I acquired the 1966 Morris convertible first, and it turned out to be a mistake, and that’s what pushed me to purchase the 1970 Volkswagen Beetle shortly thereafter. It happened like this – I bought the Morris after looking it over quickly and a test-drive. The body seemed sound, the engine ran well, and it was inexpensive for an open car. I should have known better. Being a native Californian, I didn’t think much about rust. Turns out, the Morris had extensive rot in its sub-frame. I discovered that when I took it in for a Warrant of Fitness. The shop slid a jack under the front end, and as they ran it up, the jack crumbled the crossmember. We discovered that it had been deceitfully sculpted out of bog and painted with undercoat. Needless to say, the Morrie failed.
After that I took it to a local panel beater in Whitianga named Bruce Haye, owner of Ace Panel and Paint, who told me to leave the car so he could evaluate it. I waited a few days and called him back. He said: “She’s pretty knackered. She’ll take some time to fix, and it won’t be cheap.” Bruce has since become a good friend. He mercifully let me strip the car to bare metal at his shop to save money. I also took the car apart and shopped for replacement parts while Bruce worked his magic.
He used it as a sort of fill-in between more urgent assignments and did a miraculous job of putting its unitary body/frame back to better-than-original condition. But that was just the beginning. Eight years later I was still restoring the Morris. Back when Bruce began, he offered me a 1970 VW Beetle that he had fixed up for his wife, who shortly thereafter gave birth to twins. I bought it and drove it for years while further restoring it a bit at a time. I later installed a 1600cc engine when the original got tired – that woke the little car up. In fact, a bit too much! Instead of topping out at 116kph, it could do in excess of 145 if you are crazy enough to try it.
The reason I say crazy is because the front end starts to lift at 143kph, and at that point the steering becomes almost useless. Don’t ask me how I know this. The Morris got a few performance tweaks in later years too. It now sports a ported and milled MG Midget head with bigger valves installed, along with a home-built custom intake manifold and two SU carburettors. I completed this ensemble with an extractor exhaust header and HEI ignition. These changes made the Lilliputian British droptop considerably peppier.
So, which is my favourite of the two cars, and why? I’ll answer that momentarily, but first a little history, for those unfamiliar with how these two automobiles came into existence. There is an old blues song by Howlin’ Wolf that says some are built for comfort, and others are built for speed. Well, these two vehicles weren’t built for either. They were neither fast nor particularly comfortable. Instead, they were designed to be cheap, reliable, basic transportation. In this they both succeeded brilliantly.
The two cars look similar, though the Volkswagen design is ten years older, having debuted in 1938, while the Morris Minor didn’t come out until 1948. There was a world war in between, during which not much was done as regards automobile design. And though the Beetle looks every inch a car from the 1930s with its Chrysler Airflow knock-off styling, flat one-piece windscreen, vestigial rubber running boards and bolt-on mud guards, its mechanicals were advanced and esoteric for its time, thanks to Ferdinand Porsche, and heavy financial backing from Adolf Hitler.
Actually, Ferdinand didn’t have to do much, because the Type 1 design was expropriated from an Austrian engineer named Hans Ledwinka, who worked in Czechoslovakia for Tatra. This commandeering of concepts without compensation resulted in a long running lawsuit on behalf of Tatra against Porsche and his collaborators. Hitler settled the matter temporarily by invading the Sudetenland, but the dispute was taken up again after the war, and in 1965 Volkswagen finally settled-up, paying Tatra 1,000,000 Deutschmarks.
As for why the Type 1 was built, the name Volkswagen says it all. It means ‘People’s Car’, and it was intended to put the Third Reich on wheels the way Henry Ford’s Model T did for the United States. However, before production got going, Der Führer’s rather imprudent invasion of Poland resulted in the fledgling auto company being given over to the war effort.
Instead of Beetles, Volkswagen made Kubelwagens – the Nazi jeep -- which was an adaptation of the Type 1 platform, and was many years later marketed as the VW Thing in other parts of the world. Also, the company made field cook stoves and mess kits for the army until the factory was bombed to bits toward the end of the war. What was left was offered to the Ford Motor Company for free, but they turned it down. Finally, a British Army officer, 29-year-old Major Ivan Hirst, saw the Beetle’s potential and got things going again.
I’m at a loss as to where Morris’ Minor moniker came from. Yes, the Morris Motor Company in Oxfordshire England built the car. And yes, the company also produced an earlier model called the Minor, built around 1930, but I have never found an explanation as to why either was dubbed the Minor. But then the car came from a nation that called its battleships names like Repulse, Indefatigable and Nonsuch.
A gifted engineer named Alec Issigonis actually designed the post-war Minor. Before the war, he had built an advanced lightweight racecar and campaigned it himself successfully. Then he went to work for Morris in 1941 and began playing around with ideas for what would become the post-war Minor; but as with Volkswagen, war needs took precedence. One of his projects during that period was to develop a motorised amphibious wheelbarrow for the Royal Navy. Perhaps that was the inspiration for the Morris Minor with its wheelbarrow-like simplicity.
Of course, Issigonis’ most famous design in the area of tiny transportation was the Mini in 1959. It was an even tinier and arguably the best micro-car ever. With tuning by John Cooper, it was probably the fastest of the micros too. By putting the engine in sideways and going with front-wheel drive, Issigonis was able to create a minuscule machine that could accommodate four people -- albeit much as a tin no bigger than a deck of playing cards can accommodate four sardines. Even the Morris Minor -- which is somewhat larger than the Mini -- is intimate for someone of my displacement - 1.88m, 100kg (6’1”- 210lbs). And its seats are not adjustable. I had to move the driver’s seat back 50mm and drill new mounting holes before I could get in the thing without barking my knees. On the other hand, the Volkswagen has sturdier seats that are adjustable, and more head and legroom as well. I am reasonably comfortable in the driver’s seat of the VW just as it came from the factory, though I wouldn’t want to be a backseat passenger in either car. Both would be barely adequate for an organ grinder’s monkey.
