The Morris Minor – the iconic British car.
Tags: 'Moggy Thou', 803cc overhead-valve engine, Australia, British Motor Show, car, District Nurse, Earl's Court, England, GPO van, history, London, Midwife, Morris Minor, Morris Motors Ltd, Second World War, Sheffield, Sir Alec Issigonis
When I was a student I fell hopelessly in love, and I was very unhappy. Why? Because she belonged to another…her name was Esmeralda, she was black, and had two doors and a split screen. Yes, she was a Morris Minor, Series II, and belonged to a friend of mine called Peter!
When asked to name the great American automobiles, the names roll off the tongue – the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette, AC Cobra, Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. With British cars, after the Jaguar E-type, Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II, and the original Mini, you tend to struggle a little. I’m about to shock you. One of the most loved, popular and iconic cars of the period 1948 – 1972 was – the Morris Minor. Please understand that this name had been already been used for a radically different car prior to WW2. I’m not referring to that Morris car, no I am instead referring to Sir Alec Issigonis’ classic small family vehicle (before he had that flash of inspiration which turned into the Mini, that is). For many people, the Morris Minor meant the start of family motoring, or your first commercial vehicle, or even – yes it is true – your first police car!
It all began back in the middle of World War Two; by late 1943, it had become obvious to many in Britain that the war was going to be won by the Allies – eventually. Plans began to be laid by various sectors of U.K. industry to meet the needs of the post-War world. Some British designs and technologies evolved in this transition period proved to be disastrous failures – the Bristol Brabazon transatlantic airliner for example – but others were to become magnificent successes; enter the Morris Minor. The Morris Motors Company had played a large role in aircraft production in WW2, building no less than 3,500 de Havilland Tiger Moths, and allowing de Havilland to concentrate on Mosquito production. Now, their young designer, Alec Issigonis had been handed this project by Miles Thomas, the Vice-Chairman of Nuffield Industries, and along with Reginald Job and Jack Daniels initiated what would prove to be a revolution in family motoring. Starting with a monocoque bodyshell, Issigonis added rack and pinion steering, (which made for light, precise handling), low-set headlights, and a spacious engine compartment which was intended to house a brand new engine. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to develop this, and the new car ended up with the old Morris UB series 918 cc four-cylinder side-valve unit, as fitted in the pre-War Morris 8. At least, this was a well-proven engine.
The styling of the Morris Minor was rather unusual; indeed, Lord Nuffield, the head of Morris Motors Limited, described it as ‘looking like a fried egg’. However, Alec Issigonis had pulled a neat visual trick, in that he made the wheels smaller than usual, which made the body look bigger by comparison (something that he would do again with the original Mini). The 1948 International British Motor Show – the first since the end of WW2 – opened on 27th October at Earl’s Court, London. Over 500,000 people attended, and the star of the show was the exotic Jaguar XK120 sports car. However, lodged near the Studebaker and Dodge/Chrysler stands was another debutante – the Morris Minor, available in two-door and ‘tourer’ (convertible) versions. Petrol rationing was still in effect, and this meant that the average motorist could only travel about 100 miles a month, but that didn’t stop the family man who wanted value-for-money motoring. The little cars began to fly out of the showrooms, despite the fact that their top speed was no more than 62 mph; their popularity increased when a four-door saloon (‘sedan’ for my American reader) was added in 1950, costing £631 including taxes.
Just four years into the production run, in July, 1952, there was a major rework, with the headlights being ‘pushed up’ from alongside the grill to the ‘frog eye’ position (seen above), and the speedometer moved to a central position on the sparsely furnished instrument panel, along with the control for the ‘trafficators’, those small, illuminated, orange turn signals, which rose slowly from the central door pillar when you indicated a turn (unfortunately, these were easily smashed by clumsy passengers, usually!) The biggest change, however, was the use of the 803cc, overhead valve, ‘A’ Series engine, which had been ‘inherited’ as an Austin design in 1952, when Morris Motors and Austin both became subsidiaries of the new British Motor Corporation Limited. The new model was known as the Morris Minor, Series II; hardly inspiring, I know, but Morris could have called it anything at this stage, as the reliable little car could be seen everywhere – taking families to the seaside (usually with a full roof-rack of luggage); conveying Midwives and District Nurses on their rounds; even acting as Police cars in remote rural areas, where the roads meant there was no need for ‘fast pursuit’. A small wood-framed estate – called the ‘Traveller’ – finished in seasoned English ash, and looking like a tiny 1951 Ford Country Squire station wagon, was added to the 1952 line-up. The following year, a couple of commercial vehicles made their appearance – the Quarter Ton Panel Van (much used by the General Post Office as a delivery vehicle) and a small, but useful, 6cwt Pick-Up Truck, both of these having a separate chassis, rather than a monocoque body. I should explain to my American reader that ‘6cwt’ is the load rating, and equals 6 x 112lb = 672 lbs, total.
Another four years, and another design revision. 1956 saw a visual change to a slatted grille, real ‘indicators’ rather than the fragile ‘trafficators’, and more importantly, a slightly bigger version of the ‘A’ Series engine (948cc). Consequently, this model was renamed the Minor 1000, and was badged accordingly. The divided windscreen was dropped and a larger curved one fitted along with a bigger rear window.
By now, the car was breaking all kinds of sales records, and was being assembled in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the Cowley factory in England. In 1961, the Morris Minor was approaching a production level never previously achieved by any British car – 1,000,000 built. To mark this record, Morris built a very special commemorative version, the ‘Morris 1,000,000’. Only 350 of these were built (some sources say 349), and the vehicle’s badge was altered to read ‘Morris 1000000’, along with being given a special white leather (with black piping) interior. The biggest distinction was, however, a rather controversial paint scheme; known by aficionados as ‘purple vomit’, it is a very light shade of lilac. Amazingly, no less than 62 of these rare vehicles survive to this day.
1962 saw the last upgrades to the Minor. The name remained the same, but a bigger 1,098cc ‘A’ Series engine was added to the mix, allowing for better acceleration, and a heater/defroster that, at last, became efficient!
When the last Morris Minor was built – 1970 for the saloon in England, 1973 for the commercial models in New Zealand – it did not mean the end for this classic car. There are body panels still being produced by a firm in Sri Lanka, and a specialist company in Yorkshire which undertakes the complex rebuilds of Travellers, complete with new, seasoned wood. The Morris Minor Owners Club – ‘Promoting the Preservation and Use of the Postwar Morris Minor’– is very active around the world, and their club magazine, ‘Minor Matters’, makes for splendid reading. One of the car’s biggest supporters is a commercial undertaking based around the Minor, the Bristol company known as Charles Ware’s Morris Minor Centre Limited, who offer everything from complete restorations, custom upgrades such as bigger engines, servo brakes and 5-speed gearboxes, as well as sales.
Actually, the Morris Minor we can see here, parked at the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, South Yorkshire is looking a little ‘tired’, and could do with a visit to Charles Ware. Still, it did remind me of my student days, and points up the fact that the Morris Minor has now become an English icon. The ‘Moggy Thou’, as it is affectionately refered to, may long be out of production, but it is still a truly cherished vehicle.
Oh, and one last thing. My only regret is that Nuffield could not be persuaded to stay with the initial name given to the prototype. You see, it was going to be named after another British icon – yes, the car was originally named the Morris Mosquito !
By the way, here is a splendid, short documentary about the Morris Minor called ‘Morris – a Minor documentary’. Most enjoyable!