A Morgan Plus4 experience
As a kid I was probably a frustrated mechanical tinkerer as no one was game to fiddle with my father’s mowers, motors or boats. My pent up emotions were released in about 1963 or 1964 when I acquired a bug eye, Mark 1 Austin-Healey Sprite, much to my father’s displeasure. However, I did have a great deal of pleasure in making the Sprite into one of the noisiest, and probably highest revving Sprites on the Sydney roads at the time. I thought 7000rpm out of BMC A series motor was pretty impressive in 1965.
The interest in British sports cars was excited from November 1960 with the opening of the Warwick Farm motor racing circuit followed by regular attendances at places like Oran Park, Easter Bathurst and later Amaroo Park.
Besides the 2.5lt open wheelers the Marque Sports Car category was a particular interest and very early on I decided I wanted a Morgan.
By 1967 I was thinking it was time to move from the Sprite into a Morgan. So I took a trip to the Total Service Station on Pittwater Road, Boronia Park to talk to Ken Ward, the Morgan agent, about ordering a 4/4. Ken said there was a nine-month delivery time but he had a +4 on the water which would soon be arriving. He suggested I wait before committing until the +4 arrived and have a look at that one. So that was it, I immediately decided I would prefer the more powerful +4 to a 4/4.
The boat carrying two Morgans arrived in Sydney Harbour on December 24, 1967. One of the Morgans was a 4/4 destined for John St Julian the other was the +4. It was not until the New Year that the cars were unloaded and cleared through Customs.
The +4 was duly prepared for delivery which included some work on the head by Colin Bond with a port and polish and removal of the hot spots in the combustion chambers.
On January 19, 1968, I parted with $3425.90 (including registration of $57.90) less the trade-in on the Sprite and took delivery of ESD655, a Signal Red low line +4 Morgan chassis number 6579. I still remember the drive home!
At some stage, and I don’t remember the date, #6579 became BT157.
From then until the early 1970s the Mog was my only car and even after Cindy and I married in 1971 it was our only transport.
There were many memorable and/or epic adventures in the 1960s in the time of unrestricted open roads outside the town 30mph speed limits. These include a mad Friday night dash in 1968 from Hornsby to Coolangatta in 11 hours on the old Pacific Highway goat track. Enjoyable pre-dawn, mid-winter, Sunday morning runs to Pitt Town to join the mates who had taken the ski boat up on Saturday to be the first boat on the river as the sun broke the horizon, occasionally with a fringe of ice on the water’s edge. The absence of speed limits enabled a high-speed dice with one of the newly released Gold GT-HO Falcons from Narrabeen Lakes to Mona Vale Road.
One of #6579’s idiosyncrasies was a drip onto the passenger’s knee in heavy rain. Cindy and I attended a ball at the UNSW Round House one night in pouring rain. The water dripping onto Cindy’s crepe ball gown turned out not to be the worst thing that happened that night; one of my mates spilt a glass of beer down the back of the dress, she spent a fair bit of time in the kitchen drying the dress and trying to save it.
Shopping was also an exciting experience as we motored home from work on different days with a large box perched on Cindy’s lap, fitting neatly between chest and dash, deftly keeping contents of veg, meat and groceries on board.
At some stage the cylinder head developed a crack in the No.1 spark plug seat that seeped coolant. Although it was bored and sleeved it was not entirely satisfactory. There was always a sign of moisture around the edge of the sleeve until I obtained another cylinder head from Ken Ward. It was the head off a Super Sports that had been written off when racing. After that #6975 became a rocket. She developed a thirst for 100 octane fuel and behaved a bit like a diesel when turning off. The compression was something over 12:1 and there was a definite skill in shutting down to stop the overrun.
For many years I did not have a garage and as the car was the daily drive the paint deteriorated and faded fairly badly. So about 1974 I set about a respraying; that turned into a complete rebuild.
The car was stripped to the chassis, the sill panels were showing signs of dry rot and some of the coachwork joints were starting to show movement.
What came next was to remake the wooden frame. To do this I used marine ply and did away with most of the joints by cutting the shapes in one piece. The door frames were constructed by laminating sections of one inch marine ply together and shaping the contours of the doors with a plane and spoke shave. The reconstruction of the wheel archers was achieved by using the original arches with slate between them to bend layers of marine ply to shape and laminating them with the best available marine glue.
While this was going on I also paid attention to the chassis. Peter Wagner supplied detailed drawing for chassis strengthening with the addition of strategic gussets and the addition of a “C” section channel along the outside of the chassis from the front bend to the rear.
At the time of the rebuild the engine had completed 50,000 miles so it was decided a complete engine rebuild was also in order. While oil pressure etc was still good the wisdom at the time was that it was advisable to replace TR bearings at about that mileage as the crank had a tendency to become slightly oval above that mileage.
The doors were reskinned with aluminium and the rusty edge of the rear guards was removed and a new strip welded on to keep the original width.
All the panels were painted separately in signal red and everything started to go back together and #6579 was reregistered again as BT157.
Fortunately she was no longer our only transport although she was used as much as possible and competed in many Club events until 1980. During this time I was the recipient of both the Morgan Trophy and the Competition point score in 1975 and claimed two class wins at Silverdale Hillclimb.
All this came to an end in 1980 when we purchased a grazing property at Hanging Rock southeast of Tamworth. At that stage we had 25 kilometres of not very good gravel road so #6579 was put on the market with an asking price of $20,000. The value of Morgans had jumped very rapidly after about 1970. She was eventually sold in 1983 for $18,000.
That was the end of our Morganeering until 2008 when the Morgan Club made a visit to Tamworth and came for a run to Nundle, our nearest village. I met a lot of the MOCA members I had known all those years ago. At the time Cindy was trying to get me to get another Morgan as a hook to make me retire from the farm.