The Morris Minor and the Beetle look similar, and both were built for similar reasons, but what put the Beetle over the moon in sales in the 1950s and 1960s was that it got 24 real-world miles to the American gallon (my figure -- not the manufacturer’s) and it squeezed 40,000 miles out of a set of tires, when big American cars struggled for 20,000. Also, Volkswagen’s build-quality and dependability were excellent.
It was critical though, that you carry an extra fan belt, because if the cooling fan failed, there went your air-cooled engine. It was also critical that you kept the engine timed properly, and adjusted the valves every 5,000k. And because compressed air for the windshield washer came from the spare tyre, you needed to top it up regularly too. But assuming those requirements were met, the Beetle just went on clicking and clacking.
The Morrie was even smaller and thriftier than the Dubbie, but it helped put the entire British Commonwealth on wheels after the war. A big factor in the Minor’s favour was that it got an astounding 32 miles to the gallon (again my number, not the manufacturer’s) and its skinny tires last nearly forever. However, even with the later, bigger 1098cc motor buzzing under the bonnet it was a bit leisurely.
But most importantly, the Morris is great fun to drive! A friend and I went to the Beach Hop a couple of years ago in mine, and were sandwiched between a couple of huge, uncorked ground-pounding muscle cars. The crowd loved it. Seeing two big six-footers in a tiny car had people on the parade route staggering around laughing; but they cheered us on. If only we could have made it backfire!
My 1970 Volkswagen with its 1500cc original engine, and the 1966 Morris with its 1098cc motor, both top out at 116kph in stock form. But with a little judicious tuning the Morris can accelerate surprisingly quickly to a top end of 137kph without drama. And with higher gearing it would no doubt do better. The VW, with its unitary body, torsion bar independent front suspension and swing axle rear end, corners well up to a point. After that you are just along for the ride, because if the car comes loose in a turn, the front end comes unstuck first, due to its rear engine configuration.
Tromping on the throttle to power out of a skid as you would in a front-engine car just spins you around faster. Also, if you stomp the brakes in a panic, that causes the car to dive forward, tucking the rear wheels under. You can guess what happens next. The car rolls. Luckily because the Beetle’s roundish body is very sturdy, if you are lucky, you might escape serious injury.
In fact, Beetles are incredibly tough. I was in a near head-on against a Subaru Legacy in the Beetle you see here a few years ago, and the Subaru was totalled. But after pulling the mudguards off of the tyres, I was able to limp to the local surgery to get my face fixed. How was that possible? The answer is, the whole front end on the VW acted as a crumple zone. It is nothing but replaceable sheet metal.
The floor pan and front suspension went under the Subaru and weren’t damaged. All we had to do was replace the bonnet, guards, apron, and front bumper and I was back in business. I did sustain a gash in the forehead, but even that turned out not to matter because the scar runs in one of my worry lines.
The Morris has a lighter, less durable body, so I doubt I would fare as well in a crash in it. Its engine is in front and liquid cooled, so that too could pose a problem in a head-on. But the Morris’ handling is more forgiving and predictable than the Beetle’s because of its conventional layout. You can power your way out of a skid, and it corners as if on rails, despite its solid back axle.
So, which do I prefer to drive? I can answer that with an unequivocal “it depends.” If I was going on a long trip, I would take the VW. It is bigger, heavier, roomier, and more comfortable, though such attributes are relative. The VW is not quiet though. The air-cooled engine mandates that the valve clearances be generous to allow for heat expansion as the engine warms up. Consequently, there is no way to silence a VW.
The Morris, though buzzy at high rpm, is quieter and smoother. And even though it is snug inside, it is more fun to drive for short spins. Of course, the Morrie drop-top is more exciting with the top down too, because with it up, like most convertibles, it seems a little claustrophobic. The closed sedans Morris made are snug too, but visibility is reasonable in them.
As for dependability, both the Morrie and the Dubbie have been great. The Morris is easier to work on, with its inline engine and conventional layout, though its Lucas electrical system is esoteric. For some reason they routed everything through the voltage regulator. Contrastingly, the VW is more trouble to maintain, and you have to get under it regularly to tighten the heads and adjust the valves, which isn’t fun. Also, Beetles also have no oil filters, so oil changes are critical.
However, both cars do what they were designed to do exceedingly well. And as a result, both were built for many years, and were phenomenally successful -- though the VW eclipsed the Morris in sales, becoming the most successful car in the world until the Toyota Corolla in all its guises surpassed it if in name only.
I should point out though, that in British Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand, Australia, India and Singapore the Morris outsold the VW. Also, an upgraded version of the Minor called the Oxford was in production in India until 2014 and was marketed under the brand name Hindustani. It was used mostly as a taxi and is legendary for its longevity. The last Beetle rolled off the line in 2003 in Puebla Mexico, and they were used for taxis too.
Finally, much to my surprise – the fairer sex finds both cars irresistible! Especially the Morris! Women walk up to me when I park and say things like – “Oh, it’s adorable!” Granted, most of them have a few miles on the odometer too. All I can say is why didn’t I know this when I was young and single? In those days, I wanted a Corvette because I figured it would transform me from a tall skinny dork into Paul Newman. Ah well, you live and learn.
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