Much like Britain’s foreign policy on the eve of World War II, the 1939 Morris 8 (Series E, as it was known) was a mass of contradictions. In some respects it was modern and effective, and in others this most English of cars was inefficient, archaic, and woefully lacking in power.
I was 15-years-old in 1959 when, for the grand sum of $50, I acquired this little product of the Nuffield Works of Oxford, England from a schoolteacher who lived down the street from my Burnaby home. It wasn’t exactly the sort of transportation a late 1950s teenager fantasized about in the day of little Deuce coupes, and chopped-and-channeled ’49 Mercs, or my dream of a ’58 Corvette with the gorgeous female accompaniment, but it was mine, and since I was too young for a driver’s licence, my dad felt
it would be a fine project for me to get the Morris in good running order in the intervening time before I took to the road.
It was an onerous project, but I actually accomplished the task. I first tackled the cosmetics, changing the original and highly oxidized green and black livery to a shiny grey. I then painted the 17-inch wheels bright red, and also painted white-walls onto the ageing tires (tyres, in the manual).
By the end of the physical makeover, it actually looked kind of cool in a quaint way, what with its suicide doors and a windshield that cranked open to let in the breeze. After some relatively minor engine work during this same time period, the little car was finally ready to roll by 1960. By the way, the one pictured isn’t mine, but mine looked markedly similar.
As applied to the Morris, “roll” is used advisedly. With a grand 32-horsepower contained in its tiny flathead fourbanger, it was pathetically underpowered. On a long, straight stretch it would flat out at
55-miles-per-hour, but on hills it was hopeless, and reduced to a pathetic first-gear crawl. Furthermore, as one of its quaint quirks, the Morris did not have a water pump, so any sort of incline would encourage the ‘peanutwhistle’, or “pisspot” as my friend Roy christened it, to boil over with steaming gusto
The Morris did, however, boast a bit of high-tech for the day in the form of a temperamental Lucas electric fuel pump with badly burned points. For no particular reason, the pump would periodically quit, and the petrol-starved engine would die. I found, however, the momentary lapse in fuel supply was
easily remedied by a quick slam of the driver’s door, which would jar the pump back to life. Such unpredictability was sort of a trademark of Lucas’s products. There’s an old English joke that goes something like: “Why is English beer always warm?” “Because Lucas manufactures their refrigerators.”
Another element of modernity that put the Morris ahead of low-cost North American cars of the day was its four-wheel-hydraulic brakes. Their braking prowess was decent, but they were disturbingly noisy, emitting high-pitched squeaks whenever they were applied, prompting dogs to bark and passers-by to stare. Once as I was (vainly) trying to win the charms of a very pretty (damn she was cute), albeit irritatingly snotty young lady, the noisy brakes served to doom any chance of a relationship or even a quick grope in the fine leather back seat of the little car. She was mortified by the brake noise, and would duck her head in embarrassment at intersections, just in case any of her friends should happen to see her. Any chance at bliss was doomed by the brakes.
Regardless, I continued to drive the Morris until 1962. Furthermore, my next girlfriend, somewhat more soulful than her predecessor, thought the car was “quaint.”
Finally, at the grand age of 23, the Morris 8 was exiled to the bottom of our property, where it sat for a couple of years until I got somebody to haul it away to the auto wreckers. It was old, and beyond whatever I could afford in terms of repairs. The time had come.
I think back now what a sad waste of an intensely challenging, but sometimes charming little car, which would by now be a true antique. After all, how many kids of today know that to hand-crank a car, you must always tuck your thumb under, just in case the engine misfires, kicks the crank back and breaks your damn thumb. I never knew anybody who actually had that happen, but legends abounded to the same degree as the incidents of kids putting their eye out by playing with a BB gun.