I come from a family who takes in strays. Homeless dogs and cats, unwanted gerbils, and homeless goldfish seem to collect in my family members' households, despite frequent proclamations of "no more pets!" In my own case, though I'm not immune to a puppy's beseeching brown eyes or the purring of an Abyssinian, it's orphaned automobiles and discarded motorcycles that tend to follow me home. While it is true that, theoretically at least, a vintage Honda motorbike or old British sports car won't eat you out of house and home, my forlorn mechanical beasts have a way of quickly consuming capital at the same rate as a full-grown Saint Bernard.
Let's consider just the past year. I'll disregard the 1975 Honda CB200T motorcycle that I bought in the spring because there was a specific reason for its purchase: I used it to ride in the Lake Erie Loop, a non-stop charity run around the perimeter of Lake Erie on 30-year-old motorcycles of 200cc displacement or smaller. It ran like a champ and carried me 650 miles around the lake in a mere 14 hours of two-cylinder, two-wheeled madness. But it isn't really an orphan and I went out of my way to buy it, so we can't really call it a stray.
Consider then my 1967 Garelli Rex KL100. This Italian-built 100cc motorbike was unearthed from the dry basement of a defunct motorcycle shop in Milwaukee, where it sat in the dark for more than 35 years. When I picked up in June it was covered in cosmoline, used to keep it from rusting on its trip across the Atlantic, and its handlebars were still wrapped in burlap and tied with twine to the side of the bike. This stylish black-and-white Italian has never had fuel in its tank and has never been ridden. Its Pirelli tires are like new, the dark environment having caused no degradation. I bought it to ride it, but having dragged it home, and realizing that it is undoubtedly the only unridden, unused, and never started 1967 Garelli Rex KL100 extant, I couldn't bring myself to sully its fuel tank with gasoline and deflower it by going for a ride. It now lives in a place of honor in my office, a piece of Italian sculpture about which visitors always comment, sometimes in confused tones conveying that they have no earthly idea why I would have a motorcycle in my office.
It definitely seemed to be my year for bikes. In the '80s Honda went wild with its motorcycle designs. The company offered a bewildering array of engine configurations including singles, twins, V-twins, V-fours, inline-fours, and even an inline six-cylinder. It was crazy and wonderful and today most of those bikes are available for a song, even for someone who sings off-key. Having recently sold my dual-sport KLR, I wanted something to ride around on trails and dirt roads. I wanted it to be small and economical. I wanted it to be reliable. I wanted it to be suitably strange. One model kept cropping up in that mixture, a Honda NX250. Widely known around the world but quite rare in the States, this is a smallish, water-cooled, single-cylinder pack mule that Honda built for just a few years in the late '80s. There was one on my local Craigslist. It had been there for more than a month. For at least a week I managed to ignore the listing--only checking it two or three times daily. Finally I couldn't take it any longer. I loaded up my trailer, drove for an hour each way and came home with a somewhat bedraggled but complete and running Honda NX250. A couple of days cleaning it up, changing the oil, oiling the chain, and flushing the brake fluid and I had the dual-sport that I had been dreaming of.
At the end of last year, as the markets melted and fortunes evaporated like morning dew, more than a few cars got stranded on eBay. These were cars that had been placed on "no-reserve" auctions that could be expected, in normal circumstances, to bring a pretty sum, but whose bidding had stalled when the bottom dropped out. One such car was a 1949 Morgan 4/4 sports car; I threw in a low-ball bid that ordinarily wouldn't be enough to buy a Morgan parts car and was more than a little shocked when it was suddenly mine. It's the third Morgan I have owned. I had a very nice 1959 Plus 4 and a completely disassembled 1947 4/4 but sold both of these cars more than 10 years ago, figuring at the time that Morgans were not that rare and that I could always buy another. In the past decade, however, Morgan prices more than doubled, leaving my chances of Morgan ownership all but nonexistent. Until that twist of fate that destroyed Wall Street and the free enterprise system. To all of you who purchased houses far beyond your means to pay for them, I want to thank you for my Morgan.
My trusty truck and trailer carried me to St. Louis, where Don and his wife had tears in their eyes as they watched me haul away a car that they had owned since 1973. Don was a retired airline pilot who had purchased the car from Donald Hudgins, a fellow airline pilot who liked to import cars from Britain. He had brought the little Morgan over from England, having purchased it from Richard John Leeson from Surrey. How do I know this? The car came with its original green ownership and registration document, one that lists every owner since the car was first sold on March 1, 1949. I am the eighth person to have it.
Morgans all have their own personalities. How could they not? They are to this day built entirely by hand. Modifications are common and indeed the lads at the factory have always been more than accommodating when it comes to adding this or changing that. My car should have a 1,267cc Standard Special four-cylinder engine that Standard (which later owned Triumph) built just for Morgan. Instead, it has an 1,147cc Triumph Spitfire engine and gearbox that were cleverly grafted into the chassis in the distant past. This took place before the car ever found its way to the United States, so the Spitfire motor has actually been in the car longer than the original Standard Special sat under the bonnet. It has the requisite flat radiator and Lucas headlamps and, like almost every British sports car I've owned, the wiring under the dash is a spaghetti-like mess of bare wires, twisted together in the optimistic hope that electrons will flow. The seats are seedy and the paint is scuffed and scratched, but it is a Morgan, and it's mine.
This year is the company's 100th Anniversary and my plan is to get my ratty, scruffy old Morgan up and running in time to attend a few shows and whatever else comes our way. Like an aging tomcat with a torn ear and an oddly disjointed tail, it wears the circumstances of its history with pride and a bit of attitude, another stray that has found itself a home.