Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Morgan Adventure

My Morgan in the Badlands of South Dakota.
It was the end of May, 2010, when I tied a large suitcase to the back of my Morgan, asked my wife to squeeze into the passenger seat, and slid myself behind the old, cracked Bluemel steering wheel of my English roadster. We were heading off on an almost six week tour of the United States and Canada.

A little more than a year earlier I had lost my job as a newspaper photographer for The London Free Press. There was a layoff with a buyout offer attached. I took the bait, the company took my camera, I walked out the door. Almost a year and a half later, the stock market had recovered somewhat, my retirement looked a little more secure, it seemed safe to hit the road.

Morgans are often called "the last of the true British sportscars." Still made today in Malvern Link, Great Britain, the Plus 4 model that I drive has a history going back to the early '50s and a look with roots in the mid '30s. I've had mine for 43 years and a lot has changed since I bought it new in December of '68.

Back then a Morgan was a simple car on which any mechanic could work in a pinch. Today an old Morgan is somewhat of a mystery to many mechanics. I asked my wife's mechanic if he'd feel comfortable working on my Morgan's twin SUs. "No problem, " he quickly replied. "The only thing that would give me pause," he continued, "would be old carburetors. I don't know a thing about old carburetors." 

He was right. He didn't. Twin SUs are carburetors --- two of them! (A history of SU carburetors can be found here.) I found another mechanic.

As you can imagine, taking a Morgan on a cross-country tour today is an adventure. You have a better chance of finding an old farmer familiar with a sputtering Morgan with its Ferguson tractor heritage than finding a young mechanic comfortable with old-fashioned mechanical stuff.

I carry a box of spare parts on the shelf behind the seats. I figure an old farmer will appreciate the stuff. I certainly don't have a clue as what I should do with a set of points or a new distributor rotor. (It is said that one reason that Standard Vanguard cars sold so well in Australian farming communities was because the engine parts were interchangeable with the farmer's tractor.)

The little roadster got a clean bill of health before leaving.
As insurance against problems, before leaving for the States I had the oil changed, the car greased and the rad coolant topped up. The little roadster was inspected by the Beers, Martin and Steve, and it passed inspection. The Bolton, Ontario, car shop specializing in Morgans declared my roadster fit to tackle a 7500 mile adventure.

I also visited the CAA before leaving and loaded up on maps, lots of maps, maps of every state and every province on our itinerary. And then I bought a GPS so that we wouldn't need the maps. Mix maps and my wife together and the result is divorce. The GPS was marriage insurance.

And so, on Saturday, May 29, we struck out. Shortly after leaving the GPS struck out. It stepped up to the plate and took a swing at telling us how to get to Sarnia from London and proclaimed: "Go north, young man!" I guess our GPS has never heard of Horace Greeley. The correct answer was, "Go west, young man!"

All the way to Sarnia our GPS insisted we get off the 402 and head north. While in line at the border, I took the time to reboot the damn electronic navigational genius ---  not! This time it wanted to head for I-94. This seemed reasonable and so once through customs we headed for the Interstate.

But the ETA, estimated time of arrival, seemed wrong --- hours too late --- and I was getting concerned. My gut told me we should soon be heading west for Clarkston and our B and B; my GPS disagreed. I rebooted it again or maybe I should say that I re-rebooted it. In a moment it was re-recalculating and in another moment it was commanding us to turn right in 200 metres. Gads! We darted to the exit and off the freeway heading west.

Our first stop: Clarkston, Michigan. A cool America town.
Less than two hours out of London and I was deciding to risk my marriage and ask my wife to consult a map. She quickly determined that this time the GPS seemed to be right. She agreed that maybe she should keep an eye on the little electronic navigational boob. This was not a happy development.

In less than thirty minutes we were in beautiful downtown Clarkston, Michigan. Clarkston is a bedroom community of Detroit, but unlike Detroit, Clarkston is successful. We stayed at the Millpond Inn. This is a B&B that an old friend from my art school days recommended and which I, too, heartily recommend.

Heritage flooring salvaged from Detroit
An interesting feature of the heritage home were the old wooden floors worn from decades of use and thousands of footsteps. It turned out that the floors were old but they weren't original. The floor boards were salvaged from fine heritage homes being demolished in Detroit.

