“ Righto! I’ve got the keys to that new Morgan with the huge Mustang engine shoehorned into it. What are we gonna do with it?” I blurted excitedly down the phone to my mate Rich. “Hang on. I’ve got a great idea …” Inspired by those super-fit Gortex fetishists that plod up Blighty’s biggest hills, we thought we’d invent a petrolhead’s equivalent to stretch the shapely legs of the new 3.7-litre Roadster from Britain’s favourite boutique car-builder. Could we do the Three Peaks Challenge – driving the highest roads in Scotland, England and finally Wales – back to back, non-stop, in just a single day?
That is how at 8.00am on a decidedly dreich August morning, we found ourselves sitting in a fog-bound Moggie, nursing the tepid teas we’d panhandled from the nice Antipodeans in the VW Camper parked next to us. We couldn’t see much above the roof of the deserted Glenshee Ski Centre where a mist-sodden banner proudly declared that the Scottish resort has been “Going downhill for 50 years.”
The grassy pistes of Glenshee (meaning Glen of the Fairies in Gaelic) flank the highest public road in Britain, as the new A93 Braemar road rises to 670m (2200ft) above sea level through the Cairnwell Pass, along the route of an ancient drover’s track. Climbing to the road’s summit presented no problem for our Roadster; the Cairnwell Pass is now a broad, well-surfaced artery winding through this desolate U-shaped glacial valley, ferrying over 200,000 skiers to this region every winter. Only the snow gates, and the ten foot snowplough marker poles lining the road, hint at how treacherous the pass can be.
While we waited for the fog to clear we decided to track down the remnants of the infamous old military road that was the only way through the pass until the late 1960s. With gradients of 1 in 3 in places, vintage buses often had to shed weight by unloading their passengers who then trudged to the top on foot; there was even a well nearby, maintained by AA patrolmen, used to cool down overheated engines. However, the most notorious section of this old route was known as the Devil’s Elbow; its tight steep-sloped hairpins even featured in postcards, often showing some poor motorist stuck at a crazy angle. Sneaking through a gap in the new road’s Armco, we tiptoed the Roadster around potholes and weeds in the broken old tarmac. With our necks craning around each apex, even though the last traffic passed through decades ago, it was great to get a taste of what must have been one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the British Isles.
By mid morning we’d managed to grab a few snaps and could start thinking about the 450 odd miles that lay ahead. To comfortably cover these big distances and climb Britain’s highest public roads, we’d borrowed the new flagship in Morgan’s traditional model line-up: their 2012 3.7-litre Roadster. Part classic Morgan – part Ford Mustang – we’d christened our Sport Red two-seater the “Morstang.” Our left-hand drive demonstrator was, pretty much, in basic factory spec. This worryingly meant no stereo … Rich’s hummed version of the Mull of Kintyre bagpipe solo was already starting to grate!
This would be the longest roadtrip either of us had taken in a traditionally built Morgan, and we had been rather spoiled by MMC’s kind loan of their Plus 8 just a few weeks earlier. In the past I’d been rather dismissive of the Americans’ sledgehammer approach to engine building; as a boy in the early ‘80s, when my technical knowledge was limited to what could be gleaned from a set of Top Trumps, I could never understand why things like the Camaros’ 5.0-litre V8 only coughed up 165 horses. Fortunately, times have changed; we’d heard nothing but good things about Ford’s new high-tech V6 – their first six-cylinder capable of 300bhp and 30mpg. With power, style and reasonable economy we were confident that this was going to be the ideal grand tourer for this challenge.
It was a long slog from the Cairngorms to the heather-clad hills of the North Pennines. However, we were ensconced within the Morgan’s dark snug cockpit, enjoying the open air motoring, and the admiring glances from fellow road users, as we headed south towards the border, maintaining sufficient speed to ensure the rain passed over our heads rather than putting the roof up.
Two days earlier, back at Morgan HQ, I’d piloted this 280bhp lightweight Roadster around the greasy streets near Pickersleigh Road with all the bravery of an Italian cruise ship captain. Now that we had dialled ourselves in to its predictable handling, fantastic levels of grip and its lazy low-down torque we were flying through the Cumbrian fells as the sun finally broke through the clouds. The unassisted steering will always remain a Marmite feature of the traditionally built models, especially by the uninitiated motorist whose senses have been dulled by hours at the helm of some soulless modern Euro-barge. Nevertheless, every keen driver will love the way you can hit the Roadster’s loud pedal and snick home the cogs to sprint this classic sports car to licence-losing speeds. Initially it takes a little practice to suss the geography of the closely slotted gear gate, but the ratios are well spaced and changes become rewardingly swift and positive. Sixth was perfectly set up for long stints of relaxed motorway driving; cruising at a fuel-efficient 2000rpm helped us return a respectable 26mpg over this first leg.
