“It’s not that far,” I lied.
Or maybe I actually believed it at the time; 2,811 miles doesn’t seem that far if you’ve driven from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours, as I have. But that was nine years ago, in a BMW M5, arguably the best and most appropriate car for the task. This time was going to be different.
I was lying to my co-driver, The Drive’s Zach Bowman, an experienced young motorcycle rider, automotive journalist and father of a one-year old. We were about to cross the country non-stop in a open-topped, wood-framed 2013 Morgan 3 Wheeler. Whatever the physical and mental toll. However many zip ties, fuel pumps, catheters, yards of duct tape and period correct layers it took. Bowman agreed to go without us ever having met.
Winter be damned.
Want to know courage? Courage was the look on Bowman’s face when he groaned, contorting himself behind the wheel of the Morgan for the first time, just nine hours before we departed L.A. This was the most foolhardy automotive endeavor since Erwin “Cannonball” Baker first set out on the first transcontinental record run in 1915, and I knew it.
Everyone warned me. My mother. My brother. My girlfriend. My attorney. The first two co-drivers I asked. The site editor at Weather.com. The Morgan dealer. The other Morgan dealer. My second and fourth ex-fiancees, who left me over such follies, in 2003 and 2007, respectively. I warned me. I was terrified, which was why lying to Bowman was so easy. I couldn’t do it alone, as was my original plan, until I’d convinced a wiser man to follow my lead, after which anything was possible. I had a fairly good guess as to how bad it would be. I’d once driven the Morgan from Santa Monica to San Francisco. And back. In the same day. About 1/5th the distance from L.A. to NYC. I likened it to driving a gondola. With a few extra layers and a rubber tube running down my leg, what could go wrong? I’d done the Baja.
“You’re an idiot,” my best friend said. “This is going to be like Stalingrad. On wheels.”
You Are All Cowards
Yes, you. You people, with four wheels, heat, adjustable vents, windshields, front and rear defrosters, electric windows, roll-up windows, fresh door seals, roofs, removable hardtops, convertible hardtops and insulated soft tops. You, with your airbags, crumple zones, seat-belt tensioners, sound deadening, adjustable suspension, run-flat tires, cruise control, interior lights and heated seats that recline. All of you, with your Waze, GPS, OnStar, smartphones, bluetooth, wireless headsets, iphone integration and radar detectors.
You are as spoiled as I was when David Maher and I broke the Cannonball Record in 2006.
You are also far, far smarter than Bowman and I. There remains absolutely no reason anyone should attempt to drive across this fine land across quickly as possible in any vehicle. But, once one has done the mental yoga to invent a reason, and found the time and money, and rewritten one’s will, and lied to one’s employer for time off, and convinced a significant other that you’ll make it up by taking them to that dreaded vegan restaurant they love...it makes sense to do so in the fastest, safest, most comfortable vehicle available.
But that it was where I now differ with conventional wisdom. This was going to happen in a Morgan 3 Wheeler, and nothing could stop me from trying. Finishing was another question.
Why? Why? Why?
Because the age of Human Driving is coming to an end. Because I want something money can’t buy. Because I want to be able to walk into a bar full of Ferrari owners, all bad cologne and mesh golf polo and freshly-detailed 360 Modenas, and see them cower as I toss my frayed catheter down and watch it thaw. Because we live in an age of sloth and cowardice, where experience is bought and gifted rather than built and fought for. An age where people spend $100,000 on the Gumball 3000 and think they know what the original “Cannonball Run” was actually like. An age where people spend $100,000 to do Burning Man in an air conditioned tent, drop second rate acid and have a “spiritual” experience. An age where you pay someone to carry your luggage up Mount Everest.
This Morgan drive? It’s an icepick in the face of commoditized gravitas.
I’ve seen the future. I drove it last month, while setting the Electric & Autonomous Cannonball records in a Tesla Model S. The future is filled with conveniences borne of new technologies. Automatic Braking. Distance Sensing Cruise Control. Automatic Steering. Lane Assist. Fleet Learning. These wonders will make our lives “easier,” our roads safer. They’ll “free” us to work during our commutes, or sleep, or do anything but actually take the wheel and risk death learning the limits of grip on wet roads at 100-plus-mph. Which, of course, no one should be doing.
