The Soul of the Machine
The Morgan EV3 begs the question: How dear the price of progress?
My bleating, sputtering, wood-framed Morgan 3-wheeler has a soul. There's no reason anyone should believe a collection of metal, rubber, wood, and plastic is imbued with a spiritual essence, but I do. And I'm not alone: among enthusiasts the idea that a vehicle has a soul—and some cars more than others—is basically a given.
The debates that surround the topic are as fractious as the selection of a Pope. Every time a new model comes out someone complains about the march of progress. No manual? Drive-by-wire? Water-cooled? Lost its soul.
As long as Morgan, the one company that would never sacrifice principle to progress, stayed in business, I felt protected from technology’s assault. I vowed that if I ever bought a new car it would be another Morgan, which in many ways is like buying, well, an old car.
Then Morgan announced the EV3, an electric version of their iconic 3-wheeler.
Where progress stirs, an avalanche of doubt follows. Would Morgan eventually phase out internal combustion engines? Is an electric Morgan still a Morgan? More importantly, what was it I was hanging on to? And why?
“Soul” vs “The Soul”
Plato, Aristotle, Socrates: all believed in a hierarchy of souls based on “logical faculty.” Plants, biologically programmed to the whim of wind and sun and soil, are on one end of the spectrum and people—compulsive, feeling, often irrational—are on the other. By that standard the computing, calculating, semi-autonomous Tesla Model S has more of a soul than the analog Bugatti Type 35.
Of course, none of those dudes had the chance to pilot a Morgan 3-wheeler, or for that matter a Porsche 930.
Eastern and Animist definitions are far more liberal. They talk of “soul” rather than “the soul.” Inherent to, rather than distinct from. The essence of a specific quality or characteristic; it can exist in inanimate objects as well as human beings.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Pets and places, or music, art, and other human creations suddenly spring to life. Machines—at least certain, special machines—snap into focus. Because even in our era of mass-produced family-haulers, if you trace the life cycle of any car back far enough there's a person at the other end.
Why Do Some Cars Have More Soul Than Others?
No one ever says, “my car had an accident.” We say “I had an accident.” The cars we drive become an extension of ourselves. The weakest high school senior is transformed every time he gets into his Mustang GT; it's why he saves up for the pony car instead of defaulting to the five-year-old Camry.
And what do we talk about when we talk about a Camry? What does it embody? Comfort. Reliability. Value. A car that's no more, or less, than it purports to be. It's an honest machine but ignites nothing within us, for the same reason we don't want to watch a movie about the world's best accountant. But apply that same embodiment test to cars that have qualities to which we ourselves aspire—strength, agility, attractiveness—and suddenly we're in Porsche 911 territory but the Hyundai Elantra isn't part of the conversation. And the better a car embodies those attractive qualities, and the better they combine to create a distinct personality, the more soul it's said to have. It doesn't only apply to the good stuff, either; flaws can play as large a part in the overall mix as strengths if those flaws help create an overall sense of identity. Just like a gap-toothed smile is fetching when it belongs to Lauren Hutton, overly aggressive power, or rawness of build, or the lack of high-tech materials can add to a car's sense of character.
Cars may be mechanical constructs, but they're of human design, human engineering. The end result of the ideas and the opinions and the desires of people. When there's an easy line to draw between a set of cars and a single person—the 365 Daytona GTB/4 to Enzo Ferrari, the Lotus Esprit to Colin Chapman, or the Miura to Ferruccio Lamborghini, for example—it's easier to ascribe a soul to the machines because the human fingerprint is so apparent. But even when those founders and visionaries are dead or otherwise gone, some automotive brands resonate more than others. This is because a brand, too, can have a soul—and some brands are better than others at imbuing their vehicles with that specific essence. Stray too far from it and the idea behind the vehicles becomes lost.
Consider Porsche versus Nissan. What is Porsche, and what has Porsche always been, no matter how many Cayennes and Macan crossovers they sell? A sports car with the engine in the back. Every new 911 is yet another assault in Porsche's war on physics—one it never intends to win, because it's more important that they keep the thread between its new car and its 1960s icon. Porsche knows where its soul lies, and so do you when you get behind the wheel. You understand the precise nature of the passion, values, and choices that created those cars. And when the electric 911 arrives, Porsche will array its batteries to replicate the weight distribution of that rear-engined flat-six.
Now, let's consider the Nissan GT-R. The original vision of Nissan founder Masujiro Hashimoto wasn't sports cars, it was trucks and passenger cars. Modern Nissan likewise produces passenger cars. The incredibly capable GT-R exists, in a sense, in a vacuum; it endures not to evoke the brand, but to force us to reimagine it. It's a technological marvel surrounded by cars we know to be fundamentally different, and without a real heritage to fall back on it looks only to the future—to performance through technology and incredible feats of engineering. And you know what driving it feels like? Like you're experiencing technology, and incredible feats of engineering. It's why we respect the GT-R but don't love it; we value what it does, not what it represents. The sum total of its value lives in its specifications.
Want to drive a Nissan with a soul? Get behind the wheel of a vintage Datsun.
The Soul in the Machine
Progress, by which we usually mean technology, is not a natural enemy of vehicular soul. As long as technology serves a clear vision, that soul lives on.
The instant I saw Morgan’s electric 3-wheeler, I knew I my fears were baseless. The soul of a Morgan, the thing that speaks to me, isn't just the method of propulsion, the beloved S&S twin (though it definitely helps). Consider, in the electric model, those copper battery cooling ducts. The offset monocle headlight. The asymmetric aero. Like its predecessor, the EV3 is fantastic, gorgeous, dangerous, new, old, exciting, evocative, inspiring, bizarre. It's unique, like every Morgan before it. Would H.F.S Morgan have approved of the EV3? Absolutely. It's the Morgan of future past, honoring both.
Soul needn’t explain itself. No amount of horsepower, leather, badging, or chrome can fake it; no price point guarantees it. You know it when you see it, when you feel it. And as long as cars have steering wheels and traction control can be turned off and human error has consequences, someone, somewhere, will make a car that speaks to us. A collection of metal, plastic, wood, and rubber—and, yes, something else.