It weighs just 1,090 pounds, chuffs out 115 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, and can launch to 60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds. Oh, and you definitely feel every bit of it.
The 2012 Morgan 3 Wheeler is a decidedly modernized homage to the trike that inspired it. Beginning back in 1909, this British tripod evolved through a succession of V-twin engines, culminating in 1953, when the last of the original Morgan three-wheeled "cyclecars" rolled off the line in Malvern Link. By that time, a four-cylinder Ford engine good for up to 32 hp was also available, but it's the V-twin's legacy through 1946 that has always carried the most significance for aficionados of the three-tire flyer.
Words like "fun" don't even begin to describe what it is that would lead a North American enthusiast to spend north of $50,000 to secure a Morgan 3 Wheeler. (Note that whereas the original cars went through some variants in the official writing of the name, the new car is to be written exclusively as "Morgan 3 Wheeler" – so say adamant company spokespeople). People who simply must have this heated runabout are incurably sick with a British disease. They love getting rained on at 70 mph, the persistent smell of dairy cattle cannot deter them from a vigorous country drive and $50,000 borders on a small price to pay for the pure handmade exhilaration of a proper trike. Yep, they're nuts.
That apparently means we're nuts, too, because after taking this journey into deepest Worcestershire and tearing around the UK's storybook Malvern Hills, darting through the pelting rain and cruising in the glistening sun between cloudy spells, we desperately want one of these beautifully useless 3 Wheelers.
The 115-hp dry-sump engine amounts to nearly 2.0 liters-worth of displacement hanging off the Morgan's front end, and the S&S Cycle 56-degree V design is closely based on the latest big X-Wedge V-twins they produce for Harley-Davidson up in Wisconsin. It should come as little surprise then that the 3 Wheeler gets its steam up with a noticeably Harley-like bellow from its pair of straight-pipe exhausts. Driving one of these things is a bit like that first kidney-scrambling sensation you get when you finally take a turn on someone's hog. Once you get the hang of it, it's thoroughly addictive, and any smooth, Japanese powertrain in particular seems dispassionate by comparison. With an easily achievable 50 miles per gallon, the S&S-powered 3 Wheeler ought to cruise up to 400 miles on a single fill of the twin rear-mounted tanks, too.
When starting up the trike with its Euro-bomber style "bombs-away" center button, everything shakes, but doesn't rattle. Morgan has done plenty of bushing experimentation wherever two metal bits meet, so the huge torque spikes that happen at moments like startup get reined in nicely. All the same, it's still possible to feel vividly the robust crankshaft doing its business, the Harley-style driveline unit directly beneath our buns making sure that the power and torque reach the rear Vredestein tire without shredding it like confetti.
Every Morgan employee, as well as any classic Three-wheeler owner, will remind you that the roughly six-foot-wide front track and double wishbone suspension configuration on the new 3 Wheeler is almost like cheating compared to the white-knuckle thrills of the 1909 through 1946 models. Those much smaller originals had (and still have in the hands of a good pilot) the plucky habit of almost always lifting their inside wheel when taking a turn at speed. Today, in the new model, we push it a bit as we get more and more comfortable with the trike's unique sensations, but the front end isn't even close to raising its leg. The thing, for all of its admitted quirks, is a pavement-grappling road rocket.
Front wheels and tires are 19-inches by four-inches, with Avon providing its classic-look 65-series Mk II treads for the occasion. Out back, things get decidedly more modern with the single Vredestein, a Sportrac 3 195/55 R16 87V with uni-directional tread. The long-travel rear dampers come wrapped here by Suplex springs. Whereas the comportment of the 3 Wheeler is more like a classic car up front (requiring a fairly strong-arm steering effort at lower speeds), in back, there's a rather commodious touring motorbike feel transmitted to the driver's backside. It's the best of both worlds, really – at least for those who crave the putting together of these two very particular worlds.
Morgan Motor Company has been thoughtful enough to provide the 3 Wheeler with a race-style removable steering wheel to improve the ease of ingress and egress. The two press-fleet trikes currently use a grippy placeholder Momo wheel, but delivered models will have the choice between classic three or four double-spoke units with a wooden hoop – either being perfect for a geeky leather-gloved pair of hands. As we discovered while trotting along northwest England's B-roads, the steering's reactions through its Quaife rack are crazy quick at speed, so we learned that less input is often more.
The other chief mechanical bit in the 3 Wheeler is the five-speed manual transmission pulled from the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The ratios feel just right for this unique setup, and each gear happily pulls the lightweight Brit up to 6,000 rpm and beyond. As we improved our launching technique, we noticed the rubber drive belt fitted to the rear wheel was skipping teeth, making a God-awful sound that concerned us. Our Morgan handlers kept telling us to go for it, noting this belt was just an experimental evaluation unit. We trust they'll have it all sorted by the time deliveries start this autumn in Western Europe, to be followed with the start of U.S. deliveries in the first quarter of 2012. We bet that Jay Leno gets his a bit earlier than that.