Or should we? Someone needs to know how to really drive, right? If only to teach the Artificial Intelligences that, within our lifetimes, will be chauffeuring us at least 96.1 percent of the time. Yes, 96.1 percent. That’s how much of the driving was performed by the Tesla during our team’s aforementioned cross-country drive. And that percentage will increase as the Autonomotive Singularity approaches, inexorably, until the last person takes the wheel on a public road. It is inevitable, like it or not. Until then, and certainly after, someone also needs to know how to drive when technology fails. Because that, too, is inevitable.
Training Wheels Forever
We who love cars face a Wall-E future. Training wheels forever. This is the equivalent of biomedical advances that brought us antibiotics: A common good thing for the whole of society… until the organisms from which we seek protection grow immune to our solutions. Who is in favor of death by infection? Only a madman, and so it must be with automotive safety features. What’s technology but the march to reduce inefficiency, to protect us from our mistakes? Road deaths should be reduced by any and all means, but not at the expense of our self-sufficiency.
Where technology giveth, technology also taketh away.
A 10- or 20- or even 50-year-old car is as safe as a brand-new Tesla, if the driver is truly aware of the car and the conditions in which he or she is driving. If an accident is defined as an “unforeseen event,” you know that the 90 percent of auto crashes involving a single car aren’t accidents at all. They are failures of education. The auto insurance industry exists because we are unwilling to assign blame to those responsible. As a result, our culture fosters a pervasive and emasculating cycle of endless upgrades, a conveyor belt of disposable hardware, brimming with improvements, without which we feel inadequate to leave the house, isolating us from the physical world and annihilating our relationship to and understanding of—both figuratively and literally—how rubber meets the road.
The End of Driving As We Know It
Make no mistake, there is a War On Driving. Speed traps, abnormally low speed limits, gratuitous court fees, registration fee hikes, rising insurance rates, criminally high tolls, license plate cameras, speed cameras, the loss of street parking in urban areas, taxes on parking garages, parking tickets. It’s all an assault on a group of people most of whom, especially in the United States, have to drive: Our entire economy and infrastructure is based on the car, and yet we’re increasingly punished for getting to work. Given the costs, it’s a miracle car enthusiast culture survives here at all. As our surveillance state grows, and the components of Autonomous Driving technologies become ubiquitous, car enthusiasts wishing to take physical and legal responsibility for driving will be funneled into a world of limited roads and draconian costs.
We’re told it’s for safety, for progress. Yet, there’s nothing being done to improve average citizens’ skills through the cheapest of all methods: Education. We are now in an intermediate phase of this war, with high-powered, post-analog, pre- and semi-Autonomous cars in the hands of drivers whose modest skills are rapidly atrophying. Factor in a dollar-per-horsepower ratio unthinkable 20 years ago, and it’s no wonder calls for more regulation and more safety come raining down with every spectacular accident caused by a spoiled, untrained teenager in an AMG.
What is the future of car enthusiasts who care about the art and craft of driving?
In the War on Driving, I am pro-choice. But it is choice itself I fear will evaporate with time.
The End of Cannonballing?
The ultimate Cannonball Records of the late analog/pre-Autonomous era have already been set. Whereas my 2006 record run with David Maher re-opened the door after a quarter-century devoid of successful tries, Ed Bolian and Dave Black almost certainly closed it with their run in 2013. If the Bolain/Black time of 28 hour, 50 minutes can be broken with current technology, it will be by mere minutes.
So you might argue there’s nothing left to prove by resurrecting Cannonball folly. I disagree. The original intent of the solo runs a century ago was to demonstrate the speed, endurance and reliability of the second and third iterations of the internal combustion engines that followed the Ford Model T. This was followed by Brock Yates’ multi-car Cannonball Runs of the Seventies, which, in his own words, were primarily a protest against encroaching government. The secret U.S. Express races of the Eighties evolved into a technological battle of will; they too evaporated under the threat Yates warned of.
