Battle of Britain: the new Morgan sports cars hit the UAE

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If you want to make a statement on the road, there's a strong trade in supercars that will do the trick. Whether you're a fancier of Italian flair, German clout or American muscle, there's something in almost every price range designed to turn heads. But if you really want to draw the attention of every ­camera-phone-wielding driver and passenger on the road, become an overnight social-media darling, meet new friends wherever you stop and shake the hands of car fans at fuel stations, then you really can't beat a Morgan 3 Wheeler for star quality.

It's understandable. With its Sopwith Camel looks, tricycle layout, V-twin motorcycle engine up front and a pair of machine-gun-styled exhaust pipes with cooling shrouds running down each side, the 3 Wheeler's vintage appearance makes it look as though it's plucked straight from Roaring 20s Britain or The English Patient – which it ­basically is.

The core bits are still there to prove its quintessential Britishness. The ash frame – used in the first 3 Wheelers back in 1911 – is still used and visible if you poke around, but it’s now supplemented with a tubular steel space-frame chassis that’s clad in hot-formed and hand-finished aluminium. And while the V-twin bike-engined Morgan 3 Wheelers disappeared in the 1940s – and the model altogether in 1952 – the 2011 version launched to mark the company’s centenary brought with it a return to motorcycle power.

That chrome V mounted ahead of the front axle line and between the headlights is a 1,983cc, ­fuel-injected, S&S custom bike engine that chuffs out an un-supercar-ish 82hp. Torque is ­shaft-fed to the single rear wheel via a five-speed manual gearbox that’s also found in the Mazda MX-5/Miata, and the entire shebang tips the scales at 525 kilograms.

As a machine for driving enthusiasts, the 3 Wheeler’s paper credentials don’t really inspire much excitement. The sprint from rest to 100kph takes a leisurely six seconds, and its top speed is a fairly docile 185kph. There’s no radio or roof, and the only protection from the elements seems to be a pair of D-shaped wind deflectors and a set of goggles to keep the dust out of your eyes. Climate control precisely matches the ambient conditions, there’s no power steering and the car’s turning circle is laughable given the size of the thing. You’ve got to take the steering wheel off to get in, and it doesn’t even have doors.

Yet it’s this back-to-basics approach that makes the car the perfect machine for exploring the UAE’s open roads, and the ideal antidote to the asthmatic, automatic, anodyne three-box saloons and hatches that mooch about the country. It demands your full focus and allows you no opportunity for distraction. It may have one too many wheels to be a motorcycle and one too few for a car, but it really offers the best of both worlds: al fresco motoring with a glorious putt-putt soundtrack from the engine, and the ability to park it without worrying that it’ll fall over.

The car’s spec sheet may not boast huge numbers, but nor does it paint an accurate picture of what the 3 Wheeler is like to punt along a nice stretch of flowing tarmac. The low seating position means you’re hunched behind the tiniest of windscreens with a view dominated by that bulbous, cigar-tube-shaped bonnet. Any higher and you’d be thrust into the blast of oncoming air as you hit motorway speeds, which, at 120kph, becomes a full-on assault that leaves your scalp tingly after a 30-minute run. You can push the car faster, but with the exposure to the elements, the low bodywork under your left elbow and the buffeting make motorway speeds feel like you’re threatening the sound barrier. Any faster just becomes uncomfortable.

Some find the race-type floor-hinged pedals a little difficult to get used to. The brake pedal is stiffer and lacks the initial bite you’ll find in most modern cars, but the close grouping of the pedals means you can roll your foot onto the throttle to blip it on downshifts and under braking. You need to, because that lumpy motorcycle V-twin simply dies off-throttle, which means you have to keep the revs ticking over as you change down to counter any wonky shifts that may upset that rear-end grip.

“What’s it like in the corners?” one man asks at a fuel stop. He’s not the first. The most common questions you get about the 3 Wheeler are about its stability. Happily, the answer is a resounding “superb”.

The skinny, spoked front wheels and motorcycle tyres tend to run out of grip before the rear does, and the rear becomes a little lively if you floor the throttle, but it never once feels as though it’s going to topple or spin. With just one tyre to manage the car’s 140Nm of torque, you can get the 3 Wheeler to slide through corners if you’re aggressive with your right foot, but most of the time, the rear just sticks as you feed in the power. You need to be careful over cobbled surfaces, because the unassisted steering never feels heavy – even around town – chiefly because you’re not having to shift wide lumps of rubber about.

