The Morgan 4/4 is a practical, well-supported, reasonably reliable way into vintage open-top motoring, but where to start? Here’s what you need to know.
It’s the 4/4’s iconic shape that represents Morgan to most. Yet the very idea for it was hidden in the shadow of its three-wheeler stablemate for over two decades until, finally, in 1934 the new four-wheeled format was brought from blueprint into reality. The principle and naming was simple; to produce a more mainstream sports car with four wheels, powered by a conventional four-cylinder engine. This would join the already successful three-wheeler Morgan with its air-cooled twin engine, and provide the company with a range that could bring more customers to the brand than ever before. Of course, Britain was then plunged into war in 1939, but come the return of peace, Morgan was back with renewed production vigour.
In order to secure the raw materials necessary to produce cars, particularly the steel for the backbone chassis, Morgan made strong efforts to generate export demand for their cars and the 4/4 was well placed to pursue this objective. In fact production was so keen that a good many coachbuilders found contracts for the four-wheeled Morgan, names including City Garages, and Peamore, both of Exeter, and West’s of Lincoln, all behind different body styles that ranged from roadster to wagon. These were powered by Standard 1267cc engines but due to post-war supply difficulties, not least affected by Sir Stafford Cripps’ one-model line policy in his capacity as the Chairman of the Board of Trade, the 4/4 quite suddenly found itself without an engine as the decade turned over into the 1950s. With a higher performance Standard Vanguard engine of 2088cc, the Plus 4 was born and, for now, replaced the 4/4. But the 4/4 would be back in 1955, where it debuted at the London Motor Show.
The new car shared the new aesthetic of the Plus 4, which had been graced with Peter Morgan’s styling revisions. The opportunity was 1954’s lighting regulations, making the perfect excuse to bring the four-wheeled Morgan’s headlights down and slightly set into the wings. As satisfied as he was with this new look, little did he know that it would last 65 years – and counting. Since then, the Morgan 4/4 has retained its basic silhouette but the developments underneath have been constant. The Series 2 car now had a 1172cc Ford engine, replacing the Standard 1267cc, but performance was still rather lacking – particularly for the important American market. A new 997cc Ford unit used in the Series 3 of 1961 hardly helped, but the Series 4 finally resolved the disparity between the sporting look and the sporting abilities of the Morgan 4/4.
A year later, 1963, a slightly larger version of Ford’s Kent engine – now 1498cc – gave the Morgan a powertrain polish not matched by its contemporary rivals, such the Triumph Spitfire and Austin Healey. The gearbox was fully-synchromeshed and the engine featured a five-bearing crankshaft, so together with revised gear ratios and particularly the competition spec 78bhp output, the 4/4 was now a very accomplished sports car just by way of the fundamentals. In fact, it was even encroaching on the Plus 4’s performance.
The Plus 4 would end up being replaced by the V8 powered Plus 8 in 1969, while the 4/4 continued the 4-cylinder powered Morgan tradition – by now a good 30+ years into its stride. The 1600 model of 1968, dropping its nomenclature of Series counting, featured Ford’s latest crossflow engine, offering either 74bhp or competition 95bhp states of tune. It was also at this time that the 4/4 was again available with four-seater bodywork for the first time since 1950.
Further developments were made through the 1970s and 1980s, not just limited to the somewhat inevitable adoption of new engines. In 1971 a cable-operated clutch and dual circuit brakes were incorporated, while modernising automotive legislation demanded changes such as revised lights on the outside and individual seats on the inside – ending, in 1975, the long-run bench seat. The look remained much the same though, and some of the required changes actually resulted in some charming features – particularly the fluted rear lights. A less noticeable change came in 1977, when the front and rear quarter panels were made of aluminium rather than steel, now standard after the optional package was so popular the year before.
In 1981, the Morgan 4/4 1600 T/C increased the performance considerably over the old model, with 97bhp being more accessible than ever thanks to a new 5-speed gearbox. The standard 4/4 was now considerably more sporting than the past generation’s competition spec cars. This was, unusually, thanks to a FIAT engine – its worthy twin-cam that suited Morgan’s requirements well as the time. But then Ford returned with its high-performance version of the CVH, as seen in the Escort XR3.
This coincided with a new era for Morgan, and under the third-generation Charles Morgan, many of the features that would make Morgan ownership easy were to become integrated into the 4/4 as standard. A year later, with the CVH now established as the standard engine option, corrosion protection was made a high priority and all cars now benefitted from extensive treatments done with new equipment at the factory. Further to this, new painting facilities were set up and the quality of finish was far superior – especially as panels were now painted individually, removing the issues of cracking along paint-beading between panels.
It was in this new and improved state that the Morgan 4/4 began being fitted with the advanced engines of the modern era. Ford’s electronic fuel injection equipped CVH was available in 1991, but it was in 1993 with the arrival of the new multi-valve Zetec 1800cc that the Morgan began developing its special character; bringing old-school sports car together with up-to-date performance. As during the past years, the development of Ford’s powerplants gave the Morgan a continued timeline of engine refinements – in 2001 the black top Zetec units were fitted, featuring strengthened blocks and end-fed fuel injectors over the old units. In 2005, the Ford/Mazda-developed Duratec engine brought power up to 125bhp, and then in 2009 it was the Sigma Zetec-SE engine of a smaller 1600cc displacement but still a healthy 110bhp that brought the 4/4 forward until today.