By early afternoon we had reached our planned lunch stop in the pretty cobbled streets of Alston, Northumberland. At about 300m (1000ft) above sea level Alston is said to be the highest market town in England. However, chatting with the landlord over our bar meals we discovered that Alston’s more surreal claim to fame, as featured in national press and a Channel 4 documentary, is that its male to female ratio was reportedly the UK’s most disproportionate. According to initial surveys started in one of the town’s pubs (admittedly, never the most accurate statistical source) the lonely local lads were, at one time, competing for female companionship at a ratio of 17:1. This then sparked a heated debate among a few of the regulars, who’d clearly been enjoying an extended liquid-lunch break; the butcher’s apprentice, a self proclaimed ladies-man, dismissed this story as utter sweetmeats (or words to that effect); nevertheless, he did admit that a bright red sports car like ours might still improve his record.
It was only a short drive up through Alston Moor to the watershed of Cumbria and Weardale. At the Killhope Pass a medieval stone cross marks the old county border and England’s highest public road at an altitude of 627m (2057ft). The gentle ascent and rolling hills makes this the least dramatic of the three peaks. However, it is the descent that really makes this drive worthwhile. The series of tight Alpinesque switchbacks begin near “England’s Highest Cafe” – a Mecca for local motorcyclists; perched 580m (1904ft) above sea level on Hartside Top, the A686 then snakes down the Hartside Pass in a series of sweeping blind bends, allowing a breathtaking view across to the Solway Firth and back towards Scotland. Throughout the descent the Morgan felt stable and predictable; its wide 205mm sectioned Avons gave us plenty of confidence to thread the Roadster through each corner as the exhausts popped and gurgled on overrun. At idle the Roadster’s twin oval tailpipes simply burble with a restrained basso profundo, but as the road flattened out and we wound the V6 towards its 7000rpm redline, it became a harsher, more metallic, howl. We loved it … the sheep didn’t.
After some concessions to the EU’s smog cops the Morgan’s V6, in standard specification, pumps out a healthy 280bhp. However, at a mere 950kg (2,094lbs) this Morgan is more than 600kg (1,323lbs) lighter than the poverty-spec Pony Car; a quick bit of Googling tells me that’s the same as an F1 race car, a fully grown Polar Bear or seven Oprah Winfreys. Although I put little store by 0-60 times, the eagle-eyed Morgan geeks (or Morganoraks as we call them) will already know that our car gets to 62mph in just 5.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 140mph if you can stand the wind-noise. As Rich pointed out, the last time the US lent the British this much firepower the Nazis lost their Normandy holiday homes.
By late afternoon we knew that reaching our final Welsh peak in the mountains of southern Snowdonia, before we completely lost the light, was going to be tight. Hugging the north shore of Bala Lake we eventually found our way up the single-track lanes towards, what the English once called, the Hellfire Pass (due to the hordes of leek-weilding Welsh bandits that roamed these valleys in the Dark Ages). Better known by the locals as Bwlch-y-Groes, meaning Pass of the Cross, the damp scree-strewn track rose quickly with gradients nudging 1 in 4 in places. Between the wars the three roads that converge near this pass were used extensively by British car manufacturers, including Triumph and Austin, who tested their cars to destruction on these treacherous inclines.
Parked at the 545m (1,788ft) summit of Bwlch-y-Groes we reflected that our pilgrimage to Britain’s three highest passes had also come to an end. In stark contrast to our medieval forefathers our greatest concern was poor lighting for photographs and a depleted stock of Pringles. We were dry and warm: the roadsters cabin had stayed surprisingly watertight despite the rain and hail that was now bouncing off the long louvered bonnet. As the tripmeter passed 450miles, leaden skies descended on Snowdonia and we decided to take refuge at a cheap B&B in the village of Llanwddyn ten minutes to the east. Luckily, for us, however, Pam on reception at the fabulous four-star Lake Vyrnwy Hotel and Spa was perhaps North Wales’ biggest Morgan fan; while Rich took her for a short spin around the grounds he also managed to sweet talk a cut-price deal on a twin room with lake views.
The next morning, as we stowed away backpacks and camera gear, the car began to attract quite a crowd from both guests and staff (we think Pam might have been bragging about her trip in the Morgan). Most were just happy to admire its hand-built bodywork; a few, like the Sous Chef wanted to try out the cockpit for size, “just in case my numbers come up, like.” One chap, however, was curious about its big American powerplant and whether we were ever worried about rear end grip from such a lightweight car on all those wet and narrow mountain passes. Interestingly, we never were. In the course of our Three Peaks Challenge we had driven the Morgan on every conceivable road type, gradient and surface, and encountered every type of weather a typical British summer could throw at us, but the car had always felt fully planted. Make no mistake, with so much torque on tap it would be easy to light up the Roadster’s rear tyres and turn all its expensive tread into noxious black vapour – but in a classically styled sports car, this good looking, that all seems so … unnecessary.
Over the course of this great British adventure we had piloted this fabulous machine on some of the UK’s most challenging, spectacular and rewarding drivers’ roads, where the new 3.7-litre Roadster clearly proved its worth as a capable and comfortable grand tourer. Just forget what I said earlier about our Morgan’s lack of in-car-entertainment – with the benefit of hindsight, we wouldn’t have specced a stereo after all; because, let’s be honest, nothing your wireless could ever offer will compete with the Morstang’s glorious V6 soundtrack as it echoes off the sides of your favourite valley, cwm or glen.
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