(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.
The 150 Gumball Rally cars are given a police escort from Monument Square to the Indy 500 race track. We are parked up on the infield in front of Pagoda and the start line. We head for the grid where there is an incredible atmosphere, and the drivers all come out for a group photo in front of the Pagoda.
When the 60 cars appear and line up on the grid each car has a military escort. After the national anthem and a military parade including a Memorial Day tribute to the unknown soldier, a warm up lap with pace car, a second warm up lap and the pace car pulls off. The cars accelerate, there is a huge roar from crowd. Thirty-three cars scream past at 230 mph, and half the audience is left screaming!
Watching from hospitality suite on the TV screens quite early on there is the first of many accidents. The accidents show the need for spotters at each corner who are linked to the drivers through radios. The spotters all shout "Go down, go down" which is why the cars all appear to head for the infield as soon as there is an obstruction. The drivers are simply going too fast to see the accident themselves. Dario Franchitti eventually comes out on top though only after Takuma Sato's suicidal pass on the inside during the last lap fails and sends him spinning into the barriers. Quite a spectacle and unlike any other motor race in the world. The Monaco Grand Prix was the same weekend -- but this was more impressive.
The next day we leave Indianapolis for St Louis. We drive 400 miles to the Missouri River and St. Louis from where the famous 19th Century American explorers Lewis and Clark headed to discover the West. The town was once the biggest port inside America and to commemorate its past there is an enormous arch. A horrible wind blows a salty dust in our faces but the 3 Wheeler continues to perform beautifully, so I have raised rev limit to 4,000 rpm. We are cruising now at 85 mph.
A 300 mile drive takes us another chain hotel and Kansas City -- the place where futures exchanges were invented to deal with the massive output of middle America.
We head out of a prosperous city full of skyscrapers to Forbes Airbase and the Heartland Race track. There is nobody there from the Gumball and the officials won't let us on track. We do however make use of the weighbridge and discover the 3 wheeler weighs exactly 1,306 lbs. -- complete with a full tank of fuel and our luggage.
We continue and realize we are in Wizard of Oz land. We drive along long straight roads at the end of which are enormous 20-story grain silos built to feed the massive herds of cattle. We see a twister in the distance, overshadowed by heavy rain clouds. Stopping for gas to shelter temporarily we are told that the hailstones can be as big as golf balls. If the storm breaks above us apparently the best thing to do is to lie in the ditch! Luckily the storm passes us by, but another problem in the open 3 Wheeler is the appalling smell from the silage plants processing the cattle dung. After seemingly driving endlessly on very straight B roads we arrive in Santa Fe late at night.
Santa Fe was a giant railroad hub for the Wild West, but now is a thriving tourist town and one of the gateways to the Grand Canyon.
In the morning we set off and head up into the hills and pine forests. On the way we sail past many Gumballers by the roadside collecting their speeding tickets -- but the 3 Wheeler seems to avoid any of these unscheduled delays. Everywhere we stop the car or take on fuel people take pictures. "You are crossing from coast to coast in that!" they guffaw. After yet another McDonald lunch, fine dining Gumball style, we drive up the Canyons and arrive in Las Vegas late in the evening as the strip lights up.
It is a magical experience driving the length of the strip in the Morgan 3 Wheeler with a couple of Gumball cars in convoy. Dinner is at Spearmint Rhino, not a pleasant place to eat with the amount of flesh on show.
In the morning after breakfast we drive to Death Valley and Furnace Creek. In the lobby a man tells us a couple of bikers died there recently, it was so hot. The highest recorded temperature is 135 degrees, and as we drive there on the road it does get hotter and hotter. Two guys on Harleys going our way give us much needed courage. Dried weeds are blown across the desert by the road and I picture rattlesnakes attacking us if we have to stop. Kiera is sunbathing nonchalantly with her leg out of the car, but entering the valley we start to coast down to sea level and a strong wind adds to the baking heat.
It is around 130 degrees and at the viewing station at Zabriskie Point, Kiera gets a mild bout of sunstroke. Tourists give us water and she revives herself in the shade. The Death Valley Hotel is closed for summer, but a mile further on we arrive at the visitors centre and promptly drink 7 Cokes in quick succession. Without water, life expectancy on the floor of the valley is short. Slightly delirious and in celebration of being one of only 20 Gumball cars to make the trip into Death Valley, I recklessly perform donuts in the car park. This is very easy, but a bit silly considering the tires and the tarmac are already so hot. Great globs of rubber are left on the tarmac and someone asks me to sign the circles.
Driving in the valley the engine runs fine in the heat even with a baking wind. Although on the journey I have joked on Twitter that we need a heater and air-conditioning at different times during the trip a little experiment in Death Valley leads to the discovery of another potential brilliant addition. Holding an Evian bottle and letting water splash through your thumb onto your face every ten minutes or so provides one of the greatest highs I have ever had in my life. When the water hits you it feels like the best thing in the world. I suppose it must be a bit like that shower of champagne after a Grand Prix on the podium. The effect is to bring alive all the senses and give you a huge adrenalin rush. Climbing out of Death Valley there are two long hill climbs. At the viewing station at the top of the mountain we see soaring eagles, and the air is cool and light.
This is by far and away the best day so far of the whole rally and most of the Gumballers have missed it, preferring to take a fast motorway route direct from Las Vegas straight to Los Angeles. Only 20 cars venture into Death Valley and the 3 Wheeler does 85-90mph all day, providing us with a magnificent platform from which to experience this awe-inspiring place.
However I slightly regret my decision to enter the valley a couple of hours later when around 150 miles north of Los Angeles in Mohave both exhaust manifolds come lose and I lose two manifold bolts. We stop the car in a drive where a sign reads " I shoot trespassers." I try under torchlight to tighten the bolts. Kiera says she can do it better as she has smaller fingers but the manifolds are red hot! We get going again but they come loose further down the road. Eventually we stop three times -- and realize that the next problem is that we are nearly out of gas with no service station in sight. After picking up fuel, and after a drive of 80 miles sounding like a tractor, we arrive in Hollywood, two hours late for the Gumball Awards. The ceremony is about to begin and we are rushed to the front of the stage. The last prize is "Spirit of the Gumball" and the winners are...Charles and Kiera Morgan in the Morgan 3 Wheeler.
We have covered 3,500 miles in five days. One of them was spent watching the Indy 500, so we actually drove around 875 miles a day. At the end of it, Kiera and I have nothing but respect for the performance of the little Morgan 3 Wheeler and the way the car had transported us so comfortably over such an amazing variety of terrain. The Morgan 3 Wheeler truly is a different way of traveling and one in which the journey will definitely become just as much fun as the destination. We experienced every bit of the stunning geography and dramatic skies of America.
To us, it would seem entirely pointless to go to Death Valley in an air-conditioned car,or to drive through New York with no way of looking up at the skyscrapers above. We had had an adventure and had experienced a smile every mile for over 3,000 miles.
This article was originally published by Morgan Motor Co., and syndicated with permission.