Minor Adventures - Reader Ride

By: Tony Watts, Photography by: Tony Watts/Getty Images/Unique Cars Archives


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Quitting work to return to university sent Tony Watts on many Minor adventures

There’s plenty not to like about social media, but the occasional post can raise a smile, such as a recent one featuring a 1954 Women’s Weekly advertisement for a Morris Minor, claiming it is "one of the world’s safest cars".

The accompanying image is of the whole family enjoying that safety, without a seatbelt in sight.

That the driver is not looking at his phone negates today’s guffaws somewhat, but I have reason to believe there may be something more to that safety claim.

Years ago I made the decision to quit full-time work and go back to university. Despite that, I was smart enough to know as a poor student I wouldn’t be able to support a needy dependent, so the Alfa had to go. In its place I wanted something cheap and easy to repair.

An un-Alfa.

If it wasn’t totally awful that would be a bonus.

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I reckoned a Morris Minor would fit the bill: It checked the box for simplicity; if I didn’t want a special model – a convertible, woody or baker’s van – it was affordable; and I could at least have some pride in it being a classic, if a Minor one.

Knowing car clubs were the font of all knowledge about these models (before the advent of the Internet), I joined the Morris Minor Owner’s Club of Victoria, and went along, wide-eyed and ready to spend.

The consensus was that if I was looking to buy a Morry, I should speak to Dave. Sure enough, he had a car to sell, and I should come over on the weekend.

Dave’s house was not what I was expecting. The front yard was full of Morris Minors. The long driveway too. I counted at least 17 of them. And there was a garage out the back full of engines. "Fifty bucks for a short motor," he smiled.

| Read next: 70 years of Morris Minor

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Big rego plate or small car?

All I was after was a running car, and the cheaper the better. The choice was between two plain-Jane, four-door, mid 1960s 1000 models, one for $300 and the other for $350. I chose the second, because it had a heater.

Melbourne.

I didn’t expect a $350 car to come with a roadworthy certificate, but Dave volunteered to drop it off at my place.

Deal done.

| Budget Classic: Morris Minor

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Morris Minors, destined for Canada

The first thing I found was the front brakes were not right. They’re small drums, so you don’t expect much, but lurching violently to left wasn’t a good sign. Sure enough one of the slaves had developed a leak, and it had been fixed by crimping the brake line. Larger Morris Major brakes are a bolt-on fix (with a little tweaking), so that, along with a new section of brake line, was the first modification.

I tooled around in it for a bit before deciding the holidays would be a good time for some new paint. Also it used a bit of oil, and I decided to remove the head for a look. It wasn’t any great surprise to discover one of the pistons had munched on a top ring, so out the engine came and down to the legendary engine builder, Ian Tate, who along with Matt Philip happened to be the family mechanic.

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The first thing Ian did was have a good laugh at me for buying a British car. When I asked why he told me to look around, and the place was full of classic Jaguars and Bentleys. I got a free tour with the guide explaining all the problems.

Still, he was happy enough to take my engine in for a tweak.

A gearbox specialist came to the rescue with a full syncromesh unit with a lower second-gear ratio to help acceleration. I was hardly expecting to win any drag races, and I don’t think my fairly average, home-handyman paint job – in British Racing Green, obviously – was going to help. The girlfriend chipped-in with some paisley interior trim.

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Ian came through with the engine – sporting a mild cam, Morris 1100 pistons, and 60/1000ths shaved off the head, along with "rev it till it doesn’t rev any more" advice – in time for reassembly before the new semester, and I headed off for a camping trip to Cape Otway for the final weekend of the break.

I found myself on a single-lane track through the forest passing a "4x4 only" sign, and realised with my unlimited slip differential I was effectively a 4x1. Before I could find a suitable place to turn around I was heading down a steep gorge, so there was no turning back. I crossed the creek at the bottom and climbed out the other side, surprised how well the Morris handled all that. Not quite as surprised as the couple in the Landcruiser I sailed by.

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Long patches of sand were a challenge, but a good runup saw me through. Corrugations made the left rear door pop open, but it is a small enough car I could just reach over and close it without needing to slow down.

After that baptism, she spent several years ferrying uni friends around. She also did a club day lapping Winton, though the lap record was fairly safe. She even took me to the top of Mount Buller. That $50 heater only started pumping out vaguely warm air when I reached Mansfield, so the first 200km was spent with the quarter windows open and driving in ski gear.

In about seven years of ownership she only let me down three times: One broken half-shaft (a coworker helpfully informed me they’re made of case-hardened plasticene); once because the negative wire to the coil just sheared off thanks to old age; and once because the oil pressure gauge feeder tube was rubbish and it melted.

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It was never a project car per-se, so a donated Weber twin choke sat in the garage, waiting for me to get around to installing extractors. As a student the money was a bit tight, and she worked okay.

There are a million things I’d do differently today – taken a few photographs for starters – but in the circumstances she did the job I bought her for.

Ian’s engine modifications may have nearly doubled the power output, though that’d still only be two figures. Still, the top speed was somewhere around "E" on the fuel gauge. Wildly inaccurate, but that’s somewhere close to 100mph.

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A move to Singapore signaled it was time to let her go. I don’t think the bloke who bought her appreciated how rock-solid that engine and gearbox was. That’s always going to be the way with these things I suppose.

Strangely though, that wasn’t the end of my Morris story. I was watching a documentary about air safety on Singapore television shortly after arriving, and there was Dave being interviewed! It turns out Dave Warren AO was not only a really nice bloke with an infectious enthusiasm for Morris Minors, but he was also the inventor of the black box flight recorder.

Nobody that interested in safety would have sold me an unsafe car, I’m certain!

 

From Unique Cars 459, Nov 2021

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