All I knew was that my wife had a surprise for me, and it involved me driving through Edinburgh rush hour traffic at 7:30 am. I had no idea what the surprise was, but that kind of setup doesn’t exactly make for an enjoyable start to the day. I stuck with her plan though, and soon we were headed north on the M90 with me following directions and wondering what the day would bring.
About 35 minutes into the drive I’m getting increasingly curious. When I see a sign for “Knockhill Racing Circuit”, I’m starting to wonder what kind of lapping day I’m in for. We do exit the motorway at that exit, and I’m getting excited. But then we pass the track entrance and keep on going. Now I’m genuinely puzzled, and wondering where on Earth she is taking me? Finally she tells me to turn up the next driveway. I see a sign for “Kennels and Stables” and assume maybe I’m driving a different type of horsepower today. Ok, that still sounds like fun, and I do enjoy riding. It’s a long driveway, and my wife tells me to pull into the first lane off of it, past a hedge. I turn in and my jaw drops.
Sitting in front of a cozy little house are a Series II E-type Jaguar and a bright red Morgan 4/4. There are two men sitting in the Jag, one looking more excited than a kid in a candy store. Immediately I am wearing the same mile-wide grin as I realize what is about to take place. My wife looks back at me, grinning, and says “surprise! I rented you a Morgan for the day!” I’ve never been so shocked in my life. I have to wait for the owner to finish with the first customer, and I am shaking with anticipation.
I look around and see that this gentleman doesn’t just have one or two cars. I see two large garages, filled to the brim with classic British sports cars. I’m not sure if there’s a more dangerous occupation than renting out a fleet of Lucas electric–equipped vintage sports cars, but that’s what Caledonian Classics does -- daily rentals and organized tours in vintage Jags, Healeys, MG’s and, of course, a Morgan 4/4.
1930s styling, 1990s driveline
Soon, the lucky renter of the E-type has left, and it’s time for my orientation with the Morgan. First is a quick demonstration of how to get in. The hood (roof) is on, and I’m tall, so there’s a secret way to get in. I have been sworn to secrecy, so you will have to find it out for yourself. Following that is a lesson on putting the hood down and back up (it is Scotland in October, so that will be necessary to repeat), and then a quick road test. With my Canadian accent, I’m sure Alex, the proprietor, is a little nervous. After all how many of us can still properly handle a stick shift? But he seems assuaged when I mention I drive a manual at home and that I’ve now done over 1200 miles on Scottish lanes. Test drive passed, and it’s time for my lovely wife (did I mention how wonderful she is? I should again, just in case), and I to head out for the day.
Our host has thoughtfully provided a route book with a choice of two days out, and we pick a route that will circle us from Dollar to Sterling, past Doune Castle (of Game of Thrones and Monty Python and the Holy Grail fame), Callander, the beautiful tiered gardens and long tree-lined drive of Drummond Castle, and then bringing us back to Dollar. The directions are easy to follow, and our navigational rally experience will (hopefully) help ensure we don’t get too lost.
So, the car. It’s listed as a 1984 model, but has an 1,800cc Ford Zetec engine, which makes it at least a 1993 engine. It is paired with a five-speed gearbox that is the same vintage as the engine. That’s a real plus in a car that has a decent number of structural components made from wood, as one wouldn’t expect a synchronized ‘box, but it is certainly nicer to have. Along the same lines, the steering is un-boosted, and the brakes do not have power assist. This is an extremely light car, with narrow 165 profile tires, so the lack of power steering is only a concern when parking and turning to full lock.
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The tyres (this is a proper motor car, and we shall use the proper words henceforth) will rub at full lock anyway, so it’s no bother. The steering is surprisingly light, and is very communicative. That said, the design dates from before World War II, so it is not what you’d expect from a modern car. It will be thrown by road imperfections, and it will kick back at you. Once you are expecting that, the wheel points the car exactly where you want to go, and is more precise than you’d expect. You can feel the car moving around on the dual coilspring front and leaf sprung rear suspension, and while it’s strange at first you quickly learn to let the car move around, setting your desired steering angle and letting the car find the way. It is a lot like driving on snow or dirt, but with more grip. The roads are all extremely smooth, so the car is never too wayward anyway. That might not be the case on our wonderful frost-heaved Canadian byways.
It's a tight fit, but I'm in there.
Even starting the car is an experience. First, leave the clutch out. Keep your foot off, and make sure the car is in neutral. Clutch in, as you will out of habit, and it will stall. Second, the handbrake requires just a brush of the lever to disengage. You pull back and push a button to put the brake on, but just a nudge on the lever to release. The pedal box is tiny for my size 13 sneakers, but you quickly adapt. Just be careful not to rest your left foot on the clutch. I found the best place was under the pedal, because there was definitely no room to either side.
