The success of the Morgan Motor Company was founded on an icon, the Morgan Runabout. This brilliant but simple design by skilled engineer and company founder Harry Morgan became one of the most successful lightweight cars of the early days of motoring. The principal of fitting a powerful motorcycle engine and simple transmission into a lightweight chassis and body inspired a new type of relatively low cost three-wheeled vehicle, which generically became known as the ‘cycle-car’. With this step, the freedom of the open road was introduced to those of more modest means.
Built at the original Morgan factory, Malvern Link, not only was the Morgan Runabout one of the first cycle-cars, it was without doubt, the best engineered, the most reliable, and the most successful vehicle in its class and set the standard for other manufacturers to follow. It featured a simple two-speed transmission (fast and very fast), but no reverse gear (to go backwards required gravity, or the driver had to get out and push!). Engines were usually J.A.P. V-twins, although the simplicity of the chassis design allowed other makes to be fitted.
Within a few weeks of its launch at the Olympia motorcycle show in London in November 1910, Harry Morgan entered the Runabout in the MCC London to Exeter Trial, and his remarkable performance won a gold medal. This was the first of many such victories in all forms of motorsport, including reliability trials, racing and record-breaking, particularly at the Brooklands Autodrome. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Morgan’s had secured ten world records for various classes of cycle-cars, won twenty four gold medals in major reliability trials and had achieved numerous victories on the race track.
When peace returned in 1918, Morgan was one of the first manufacturers to resume full production, mainly due to the simplicity of the design. Most manufacturing operations were now moved from the Worcester Road works to the new factory in Pickersleigh Road (although the first two workshops at the site had been completed before the war). A few years earlier, the WWI flying ace Captain Albert Ball had ordered a special-bodied Grand Prix, of which he said “to drive this car was the nearest thing to flying without leaving the ground”.
So advanced had been Harry Morgan’s first designs that little alteration, apart from bodywork modifications, were required for some years. The car retained its sturdy, lightweight construction and the two-speed transmission system remained in production for many years. A Family Runabout was introduced with four seats, to offer inexpensive motoring for the whole family. As a result of reliability trials experience, front brakes were installed and more powerful V-twin engines were also fitted, giving Morgan’s an exceptional level of performance for their time.
Throughout the 1920s the Runabout continued to have success after success in racing and was so fast that at Brooklands it was required to start a lap behind four wheeled cars in the same class! Likewise, Morgan’s were dominant on the trials hills, where they won more medals and trophies than any other comparable machine. The rugged strength of the Morgan and its excellent traction meant that it always performed well on muddy tracks when taking part in reliability trials and hill climbs.
Racing successes encouraged the introduction of another sporting model in the late 1920s, called the Super Aero with lowered streamlined bodywork. Not only were the cars dominant on the racetrack they were now one of the most fashionable machines to be seen driving on the open road. During 1930 Mrs Gwenda Stewart broke the one-hour world record at the banked racetrack at Monthlery, south of Paris, maintaining a speed of over 100 mph. Two years later, Morgan introduced the four-wheeled 4/4, although the three-wheeler Runabout remained in production and continued to sell in record numbers.
Car production stopped completely during the Second World War but resumed in 1946. The last twelve twin cylinder three-wheelers were manufactured in 1946 using a stock of pre-war parts and were shipped to Australia. The 4/4 continued to be built alongside other Morgan models, but due to post-war shortages, export orders were favoured over those for the home market when allocating supplies of steel. Three-wheelers did not enjoy this popularity overseas and therefore the decision to discontinue their production was made in 1950. The last Morgan Runabout left the factory in 1953.
It is now nearly sixty years since the last Morgan Runabout was built, and the world is very different today. However, skilled craftsmen at Malvern Link are once again building three-wheelers, in line with the belief that downsizing and simplicity are ways of dealing with the serious issues facing road transport in the 21st century. The new Morgan 3 Wheeler is a fusion of modern technology and classic design. However, the feeling of freedom and contact with the road through the front wheels still brings to mind the joy of driving cars from the 20s and 30s, but with none of their fragility or temperament.
As Captain Albert Ball discovered all those years ago, no car captures the feeling of flying quite like a Morgan three-wheeler. It is wonderful that drivers of today now have the option of experiencing the thrill and freedom of the halcyon days of motoring, albeit in a reliable modern day package. If you want to find out more about this amazing car (and maybe even configure your own!) be sure to visit the Morgan 3 Wheeler website (from where the historical content of this article was summarily sourced).