During all this time, even more refinements were introduced throughout the 4/4 package. In 1995, the whole steel chassis was galvanised as standard, while in 1998 the front bulkhead and valances were made from stronger, stainless steel, and the front wings switched from steel to aluminium construction. Joining these such refinements, largely driven by European Whole Vehicle Type Approval, the Morgan gained airbags and anti-submarining seats in 1997 which then necessitated extended doors and a heated windscreen (the space for air-vents to the screen had been sacrificed to the air bags). The decision of what particular specification you would ideally have for your Morgan 4/4 will be a personal one, and while there are other details within the timeline of this model – not to mention the option of a Plus 4 or Plus 8 as well – it should be noted that many owners have already made their own custom collection of features mixing old with new. This can make maintenance and part replacement difficult, but is entirely in keeping with the character of this classic sports car.
That character is one that encompasses the devotion of its owners, as the Morgan requires more than just the annual service. This can be especially true when the cars are used so infrequently, as Morgans often are; so check that the oil changes have been done irrespective of mileage, as well as casting a sharp eye over all the fuel and vacuum hoses in the engine bay. Age and lack of use can lead to deteriorated components, which can then snowball into things more serious.
After a considered inspection, start the engine up and watch for the start-up smoke to clear – if this doesn’t reasonably promptly, investigate further. Ford engines tend to be strong but each have their foibles, so be sharp on what model you’re looking at. If looked after well, they should present any problems as they are generally under less stress than in day-to-day, multiple-passenger and luggage hauling duty. Even so, on the test drive listen for any whining from the differential or gearbox that might suggest the car has lived a hard life.
Cars with low mileages may well still want attention spent on their suspension, especially in aged bushes, so keep an ear out for any clunks or squeaks that might suggest poor bushing of components. Older examples will want significantly more routine maintenance, some even featuring a switch on the floor that should be used intermittently to lubricate various points on the suspension.
Many will have been modernised by now, as is often the way with Morgans. It’s worth checking what has been done, particularly if you’re after an original car for a collection – the older lever arms may well have been replaced by telescopic arms – or simply a proper vintage driving experience. Otherwise, be happy that the ride and handling combination will be improved.
Chassis and body
Morgans are not uncommonly given body-off restorations, their ash frames and steel chassis being more vulnerable to the elements than those underneath more modern cars. Some were lucky enough to have had their wood frames treated with Cuprinol, as was optional, but you still need to tread carefully. Steel chassis can rust quite badly too, especially on those that haven’t been galvanised. Check in box sections and areas that look to trap dirt, particularly at the rear, for where moisture might have had a chance to linger. Also pay close attention to the chassis rails, especially the outriggers behind the wheels, as well as both sides of the engine-side valences.
Cars built after 1982 tend to be finished better, thanks to significantly modernised painting facilities, but still want a careful eye over their bodywork. Earlier cars can present cracks in between the wings and the bonnet, where the paint was applied with the panels in situ rather than separately. Slight movement over time can produce a crack in the paint, and once moisture gets in at unprotected steel, it can deteriorate quickly.
The ash frame can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of weather and damp, so it’s worth checking thoroughly for any sign of damage to the external finish wherever you can. Check under the doors, sill boards, door hinge posts in particular, and also pay a visit to the rear number plate mountings that are often susceptible to damage.
Finally, check for any oil leaks or signs of accident damage, as well as keeping out a nose for petrol. Earlier cars can leak at the corner of the fuel tank, owing to the chassis flex’s strain on mounting brackets. Later cars had revised brackets, and many have been treated to this upgrade.
Interior and fittings
While not really designed to be used all-year round, many owners do find themselves out with the roof down in the less summery months – or just those days when the weather refuses to accept orders from the season. Even the later fabric roofs aren’t quite waterproof, and so many drivers will prefer keeping the car open through all but the very worst weather. From 2001 Morgan began fitting more easily operated roofs that replaced the old, stud-fitting affairs. These were effectively copies of the Simmons aftermarket items, which many owners retrofit. The new setup also saves boot space with the roof down.
The upshot, no matter the roof, is some inevitable weather damage. Interiors need to be kept tidy and regularly cleaned, as well as, ideally, kept in dry storage so that they have a chance to dry out after a rainy run. Keep in mind that some interior fittings can be difficult to source, largely due to Morgan’s tendency to fit components until the supply dried up entirely. Specialists, however, will manage to find you suitable alternatives. Give the whole interior a good look over, more thoroughly than usual, and pay particular attention to the condition of the facia which can trap water and cause expensive damage.
The Morgan 4/4 can prove to be a fabulous way into classic sports car ownership, with many of the newer iterations being helpful in easing first-time entrants to the field into ownership. But you need to be careful even so, and remember that these cars require more maintenance, cleaning, and focus – almost to the point of what many might consider an on-going restoration – to keep on the road. But do so, and the simple joys of open-top motoring can begin making your Sundays fun without quite the expense of the more prestigious Plus range.