Pieces of Eight: Morris race special


When four guys in Denmark decided to build a '30s racer on a shoestring, they opted to base it on a Morris Eight – and the result is a little cracker, reckons Jon Pressnell.

Going pre-war racing on a budget? It has to be an Austin Seven, doesn’t it? Not for the four Copenhagen enthusiasts who built the ‘MR4’ – as one of the team, technical designer Peter Kjul, explains: “At the time I’d had a standard Morris Eight for a while. I knew that it was reliable, and I had a lot of spare parts – and a spare car. So I knew that it would work. What’s more, there are a lot of Morris Eights in Denmark – more than Austin Sevens.”

A further member of the group, professional car restorer Ole Sommer, didn’t need much persuading: “Soon we found that it was a good base to use as a starting point for a small classic racing car. You wonder why it wasn’t common at the time to build racers on a Morris Eight frame rather than that of an Austin Seven.”

Joining Sommer and Kjul on the ‘Morris Racer Four’ project would be aircraft mechanic Jens Grassov plus school-teacher and former carpentry master Allan Carlsen, the veteran of several car restorations and a keen Model A Ford owner. After Grassov was obliged to drop out, his place was ultimately taken by Mads Bengtsson, a one-time automotive R&D engineer who today works demonstrating heavy horses. 

Taking their inspiration from two other Morris Eight racers campaigned in Scandinavia, the quartet began by laying down a basic criterion for the project. “At our first meeting we decided that, although our project would never be an original racing car, we would make it as authentic to its period as possible,” says Sommer, regarded by the others as the brains behind the venture. “The chassis would be original, with only a few alterations, the body would appear typical of the period, and we would only use parts produced before 1947 – the cut-off date for the so-called pre-war class in Danish racing – together with techniques current at the time.” 

Work began in 1994 with the dismembering of a left-hooker 1936 saloon Eight with a rotten body. “There was a lot of talk about how to do this, how to do that,” says Carlsen. “It was very democratic.” The starting point for the design was the seating position, so a one-twelfth profile of the chassis was drawn up and an articulated cardboard human figure positioned to enable a suitable place for the steering wheel and pedals to be established. This procedure was inspired by the way that DIN calculations for the passenger capacity of buses are determined.

“The seating position and the engine location were key,” explains Kjul. “You drive with your rear end, after all. So we made some sketches of how big we were, and the first decision was to move the engine back 15cm (6in) to get better balance and to get space for our feet. That gave us close to 50:50 weight distribution. 

“We also dropped the engine by 10cm (4in) to get a lower centre of gravity. The next move was to put the seats within the frame, to give some protection as well.”

The final element of this shuffling about was to move the engine as far to the right as possible, to allow a decent footwell, despite the pedals having to nestle between the frame and gearbox rather than above the frame as on a regular Eight. As a consequence, the propshaft would end up operating at a slight angle.

“Having located the seat, wheel, pedals and engine, we could decide upon the position of the radiator and draw a final profile of the body,” recalls Sommer. “Because we had decided that the body should be a two-seater – taking into account the shoulder-width of the drivers – we decided to stagger the passenger seat. This only enhanced the tendency to build the car asymmetrical, which had begun by pushing the engine over to the right. All the time we had the final weight distribution in our mind, with the engine to the right and the driver to the left.” 

The first task became a statement of intent: Kjul and Grassov crafted a magnificent pedal assembly in aluminium. “When you’re going to do it, do it right,” says Kjul. “You’re going to do a lot of heel-and-toeing, so you need pedals that are suitable.” The only snag, sighs Sommer, was that henceforth anything else on the car would have to be crafted to the same level: “Everything we made after that had to match this standard.”

Keeping the track unchanged, the simple ladder-frame Morris chassis was closed off with drilled boxing plates, and reinforced by a deep square-section front bulkhead rail plus a drilled crossmember over the rear axle. Because it wasn’t feasible to lower the chassis relative to the axles, it was decided to make a new boxed U-section rear crossmember incorporating dropped spring mounts, in order to lower the seating position relative to the chassis side rails. To keep the frame in the same position, the axle was then raised on blocks. “You could put the original Morris body on the frame and it would still look right,” says Kjul. “It’s all part of the debate in Denmark about racing old cars. The authorities want racers to respect their period. If you make the car as close to the original as possible, you won’t have problems getting a licence to race.”

Beyond its reconstruction, the chassis has various tweaks. At the rear, two rose-jointed radius arms compensate for the effect of dropping the rear springs. There is also a Panhard rod. “It’s so nice to drive sideways, but it’s nicer still when you know where the rear axle is,” says Kjul. The front beam axle also benefits from better location, courtesy of a set of ERA-inspired tie rods. “Under braking, the axle twisted and it shimmied. Now you can keep a straight line at the end of the straight,” explains Kjul. “Before they were fitted it was really terrible to drive,” confirms Bengtsson. Rounding off the suspension mods are four-disc friction dampers at each corner, made by Kjul. The rationale for friction rather than hydraulic shock absorbers was simple: “They look nicer.” Less attractive on the eye are the Easiclean wheels from a Series II Eight, but the chaps felt they had no choice, says Kjul: “At the start we were running on wire wheels, but they weren’t strong enough and we lost spokes. It’s not a nice sound when a spoke breaks...”

