MORGAN MOTOR COMPANY | MAKERS OF THE WORLD’S FIRST TRUE SPORTS CAR

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Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones behind the wheel of his yellow Morgan Plus 8 roadster in St. Tropez, France, 9 May 1971.  Photo by  Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Morgan owners are a unique bunch, and definitely my kind of people.  Typically, they aren’t your prissy, pretentious bunch of fetishists with pristine, untouchable autos.  They actually enjoy driving their beloved Morgans– and they drive them a lot, smiling all the while.

Much like British MG’s and Triumphs back in the day, Morgans gained popularity as relatively inexpensive and cool  sports cars (nowadays, a Morgan, still handmade, can set you back as much as $300,00 depending on your specifications, and be prepared to wait several years to take delivery) for young auto enthusiasts who would presumably get their kicks out of their ride for a few years, and then grow up and move on.  In fact, A young Ralph Lauren drove an off-white Morgan drop-top back in his early menswear days.  Ralph ended up letting the Morgan go because he could no longer afford to park it in the city– at least that’s how the story goes– but don’t feel sorry for Ralph, he now has one of the most enviably car collections in the world.

Over the years, the Morgan Motor Company”s quality, design, and nostalgic appeal proved to be timeless, right down to it’s Ash (yes, wooden) subframe– and spawned a strong legion of devoted followers.  And, if you know anything about Morgans, then you’re probably up-to-speed that it’s not the most user-friendly ride out there.  If you’re looking for luxury, comfort, and state of the art performance– move along.  This isn’t the car for you.  So why a Morgan?  Well, if you have to ask–

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Classic Morgan Sports Car on Blue Ridge Parkway — Image by © Martyn Goddard/Corbis

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”The real appeal of the Morgan is a sort of anti-appeal,” says Burt Fendelman, a three-time Morgan owner. ”They’re not comfortable. They’re not practical. They’re not even weatherproof. But they’re rugged and a wonderful driving car, very tight in their handling, with no power steering or brakes or anything else. They offer a closeness to the road, a feel that can’t be matched.”

How about the feeling of pulling up next to a Porsche or Ferrari and taking it off the line?  Yep, equipped with a more than capable V-8, a well-tuned Morgan Plus 8 can do that.  I probably wouldn’t dare to test the Morgan’s handling abilities at top speed (125-130 mph), but this is a classic open road cruiser best enjoyed at speeds where you can take in the scenery.

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Nov 27th, 1931, London, England — Two men lift the cover to show the Morgan Three-Wheeler automobile during preparations for the motor cycle show at Olympia in 1931. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

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STEVE McQUEEN | HOLLYWOOD’S ANTI-HERO & TRUE SON OF LIBERTY

Steve McQueen– ironically displaying his signature, perfect balance of allegiance and rebellion.

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“I live for myself and I answer to nobody.”

–Steve McQueen

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Steve McQueen personified the “anti-hero” in Hollywood at a time when the emerging counterculture in America was challenging the very definition of what a true “hero” is.  Maybe a better way to look at it is– heroism is an act.  To live an idealistic, heroic life without fault is ultimately impossible.  We all struggle with aligning our beliefs and goals in life with what is truly right.  The fact is there are grey areas that we have to be honest about.  We saw the good and bad in McQueen, and loved him anyway– in fact, we loved him for it.  He was honest about who he was.

We all know McQueen raced cars and motorcycles, but his story goes a lot deeper than that.  His father abandoned him and his alcoholic mother when he was just six-months-old.  Steve locked horns with his new stepfather, whom he called “a prime son of a bitch”.  He struggled with dyslexia in school and was partially deaf.  The young McQueen soon fell in with a street gang, and ran away from home at 14, joining the circus for a short time, and was eventually turned over to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino Hills, California.  McQueen later worked in a brothel, on an oil rigger– and was even a lumberjack. When he was old enough he enlisted in the U.S.M.C., went AWOL and spent 41 days in the brig.  McQueen decided then and there to embrace the Marines’ discipline and beliefs and better himself. He did just that and later saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea.  In 1950, McQueen was eventually honorably discharged.

After the Marines, McQueen used his G.I. Bill to study acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. He brought home extra dough by competing in weekend motorcycle races at Long Island City Raceway.  His big break came in 1958 when he landed the role of the bounty hunter, Josh Randall, in Wanted: Dead or Alive.  Steve McQueen became a household name, and his image as the anti-hero was forged through his character’s detached, mysterious, and unconventional ways– like carrying a sawed-off Winchester rifle, the “Mare’s Leg”, instead of typical six-gun carried by other gunslingers. Hollywood soon came calling, and the rest is history.

