I left Long Island shortly after that and moved to Gloucester, Mass., where I tended bar. People came from all over to see the Morgan, which had assumed legendary proportions, in part because it beat a GTO in a race between Gloucester and Rockport. "Hot damn," said an enormous Finn who ran a fishing boat thereabouts. "A four-cylinder engine and it beat that big monster? Lemme buy that car a drink." One night everyone in the bar sang a song to the car. It was to the tune of Down by the Old Mill Stream and, as I recall, began, "Down at the High Line Bar; In my Morgan car." Think of it. Twenty-five or 30 adults standing in a parking lot at 1 a.m. singing to a car.
I sold my Morgan one spring to pay a debt. I put an ad in The New York Times, and the first person who saw the car bought it. He drove 250 miles to my front yard, took one look at the car and said, "I'll take it." "Don't you want to drive it?" I asked. "Sure, I'll drive it," he said, "but I'm going to buy it anyway." After it was gone, a number of generous friends and relatives told me they would gladly have put up the money I needed and kept my Morgan in storage until I could afford to buy it back. "We wouldn't even have driven it," they all promised. "It would have been enough just to have it around." But they were too late, and the man I'd sold it to wouldn't sell it back, not even for $1,000 more than he had paid me; an era in my life was over.
Since then I've owned cars that were faster, handled better and were more expensive than my Morgan, but no cop has ever smiled at one of them, no woman has ever left a note on one of their windshields, and no bar full of people has ever burst into song at their presence.
In 1978, nine years after I sold the car, I traveled to the Morgan factory in England. I wanted to see what kind of people build a car that combines contemporary swiftness with manufacturing techniques that were abandoned by the rest of the auto industry before WW II. I found the Morgan Motor Co., Ltd. housed, as it has been since 1910, in an interconnected row of barnlike brick buildings. There were no robots, no conveyor belts. Morgans are built by hand. In the dispatch bay two long rows of new Morgans sat awaiting shipment. Above them, a stuffed owl presided, as it has for 30 years. It was placed there to ward off any sparrows that might fly down and scratch the new cars' paint.
Down the line were the various assembly shops. The wood shop, where the rolling chassis is taken to be fitted with handcrafted sections of ash and where the coachmakers carefully hang the wooden doors after the rest of the frame is in place; the panel-beater shop, where men with special hammers beat the steel panels and nail them to the frame; the area where the cars are wired by hand; the place where they are painted. There were around 100 employees at the factory, almost all of them trained on the job. Turnover has always been virtually nonexistent. Tuffy Burston, foreman of the machine shop, has been there the longest—since 1916. "Yes, they're wonderful autos," he said. "Of course, I've never owned one. I don't know how to drive." [Burston died recently, making Tony Brough the senior employee, with 45 years of service.]
The next day I met Peter Morgan, son of founder H.F.S., and now the owner of the company. Morgan, a handsome, well-dressed man, sat warming himself by the ubiquitous coal stove. "We make 350 or so cars per year," he told me. "I'd like to get production up to between 400 and 500, but not by sacrificing the way they're built."
Morgan, who learned automotive design as a child sitting in his father's study next to the company's machine shop, is saddened by American regulations that have kept him from directly exporting his cars to the U.S. since 1972. The engine in the Morgan does not conform to U.S. exhaust emission standards, and the cost of developing an engine that continues to meet changing U.S. specifications is prohibitive for so small a company.
But you can still buy a Morgan in this country. An enthusiast named Bill Fink, proprietor of Isis Imports in San Francisco, brings in 24 or so each year. In his shop he fits them out to run on propane instead of gasoline. He also does all manner of structural modifications—about 100 hours' worth for each car—to bring them up to government safety standards. There's a six-month waiting list for his cars, which cost $22,000 for four-cylinder models and $26,000 for those equipped with V-8s. Doctors, lawyers and bankers buy them. They have ceased being affordable to aspiring writers tending bar for a living.
I had been sitting in the sand 10 minutes or so when I decided to find that yellow Morgan. Maybe, I told myself, it was one of Fink's conversions. I had never seen one of those. Maybe it was an old one, completely restored, stripped down and repainted. Maybe, by some astounding coincidence, it was mine. I jumped into my car and began driving furiously south on A1A, looking down every conceivable turnoff as I went. Finally, I spotted the car in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. I zoomed into the lot, jammed on my brakes and leaped out. Suddenly I got a glimpse of my own foolishness. What the hell was I doing? What was I chasing? What would I say to these strangers, who might take me for a lunatic? I walked over to the Morgan. A man and woman in their early 30s sat sipping orange juice. In the luggage compartment behind them was a large Irish setter. The three of them eyed me warily. "I had a Morgan once," I said. "It was red." The man looked at me silently for a moment. Then he raised his left hand, made a circle with his thumb and index finger, and smiled. "Yes, indeed," I said, and I got back into my car and drove away.