If you think a three-wheeled vehicle sounds odd, think again. The Morgan Motor Company built its first three-wheeler more than 100 years ago – and still sells a modern version of it.
Morgan cars have been painstakingly hand built since the company’s founding in 1909 by H.F.S. (Henry) Morgan, and the three-wheeled car that began it all was both simple in design and innovative in its engineering.
Morgan’s original Runabout featured a seven-horsepower Peugeot two-cylinder engine positioned ahead of an independent coil-spring front suspension. A dual-speed manual transmission resided behind the driver’s seat, directly in front of a single chain-driven rear wheel.
Its light-weight chassis consisted of a series of steel tubes that supported the running gear and the rudimentary single-seat convertible body with wooden floorboards. Two of the tubes also doubled as exhaust pipes, a design that was quickly abandoned after it was discovered that the corrosive effect of the exhaust gasses caused the tubes to rot away.
Since the engine was held in place by just four bolts, servicing or repairing the Morgan’s key mechanical component was a relatively easy process.
The original Morgan’s power-to-weight ratio became a hallmark for future models and a key reason for the car’s early success in hill-climb races and other events. Morgan set numerous class speed and endurance records with his early vehicles, earning widespread praise – and a significant sales boost – for his three-wheeled wonder.
By 1912, the Runabout was making a name for itself in England as well as on the European continent. The car had a low purchase price and could reach a top speed of nearly 100 kilometres per hour, ensuring a strong demand for it. In fact, Harrods, London’s premiere department store, lured shoppers to its establishment by placing a Morgan in one of its windows.
Following the First World War, Morgan created a four-seat, three-wheeler that sold alongside his two-seater model. For a time, this Family Runabout was extremely popular, helping bring total production to 50 cars a week.
In the 1920s, numerous improvements were made to the vehicle, including electric lights, front-wheel brakes and the availability of an electric starter. A variety of new engines were also employed, including one that could propel the Runabout to more than 160 kilometres per hour.
Demand for the vehicle was so big that Morgan entered into a licensing agreement with French automaker Darmount to help produce them. By then, two distinct Runabout models were being built: an exposed-engine sports model and the Family model, with a hood-covered motor and an option to seat four.
The three-wheeler was thoroughly updated in 1933, including the addition of a pair of small doors. Three years later, the first four-wheel Morgan, called the Plus 4, was added to the lineup, allowing the auto maker to compete against more modern and powerful sports cars. The Runabout was suddenly obsolete.
Morgan continued to make limited numbers of its original model until 1951, when it pressed the brake on production. For H.F.S. Morgan, the Runabout was far from dated. Instead, he claimed it was public taste and the public perception that spelled the end for his three-wheeler.
The Runabout’s durability and performance had made it popular and helped make Morgan a successful family venture that continues to this day. The modern successor to its three-wheeled original, called the Morgan Super 3, has a starting list price of around $60,000.
Norris MacDonald is on vacation. His column will return in a few weeks.
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