All this from a kid born into what many would consider a throw-away life.

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“When I believe in something, I fight like hell for it.”

–Steve McQueen

A young Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen in a studio still shot from The Great Escape.

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THE WHITE TRIPLEX | THREE ENGINES, 1500 HP, AND ONE TRAGIC RESULT

March 9th, 1929, Daytona, FL — Original caption: J.W. White, famous American speed king, standing beside his Triplex machine which he will drive in an attempt to break the world’s automobile speed record. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Jim White was a wealthy Philadelphian who desperately wanted to snatch the land speed record from the hands of British racers Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell. Thus, the White Triplex was born. White decided that no single engine would do to challenge the British Napier Lion, so a straight-forward and solid chassis was built, onto which three war-surplus 27-liter Liberty airplane engines were mounted– giving it a total of 36 cylinders, 81 liter displacement, and a staggering 1,500 bhp in all.

The Triplex’s design was a brutish barebones approach– it had no clutch or gearbox, and only a single fixed ratio. Once started by a push start, it had to keep rolling. Driver comforts were minimal to say the least– the forward engine was sheathed in a modest attempt at streamlining, and the two mounted side-by-side in back were totally exposed. The courageous (or crazy) driver was then perched precariously in the middle.

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Circa 1928-29– White Triplex land speed record car, showing the three engines. Image from the Florida Photographic Collection.  Link

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Ray Keech, an experienced Indianapolis racer, and imposing man with flaming red hair, was paid a handsome sum to drive the White Triplex in the first speed record attempt at Daytona Beach, FL. The first trial runs proved to be dangerous indeed– no one had ever been faced with so much massive power, and in such crude form. Keech suffered burns behind the wheel of both runs– first from a burst radiator hose, then by exhaust flames from the front engine.

The overly simplistic design of the White Triplex posed a particular problem for the officials governing the speed record attempt. The regulations required vehicles to have a “means for reversing”, which the White Triplex definitely didn’t.  White’s Mechanics first jury-rigged an electric motor and roller drive onto a tire, but it was unable to rotate against the force of the three large engines, which could not be un-clutched. An even more elaborate “solution” was tried. An entire separate rear axle was fitted, held above ground until dropped by a release lever and then driven by a separate driveshaft. The device was ridiculous, and isn’t believed to have been utilized during the actual speed record attempt itself– but it was enough to successfully satisfy the official’s needs.

On April 22nd, 1928, Keech set a new speed record in the White Triplex of 207.55 mph at Daytona Beach.

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Circa 1928 — Ray Keech is shown here on the day that he broke the speed record at Daytona Beach, FL. In this image you can clearly see the extra rear axle that was added for record qualification purposes. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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“LITTLE BASTARD” | THE SILVER SPYDER PORSCHE/DEAN MYSTERY REVISITED

james dean competition motors porsche spyder 1955

James Dean on the lot of Competition Motors with his infamous silver Porsche 550 Spyder not long before is tragic death on Sept. 30, 1955 – Image courtesy mptvimages.com. Jimmy had finished shooting George Stevens’ epic “Giant” (notice his hairline was shaved by the studio to play the older, receeding Jett Rink). With the film in the bag, he was now free to race.

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james dean rolf wuetherich last photo porsche

The day of James Dean’s tragic death behind the wheel of his Porsche Spyder is well documented, as professional photographer Sanford Roth was accompanying Dean for an article on the actor’s passion for racing in Collier’s Magazine. This image shot by Roth in Hollywood on the morning of the accident, shows Dean and Rolf Wütherich preparing for a weekend of racing and camaraderie. That this would be Dean’s final hours, or that Wüetherich was about to experience a life-shattering event, was clearly the furthest thing from either one’s mind. Julien’s Auctions sold an 11×14-inch print of this shot, taken from Roth’s original contact sheet and mounted on foam core, for  $1,500. It is confirmed to be among the last “official” images taken of the actor before his fatal crash. via

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SHE RIPPED AND SHE ROARED | EPIC WOMEN OF DESTINY & DETERMINATION

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Circa 1920s– Lillian La France in her early Motordrome riding days. This must be 1924, or so. She looks a little green, and that signature smile and exuberant confidence is not quite present.

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LILLIAN LA FRANCE WALL OF DEATH RIDER

“It was the thrill of risking my life that made me to take to drome riding. I was the girl who flirts with death. From childhood I was inspired by wanderlust. I was always alone, dreaming of adventures– how to ride a pony out West, to follow my calling to fame. This was my secret. I shared it with no one.”

–Lillian LaFrance

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THE WALL OF DEATH DAREDEVILS | LIONS & RIDERS & FAIRS — OH MY!

