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It was a flawless morning in late spring. I was driving north along Highway A1A, the coast road, not far from Daytona Beach, Fla., when the low-slung roadster, traveling very fast, passed me from the opposite direction. It was a yellow Morgan, frog-eyed and sassy, the first one I had seen on the road in years. I pulled over, got out of my car and sat down on a sand dune, awash in a sea of memories nearly 20 years old.
I had owned a Morgan once, a red one, a 4/4 Competition, built in 1965. It had chrome wire wheels and a thick leather "bonnet strap" pulled tight across its long, louvered hood. Like every Morgan, it was idiosyncratic and ornery—a conveyance that demanded accommodation. You might one day leave it, wild, unpredictable lover that it could be, but you would never stop loving it. Morgans have been called the first and last of the real sports cars, and in terms of bouncing, jouncing and high-spirited performance the title is accurate. The only air conditioning is the wind in your face, the only cruise control a powerful right foot.
The wooden body frame of my Morgan was attached to a steel chassis. The floorboards were really boards. You could peek through the spokes of the spare tire, which was set in a round opening in the slanting rear deck, and see honest-to-goodness English ash. Each spring, for as long as I owned that car, I would crawl underneath, poke for dry rot with an ice pick and then brush on wood preservative wherever I could reach. The firmness of the black leather seat cushions could be varied by inflating or deflating their rubber bladders. The front suspension, designed in 1909 by H.F.S. Morgan himself, was lubricated by a shot of oil, which one could release by briefly stepping on a button before setting out for a ride.
Whether you stepped on the button or not, my Morgan had a certain speed at which a mysterious vibration occurred. At precisely 48 mph the steering wheel transformed itself into a jackhammer, while the tires did an independent flamenco dance on the pavement and the front fenders rattled like a tin roof in a hailstorm. At 51 mph the car rode as smooth as could be. I rebuilt the front end twice and succeeded in adjusting the parameters of the seizure to 46 and 49 mph, but I was never able to get rid of it.
When it rained, water dripped in under the windshield and under the doors. The windows, or side curtains, as they were called, were removable. But even when fastened in place, they flapped like the wings of a crazed goose. The gearshift knob was beside the driver's right hand, as one might expect, but the lever bent at a right angle and disappeared under the dashboard where it dropped down into the transmission. This made shifting the car a push-pull operation much like playing shuffleboard.
But don't get me wrong. Discomfort and weirdness aside, my Morgan was a dream. It was lithe and quick. The faster it went, the better it hugged the road until 46 mph. Its Weber carburetor hissed like an angry python. Its snarling exhaust set my body aquiver from toe to throat. On a moonlit night, with the top and windows tucked behind the seats and the pavement rushing by at 100 mph inches from my elbow, I felt more at one with a machine than at any other time in my life.
I bought my Morgan in 1966 for $2,300 from a young couple in New York City. They had just had a baby and needed a vehicle with more room. Both of them cried when they handed me the keys. I was living on eastern Long Island in those days, and as I drove the car home on a broiling summer afternoon on the jammed-up Long Island Expressway, a middle-aged woman in the next lane, riding in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, handed me a chicken-salad sandwich and an ice-cold Coke. "Thanks," I shouted. "How about a ride?" she yelled. I said fine, and as neither the Rolls nor the Morgan was moving, she walked over and climbed in beside me. I followed the Rolls to her home in the Hamptons, which was only slightly smaller than the American Museum of Natural History. "Young man," she said, "I haven't had this much fun since I flew a crop duster on my grandfather's farm."
My Morgan was that kind of car. It seemed to do something to people, make them act crazy, throw caution to the wind and have a little fun. Two weeks later I was doing about 75 in a 40-mph zone. I came around a corner, and there was a cop, leaning against the fender of his cruiser. He had me cold. I didn't even bother to hit the brake. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him smile at me and wave. He never moved.
Once I missed the turn for the public beach in Southampton. I turned around in the driveway of an oceanfront estate and a man came running toward me, waving wildly. I thought I was going to be arrested for trespassing. Estate owners had little patience with the longhairs, or "freaks," as we were called then. The next thing you know I was driving this man to town for cigarettes and hot-dog rolls, and then I spent three days cavorting with him and his friends.
Another time, I came out of a restaurant and found a note under the windshield wiper. "Lordy, what a car!" it read. "Can I have a ride?" There was a phone number and a woman's name at the bottom. I called her up. We went for a ride one beautiful fall afternoon, and when I dropped her off she took a small camera from her purse and had me take a picture of her sitting behind the wheel. I never saw her again. I wonder if she saved the photograph.