The full story on why Morgan suddenly feels like building a mess of 3 Wheelers after a few earlier lukewarm attempts has everything to do with a major contribution from Seattle's Pete Larson and his Morgan-commemorating Liberty Motors Ace cycle car. Larson was quietly going about his business building these three-wheelers with Harley engines when Morgan operations director Steve Morris went to Washington to check things out. Hot on the heels of that visit, Morgan bought out Liberty Motors and started intensive collaborations with Larson and S&S Cycle to build a production version of the 3 Wheeler. Aside from Larson's hard work getting its due at last, he has also been approved as one of the very first U.S. purveyors of these trikes. Yes, Larson is now the Northwest's chief Wheeler-dealer. (Had to write it.)
Our first conundrum to sort out while bonding with the 3 Wheeler ended up being a question of elbows. More specifically, should we let ours sit in the cockpit, or let it rest outside the car? Our chief contact for this drive day, designer Jon Wells, told us, "Well, basically 100 percent of owners let their elbow hang out." As we were not in attendance to be contrarian, our right elbow would stay outside – mostly.
There's a fantastic noise from the V-twin that happens upwards of 3,500 rpm. Below that threshold, the sound and rumble come mostly from beneath in the exhaust pipes and driveline. But north of there, the two fat, fuel-injected cylinders out front start to sing an octave or so higher. Between the fresh wind raking past our head and that visceral racket happening from both up front and out back, the soup of sensations is really intoxicating, yet it's also enough for us to realize that a good pair of goggles would be a perfect piece of kit. We know we need to back off sooner than we'd like, if only to keep our retinas from separating, but that practical decision to do so is delayed for as long as possible. There will be no 125-mph top speed runs today, however.
Heavily adapted from Pete Larson's Liberty Ace, this Morgan 3 Wheeler understandably stops on a dime, as it weighs only a little over half a ton. The basic front disc brakes and mighty rear drum unit are asked to find a delicate balance, as there is no anti-lock supervision, electronic brakeforce distribution, nor any other assistance on offer. Skids are easily produced, so Morgan has created what initially seems like a too-soft brake pedal feel. This is a fairly basic form of brake modulation, and after a time, we found that we didn't mind the excessive travel. Again, you rise to the unusual and it becomes the norm in this context, and it works. Throughout all of this action – and it is full-time action – the natural stiffness of this first-ever Morgan tubular-steel frame, hammered aluminum exterior panels and traditional ashwood inner structure join to create a solid little beast that does exactly what you want to do at every moment. This is no plaything, but it becomes enthrallingly playful even in our inexpert hands.
All the while, that instantaneous sound the V-twin makes based on what the throttle is doing is intoxicating. The pedal box itself is formula-car cramped, so it's best to use formula-car instincts and turn heel-and-toe downshifts into ball of foot/outside of foot shifts. We had this nailed within a few miles from the factory as it is exactly that easy to do.
The two-person cockpit requires – just look at it – that the two occupants be fairly fit. We're downright skinny, yet clipping the three-point seatbelt under our right butt cheek was quite the contortion. We've mentioned the center bombs-away start button, and the gauges are similarly heavily influenced by R.A.F. memories and handsome Bell & Ross watches. We'd like Morgan to play more with the styling of these controls (i.e. not quite so basic – particularly the generically cheap plastic start button) and the shift lever seems out of keeping with the rest of the trike's aesthetic. The leathers used cannot be criticized, however, and they are guaranteed to turn perfectly soft for your contours within a few months after pick up.
Morgan officially intends to produce 500 units of the 3 Wheeler per year, taking production in Malvern Link up to an unheard of 1,200 cars per year in total. Morgan has, in fact, created a third company under the main Morgan Motor Group Company umbrella to handle this anticipated 3 Wheeler business. Morgan 3 Wheeler Ltd. has its own building now within the complex alongside the main Morgan Motor Company and Aero Racing facilities. [Mid July 2011 update: Morgan reports having already pre-sold nearly 500 of the 3 Wheelers.]
Even in the United States, owners can register their Morgan 3 Wheeler as a moto-tricycle, thereby benefiting from several cost of ownership discounts versus traditional four-wheeled passenger cars. Because of this classification, too, Morgan didn't need to put its 3 Wheeler through the prohibitively costly crash homologation tests that regular cars must face.
Think about it: The Morgan 3 Wheeler is essentially an American-sourced structure and package equipped with a properly robust American-sourced V-twin engine. Two Yankees can a good Limey make after all.