Last weekend, I met with Jeanie & David Stiles, longtime Hamptons residents and owners of a beautiful 1967 Morris Minor convertible. I had seen their car around town, and after getting in touch with them through their English friend Toby, I arranged to see it and go for a drive on a beautiful fall day.
First off, a little history on the Morris Minor, the car fondly referred to in England as "The Moggie." It was designed in 1941 during World War II by Alec Issigonis, a young engineer who later also designed the iconic Mini Cooper. Although there was a ban on domestic car production during the war, his design (which unabashedly borrows from the 1939 Volkswagen Beetle), went into production in 1948 for the Earl’s Court Motor Show.
Issigonis’s intention was to design an affordable economy car that was more than just that by raising the bar in comfort, quality and ease of use. This was accomplished by maximizing the interior space and incorporating early mechanical advancements such as independent suspension and rack and pinion steering. Although initially only available as a 2-door sedan and a convertible "tourer," offerings of the Morris Minor later expanded to include a 4-door sedan, a 2-door wagon, a panel van and a pick-up. Production for the Minor ran from 1948 to 1971 — and over that time period, 1.3 million "Moggies" were made. More importantly, the Morris Minor was the first British car to reach one million units sold.
Throughout its production run, the sheet metal went largely unchanged, yet the Morris Minor underwent two powertrain upgrades ultimately ending with two available motors in 948 cc or 1,098 cc.
Jeanie and David acquired their Morris eight years ago for $8,000 from a car collector in the UK. It had 23,000 miles when they bought it, and they’ve added another 20,000 throughout their ownership. Having previously owned a number of British cars, such as an MG TC, TD, TF and a Mini Moke — which they painted in camouflage and took on an adventurous trip to Mexico — they settled on the Morris Minor Tourer after seeing a light blue example at a farm stand. They deemed it a perfect Hamptons summer car for their budget, and agreed that such a unique vehicle would be an attention-getter. After going for a drive, I have to concur.
Jeanie pulled the Morris out of the driveway and I climbed in. We had undone the bright red vinyl top by loosening two bolts at the top of the windshield and carefully tucking in the vinyl as we folded the top down to not crease it, revealing matching red seats and upholstery. The interior is quite simple, and the driver’s and passenger’s seats are hinged at the front and not fixed. I imagined that a quick stop might result in the seats flying forward! The speedometer is located in the center of the dashboard — an interesting feature that carried over to Issigonis’ Morris Mini, as well as the modern-day, BMW-manufactured Mini Cooper, in a nod to the original. Directly below the speedometer is a toggle switch for the windshield wipers, a headlight switch, a choke for cold-starts — and that’s about it.
With a turn of a tiny key, the Moggie fired right up. I accepted a gracious offer to take the wheel, and I climbed into the driver’s seat (on the English side). Surprisingly, the gear-shift didn’t feel alien in my left hand, nor driving from what I know as the passenger seat. However, what was difficult was getting used to a mechanical clutch. Unlike modern manual transmissions which are hydraulically actuated, the Morris’s clutch was mechanical and different than what I was used to. Mechanical clutches require timing and rev matching in order for the gears to mesh properly. On my first go, I couldn’t get it into 3rd gear. Alas, to my credit, I didn’t stall it. After a short attempt, I climbed into the back seat, and Jeanie took over the drive.
The Morris Minor was, as advertised, quite roomy in the back — even more so than many modern sedans in which I’ve ridden. The seats were comfortable and there were nice design touches to the interior, such as leather straps instead of handles. Although the Minor was originally built to be an economy vehicle, there was a classic, timeless level of refinement to the car that stands true to this day.
Throughout the Stiles’ ownership, the Morris has been reliable runner. They’ve kept up with the regular maintenance, replacing only door seal trim and tires. Although the tires needed to be imported from the U.K., they were only $120 for the set. The mechanical simplicity of this car was stunning: Before my drive, the owner, David, pulled out a screwdriver and adjusted the door latch to compensate for the stiff new trim that was preventing the door from closing properly. Not surprisingly, opening the hood revealed a large engine bay with a lot of room to operate on the motor.
Looking at the car, it’s easy to understand how everything works and how it was made. With its low miles, regular maintenance and storage through the winter months, this 60-year-old Moggie will have summer drives with the top down for many years to come.