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Like moths to a flame, some of us seem irresistibly drawn to certain marques, destined to rejoin the fold even when unexpected events take us in a different direction.
Tim Harper is one such case, holding a deep affection for Malvern’s timeless roadsters that has punctuated the most significant points of his life.
From his first 4/4 to the +4 in which he met his wife, the ash-framed machines have remained a constant throughout years of globetrotting adventure, culminating in the epic restoration of a unique Cosworth-powered 4/4 whose secrets only began to unravel after four decades of ownership.
“My first Morgan was a flat-rad that I bought immediately after I graduated, chosen because it was the biggest-engined sports car I could find in Exchange & Mart,” explains Harper.
“It was only a Vanguard engine – a tractor of a unit, which I didn’t realise at the time. Then came the 1954 +4 that I drove to Sicily and Denmark.”
After returning from a stint in the Middle East, carrying out seismic exploration for the oil industry, Harper’s boss sent him to Denmark.
“I didn’t even know where Denmark was,” Harper admits, “but he explained that I needed to get the ferry and drive across the country.So I took the Morgan.
“The hotel was teetotal so the second night I got in the car and drove, randomly weaving through the countryside. I saw Maggie walking and stopped to ask for directions – we’ve now been married for 50 years.”
Harper’s love for his classic could sometimes drive him to distraction, and a return to academia back in the UK led the Morgan man to face a hard choice.
“I really liked the car and so did Maggie, so it was a difficult decision to sell it. But after working on the rigs in the North Sea – two weeks on, one week off, and plenty of time to get underneath it – I went back to being a student. I had to focus on my degree so I sold the Morgan and spent my time driving a Morris Minor.”
After completing his PhD, Harper took a teaching position at the University of Aberdeen in Marischal College, the towering colossus that dominates the northern skyline.
It was on his first drive into the granite city, thesis kept safe in a tin box on his lap, that he spotted a beautiful white +4 from the 1950s, and the urge to once again own a Morgan came over him.
“Not long after, I was driving around town and on the front drive of a house was another Morgan, looking rather bent,” he recalls.
“I knocked and the chap explained that it had been rolled into a cabbage field – fortunately without the hardtop, which would have smashed into 10,000 pieces.
“He was quite happy to sell because he was trying to restore a 1930 Alfa Romeo 6C-1750, so I bought it for what now seems a ludicrously small amount.”
There was one condition: the car must be painted in the same colour of dark blue over silver-blue in deference to its racing past.
Harper dismissed the allusions to the car’s sporting history as little more than sales patter, but nonetheless had the bodywork finished in the same colour scheme after having it repaired locally by J&W Georgeson, which straightened and painted the body, stripped the gearbox, and sorted the suspension and alignment.
The 4/4 was soon pressed into service as a runabout, used everywhere from trips to the shops to epic runs from Aberdeenshire to the south-east of England.
“I used to go to work in it, which meant hardtop on for winter and off for the summer because it was a hell of a palaver to change,” he says.
“It just had a simple Cortina 1500GT engine, so performance wasn’t great, and when it failed I could easily get another one from Exchange & Mart. We had a couple of friends who worked as engineers for McLaren and they would always help to get me going again.
“I later met someone who worked on the Deep Sanderson project and had an old LawrenceTune pre-crossflow 1600 block.
“We put it in the car and it went really well, with a lot of torque: it would pull all the way to 90mph on the motorway. It eventually gave out after just 7000 miles, on the way home from a fly-fishing trip with my son, Roy, who had just caught his first trout.
“Something came out through the side of the block and it was quite traumatic for us, scrambling up the motorway banking in lousy weather. We had it towed to a local garage and it came back after three weeks – there was a very strong smell as you approached the car!”
Despite the setback, the 4/4 lived on with another heart scavenged from a scrapped Cortina before life once again interrupted the Morgan experience when Harper and his family moved abroad, first to Colombia and then to Norway.
“He would play tricks on me, such as putting a chicken coop in the passenger seat,” Harper says. “We were away for a few years and he had it for quite along time.
“We eventually got it going again and ran it for fun at the weekends, but it got to the point where our local garage owner said it looked like a battered Spitfire returning from a sortie and something had to be done.”
The Morgan was resprayed red at Roy’s request. Increasingly interested in the car’s history, Harper began researching using the original buff logbook, which was scrawled with the spidery, barely legible signatures and addresses of its earliest owners.
The first entry was attributed to Cedar Motor House in Cheltenham but, despite concerted sleuthing, little information was forthcoming about the original owner other than a vaguely Scottish-sounding name and an idea that he had gone on to work at a vineyard.
“I rang the vineyard and they said that, yes, he had been thereabout 30 years ago, but that was it,” Harper says. “He’d gone and the bloke wasn’t particularly helpful, so I got stuck in that cul-de-sac and had to give up.”
The trail remained cold until the chance purchase of a 1997 book, Morgan Sports Cars – The LawrenceTune Years 1961-1964, which Harper ordered as a Christmas present to himself.
Turning the pages, he was met with the thrill of seeing his car cutting a dash in period races with none other than first owner John McKechnie behind the wheel.