It’s not for everyone. The cockpit is tight with two on board, there’s very little luggage space and there’s absolutely nowhere to rest your left foot when it’s not needed for clutch duties. There’s a speedo with a fuel gauge, a few switches to control the lights, horn and other things – plus a “bomb release”-type starter button – and that’s it. Creature comforts include the leather seats and quilted-leather armrests, two seat belts that are, oddly, mounted in the centre of the car and a pair of rubber mats. The lack of instruments means you really have no idea whether the engine is operating as it should, and the fuel gauge reads in percentages that can vary wildly, especially when the tank is less than a quarter full.

The Morgan attracts a lot of attention on the road, most of it from smiley faces, waving and giving you the thumbs up. Almost everyone feels the need to get their camera phone out as they pass by – which is nice, if you’re happy to be the star of the show for a few minutes – but there are times when it’s not welcome and utterly dangerous. People slow down, hoping to get a better look. One driver even roared up along the passenger side, filmed a short clip, dropped behind and darted across two lanes before roaring up my driver’s side to film for a bit more.

It’s nice to get a bit of attention, but when you’re simply trying to get from A to B, you need to be acutely aware of what’s going on around you. I had the car for four days, and in separate incidents, 12 drivers almost rear-ended the car in front because they were preoccupied with filming this strange little machine.

You may have noticed a second car in the pictures. It too is a Morgan, and it’s cut from the same cloth, metal and ash timber as the 3 Wheeler. It’s even built alongside the 3 Wheeler at the company’s Malvern factory in England, and forms part of the Classic range, which also includes the 4/4, Plus 4 and recently reintroduced Plus 8.

While its design is influenced by the 1960s Morgan Plus 4, the Roadster was introduced in 2004 to replace the V8-powered Plus 8. It was identical in every way to the Plus 8, but replaced the ageing Rover V8 with a Ford V6 and mechanicals.

Not that it really matters to casual bystanders. Plonk a well-preserved 1960s Plus 4 alongside it, and you’d be hard pressed to spot the differences. Subtle changes over time aside, this Morgan’s appeal is that it remains true to its original form as much as possible.

The Roadster now gets a 3.7L Ford V6 that produces 280hp and 380Nm of torque, which in a car that weighs just 950kg dripping wet, pushes the Roadster into Jaguar F-Type V8 S territory in terms of its power-to-weight ratio.

If the 3 Wheeler is raw and unfiltered, the Roadster is passive-­aggressive. My impressions of the Roadster were coloured somewhat by an hour in the 3 Wheeler beforehand, which by comparison is a gritty little low-riding piece of pure, unadulterated fun. The Roadster clearly sits taller on the road, and its ride is velvety smooth. Power delivery comes in a growing surge rather than tyre-smoking lumps of torque, and the whole experience is far more serene than the crazy 3 Wheeler.

The pedal arrangement is the same floor-mounted one used in the 3 Wheeler, and the same criticism has been levelled at the heft required to shift the clutch pedal. I didn’t notice it, but apparently it’s an issue with those who’ve clearly lost the ability to use their left legs. There are nice touches of class and quality all round the Roadster, from the plush tan-leather interior trim and carpets to the polished wire wheels, reclining seats and dash clock. The rear-panel-mounted spare wheel doesn’t conceal a boot either, with the only available storage behind the two seats.

Oddly, ground clearance is an issue in some car parks. The longer wheelbase responsible for the car’s tremendous poise and gorgeous flowing lines actually means that the Roadster barely gets over some of Dubai’s more aggressive speed humps.

The Morgan 3 Wheeler is available in the UAE from Dh201,292 and the Roadster from Dh299,790. As a weekend getaway machine, the Roadster is a fantastic car. It gives you classic motoring appeal with the reliability you get from a new car and a modern, fuel efficient and powerful engine. But my choice of the two would easily be the 3 Wheeler. It's a lot to pay for one of the most basic cars on the market, but in a world where driver engagement is being dialled out by most manufacturers, it's nice to know that some makers still understand the joy of motoring.

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