Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?

| 16 Sep 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?

For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here


The most important car in my life? That might seem a preposterous claim.

But in the case of the Morris Eight Series E Tourer now carrying registration FYK 259, this is well and truly the case – and the tenner I paid for the car in 1974 must surely be the most important £10 I’ve ever spent.

That modest investment cemented my love of old cars and stimulated my interest in the Morris marque.

This in turn led to my career as a journalist in the classic press and a writer on the motor industry, and to my being the author of what I hope is the definitive history of Morris cars and the company that built them. I owe close on 40 years of professional activity to that very happy purchase.

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The Tourer as bought by our Jon Pressnell in the ’70s

I had stumbled across the Morris, hand-painted in red and languishing in a station car park less than a mile from home.

Unlike most kids of my age, at 15 I knew what a Series E was: thanks to a postage-stamp shot in a one-and-sixpenny Ian Allan car-spotters’ guide, its unusual headlamps-in-wing frontal treatment had stuck in my mind.

As a Tourer, essentially only made for the 1939 season, the Morris merited saving. I traced the owner, who had abandoned the car following a breakdown, and soon it was being towed home.

Full of the absolutism of the adolescent, I determined that it would be restored in copybook fashion.

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
Picture perfect – and practical, too

I joined the Morris Register and bought a copy of the acknowledged bible, The Restoration of Vintage and Thoroughbred Cars by Wheatley and Morgan, which I duly bound in transparent Fablon.

In fact, a weekend or two of work would have put the perfectly serviceable Morris back on the road, but instead I started taking it to pieces.

As school gave way to university, nothing serious happened to the Tourer. Then came a house move, and in 1979 the Morris was sold to a chap in Sussex.

That was the last I heard of ‘FYK’ until 2018, when the Morris Register told me that it had bought my old Series E as a vehicle to be used to initiate younger people into the world of old cars.

As a member of the Register more or less continuously since the mid-1970s, that struck an immediate chord.

I well remember being asked to address a meeting of the club, at which I lamented that – at 43 years old or thereabouts – I was undoubtedly the youngest person in the room, and that some action needed to be taken if the Register wasn’t going to die with its ageing membership.

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The wood dashboard is unique to the open Series E

The idea of a loan car arose because the Register had some funds available, and was thinking about buying a pre-war Morris van.

This coincided with discussions taking place in the wider classic movement about making cars available to people who had no experience of older vehicles, as a way of bringing a fresh generation into the historic world.

One of the prime movers in swinging the committee towards a loan car, and towards a Series E – one of the most modern of pre-war Morris models – was club magazine editor Rob Symonds, himself the keen owner of a Series E Tourer.

“The idea of driving something old, it’s unknown territory,”says Symonds. “People don’t want to go there. There’s a problem getting younger people interested in our sort of car.

“The fact that the Series E has four gears makes a difference: it’s much more practical than the earlier three-speed Eights. It transforms the car.

“I also think that a Series E passes the ‘Sainsbury’s test’: can you go shopping at the supermarket on a Saturday without feeling like an idiot?”

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The indicators are a discreet upgrade

So it was that ‘FYK’ was purchased.

“We were pleasantly surprised: there was nothing wrong with it. We knew it was going to be pretty bulletproof,” Symonds continues.

“In fact, when I first drove it I was quite disappointed because it was significantly better than mine! On dual carriageways it’s quite happy at 55mph.”

It was decided to have a loan period from March to October, with the car receiving any necessary maintenance during the winter months.

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The low-set sidevalve develops 29.6bhp

The Register was insistent that the Tourer should have an MoT, as evidence of its good order, and at the same time laid down criteria for potential custodians.

Postulants had to be over 30, with a clean licence, have use of another car (so as not to use the Morris for commuting), have garaging, and have some rudimentary experience of older vehicles.

The ability to ensure basic maintenance was another requirement, as was an undertaking to bring the car to some shows and to send the odd contribution to the club magazine.

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
Although you’d rather the weather was good, it does have a roof

The Series E’s first custodian was Deborah Fry, a 46-year-old art teacher from Derbyshire.

Her first-hand experience of old cars was limited to a period as a VW Beetle owner, but she grew up around classics because her father was a Triumph fan who had a Herald, a Spitfire and a Stag.

How did she find the Morris to drive?

“I soon got used to it, and found it great fun,” she says. “Size-wise, it’s just right – I don’t think I’d want to drive one of the bigger models – and it was fast enough.

“On the open road you could get close to 60mph – although with four on board it was a bit slow up some of the hills in the Peak District.”

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
Art teacher Deborah Fry loved her time with the Morris

The unsynchronised first gear was a challenge, says Fry, but other than the lack of seatbelts her only real concern was that the brakes, despite being all-hydraulic, were not up to modern conditions.

“That was the only thing that worried me. I made sure I kept a safe distance from the car in front but I still had one moment, when a vehicle pulled out right in front of me.”

Fry focused on taking the Series E to more generalist ‘retro’ events, covering a modest 1000 miles during her time with the car.

“It was nice to take the Morris and show it to a different set of people, rather than just go to car shows. So I did local charity events, that sort of thing.

