(Britain's Morgan Motor Co. still builds cars much as it did a century ago -- by hand, with wood and metal frames. To promote the revived Morgan 3 Wheeler -- a open-air, $40,000 tricycle based on a 1911 design but powered by a modern 80-hp V-Twin engine -- company chief and grandson of the founder Charles Morgan, along with his wife Kiera drove a Morgan 3 Wheeler across America last month in the Gumball 3000 rally. This is their story of open roads, gawkers and Death Valley droptop driving. -- Ed.)
The experiment was to prove that a Morgan 3 Wheeler can cross the United States with ease, a journey of some 3,500 miles in all. To follow a process I take a Morgan 3 Wheeler after final inspection, just as it would leave the factory before being sent to a dealer or a customer. This is deliberate -- I do not want to drive a specially prepared car.
I run it in carefully like any customer would around the local area for 200 miles. I have a bolster made for extra support under my thighs in quilted leather for greater comfort on longer journeys. Perhaps this should be added to the extras list as the "Gumball" bolster. I test the intercom and helmet headphones with Kiera at the factory. Clothing firm SuperDry, who sponsored us for half of the entry fee, send us t-shirts and jumpers to wear. I talk to the boys in the 3 Wheeler production department about any nuts and bolts that could come undone and I psych myself up for rally. The route is Googled as I dream about driving the roads and what we might encounter.
We arrive in New York two days early to make sure the car has passed safely through customs and take a taxi to Roslyn where Morgan cars has a sales dealership, Manhattan Motor Sports owned by Brit Gideon Lang Laddie. They lend me a puncture repair kit with special sealant and we borrow an EZ Pass for Turnpike tolls and a battery operated radar warning device which we velcro to the back panel between the roll bars behind seats. I start the engine, which fires for the first time on U.S. soil to my immense relief! The 3 Wheeler zooms past La Guardia Airport and into New York and I very carefully drive into Manhattan across the Queensborough bridge following Gideon in his Shelby Mustang.
The cockpit of the 3 Wheeler gives a fabulous view of buildings above. The whole drama of American cities tends to be in the skyline so when you look up it's a fantastic feeling.
However we get stuck in traffic in Park Avenue, "Mad Men" street. Much attention and photographing from passers by — all positive except for one laconic adman, who sees the SuperDry logos and drawls "I suppose you are selling t-shirts." I want to tell him it's Mr. Morgan in a Morgan but don't have time. In the jam, the 2-liter V twin goes into "skip fire" mode, missing every fourth fire to cool itself — a very clever piece of engineering in an air-cooled engine. We buy a map book detailing the whole of the U.S.A. at Barnes & Noble. We deliver the car to a garage under Times Square for the Rally decals and numbers to be applied.
We head for the drivers' briefing at breakfast and discover a party atmosphere. There are teams dressed as Arab sheiks, Star Wars characters, Ninjas and in evening wear. There is also an eclectic mix of cars on the start line.
The 3 Wheeler is flanked by a massive Hummer and a couple of Lamborghinis. Max Cooper, the organizer of the rally is driving a classic AC Cobra in honor of Carroll Shelby, its creator. There are countless Ferraris and Porsches and a smattering of classics, an Oldsmobile Cutlass driven by three ladies from Texas and a lovely 1957 Chevrolet complete with a supercharger driven by a Japanese lady racing driver.
Some oddball entrants are the Rally Fighter, a jacked up four-wheel-drive coupe with a Corvette engine and a Fisker Karma electric car. There are countless American muscle cars and V8 engined pick up trucks and a large number of plutocratic saloons ranging from Rolls Royces to Audis. The police like the 3 Wheeler probably believing it will be easy to catch and ticket.
David Hasselhoff flags off the first car.
We chose a particularly bad position and leave New York dead last, not good if we want to catch up with the Ferraris! The Super Dry girls wave us off looking rather worried and skeptical. We head through the Holland Tunnel and set off in the wrong direction towards Philadelphia and New Jersey. There are still 820 miles still to go, but eventually we find the route and settle down. I am still running the engine in so I keep the revs around 3500 to give us a speed of around 75mph and a fuel consumption of around 40 mpg. This means a stop every 200 miles or so when gauge reads empty -- but even then there are two and a half gallons left. The twin tanks hold 7.5 gallons.
We cross the Delaware River over an impressive steel bridge and settle into steady cruise towards Pittsburgh and Detroit. The engine feels great and the comfort is fine. Kiera wears her helmet and fiddles with the intercom trying to listen to music on her iPhone. I wear traditional goggles and leather cap and leave my helmet stored under the bonnet. We fly over hills and rumble through tunnels.
A police car pulls us over for driving in the states with a UK license plate, but I assure him that it is all perfectly legal. The car is a temporary import and I show him our comprehensive insurance policy. After checking with his superiors he waves us on our way.
Kiera reads the map as we drive through the night before stopping for a quick break in a nondescript hotel chain. Next morning we head on and reach Indianapolis early in the afternoon, missing lunch with Chevrolet in Detroit to save time. We park up in Monument Square, Indianapolis, feeling pretty refreshed and Kiera gets out and promptly burns her leg on exhaust at the back of the car. There is huge interest in the 3 Wheeler from local residents, many of whom seem to drive Harley Davidsons.
We have a late lunch in a Chinese restaurant and slowly recover from the 820-mile drive. We watch the pre-race day parade for children through the town which features all the wacky racers. I arrange to collect our grid and pit passes for the Indianapolis 500 at the Pagoda, courtesy of Conquest Racing. Later that night the Gumballers are all invited to drinks in a dreadful night club. After that we witness an impressive street cruise on the streets of Indianapolis, a traditional event the night before the Indy 500.