When was the last time you drove a car that was properly engaging? One that forced you to calculate every single thing about the task at hand? I’m not talking about the epitome of performance. I’m also not talking about going sideways or trying to find a gap to make an overtake. In fact, I’m talking about quite the opposite. Or am I?
Meet Jon Officer’s beloved ‘Merlin’. It’s at this point that I should tell you that it’s a ’19XX Morris Minor 1000′, but to tell you the truth, I can’t. As with any car of a considerable age, there’s some ambiguity to it’s history. The year of production is part of that ambiguity. What we do know is that it can be no earlier than 1959.
Jon informs me that it was more than likely put together as a hangover of old stock as it wasn’t actually registered until 1962. It had a bit of a racing career at the famous Goodwood circuit among others in the years before that, which is definitely part of the reason the car has so much character.
I’ve had a bit of a think since shooting the car and I’m fairly sure it’s the oldest car I’ve ever sat in. It’s definitely the oldest I’ve ever shot, I’ll tell you that much. The Beatles hadn’t even recorded their first album when Merlin was built. There’s history in every single detail on the car, each ‘age related mark’ telling a story.
I hate to go all ‘it was better back in the day’ on you, but there’s a certain charm present that you just don’t see on cars produced today. A little more creative flare, if you will. A lot of that creative flare has since been outlawed or banned, with regulations being largely responsible for modern-day car design. Make of that what you will. Perhaps in 50 years’ time I’ll be writing an article about the FN2 Honda Civic in the same nostalgic manor, although if I’m honest I somehow doubt that will happen.
Jon is super keen to share everything he knows about the car, too. With this much of a past, it’s hard not to get enthusiastic. At the date of purchase, the car was fitted with the original 948cc A-Series engine producing 37bhp… Hold on to your hats, kids. Later on in it’s life (he’s not sure when or by whom) the engine was replaced with the more punchy 1098cc A-Series with 48bhp. As a result, it’s slightly less terrifying on public roads. Slightly.
One thing that definitely does keep him on his toes however is the differential. It being the higher ratio of the two available, the acceleration is improved making it easier to set off and move heavier loads. This particular spec is loved by fans of hill climb, for obvious reasons. This does however leave you with a top speed of 50MPH, which Jon tells me isn’t the greatest in the current day and age. “I plan to replace the diff with the lower ratio counterpart later on this year, which should give me a cruising speed of around 65MPH. It’ll definitely improve motorway use.” I don’t blame him.
The more time I spent with the car, the more I fell in love. Every single thing on the car interested me. The mid 20th century British engineering is apparent from the get go, but even more so when you delve a little deeper. I love the little rubber dome behind the door handle to stop it impacting the paint when it’s released. It’s the little things.
The filler cap amused me too. You can just imagine the meeting in the Cowley headquarters taking place. “And the filler cap – where shall we put it?” “Doesn’t matter. Just screw it onto the body somewhere easy to find.” It’s genius.
One thing many owners aren’t too keen on is the wing mirrors. Mostly because they’re placed… on the wing. They’re spring loaded to stop them from coming clean off should they be hit, although as a result they can’t be adjusted. All they really point at is the sky. Helpful. At least they look cool, right?
Something to note about this particular car is that it’s equipped with ‘duo-tone’ interior, which has been rather desirable over the years. It’s also in rather good nick. Jon used to be well into the rat-look scene a good few years ago, so you can never tell if patina is genuine on his cars. I wouldn’t put it past him to rustle some feathers with this car, but he assures me it’s going to continue to be loved and cherished for years to come. Perhaps I believe him this time.
I digress, just look at the inside of this car. People often talk about cars from the 1990s having interiors void of anything that doesn’t need to be there. This takes it to a whole new level. Most of that ‘stuff’ that doesn’t need to be there hadn’t even been invented yet. Although somewhat faded, the red that adorns the leather throughout is absolutely gorgeous. Interiors were only produced in this colour for a short time, as the dyes needed were deemed not cost-effective, Jon tells me.
From the choke, to the post-war American style speedometer gauge, everything about the car quietly oozes romance. Nothing is overstated, yes it’s still a captivating place to be.
My favourite part of the car, although a minute detail, is the seat belts. They’re made by a small Swedish company, originally intended for use in light aircraft. They compliment the car well, but you have to ask yourself; How on Earth have they ended up in a quintessentially British Morris Minor 1000?
Being honest, the thing that made me fall in love with the car most is the way Jon talks about it. “There’s a certain generation where everybody remembers having a Moggy at some point and will likely have a story to tell. It’s inevitable that wherever you park up, someone will collar you to tell you their experience of being a kid in the back of one of these.” He’s right, too. Let us know in the comments below if you’ve any tales, be it from your own ownership or someone you know. We’d love to hear them!
“It’s not bound to any particular car scene. In many of these ‘scenes’, there can be a rivalry; groups arguing about how their car is either faster to sixty, closer to the ground, or can perform the most impressive drift. The Morris does not of that. It just sits there with a goofy grin on it’s face and people seem to get that. The car is very much full of character.”
Jon went on to tell me that as it currently stands, the heater cannot be turned off and he’s been known to tie a hoodie around his left leg to protect it from the rather molten gasses it kicks out. We all make sacrifices for the cars we love, but I can imagine that getting annoying very very quickly. Not for Jon, it seems. You have to admire his patience with the car.
The passenger side swivel ventilator glass opens on most right hand turns. The driver window always falls down and settles around half way up, an issue that even replacing the regulator didn’t get rid of. The wipers have a single speed, but above 30MPH they don’t touch the screen anyway. I’m starting to get the impression that owning a 60 year old car is more of a labour of love than I’d previously imagined.
It doesn’t end there, either. “Only half of the gears have a synchro mesh so driving around town it’s a gamble as to whether when you double de-clutch it’s going to crunch or not.” He was also keen to tell me that on more than one occasion he’s reached the end of the brake pedal on a steep hill and had to use the handbrake to bring him to a stop. Apparently this is completely normal.
What you can’t see in reading this is the size of the smile on his face as he tells me all of this. It’s all part of the fun, and absolutely none of it matters when you own a car you love so dearly. “The windscreen lets water in at the bottom right seal, but that’s okay. The Owner’s Club tell me they all leak there.” He’s the patience of a saint, that’s for sure.
It’s just as involving to drive as a fully track or drift prepped car, I guarantee it. Just not in the same way. You’re thinking about corners hundreds of yards away. That traffic light ahead of you could turn red any moment, and you need to be ready for it. Speed feels relative depending on what you’re driving, and this is no different. 20MPH in Merlin feels the same as 80MPH in any modern hatchback. All of these things come together to put a huge smile on the face of anyone driving it. The way Jon sees it is “driving through a residential at the speed limit feels completely irresponsible.”
“When you’re driving the car you cannot think of anything else. Not about work, not about the bills or what to watch when you get home. It’s just you and the Morris.”
I think it’s about time I experienced something a little older than the early 90s, don’t you? Keep an eye out for this car in future, because it certainly won’t be the last time you see it on these pages.