“It also appeared on Iranian TV and Larry Lamb filmed it for one of his programmes, because apparently his first car was an old Morris.”

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
David Allanson has made the most of his time with the Tourer

“I had an amazing summer. It was lots of fun meeting people – and a mixture of all ages. A memorable moment was the 1940s market in Chesterfield, when we arrived four-up, all dressed in 1940s clothes. The car made people smile – it was such a talking point.

“Everywhere we went, we seemed to cause a scene. I did a write-up every month for the Register magazine. ‘I wonder where she’s taken it this time,’ Rob was always saying.”

What about reliability? “Once it wasn’t firing on all four cylinders – but that was because I’d knocked off a plug lead. And when it was raining hard the wiper pegged out, but someone from the Register got it working for me.

“I loved the Morris. I was sad to give back and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

“If I had the money I’d definitely buy one, and the friends who looked after it, who have vintage tractors and an old Land-Rover, are looking for an Eight, so that’s a potential ‘score’ for the Register.”

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The Morris is fast enough for modern road conditions – and the windscreen folds flat, for full wind-in-the-face motoring

There’s also been one collateral benefit to Fry’s time with the Morris: “As a result, I’ve bought a 1963 vintage caravan, an Italian-made Lavanti Grazia.

“I got it through a chap I met and became friends with via the Register!”

The second keeper was David Allanson, in summer 2019. Again he was not really an old-car person, although he had previously owned a Citroën CX.

“I had always been tempted, but never made the next move,” says the 42-year-old service manager from Hertfordshire.

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The Morris passes through the ford by Packhorse Bridge in Sutton, Bedfordshire, with Allanson

Allanson put 1900 miles on the clock of the Morris, including three long-distance runs.

“I went down to Beaulieu; then I did a tour of the Norfolk coast; and finally I attended the Morris Register National Rally in Nottinghamshire.

“I used back-roads: I had to plan my routes, but the planning was part of the holiday – something you don’t do these days. It took longer but it was less stressful, and I was using the car in the sort of conditions for which it was originally designed.

“Otherwise it was just pottering in the Cambs-Herts-Beds area, going shopping, occasionally going to work. The Eight is very usable.

“That’s what’s so amazing: for an old car, it’s so practical. I loved it – it is really enjoyable to drive. And the brakes? You just allow that extra bit of distance…”

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
The Series E was a clever update of the old Eight design

As with Fry, the Morris attracted plenty of attention: “By the time you came out with your shopping, you’d normally have half a dozen people gathering around the car. It gets people talking. People come over for a look.”

Maintenance was minimal, too: “I put half a pint of oil in the gearbox and three pints in the engine – and when I checked the fuel consumption it worked out at 44mpg.”

So has theo ld-car world gained a convert? “I like the shape of the Series E and a Tourer would be handy for the summer,” he concludes. “I’m very tempted to try and find one.”

In the interim, Allanson’s custodianship has seen one benefit flow directly to the Register.

“We’ve persuaded David to run our website,” explains Symonds. “So we’ve definitely got something out of this year.

“We’ve got David on board as a fully paid-up member, he’s interested in the club and he’s going to help us. He’s going to be a difficult act to follow in that sense.”

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?
Pressnell can’t resist getting back behind the wheel

Of course, I didn’t need any persuading to get behind the wheel once again. I’ve driven enough Eights to know that a Series E is a sweet and usable thing – and ‘FYK’ is a nicely set-up example of the breed.

The 918cc sidevalve engine is smooth, and the car picks up speed well, cruising contentedly at 40-45mph and not feeling strained at 50mph.

The gearchange has a notchy action and a tight gate, and the synchromesh is good. The brakes are short-travel and pull up the Morris well without undue effort.

With the cam-and-peg steering in perfect adjustment, the Series E has good directional stability, and it rides with reasonable comfort – surprisingly so, in fact, for a car with semi-elliptic springs all round.

This is a classic that any newcomer to older vehicles can just hop into and drive. There really is precious little adaptation required.

All those years ago, I didn’t make a bad choice of first car. Not for the first time, I wish I’d been able to keep that cheerful little Morris.

Images: Will Williams

Thanks to the Morris Register


Factfile

Classic & Sports Car – Is a Morris Eight the perfect starter classic?

Morris Eight Series E Tourer

  • Sold/number built 1938-’41/2776 (plus 972 two-seaters)
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body over timber frame
  • Engine all-iron, sidevalve 918cc ‘four’, single SU carburettor
  • Max power 29.6bhp @ 4400rpm
  • Max torque 39Ib ft @ 2400rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual with synchromesh on second, third and top, RWD
  • Suspension beam axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
  • Steering cam and peg
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 12ft (3658mm)
  • Width 4ft 8in (1422mm)
  • Height 5ft 1in (1549mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2261mm)
  • Weight 1573lb (714kg)
  • 0-50mph 32 secs
  • Top speed 61mph
  • Mpg 36-44
  • Price new £135
  • Price now £10-15,000*

Prices correct at date of original publication


READ MORE

Starter classics: 14 great cars for a first-timer

Your classic: Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT

Ballot 3/8 LC: the first Italian Grand Prix winner