Chasing down Garlick on the Route Napoleon
Compared with more modern designs, the first thing you notice about a Morgan is its size. It's tiny. I'm currently sitting in a queue for passport control at Dover, waiting to get through to the ferry for Calais to get started on our Le Mans trip proper, and I'm staring up at the muscular haunches of an Audi R8. Now, the R8's not exactly an oversized monster in the automotive scheme of things, but it fairly towers over the Morgan. As for the Aston Martin DB9 behind me, piloted by Chris-R, well, let's just say that it, and the Focus RS and M5 of Garlick and Racing Pete we've brought along as support/luggage cars behind it, are St Bernards to the Morgan's West Highland terrier.
Don't think that the Morgan is out-posed, though. Despite its humble proportions and (relatively) modest price tag, the 4/4 is a real head turner. Throughout our journey, until we get to Le Mans, where a quarter of a million petrolheads worship horsepower and sleek lines above all else, and where the R8 steals the show (especially with the locals), the Moggy gets at least as much attention as the rest of our convoy. It's also the only car in the convoy that, driving through the towns and villages of the Route Napoleon, gets comments of 'Jolie voiture' from women rather than just old men and adolescent boys (though that could be as much to do with the suave, sophisticated driver as anything else...).
Morgan looks good - unlike the driver's hat...
Our Moggy is in a particularly flattering spec, too. Finished in a rather military shade that Morgan calls Sports Grey, nicely trimmed tan leather upholstery, and black wire-spoke wheels capped with chromed centre caps, the 4/4 Sport looks like a proper old-school British sports car. There's also a body-coloured dashboard, no radio, no spare wheel on the rear deck and, combined with some artfully applied PH decals, the whole effect is of a car that got lost on a stage of the Mille Miglia in the early 1950s - so much so that I feel compelled to tackle the first part of the journey in a period 1950s-style tank top and tie combo.
Which is kind of the effect we were hoping for, because the 2009 Team PH Morgan is actually a small homage to the Le Mans efforts of Christopher Lawrence and Richard Sheppard-Baron. In 1962, Morgan entered a Plus Four Super Sports in the 2.0-litre class at Le Mans. Lawrence and Sheppard-Baron duly won their class, covering 2261 miles at an average speed of 94mph, before merrily driving the car back to the UK on public roads.
Vorsprung durch ash frame
That's not an average speed I'm going to match on the way down to La Sarthe. Not only are les poulets lying in wait on every bridge and round every corner, but we also plan to head off the smooth but Soulless A28 autoroute after negotiating the bottleneck of Rouen, which will no doubt cut our moving average speed down severely.
That's a good thing, though, because the 4/4 is not a car that's at its most comfortable haring down the motorway. The 110mph top speed is eminently achievable but, even with the side screens in place, the buffeting in the cockpit becomes uncomfortable above 75mph, so the 80mph-plus cruising speed of the team PH convoy is a little wearing.
Outgunned, but never beaten...
The more sedate pace of the route nationale south of Rouen is much more pleasant, however, and conversation between me and my not-so-glamorous co-pilot, Mr Will, once again becomes possible. In fact, on the tree-lined avenues and occasional twisty hill sections of the N138, the Little Morgan begins to come into its own. The fact that this is a left-hooker - originally a factory development car - really helps with overtaking on this side of the channel, the 115bhp 1.6-litre Ford motor makes a pleasantly unpretentious rasp, it's fast enough to keep its more glamorous brothers-in-convoy in sight, and the skinny tyres even hang on gamely through the corners. The wood-rimmed Moto-Lita steering wheel is a joy to both hold and behold, too.
Overtaking is also aided by the two-way radios we've brought along, allowing me to wind the Morgan up while the 'spotters' at the front of the convoy let me know when the oncoming traffic has cleared - and how long for.
The Morgan's charming country-road demeanour can't disguise some serious dynamic flaws, though. The suspension can be kindly described as uncompromising - few cars will have you scanning the road ahead quite so assiduously for potholes - while the kickback through the wheel and the way it weights up in fast bends is quite unnerving.
Who said French supermarkets open on Sundays?
The gearing is odd, too. The ratios seem so long it's almost as though the gearbox was set up for a big-hearted eight-cylinder engine before engineers settled on the little 1.6. As a result, it's almost like driving a car with four gears and an overdrive - fifth gear is certainly not something to be attempted on a motorway incline.
I'm glad the weather is kind to us on the trip down through France. The afternoon before we set off for the continent, I picked up the Morgan from its factory in Malvern and was treated to a three-hour motorway slog through some of the heaviest rainstorms I have ever had the misfortune to drive in. In a car with a vinyl hood secured with poppers. Considering its construction, the car remained fairly waterproof, the only ingress of water coming from spray kicked up from the tyres. Still, it was a noisy, wearing experience, especially peering through the tiny windscreen with its three wipers. I arrived at PH Towers feeling somewhat jaded, muttering dark comments about the rest of the journey to La Sarthe.
Hard to resist a 'dab of oppo' in an empty car park
Almost as soon as we arrive at Le Mans it seems it's time to head back to Blighty and, with thoughts of Aston Martin's plucky run to fourth place and the glorious scream of its V12 ringing in our ears, we stuff our tents back into the Morgan and head for Calais. It's at this point I must admit to cheating. The Journey back is a more determined, high-speed affair on the motorways north of Rouen, and I soon quit the blustery cockpit of the Morgan for the more decadent comforts of the BMW M5, leaving Mr Will to steer the 4/4 most of the way to Calais.
Despite my cop-out, though, I definitely see the point of the Morgan. If we hadn't been so pushed for time, I'd have taken the back roads all the way back to Calais. And that's what the Morgan is for - it encourages you to sit back, relax and take the scenic route. In a world obsessed with speed and efficiency, that's not a bad lesson to apply to life in general, if you ask me.
On the way back - with support crew alongside
The little Morgan 4/4 might be small, outdated, underpowered and over-geared, an eccentric English hangover from half a century ago, but you can't help falling for its charms. The Moggy is a flawed but utterly beguiling car - and it's got more character - more pluck and grit - in its undersized ash frame than the R8 and Aston can muster in their entire steel aluminium and carbonfibre bodies.