This was the only B&B at which I tipped. The breakfast served at the Millpond Inn was not only good it was huge. Our host, Joan, went all out. I could not get over the selection. I had a little of everything: Omelets, fruit, pancakes, homemade bread, tarts and more. I waddled from the table. This lady earned a tip.

We had other breakfasts that equaled Joan's for quality but not quantity. Thank goodness. I actually lost about fifteen pounds over the course of the holiday. If every breakfast had been like Joan's, I would have gained fifteen pounds.

Our GPS recommended this gravel road as the quickest route.
From Clarkston we traveled to Grand Rapids. We gave the GPS a crack at getting us there and it looked good at first. We were on very pretty country roads heading west. Then it directed us down a gravel road. I was puzzled. It was set to find us the quickest route and I found it hard to believe that the very dusty gravel road we were now on was the quickest route. Damn. Only the second day out and Judy was scowling over maps again. This was not good.

Judy did get us to Grand Rapids but this still was not good. Judy hates maps and maps hate Judy. Luckily the GPS had no trouble finding our B&B in the Heritage Hill District. Then again, who would have a problem finding the Brayton House, a 9000 square foot, twenty-room Georgian Revival mansion. The magnificent staircase alone was worth the price of admission. Wow!

The Meyer May House in Grand Rapids is open for tours.
Just a short walk away from our B and B was the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Unfortunately for us, it was closed. We'll just have to return to Heritage Hill to visit the May House.

There appeared to be another Wright designed home in the neighbourhood; This was the J. H. Amberg House. It was one of the commissions left unfinished by Wright when he ran off to France with a client's wife. Completed by another architect, it has the Wright look but it's not an officially designated Wright residence.

Heritage Hill District in Grand Rapids, MI.
The Grand Rapids Heritage Hill District is worth a stroll and, if interested, each spring a number of private homes and historic buildings are open for an annual tour. Check out the details of the weekend tour. Maybe we'll see you there. Judy and I've been to The Hill three times and each time the Meyer May House has been closed. We just have to return to Heritage Hill for the spring tour.

We left Grand Rapids before 8:00 a.m. heading for Muskegon, Michigan, aiming to catch the Lake Express. The modern ferries speed across Lake Michigan, docking in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Again we used our GPS and again we had problems. It got us to a spot on Lakeshore Drive that it claimed was the entrance to the ferry terminal. It wasn't.

This time it the fault didn't lie with the GPS. The terminal had a Lakeshore Drive address but was actually located at the end of a long drive. Even Judy found it a little confusing. If Judy couldn't get it right, how could I expect the GPS to do better?

The line waiting to board the Lake Express.
We didn't spend much time in Milwaukee but took off along the Lake Michigan coast and then headed inland for historic Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

We had reservation in the Stagecoach Inn. Supposedly Cedarburg is the perfect Midwestern American town. We heard that John McCain and Sarah Palin kicked off their post convention campaign tour in Cedarburg. Their handlers felt the downtown provided the perfect mid-America streetscape.

Rumour has it that McCain lost. I'm not surprised. Cedarburg was nice but it didn't come close to winning our award for the best preserved Midwestern town. It did win the best hype award. And the folk in Cedarburg were genuinely friendly. I'd go back for the people but not necessarily for the town. I might steer clear if McCain and Palin were visiting.

Cedarburg has a number of heritage inns.
The next day we were off for La Crosse, Wisconsin and the folks at the B and B in La Crosse warned us that our GPS would never find them. With Judy covering our GPS's back, I wasn't worried --- but Judy was.

Half way across the state are the Wisconsin Dells, a scenic glacially-formed gorge with striking sandstone formations. A popular tourist destination, the Dells have an estimated five million visitors annually. We took a break from sightseeing in the Morgan and took to the water to do some sightseeing from a boat.

The GPS got us to the boat ticket booth just fine. And more amazingly, it got us to our B and B without a hitch. I was happy and Judy was happy. Our maps, for once, stayed in the glove compartment. That night we stayed at the Four Gables Bed and Breakfast on the edge of La Crosse.

The Dells are worth a stop. We took the northern tour

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