Brakes are less of a worry than on any Seven, because the Morris had an efficient fully hydraulic set-up. This has been uprated by venting the drums and fitting a twin-reservoir Fiat master cylinder to give dual circuits. “When you’re heading for a bend it’s nice to know that there’s something to stop you,” says Kjul. “Because it’s so light, you can outbrake a lot of cars.” 

The spare 7.9cwt (885lb/400kg) of the Morris – against 15½cwt for an Eight saloon – is just as well, given the modest tune of the 918cc sidevalve. Everything is balanced, and there is an aluminium flywheel made by Kjul that weighs roughly 18lb less than the regular item. Although Sommer twinkles that the diminutive ‘four’ revs like a motorcycle unit, Kjul says he’s surprised by its docility: “I find it amazing that with the special flywheel you can still do 1000rpm in second.”

The car runs a 10-to-1 compression ratio, and there are twin standard-size SU carburettors – actuated by a rod throttle linkage and modified so that the floats are vertical with the carbs cranked over. The inlet manifold is home-brewed, as is the four-branch exhaust manifold – whose characteristics have been carefully calculated, but which is made of old stool legs. “You don’t need to be too sophisticated,” smiles Kjul. “The legs had the right bend and the right dimensions, so they were cut down.”

Mated to the engine is a regular Eight three-speed ’box rather than the four-speeder of the ’38-on Series E. “We’ve got a lot of torque, so we don’t need a lot of gears,” reasons Kjul, who crafted an elegant remote shift, complete with a rose joint at the lever. “I know rose joints aren’t historically authentic, but they work so well!”

Output of this Copenhagen-out-of-Cowley powerpack is obviously more than the 23½bhp of a regular Morris Eight, but Kjul is pretty relaxed about the exact figure: “Bhp? I haven’t got the faintest idea. We think about 40.”

Whatever the power, it’s not enough, says Bengtsson: “MG TCs are in the same class, with  some up to 160bhp. We need to find some more horsepower to make the car competitive again.” One solution, he admits, would be to borrow the Alta-head overhead-valve engine from his road car, but this would be too high for the bonnet and Sommer isn’t keen on spoiling the lines of the body. So the favoured option is supercharging – and maybe running on ethanol.

Turning to the body, this was an amalgam of Sommer’s metal-forming skills and Carlsen’s aptitude for carpentry: the ally shell, mostly formed over a sandbag by Sommer, incorporates aluminium and wood framing. “For the rear end we took a more aircraft-like approach,” explains Kjul. “The front, in ash, is more traditional. We also did it with solid rather than pop rivets – the old-fashioned way of doing things.”

Whatever the guiding principles, the main thing was accessibility to the mechanicals. So the central tub locates on four pegs, lifting off after two over-centre clips have been released. The ultra-light rear deck – built in 1.2mm alloy over aluminium spars – also comes off, being secured by tiny Dzuz fasteners. “When you go racing there’s always something that needs attention,” says Kjul. At the prow is a one-piece alloy radiator cowl with riveted-in slats, made by Sommer with a nod to the SS1 awaiting restoration in a corner of his workshop. Hiding behind the shell are a Mini radiator and a Fiat electric fan.

With the team working on the car every Wednesday, the build took roughly two years – for a total cost of less than £3000. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have fun,” says Kjul, who has since become the car’s regular driver, along with Bengtsson. “We’ve had a lot of fun, and fun is success. That said, we’ve come second in class in the Copenhagen Historic GP, first in a Swedish race, and third in an event in Esjberg – racing against overhead-cam MGs, a Traction Avant, a Mathis, and the odd Bugatti.” 

So the Morris doesn’t hold up the traffic? “No, no, no. When we finish we are usually in the top five. It’s like driving a go-kart – it’s so easy to throw out the rear and catch it again. We did a lot of tuning of the suspension, to get the spring rates and damping right. Because we haven’t got the horsepower of other cars we have to corner faster – and we now have the fastest cornering. On the straight the blown MGs are gone, but on the bends we can collect them. We need some more brakes, but otherwise we are quite satisfied. We have a good feeling about the car.”

A quick blast with Kjul clearly demonstrates the steer-it-on-the-throttle adjustability of the chassis, the inevitable pay-off being the way the car nervously follows surface imperfections. In semi-urban conditions I was more restrained when it was my turn, but there’s no doubt that this is a delightfully well-sorted car. The engine revs so sweetly up to 5000rpm that you’d never believe it started out as the most ‘cooking’ of pre-war sidevalves, while the pull in the high top gear proves that Kjul is right when he says the car doesn’t need four cogs. The gearchange is crisp and with a beefy action so far removed from the willowy delicacy of the standard Morris Eight knitting-needle that you feel tempted to take liberties the slow synchromesh won’t allow. Helping things along is the firm, precision feel to the pedals, with the wide-spaced pedal-box allowing easy heel-and-toe footwork and adding to the reassuring feel of the brakes. Smooth, fluid steering might lack the incision of a rack, finally, but it does show how effective a properly set-up Bishop cam-and-peg unit can be. 

All in all, the car is stunning proof of what can be done with a Morris Eight – and that’s without its planned-for blower. The Austin Seven might seem the obvious option but, on the evidence of the beautifully crafted and imaginatively engineered ‘MR4’, there’s every reason to consider that it’s not perforce the better choice.

This article was originally published in the June2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Jon Pressnell; pictures: Tony Baker


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