Once I accepted the Bolain/Black time, that the ICE Cannonball Record is theoretically unbreakable, I thought all such attempts were futile. Then I got into a Tesla S with Carl Reese and Deena Mastracci, and I saw that the spirit of Cannonball would live on as metaphor. There is no greater spur for any automotive technology—or family of technologies—than that fabled cross-country run. The 57:48 record we set is the Autonomous Cannonball equivalent to the early record Erwin Baker himself set in that old Stutz. It will fall just as the Stutz record fell, because it is in human nature to design, build and improve. Progress.
Progress begets competition, and competition breeds improvement, but not necessarily of ourselves. Even if the Age of Autonomy leads to the hacking of vehicular AI, the disabling of tracking devices and the annihilation of the Bolain/Black record, those responsible won’t be Cannonballers. They will merely have hacked the Cannonball. They will have advanced the science of transportation, but not the art of driving.
Why The Morgan 3-Wheeler Cannonball Record Matters
Call it dumb. Foolish. Irresponsible. Dangerous. Idiotic. I say take it up with Sir Edmund Hillary, and ban skydiving while you’re at it.
When in the course of human events an era comes to its end, what is lost—and what is worth saving—cannot be fully grasped without going back its beginning. There is no better example of the beginning and the end of driving, in its rawest form, than the rebirthed Morgan 3 Wheeler. It’s the last tool you still can still buy from the shed of pure analog.
Yes, a three-wheeled, two-cylindered, wooden-framed, open-topped, no-tech, single car attempt to set a new Cannonball Run record.
The Morgan 3 Wheeler isn’t a car? I dare you to walk into any biker bar and tell ‘em your Morgan is a motorcycle. It might be registered as such (and therefore exempt from traditional automotive safety regulations), but other than its S&S twin, it is in every way a car. A car very close to its original pre-WWI father, just with more power, and the braking and handling characteristics best described as entertaining. It has all the downsides of a motorcycle and none of the upsides of a car.
Soichiro Honda once said that, in the future, there would “be just half a dozen car companies...and Morgan.”
Hyperbole? You haven’t driven one. Anybody who considers themselves a car enthusiast should while it’s still legal, because it shouldn’t be, and I don’t think it will be for long. I almost hope it is declared illegal, because I currently own two and the value will skyrocket, much like anything unmolested with a manual.
The drive itself? A vainglorious final statement of what two qualified, committed analog purists can accomplish in a car even the most loyal owner will tell you shouldn’t make it, even under the best conditions. It was exactly as I feared. A bitterly, freezing, ear-splitting 2,823 miles crossed in 41 hours and 49 minutes, averaging 80mph through frigid wind whilst narrowly dodging winter’s first storms. It was Stalingrad On Wheels. It was terrible. It was perfect.
Even now I’m not entirely sure what record(s) we broke. I’ve heard rumors an old Morgan once crossed the country in nine days. I heard a Harley did it in 52 hours. As for the Cannonball records we set, here goes, tongue firmly in cheek:
1. The Morgan Record
2. The Three-Wheeler Record
3. The Open-Topped Vehicle Record
4. The Open-Wheel Record
5. The Wooden-Framed Record
6. The V-Twin Record
All these records will be broken, though not necessarily by one vehicle. So, as the analog era comes to end, consider this a foolhardy uniting of multiple belts a la WWF.
Mostly, I’ve decided we’re all lucky to live in a society where such things, however silly and seemingly unnecessary, remain possible. In a world full of tragedy, we remain blessed with certain privileges and freedoms, big and small. To wear pink pants. Or have a Mohawk. Or listen to Iron Maiden, or Abba. To buy a Ford over a Chevy. To drive or not to drive, as long as no one gets hurt. Let us take nothing for granted. Don’t ask me why, but I’d do it again. Yes, I look forward to a safer future on our roads. But you’ll have to pry the Morgan’s removable steering wheel from my frozen, dead fingers.
Alex Roy is an American rally race driver. In 2006, he set a transcontinental driving record, crossing the United States in 31 hours, 4 minutes. Read about his most recent record run, in a Morgan 3 Wheeler.