The signature could now be deciphered in that initial logbook entry.
The silver Morgan had a storied competition history, and had been ordered with the express intention of racing.
The detailed specification called for a lightweight aluminium body with wire wheels, bucket seats and a louvred bonnet, as well as Armstrong Selectaride shock absorbers and the removal of both front and rear bumpers.
It was one of just six machines to leave the factory with a lightweight, streamlined LawrenceTune glassfibre roof; the engine, it was noted, was to be supplied by the customer.
And what an engine. The book turned up not only more racing photographs, but stills taken at the factory for the purposes of homologation.
Rather than a mundane standard Ford lump, McKechnie had commissioned a devilish dry-sumped, highly tuned 1498cc Cosworth MkIX in-line ‘four’ capable of 120bhp. Enough in the light 4/4 to trouble the +4s and, reckoned McKechnie, to challenge for race wins.
McKechnie’s 4/4 proved more than a match for its Malvern rivals, but the 1151-1600cc class was littered with lightweight and powerful Lotus Elans and Elites – not to mention a roster of all-time-great drivers.
At Oulton Park on 11 April 1964, McKechnie put in a strong performance behind polesitter Jim Clark and teammate Sir John Whitmore, finishing 13th overall and sixth in class.
He did better at Silverstone later that month, coming second, before finishing third in the 10-lap race – again behind Elans.
By May the jig was well and truly up, and at the BRSCC national open meeting at Mallory Park McKechnie’s Morgan – the only non-Hethel entrant in a field of 12 Lotus Elans – was humbled by the likes of Peter Arundell, Mike Spence, Mike Beckwith and Jackie Stewart.
Though McKechnie gave up on the Morgan in favour of a Lotus-engined example after a year, the 4/4 lived on first with Robin Brown and then Harvey Postlethwaite, Formula One aerodynamicist, engineer and technical director of Hesketh, before being bought by John Berry at the end of the ’60s.
“I went to see John to talk about it and he told me all sorts of stories,” says Harper. “He tried to degrease the chassis and passed out one night in his single garage, only to wake up again at 2am. He said it was amazing how much of the car seemed to be held together with Araldite.
“Berry campaigned it primarily in sprints and hillclimbs before removing the Cosworth engine and fitting it to a single-seater Brabham, later selling the lump to Martin Wyatt.”
It was during a chance encounter at the 2004 Le Mans Classic that Harper bumped into Wyatt who, against the odds, had held on to the engine for a number of years.
“He had intended to come in his +8 but there was something wrong with it so he brought his 4/4 instead.
“I looked under the bonnet and there it was – he’d been using it the whole time. Despite what must have been my obvious enthusiasm, Martin insisted he had no intention of selling the engine.”
Harper’s 4/4 soldiered on for a further eight years before he decided that the time was right for a proper restoration.
“It had been in the family for 40 years and got to the point where if it wasn’t restored it would probably go to the dogs, so I bit the bullet and took it to a Morgan specialist up north in January 2012.
“When I got it back you wouldn’t believe how bad it was – it would define unbelievable. I brought it to Dave Baskerville in Barnstaple, who discovered that the gearbox needed taking out and redoing, even though it had been done twice already. Even the propshaft was the wrong length so it was vibrating badly.”
The project was then graced with two strokes of luck: the first, that the Cortina 1500 hadn’t been rebuilt by the first specialist; the second, that then club competition secretary Wyatt had agreed to reunite the original 1498cc Cosworth, which had since been run in everything from a Ginetta G4 to a Marcos, with chassis 996.
There was just enough time to rebuild the engine to coincide with the completion of the restoration, and after going on the rollers a healthy 118bhp and 106lb ft torque was registered – comparable with the motor’s performance in period.
It’s easy to believe the power figures as the engine barks into life, the noise reverberating around the barn after you slip into the leather-trimmed bucket seat and twist the key.
The twin 40DCOE Webers need a tickle to keep the revs up and the dry-sump lump takes about 10 mins to warm; when it’s ready, you’d best be sure you are, too.
The slick four-speed ’box is a revelation and there’s no vagueness or recalcitrance to detract from the experience.
With a 4.56:1 rear axle ratio you work through the gears quickly, which could be a disappointment with the old Cortina engine – until, that is, you realise that the ceiling of the Cosworth is so much higher.
Bury the throttle in third instead of changing up at 4000rpm and the engine comes to life, screaming around the dial to a scintillating 7000 and filling the tight cabin with a mechanical roar.
“It feels like we’re back in 1964,” shouts Harper from the passenger seat, as the hedgerows blur in your periphery and your vision narrows on the road ahead.
Such is the faithful accuracy of the restoration that you don’t need sepia-tinged specs to imagine threading the little Morgan through Druids and Cascades rather than the sweeping lanes of Devon, chasing the tail of the great Jim Clark and its own place in history.
Today, as in ’64, the unique Cosworth-engined 4/4 punches well above its weight, despite being forced to play a supporting role in period for the sake of 20bhp.
But while many of its competitors have fallen by the wayside, this special and much-loved Morgan has gone from strength to strength – a welcome reminder that sometimes the race is a marathon, not a sprint.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to Buckland House