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Circa 1929, Wall of Death, Revere Beach, MA

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With the quickly improving build quality, speed, and more oil-tight engines, motorcycle racing was able to move from dirt tracks onto the motordromes of the 1910s– large wooden board tracks used for streamlined competition with banked turns of 70-80 degrees.  Riders soon learned a neat trick– that with a little speed, centripetal force made it possible for them to stick their bike sideways in turns on a completely vertical wall.

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Motordrome racer on an Excelsior motorcycle, circa 1914

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Motorcycle companies here and abroad (Indian and BSA, to name a couple) found that the public loved the thrill of peering down just a few feet away from the gunning biker beneath them, and thus it quickly became a highly promoted spectacle as manufacturers used it as a vehicle to advertise their brands, and daredevil riders upped the ante at breakneck speed to make a name for themselves and  solidify their reputations on the infamous Wall of Death.

With roots that can be traced back to New York’s own Coney Island, the Wall of Death attraction morphed into a motordrome on crack.  Motorcycles, carts and yep, even lions— simultaneously racing and criss-crossing in a raucous blur of fumes, fury, and fur inside the equivalent of an over-sized wooden barrel. The sport had a strong run from the 1930s- 1960s (with Indian Scouts being the over-riding bike of choice), but there are still hardcore enthusiasts to be found all over keeping it alive today.

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Dick Monte with two handsome-as-hell Wall of Death riders, circa 1945. The rider on the left is Elias Harris, and  on the right is Tornado Smith.  Photo from the late Carrie Tindale collection.

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AUTO EROTICA | RED HOT SEX ON WHEELS

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1964 Porsche 904 Carrera GTS

1964 Porsche 904 Carrera GTS

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The Porsche 904 was produced from 1964 to 1965 as a successor to 718, and marked the beginning of a series of sportscars that culminated in the mighty Porsche 917.  Porsche originally developed the 904 GTS for competition in the FIA-GT class at international racing events. The street-legal version debuted in 1964 in order to comply with GT-class homologation regulations, which require that a minimum number of production models be sold in the market. Both versions featured the sleek, fiberglass body (a first for Porsche at that time) joined to the stiff, steel chassis for extra rigidity. The 904’s mid-engine design was inherited from the mighty Porsche 718, or RSK, Porsche’s dominant race car.

Race-prepped, four-cylinder Porsche 904s weighed in at approximately 1,443 pounds (655 kg), and could easily achieve 0-60 in under six seconds, and a top speed of 160 MPH.

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1979 Aston Martin DBS V-8

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MID-ENGINE DUEL THAT NEVER WAS | THE 390 AMX/3 VS. THE 351 PANTERA

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AMX/3

The AMC AMX/3

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The Italians may have perfected the mid-engine super car, but it was British racing innovation that got us there.  The 1959 Formula One championship  marked the first time a mid-engine race car had ever claimed the ultimate victory.  Jack Brabham made racing history behind the wheel of a mid-engine Cooper T-51 race car, and the course of car design was forever altered, as mid-engined race cars began to dominate on the world’s racing circuits.

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1963 Ferrari 250P Racing

The 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans -- won by the mid-engine Ferrari 250P.

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By 1961 the Italians, who were at first slow to adapt to the mid-engine design were fully in the game, and all regular competitors in Formula One were driving mid-engined race cars. Other milestone victories for the mid-engine soon followed — the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans won by Ludovico Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini in a Ferrari 250P; and the 1965 Indianapolis 500 won by Jim Clark driving a Lotus 38.

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De Tomaso Pantera

The De Tomaso Pantera

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AUTO UNDERDOG AMC | WALLY BOOTH’S GROWLIN’ GREMLIN STREET CRED

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Wally Booth Press

AMC Pro Stock press for Wally Booth & his Gremlin X

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That’s right, it’s a Gremlin– without a doubt one, of the ugliest, least respected, aerodynamically-challenged cars ever produced on American soil.  Wisconsin-based AMC had never been known for beautiful design or muscle, and so their entry into the muscle car market in the 1970s was seen as a classic tale of– a day late & a  dollar short.  When AMC signed Wally Booth to head the AMC Pro Stock effort, despite that there were virtually no aftermarket components for AMG engines, he and engine-building partner Dick Arons transformed the brand’s staid grocery-getter reputation from the ground up into that of a genuine performance powerhouse– all from scratch.  Needless to say, everyone on the racing scene quickly took notice, as the red-headed stepchild to America’s “Big Three” automakers worked tirelessly with the little they had, and started to kick some serious tail.

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Wally Booth's Gremlin X

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