Driving a Morgan 3-Wheeler Trained Me to Stop a Mugging
Steer left, steer right. Brake on, Brake off.
I once thought The Karate Kid was nonsense. Paint the fence. Sand the floor. Wax on, wax off. Daniel-san thinks his time is being wasted, only to learn that mastering chores is the key to earning a Black Belt. A good movie, but it's pretty clear that in real life the only way Daniel-san was leaving the All-Valley Martial Arts Tournament alive was if he’d brought a gun.
Then, on a balmy evening in lower Manhattan, I was visited by the ghost of Mr. Miyagi’s long-dead and longer-lost English cousin. He came in the form of H.F.S. Morgan, founder of Morgan Motor Cars, and he came bearing instructions: Bend the leg. Clutch in, clutch out.
I was driving alone in my Morgan 3-Wheeler, a $60,000 open-wheeled casket for two. Women and dogs love it, but driving it is work. There's a rudder in the shape of a steering wheel, and the world’s worst massaging seats, courtesy of the two-litre S&S Twin slung like a bulldog’s face over the front axle. You have to wear a helmet. Not for your head, but for your hearing. It idles like a pack of mastiffs grunting in a mailbag; full throttle makes a Hellcat sound like a kazoo. Handling is pure Venetian—a gondola with an outboard. Grip only comes with gloves (not included). Acceleration? It exists, which is not to say it's any good. Forget HVAC: bring a scarf. Visibility is total, as is your exposure to wind, rain, and rocks. Goggles are mandatory.
Steer left, steer right.
My arms ached. I had just survived another gratuitous circuit of Manhattan, one of the last undistilled adventures left in life—a helix of masochism and joy, street lights strobing between trucks as you weave in bundled terror, a parade of one leaving open-mouthed bystanders and the wail of car alarms in its wake.
Hold the wheel. Keep the lane.
My ears were ringing, my clawed hands numb. The Morgan is not a driver’s car, it’s a grappler’s. Every limb is in some state of tension, extension, flexion; your whole body is stretched, shaken, in pain. There is no dead pedal. In between shifts one’s left leg is painfully curled under the right, which is never strong enough to push the seemingly useless brake pedal far enough to actually slow the car.
Until, of course, it does, shuddering as if a drag chute had been deployed. I hit a pothole, the wheel jerked in my hands, the steering arms clanged against the exhaust, and the uncertain marriage of steel, wood and aluminum slapped, hopped, and ambled to a stop.
The bumbumbumbum of the S&S satisfied my aching back as much as it annoyed the male half of the couples seated outside Gemma, the popular Bowery Hotel restaurant in front of which I’d stopped for a coffee I wasn’t going to drink. (Why here? The women. And the dogs.)
Emergency brake on. Emergency brake off.
The gorgeous, long silver lever aches to be pulled but never wants to engage. I placed both hands on it and yanked, my shoulders aflame, then pressed the inexplicably-engineered cylindrical locking button with both gloved thumbs. Only then did I let go.
Engine on, engine off.
In a rare concession to comfort, turning the car off is accomplished merely by turning a key. The raucous noise evaporated in angry belches, coughs, crackles, and ever-slowing clicks, and with it the morphine-like distraction from pain that only comes into focus when the mechanical circus subsides. My head throbbed.
Egress is agony. It unites the myriad aches, strains, cricks, and knots previously masked by the thrill of cheating death. Now sitting in silence, I was just a middle-aged peacock in a sweat-drenched scarf, unable to raise myself without audible groans, pondering the eternal question of all Morgan owners: Why? What was the point of all this suffering?
Then I saw them. Two teenage boys sprinting westbound toward my car. The first kid brushed past my shoulder, darted through traffic, and disappeared toward Lafayette Street. The second was an arm’s length away as over his shoulder a young woman struggled to keep up, screaming: “Help! Stop him!”
A real-life damsel in distress! And I, with a Men's Warehouse pocket square tucked into the black dinner jacket I’d found in my foyer after a party, wearing an oil-stained pair of knockoff John Surtees stringback driving gloves and a pair of $10 counterfeit RAF goggles around my neck. Somehow, I’d been waiting for this moment my entire life.
Steer left, steer right. Clutch in, clutch out.
I was strong—I daily-drive a Morgan 3-wheeler! My reflexes were razor sharp, my arms toned, my clawed hands ready. Like a cobra I reached out and grabbed the boy by the collar. I didn’t want to hurt him. I wasn’t worried; I was twice his size. Hold the wheel. Keep the lane. I had this one.
Turns out, I didn’t have this one. He kept running as I held on, yanking my left shoulder and tearing the rotator cuff. We fell onto the hood of a passing car.
“Help us!” the girl screamed at the hundred-plus Gemma diners. They sat in groups of four and six, models and bankers eating beet salad and drinking sparkling wine and smoking Marlboro Lights, as if my first fight since fifth grade wasn’t erupting thirty feet away.
Bend the leg. Brake on, Brake off.
I was injured, but I had another arm. In desperate, awkward lunges we ran in figure 8’s around halting Bowery traffic. He tried to sprint back toward Gemma but I caught him, reached out with my good arm, grabbed his collar and pulled him to the ground in front of the entrance.
“Where is it?” the girl yelled.
“I don’t have it!” the kid yelled back.
“WHAT IS IT?” I yelled at them both.
He tried to get up. I pressed my knee against his chest. He pulled at my left arm and lava seared across my shoulder. I wasn’t going to be able to hold him. I turned my head toward the diners, praying one of these arugula-chomping cowards would drop their fucking Prosecco and save me. No luck. Soulcycle doesn’t hand out certificates for bravery.
And then hotel security arrived, followed by the NYPD, and the dashing Max, Gemma’s general manager who looks like the adopted son of Pierce Brosnan and Rocco Siffredi. Plus a waiter with a tray of glasses, one of them with my name on it.
“Aleeeeeeex,” Max said as he handed me a glass, “you’re a hero. It’s amaaazing. I know you don’t drink, but you must try this wonderful Prosecco...”
It was over. The victim said I was a hero. The police told me to keep it down. They knew the Morgan; the same two cops had pulled me over the prior summer, to take pictures. Max comped my dinner. A full spread arrived, including a beet salad and a bottle of sparkling wine I couldn't refuse.
But it wasn’t really over. I couldn’t raise my left arm. Although I had survived hundreds of laps of Manhattan in a Morgan, despite all the training in the H.F.S. Morgan School of Hand-to-Hand Combat, my rotator cuff had been torn by a 13-year old. And not even a big one.
All for an iPhone. Not a 6+, or even a 5. An iPhone 4. Which, in the end, was never recovered.
As for The Karate Kid, I’d call it a documentary. H.F.S. left out a couple of exercises, though.
Raise the arm. Signal the turn.
I’ll start when I’m out of the sling.