Engine running, both of us aboard, belted, and scarves snugged up against the 12°C temperatures and we’re off. The clutch is light, and the modern fuel-injected engine pulls strongly from any speed. 114 horsepower isn’t a great deal, but when the car is well under 1,000 kg, that’s not a problem, and the Morgan moves along briskly.
Timeless interior. There's even a radio!
We’re on our way toward Doune Castle, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. My wife, however, is barely visible under her scarf and hat. Seated in the 4/4 my head is at about the same level as the wing mirror on the Golf that just went by in the other direction, and I’m looking up at the top of lorry tires, which is an interesting feeling. On these narrow, fenced lanes, this car feels at home. I’m working the gearbox up and back down, it’s a smooth feel, and is very satisfying. I’m probably changing more than is necessary, as the car pulls well from low RPM, but it suits the feeling of the car. Running up through the revs, a quick shift, and running through the next gear is an immensely satisfying feeling. There is no redline on the tachometer, but I won’t run it past 5,000 rpm.
I’m becoming one with the car, which is easy when you can reach nearly the entire thing from the driver’s seat. We stop quickly for a couple of photos at Doune Castle, and the children (as well as a few of the adults) in the car park who see the car smile as widely as I have been. We later make a quick stop for an early lunch just outside of the town of Doune and it’s becoming clear that everyone loves the Mog. I have never gotten so many questions about a car as I do on the day.
Back on the road and I’m looking down the long bonnet which gives you an excellent view of the front wheels. The car is so narrow that you start to understand why the roads aren’t wider here. After all, who needs the extra space? Soon that view starts to see a windscreen peppered with water droplets. It’s starting to rain, and I toggle the triple wipers. Everything I had heard about British cars made me fear what would happen, but the wipers worked as they should, and cleared the slowly worsening rain.
Once we made it through the town of Callander, the rain started to worsen. Fortunately, we were paying attention during our lesson and we were able to put the hood up quickly. Climbing back in, the now covered Morgan was cozy but not too cramped. It was also warmer than expected, with the heater and defroster both doing an excellent job of keeping the windows clear and our feet warm. It was a truly special feeling, like we were the only people on the road. Snuggled into the Morgan, exhaust blatting and popping, watching the rain stream up that long bonnet.
We follow the A84 winding along Loch Lubnaig, stopping occasionally to look over the Loch, and to just look at the car. It’s now a decent rain, but we are still warm and dry and over the moon.
The rain has let up...for now.
By the time we turn back east at Loch Tay, the rain has let up and the hood comes back down. It’s still cold out, but we’re staying warm inside. It’s more of the same for the Morgan, running up and down through the gears. It’s starting to feel more playful and the car rewards careful choice of gear, light use of the brakes, and a skillfully chosen line. The brakes are very heavy meaning sudden stops take far more pedal pressure than you would expect. It’s important to look ahead in a car like this. Not just for braking, but because crumple zones hadn’t yet been invented the last time this car was redesigned.
A turn down the 2.5 km driveway to Drummond Castle seems otherworldly in this car. It’s a narrow lane, with old growth trees towering above us on either side lining the path. With nothing around us but the trees and the castle lawn, it’s easy to picture us as a couple from the 1940’s returning to our estate after a day in the town. After a tour of the amazing gardens, it’s time to start making our way home. The day is quickly getting away from us, and we still have a few hours drive.
A wrong turn at the village of Gleneagles has us running behind, and with the threat of rain back on the horizon, I am trying to make time. Initially, pushing the 4/4 takes some work and some concentration. The steering doesn’t like mid-corner corrections, rushing the pedals means that I catch the wrong one with the side of my foot. But then it clicks. We are making back our time, and this is the most I’ve ever been involved in actually driving a car. You have to pay attention to every bit of feedback, but the car gives you so much, and in so much detail, that you start to really bond with it. You’re just always in the right gear, giving the steering just the right amount of lock, feeling the movement in the suspension, the slip angle of the tyres, and it all just works. It is now doing exactly what you want, maybe not when you want it, but definitely when you need it.
Bundled up against the cold
We pull up back at the garage, and I twist the key off. I’m not happy to be getting out, so I sit there for a moment, listening to the car begin to tick and cool down. I take one last look at the vintage leather seats, the wood dash, the long nose, and I then I finally pull the latch and pry myself out of the car one last time. Looking back, the smells, the sounds, and the vibrations are all etched into my brain. It was a tremendous experience, one that has me quickly searching and re-searching autoTRADER.ca for a Morgan to have as my own.
A vintage drive in a classic car you can still buy new. 5/19/2016 7:58:07 AM 5/19/2016 7:58:07 AM