicted to "luxury" out of some beat-down sense of ourselves in which we feel like we're just so put-upon that we just deserve electric seats and electric windows and air conditioning and this and that and the other until, again, every car weighs as much as a giant sedan used to weigh.

There are sensible ways to do these things, but we need to rise up and eliminate all the "experience designers" and other mid-level ninnies before we'd get back to a real connection.

The engineering, though, isn't really it.

I had, as my daily driver, a 1974 MGB GT that was 12 years old and had about eighty thousand miles on the clock when I bought it. It was, I believe, an exceptionally beautiful car, with nice road-holding and decent economy and a nice sense of being-there from the driver's seat. It was also a constant struggle to keep it going, and you never, ever could go anywhere without experiencing some sort of mechanical or electrical failure. It required constant attention, constant troubleshooting, and there were things that could never, ever be repaired because they weren't broken—they were just shitty right from the factory.

By comparison, my Miata was twenty years old when I got it, with about 120K on the odo, a pretty apt comparison in configuration to the MGB (smaller engine, but DOHC; RWD; perfect implementation of the British roadster concept), and it was an absolute joy to own. Never once broke down, never failed to start, never experienced a single failure of a part beyond brake discs that were worn out at 140K and were so easy to replace that I feel like I had a religious experience right there in front of my house, unbolting something that didn't require multiple cans of WD-40 and a breaker bar. I talked about my Miata, but it wasn't that old homoerotic manbonding exercise of commiserating about things that had gone wrong—it was evangelism. Had the car not crippled me, I'd still own it, and still would twenty years from now.

My motorcycle riding buddy reminds me why I'm happy to be a technocrat gearhead. He's an aficionado of beautiful old BMW airheads, with a gorgeous R69S and a pair of R100s for daily riding, and he's a year-round rider in his dingy Aerostich spacesuit. He's the reason I ride a BMW, too, though mine's of the scorned thematically impure variety because, despite my love of those sewing machine boxers, airhead riders are always fixing fixing fixing fidgeting head-scratching over those bikes. There's always some little niggly thing wrong, and when I'm feeling mean, I will point out that I think boys love these troublesome toys out of some gender-displaced need to be maternal and fuss over a machine that will, through projection, love them back. Me, I bought the cold Kraftwerk Euroboring muttbike because it got me the brilliance of Aprilia's chassis design, the unbustable Rotax pump engine, and BMW's further refinement of the bike and parts supply chain, and I love the little blue plastic bastard more every time I ride. I don't need broken things to bond with the boys over—I'd rather just be on the road, seeing the world.

When I need that car club thing, I just keep up with the Citroën club at the monthly meets near me, though my '68 Dyane is unlikely to ever move under power again, but in general, I'd rather be on the road than romanticizing the pleasures of fixing junk for the tenth time.

I'd love to see some automaker close those gaps again, but it's more to the people, and I don't think people care much anymore, alas. Maybe in the 3D printer age we'll get back there again.
posted by sonascope at 10:34 AM on May 13, 2013

I'm not sure that engineering necessarily obliterates soul

True one only has to look at pretty well any mega buck Itailian thing to come out, but mainstream car companies under the influence of safety pundits and consumer reports and their ilk have used engineering to obliterate soul. I don't really have a problem with safety but I agree that the horrible bloat of standard equipement makes buying basic transportation especially with a sporty engine impossible. Sure would be nice to be able to buy something without power windows or carpets or a design goal to have the interior quieter than a NICU while zipping down a highway.

And design isn't allowed to be polarizing. There is this overwhelming marketing need for all cars to be liked by all people and anything even slightly quirky is piloried by the press and auto reviewers. Even something fairly innocous like say the split intrument panel on the 96 Caravan (which was bloody brilliant) gets focus grouped out of existence. Or heaven forbid a company release a car with a front bench seat.
posted by Mitheral at 11:20 AM on May 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I enjoy the reactions to, say, the Nissan Juke, which just garners the most histrionic criticism imaginable considering that it is, if not gorgeous, at least a distinctive design with a point of view. Same thing goes for the Cube, which is at least unlike anything out there, which usually garners the journalistic sniff of "well, it's distinctive, if nothing else." The press will roll its' collective eyes and dismiss the Fiat 500 as a "lifestyle" vehicle, and then complain that sedans have become too beige.

It's a daunting prospect for a manufacturer, particularly when too many have surrendered to committee design and wouldn't even consider having a single designer touch their unit of product. Have a designer come up with an integrated, balanced design, and the press and public will find something to complain about.

Just to think of the Marc Newson Ford 021C concept, which was both modern and in touch with what made older cars so great, and, of course, it went nowhere and we're stuck with blobjects and cars that are just jagged combinations of CAD-drafted arcs and vertices and the same old thing over and over and over.

posted by sonascope at 11:37 AM on May 13, 2013

I think what sonascope is bringing forward is precisely the raison d'être for cars like the Morgan 3Wheeler. Are they slightly affected, like wearing stringback gloves to your Miata owners' club outings? Undoubtedly. But they have to be, to return the feelings their owners want. Like I said earlier, if I want smooth, I'll get a sewing machine. Smooth, quiet and heavy are the things that are the current state of the art in automobiles.

Have any of you driven the new Porsche 911s with Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC)? Eeriest thing in the world. There's no body lean for your ass and inner ear to utilize to determine how close you are to breakaway. It just goes through corners flat. Until you're skidding. If the Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus (PTV Plus) system and ABS is working, it's damn near impossible to get that car out of shape. Or at least it was for me, i.e. my limits are not your limits, YMMV. But it was zero fun to drive.

And for me, that takes all the soul out of what I consider to be one of the great all-time driver's cars. Technologically brilliant but devoid of any sense of involvement. And that's truly a great pity. But it does leave room for the 3Wheeler (impractical), the Caterham 7 (née Lotus 7 and just as impractical). Watching the Caterham driver in this video putting the Porsche on the trailer through the twisty bits practically gives me wood. Then there's the KTM X-Bow (stoopid impractical and another Porsche killer). How about an Ariel Atom (crazy impractical)? There's some great modern technology in those, but it's all focused around driver involvement. I LOVE watching those visible pushrod front suspensions doing their job. I think it's great fun to watch cycle-fendered wheels moving up and down, letting me see perfectly that I'm hitting the apex in turns. And all of these cars are street legal. Impractical, but legal.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against new cars. After all, a Nissan GT-R is an (almost) aspirational car for me. And on the other side of that coin, I'll probably never own another "classic" Italian car for as long as I live. The former ownership of an Alfa Romeo GTV-6 causes me to share a hatred of Magnetti Marelli with the same white-hot intensity that British car owners speak of Lucas, Prince of Darkness.

I guess what I'm saying is that some days I like a grilled cheese sammich made with Kraft singles. And sometimes I want a panini with my proprietary blend of Gruyere and Pecorino Romano cheese. Some days I want rumbly, burbly pushrod V-Twin. Some days I want my smoove smoove V-4 sport tour bike. Some days I drive my SUV. Some days I dream of driving a Nissan GT-R. That's how my life works. I don't feel like there's a correct, "you must drive this" answer to any of these questions.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 1:44 AM on May 20, 2013

« Older Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of...   |   Star Wars Kid breaks 10-year silence Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments