I Set the L.A. to N.Y. Record in a Morgan 3 Wheeler

And it was absolutely terrible.

byZach Bowman|
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The shapes have arrived. Dark and ragged at the edges of my eyesight, they’re fast and vicious, wolves or horses or hawks or humans flicking at the headlights and rippling through the Oklahoma treetops. I knew they’d be here. Fatigue plays cruel with your eyes and mind; when one goes, the other follows, dragging reality down, too. I try not to react when the shadows splash across the road and vanish, but they kick my heart in. I can feel it hammering under the five layers of synthetics and cotton piled up against the cold and the rain and the forgotten hours of the dark morning. I tell myself they’re just hallucinations, as if going mad is less terrifying than what I see. I stand on the throttle and pray the fuel runs out before I do.

We left Los Angeles 20 hours ago, and it’ll be another 21 before we pull into New York City. Alex Roy, that legend of idiot outlaw lore, sits in fitful sleep in the passenger seat of his Morgan 3 Wheeler. We’ve both made careers of the dangerous and unnecessary, but this is the deadliest stunt either of us have pulled: We’re gunning for the L.A. to NYC record in a machine that isn’t notably different from its 1920 counterpart, a contraption known only for reliably falling to pieces and the murder of fools.

The parts list fits on a cocktail napkin: three wheels, two cylinders, a Mazda transmission and a pile of tube steel. There are no airbags, no roll protection to speak of. The crumple zone starts at the ball of your foot and ends at your kneecap. You can reach out at any point and scald your knuckles on the exhaust or grind them off on the pavement below. You’ll find no heater or windshield wipers. We left in early November.

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Roy’s been planning this for months. Route. Timing. Weather. There are maps, spreadsheets, detailed route notes and a list of every mechanic capable of putting a wrench to the Morgan along the way. This isn’t a random act for him. It’s the very definition of premeditated, with one glaring exception: A last-minute co-driver. Me.

I’d never so much as seen a 3 Wheeler in the flesh before yesterday, but Roy figures he needs a wrench if he has any hope of getting across the continent. It feels like an impersonation of those mad bastards from the breaking days of Indianapolis, one man to drive the machine and another just to keep it moving. Nobody can tell me if anyone’s ever driven a 3 Wheeler across country. Rumor has it the last guy to try got the pleasure of watching his machine burn to the ground on the side of some hateful Midwestern highway.

If Roy’s name sounds familiar, it should. The guy’s an icon, almost single-handedly responsible for resurrecting interest in the transcontinental driving record. He holds Cannonball lore holy, and stamped his name on it in 2006 by setting a time of 31 hours and four minutes in a BMW M5. He’s energetic and affable, eyes sharp behind gold-rimmed, pink-lensed aviators. But the Morgan isn’t a comfortable, closed-cockpit German bruiser, and Roy has never had the pleasure of suffering long distance at the mercy of the wind and the cold. We’re both in for some learning.

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My concerns are mechanical. Roy trusts George Meyer at the Spot 44 Garage in Santa Monica, and convinced the guy to let me poke around the car and help prep. I spent Monday changing oil and practicing tire changes with the Morgan’s center-lock hubs, measuring fuel capacity and talking fuel pump durability (supplied from a nineties Land Rover, lord knows why...), memorizing the fuse panel and situating GPStrackers. Anything but eating and sleeping.

Our chase van carries two spare front wheels and tires. That’s in addition to the one strapped onto the back of the 3 Wheeler, plus oil, fuel, an extra fuel pump and Roy’s expansive wardrobe. The man arrived like a Victorian lady boarding a steamer for the new world, a detachment of porters whisking along swollen chests filled with finery.

“I brought three scarves, in case you want one.”

I ask how many tools he brought. He shrugs.

We left California on less than three hours of sleep, nothing but a few slices of pizza in our guts. Roy took the first leg, and it’s a miserable march to Ludlow. The desert’s cold—colder than either of us had wagered. Roy, a master of theater, wants to complete the journey in period-correct attire, which means a big, fur-lined coat, open-faced helmet and motoring goggles.

“I can feel wind going up my cock,” he says, over the radio.

The wages of a condom catheter is a draft, it seems. I’m less dedicated, and wager we’ll spend enough time out of the Morgan at each stop to take advantage of civilization’s greatest accomplishment: running water. It’s 48 degrees outside, and at 80 mph, the windchill falls well below freezing. Even in my four-season motorcycle getup, I’m shaking. Roy must be miserable. We stop for fuel and layer up. I take the wheel and fill our visors with the Mojavestars.

It’s my first time driving the Morgan, but there’s no time for a handshake and slow familiarity. The road is vacant, so I park the speedometer at 90. The big S&S X-Wedge V-Twin pulls hard, with all its milky torque down low. Meyer warned me to keep the oil temperature below 240, but the engine is happy gulping down the cool ambient air. It feels strong. Confident. For the first time, the scratching inside my skull gets a little quieter, the nail on bone sound of the simple question: Will we make it?

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It’s a self-propelled sidecar, or a wheelbarrow run amok. We have a great view of everyone’s upper ball joints. The thing creaks and moans. If your sailboat made these noises, you’d radio the coast guard and get to praying. Imperfections in the road, expansion joints or potholes, painted lines, they all send the car jumping and skittering. It’s a fight to keep it in my lane. The manual steering is direct, but Morgan dialed in so much toe for straight-line stability that the car darts with too much input. It’s work, especially at the deep end of the speedometer. The windscreens are a curse, sitting at the perfect angle to split your vision. My brain can’t keep up, and I’m forced to lean into the wind to look past the plexiglass. I ask Roy if I can remove them with a hammer. He’s quiet. I take that as a no.

The plan falls apart immediately. Roy based his carefully calculated fuel stops off of the accepted knowledge that that the Morgan carries seven gallons of fuel. Except, that’s not true. Yes, the onboard gauge shows empty at seven gallons, but in truth, the car uses two 5.5-gallon aluminum fuel cells married by a crossover. That means fewer stops, and fewer stops means a better time. So I push on. We make Arizona in just over four hours, and dawn’s not far behind. The fuel gauge has read bingo for 100 miles by the time we stop.

If it was cold in California, it’s colder now. Roy darts inside the gas station and re-emerges with two fleece-lined stadium blankets. It seems like a good idea until we’re back on the interstate. There’s so much air coming in the footwells that the blankets swell and take to whipping us about the head. It’s like sitting in a kayak and wrestling a 40-foot tarp in a hurricane. My patience wanes. I settle on stuffing the thing under my knees, slouch as low as I can get, and try for sleep.

The passenger seat has all the comfort of a child’s coffin with none of the shoulder room. I don’t find myself sleeping so much as I do waking up. There’s not enough space for two grown men in this fucking car, and every time Roy downshifts, he elbows me in the left bicep. I’d be angry, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I close my eyes and try to ignore the vibrations from the motor shaking my nose hairs loose.

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I wake up in Flagstaff. Not from the noise or the jounce of the suspension, but from the cold. I pop my head up above the cowl and get a face full of sleet and rain. There’s snow on the shoulder now, trucks slinging gray slush from their fenders. Roy looks like resigned death, his scarf now sopping with wintery mix. I engage the blanket in combat one more time and suffer for my hubris. Our truce covers approximately 30 percent of both legs. The sight of ice on the fabric plays hell on morale.

This is unequivocally the worst thing I’ve ever done. My helmet presses on my skull, trying to fuse flesh with the balaclava’s spandex and fleece. The radio earpiece is a gutter nail pressing into my ear canal. I take to eying the trip meter, gauging how long I have to sleep in miles instead of minutes.

Into the New Mexico valley, the sun returns. For once, so does the temperature. I haven’t been hydrating or eating, consumed with the press eastward, and warm air isn’t helping me feel anything but wretched. There’s something else, too, and it takes a minute to single it out of the kaleidoscope of misery swirling around us. Gear oil. That stink of rotten dinosaur flesh, boiled, pressed, and reconstituted. It’s everywhere. I’d vomit, except  there’s no way in hell I could get my helmet and layers off in time to keep from drowning. I swallow the knot and tell the support van to ready the jack before we hit Albuquerque. They can smell us from three car lengths back.

Roy refuels the car while I put it in the air and clamor underneath. It’s dangerous, trusting a shitty box store jack with my life; maybe the Morgan will fall on my face and get this over with. He died as he lived, like a fucking idiot. It stays upright, rewarding me instead with a steady drip of gear oil between the eyes. The bevel box, the contraption responsible for converting the transmission’s output to the belt drive, is determined to lose its internals over the western landscape. We call Meyer. He says drive it. It’ll be fine. It’s easy to be optimistic from Santa Monica.

The Southwest is as close to good as we’ll come. The sky is an impossible blue, so deep it makes you hold your breath in spite of yourself. It’s splashed against the coarse reds, browns, and yellows of the desert, the colors of rust and blood and marrow. The colors of the end of things. I catch the scenes between sleep, halfway to comfortable in the warm light.

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The sun sets in Texas, and I hate it for leaving. Darkness drags out the miles, your universe shrinking to three dotted lines ahead of you. Roy used an HID kit to upgrade the 3 Wheeler’s headlights, and they’re phenomenal. They might be the only great thing on the car, but there’s only so much to be done when the lenses are a two feet off the ground. Oklahoma, Missouri. They fall to the night. We swap places every 200 miles, a hellish cycle. The only way to stay awake is to drive, shocked out of sleep with adrenaline and a desperate desire to keep from killing the guy in the passenger seat.

Half way is a curse. The St. LouisArch means a doubling. Another 20 hours. Another 1,500 miles. Another lifetime of cold and dark. I compartmentalize it, store it away in my brain and focus on the car. Check the oil. Add a little. Tighten the center locks. Check air pressures. Check wheel bearings. That last one throws a warning. The passenger side tire is wearing quicker than its twin, and a good shake of the wheel shows slop. We agree to keep pushing and keep an eye on it. We’ll know if it gets worse. So will our next of kin.

It’s the darkest hours of the early morning, when you feel like you’ll die before dawn. I stay conscious by begging sunlight out of the horizon. That first timid glow beyond the trees... I could cry. It’s followed by the red and blue lights of an Illinois sheriff. The speedometer’s off by a good 15-20 mph, depending on RPM, so I’ve settled on traffic plus some speed. The Morgan feels good there, a comfortable cruising velocity just outside of legal bounds. The officer hands me a citation for 85 in a 65.

By some miracle Roy pulls the short straw and gets stuck shucking us across the majority of Ohio. The speed limit drops. Traffic is dense, unforgiving. So is law enforcement. It’s a clear reminder of just how many more people there are out east. Drivers get territorial about the left lane;Roy works the high-beams like an M4 trigger, blasting loping flatlanders until they yield way.

Pennsylvania is hill country, and seeing elevation feels like a good breath. I’m Appalachian born, and smelling the deep earth of oak and maple leaf litter swells my heart. Something about being so close to home gives you footing. The road tangles up, curving and rolling ever east. I’m finally having some fun with the Morgan, and everyone’s spirits are up. We’re all chatting and laughing over the radio when we round a corner and spot one of Pennsylvania’s finest. I go for the brake, but accidentally catch the throttle with my wide insulated Danners. The V-Twin barks at the state trooper. He responds by lighting up the roof. Perfect.

Trooper Patrick is a little more sympathetic than his Illinois counterpart. He’s got a Softail, and wants to know about the Morgan. Did we build it. How much power. Is it fun. He lets me off with a non-point citation, though losing the time hurts more than the cash. We were doing well, averaging close to 70 mph before the stop. It drops to 68, effectively sinking Roy’s goal for the hike. I feel like shit, and I’m glad to hand over the wheel for the last leg into New York.

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Jesus, I’m so tired. When I blink, the dreams are so vivid I can’t tell imagining from reality. I’m fucking or fighting with exes I haven’t seen in years, their skin warm and soft on my finger tips, their muscle and bone more real than anything. Or chatting with professors and teachers I’d forgotten. Laughing with friends. Hugging my father, the smell of pine and concrete and sweat on his collar. I snap awake when Roy plunges the throttle, drops a gear, or goes for a lane change. My mind’s desperate to chew on anything but where I am. The blur of the lines on the road, the noise of a semi tire a foot from my face. It’s disorienting. I have to work to know what’s real. Maybe this is what dying is like. It’s not so bad.

When the city finally shows herself, the skyline glowing and gorgeous, I can’t stop laughing. We’re so close. It’s unbelievable. Roy’s slicing through traffic, and I play spotter. Everyone’s stacked in the two left lanes. I motion that the right’s clear, and Roy goes for it. Except it’s not a lane. It’s the shoulder, packed with loose gravel and metal. A long-dead cone sits flattened ahead of us. We’re committed. Roy goes for the pass. If the cone has a weighted foot, it’ll come through the floorboard and break our legs. He just barely clips it, sends it flying into traffic, and jumps back in an actual lane.

“Please, please don’t let me make any more mistakes.” He says over the radio.

At least we’re awake.

We shuffle through the Holland Tunnel and work our way to the Red Ball Garage, ragged but ecstatic. Pedestrians clap and shout and take photos, not because we just drove nonstop from L.A., but because the Morgan’s so weird and beautiful and loud as hell. I’m worn through; somehow, the 3 Wheeler’s hardly worse for its journey. There are a few more rattles, sure, one tire’s nearly down to the cords and the driver’s side exhaust is broken midway. But the thing feels like it could turn around and head right back.

The record’s ours: 41 hours, 49 minutes. It’s the fastest time for a 3 Wheeler, an open-top vehicle, and a wood-framed vehicle. I know it’s a soft one. Our stops were sloppy and long. Two citations drug our average speed down and added a good 40 minutes to our trip. With a little tweaking, the Morgan could be made for longer distance. A more efficient Indian motor, maybe. Water cooled for a warmer weather pass. A larger fuel cell.

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Still, Roy’s energized by our arrival, working the small crowd assembled at the infamous Red Ball Garage, smiling at cameras, and giving witty interviews. Why did we do this? What did we gain? I suspect that, like me, Roy’s a man deeply concerned with boundaries. He’s darkly curious, and wants to know where that ragged line lies, where your body and mind cry, “Stop.” There are so very few ways to find the answer to that question, and I hope like hell he never comes upon it. We’re both lucky to be alive, happier to be breathing than to hold the record in our hands. Could we pull a few hours from the time? I think so, but I’ll never know. The next time I climb into a wooden box will be the day they put me in the goddamned ground.