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A blast from the past

Just inches off the ground, the Morgan gives the feeling of speed.

by Tom Chillemi

There was a time when car bodies were a combination of a wooden frame covered with metal. On many cars, building this “coach work” was an art that persisted until the mid-1930s.

However, it was still used on the 1964 Morgan Plus 4. By the time this classic sports car came to Bob Murphy of Locust Hill, 90% of the wooden coach frame had rotted. The car had sat neglected after the rear differential broke when the “leather” seals dried out and it pumped out all of the lube.

Car bodies were once a combination of a wooden frame with metal stretched across the frame. Above, the Morgan during restoration.
The “bonnet” gives easy access to the engine.
Wire mesh stone guards protect the lights.

Murphy set about the task of steaming pieces of white ash wood and bending them into the correct shape. “I learned as I went,” said the 70-year-old former sports car racer.

He made patterns from the old wooden frame and rigged up a PVC pipe in which he placed a single piece of wood. Then he injected steam into the pipe. The hot water mist worked into the wood’s pores, making it flexible so he could mould it into graceful curves. With the frame in place, the metal panels were repaired and painstakingly fitted. Metal plates were fabricated and welded into place, replacing rusted metal. He painted the car himself.

Would he sell it? “For the right price,” he quipped. Before you reach for your checkbook, consider that a set of chrome wire wheels go for about $2,000. They have the real “knock off ” spinners that are threaded into place with a mallet.

Murphy lost track of the time he spent in his garage. Starting in May of 2008, he toiled for at least 4 hours a day, 7 days a week for 3 to 4 years—and he’s still working on it. “I enjoyed it most of the time,” said this car guy who got his start running in the Soap Box Derby in Washington, D.C., at the ages of 10-15.

There’s a saying among those who know the quirks of the electronics on English motor vehicles. “God created light, but Lucas created darkness,” referring to the Lucas Electronics used on British from the vehicles.

Murphy was well equipped to diagnose and fix electrics (he even installed an extra amp meter on the Morgan). He had worked on electronics of B-52 “Flying Fortresses” during his stint in the Air Force. He graduated from Virginia Tech as an electronics engineer.

The Morgan tips the scale at a feathery 2,000 pounds — 1,600 pounds lighter than a Mustang and about half the weight of a Camaro. It rides on 15-inch wheels that are just 5.6 inches wide.

A comfort accessory for the Morgan is an inflatable seat cushion. The original one was inflated by mouth. He now uses a hand pump.

A stock Morgan feature includes a lube system operated by a foot pedal that shoots grease to key pivot points on the chassis.

A wide leather belt is strapped across the hood, or “bonnet,” as a precaution.

Its Triumph 4-cylinder overhead valve engine is 2,138 cubic centimeters (2.1 liters) and puts out about 110 horsepower. Power is fed through a 4-speed unsyncronized transmission—requiring the driver to double clutch and rev the motor when down shifting.

Murphy is adept at blipping the throttle to match the revs. That’s something he practiced when he raced on the National Sports Car Club of America circuit for 15 years. He’s been on tracks from Lime Rock in Connecticut to Road Atlanta.

His race car was a Bug Eyed Sprite that weighed a scant 1,000 pounds with him wedged in it. The stock 948 cc engine developed 30 horsepower (that’s not a misprint). Murphy upped the compression to 14:1 and wrung 90 horses from the mini-motor. It was reliable, but only for 25-50 laps, and he’d rebuild the motor after every race.

Murphy’s racing days came to a halt when he lost his brakes and hit an embankment doing close to 90 miles per hour at the end of the Summit Point straight. With a crushed vertebrae, he hung up his helmet for good.

Today you’ll find Murphy and his Morgan at car shows, such as Wings, Wheels & Keels, or trailering his car a portion of the way to distant shows. When he gets close and finds twisty curvy roads, he
then unloads his Morgan, fires it up, grips the wooden steering wheel, and remembers a time when . . .

posted 10.25.2012

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