We decided to attend the Golden Muster at Bathurst in 2009 where three gold Morgans were displayed at the opening gathering. In December 2009 we purchased one of those Morgans, a 1961 Plus 4 owned by Ross Knights. This is #5000 which left the factory on November 13, 1961, bound for BI & KC Ward in Sydney.
The history of #5000 from the mid 1960’s to 1989 is unclear. However between 1989 and 1993 she was subject to a chassis up rebuild. I have to report that she has the same water leak onto the passenger’s knee as #6579.
However we still remained on the farm until 2016. This necessitated loading the car onto a trailer to get to the end of the gravel which by then was only 15 kilometres away.
In the summer of 2010-2011 it was apparent that the cooling system needed attention. To that end I changed a rather battered old core for a more efficient modern core. The bottom radiator mounts were modified to enable the radiator to be moved forward slightly, which allowed the fitting of a slim electric fan behind the radiator and did away with the mechanical fan. A high capacity Racetorations water pump was also fitted.
The disadvantage of this arrangement is that without a mechanical fan to turn, adjusting the timing, points and tappets requires a large spanner on the crankshaft pulley nut and skinned knuckles.
A Morris Mini or Triumph Spitfire overflow tank was already fitted and I considered it would benefit from a larger one. To this end I had a dead Leyland truck in the paddock with a fairly large overflow tank. While looking at it the thought struck me that it would make a good auxiliary header tank à la Super Sports Style. The Super Sports fittings were available from Melvyn Rutter. When the system was installed #5000 carried an additional five litres of water.
I was also able to source an old style sleeve type thermostat from Moss Europe. This enables the bypass to be shut off when the thermostat opens directing all the water through the block.
The next job was to block off all the air gaps around the radiator and fit an air dam underneath the radiator. The air dam creates a low pressure area in the engine bay, draws out the hot air and allows more air to pass through the radiator. To date the temperature has not exceeded 80°C.
All was good until one Sunday morning on a run there was a loud banging and clanking from the engine. Home on a flat bed and look for the cause.
As the farm shed had a dirt floor I borrowed a shed from a neighbour with a lot of room and a concrete floor. So the engine came out and was stripped down.
The top had come off number three piston at the oil ring. There were more surprises, two head gaskets were fitted, and there were three Triumph pistons, three lightened conrods, one Vanguard piston and one heavy conrod. Someone had done a pretty good job of a bodgey engine job. There had been a slight vibration at certain reves which I was thinking might be the tail shaft.
The cylinder head was highly modified, obviously for racing, and according to my measurements was somewhere between 12.5:1 and 13:1 compression, hence the two head gaskets. The combustion chambers had been reshaped and fitted with enormous valves. here had been so much taken out of the inlet and exhaust ports that there was not enough meat left to fit inserts to enable the use of unleaded fuel. I also estimated that 0.178in had been skimmed off the head to give the extreme compression ratio. A TR4A head was obtained and now adorns the motor.
The crankshaft was 0.010in undersize but no two journals measured exactly the same, so another regrind to 0.020 undersize was required. All parts were balanced and the motor reassembled with 87mm sleeves and pistons and the rear oil seal modified to take a neoprene seal. The Holden HB17A Harmonic Balancer) with 0.1mm (0.004in) off the bore fits the Triumph crankshaft, this was also fitted. There is no longer any sign of a vibration.
Everything was reassembled with a new wiring loom and the engine ran silky smooth. However it was not long before it became obvious that the rear oil seal modification was not right. The usual Triumph coating of oil on the underside of the car required constant cleaning. A patch of oil under the car every time it was parked was also embarrassing.
The next problem was the clutch throw out pin broke, so the engine came out again and the rear bearing cap seals repacked, but this did not fix the problem. A steel throw out pin instead of the alloy one was installed.
In 2016 we moved off the farm and we now have a sealed road to the driveway and I have a purpose built workshop/shed with a concrete floor and a hoist. Luxury!
A couple of attempts to fix the oil leak problem by removing the sump and repacking the bearing cap seals with the motor in situ and oil dripping on my head were unsuccessful.
So it was motor out again for a crankshaft-out neoprene seal replacement. The main cause of the perpetual oil leak was that the seal had been kinked in assembly. The motor was reassembled with a new set of bearings, new oil seal and copious amounts of shellac to soak the felt seals beside the bearing cap. There has not been any sign of a leak since the motor was reinstalled.
The next thing that required attention was the leaking rear lever action shock absorbers. To rectify this, with the help of my bulldozer mechanic, we constructed a mounting to take two adjustable Koni telescopic shock absorbers. While undertaking this task it became obvious that the rear springs were getting very tired so they were replaced with a new set sourced from Melvyn Rutter. This presented a challenge as the centre pins were not in exactly the same position.
A Panhard rod was constructed and fitted to the rear axle which has reduced some of the well-known +4 understeer.
The dreaded Morgan front-end wobble was cured with four new ball joints. The challenge here was that one of the threads in the drag link needed re-tapping. Nine sixteenth inch left hand BSF thread taps are rarer than hen’s teeth. The solution was to chase the thread on a lathe.
On the trip to Bathurst for the Diamond Muster a patch of oil on my left knee indicated that the oil pressure gauge had sprung an internal leak. All the instruments have now been serviced and #5000 now has a non-leaking oil pressure gauge and an operational temperature gauge in the 4-in-1 cluster.
As I was still managing the farm when we decided to find another Morgan, I was not looking for another rebuild project.
The one we decided on looked like it would fit the bill, the body and coach work were in good order and would only require normal Morgan maintenance. I was not expecting the engine problems. The engine rebuild and subsequent tinkering just goes to prove that the pleasure in owning is not only in the driving of it.