Morgan 4-4 Le Mans 1939
There is some debate as to whether the 1939 Morgan 4-4 that competed at Le Mans was the same car that competed in 1938. They may well have shared the same chassis number but there the similarities end. It is known that the Morgan factory provided a Morgan 4-4 to the Winter Garden garage for Dick Anthony to prepare for the race.
Change from Standard Specification
As in motor sport today, a car prepared for the Le Mans in 1939 would be very different from a standard car available from a dealer. Witness the development of the Aero 8 for the 2002 Le Mans race.
Whereas at face value the Aero 8 GT(N) resembles a normal road car, it has a widened one piece kevlar front bonnet and wings, Heini Mader BMW 4398cc dry sumped engine producing about 500bhp, revised engine management and exhaust systems, 6 speed sequential Xtrac gearbox, 6 pot front and 4 pot rear brake calipers and a weight of 1008kgs. It is really the chassis and the body silhouette that relate this awesome racer to a street legal Aero 8. Everything else, it is fair to say, has been extensively modified.
The Morgan 4-4 that raced at Le Mans in 1939 had unique bodywork. The objective was to lighten the car as far as possible. The regulations for Le Mans in 1939 had no weight restriction. The only proviso was that the car that started the race should weigh the same as the car that finished the race. Hence, there are many reports of drivers tying bodywork back onto their cars shaken loose by Le Mans demanding road surface.
1939 Morgan 4-4 at Hotel Des Ifs (Ref 12)
To reduce weight, the front wings were discarded and replaced by cycle type wings as fitted to the previously produced TT cars. The rear wings were ‘cut away’ just ahead of the rear wheels. A special body tub was prepared with no doors, as permitted by the Le Mans regulations of the time. A hinged metal ‘half tonneau’ covered the rear parcel shelf. The rear panel was replaced by a sloping deck from which protruded two fuel filler necks. A spare wheel sat snugly in the rear deck a design that was later adopted by Morgan in the 1950s! The front grill was of the earlier mesh type and sported a wings motif taken directly from the 3 wheelers of the day. A single ‘square’ shaped aero screen was fitted and the car was painted green.
The fuel tank was replaced by a 26 gallon unit repositioned behind the axle again a design adopted by Morgan for their road cars from the 50’s.
1939 Morgan 4-4 in pits at Le Mans (Ref 12)
Dick Anthony had been racing Aston Martins for the previous half dozen or so years. Like Morgans, they tended to be overweight but Aston minimised their excesses by clothing all their cars in aluminium. Like the Aero 8 GT(N) reverting to kevlar, Dick Anthony would have insisted on aluminium bodywork for the 1939 car.
The standard offering from Morgan in 1939 for their Morgan 4-4s was the unit from Coventry Climax built under licence by Triumph. The Climax was a four cylinder with overhead inlet and side exhaust a design that was very dated by 1939. Not helping the unit was its immense weight with its large block and head made from cast iron. Surprisingly, the finned sump and crankcase cover were made from a light alloy!!
The 1939 regulations state that all engine internals, the make and number of carburettors and the make of electric equipment were free. However, the capacity stated on the entry form was carefully checked before the race.
Dick Anthony was a demon engineer of his day. He had quite a reputation for making cars go faster and like all good race engineers, must have stretched the regulations to the full.
The Coventry Climax was quite a challenge to Dick having spent the last half a dozen or so years developing Aston’s ohv unit. On arrival, the engine was stripped and carefully rebuilt to a capacity of 1104cc. This took the Morgan into the under 1500cc category and away from the all conquering Simca FIATs . The head was extensively reworked and additional inlets were created to mount 2 SU carburettors. Interestingly, Aston Martins had starting using SUs in the 1920’s and twin SUs were fitted to their race cars throughout the ‘30s.
A special exhaust system was made that exited through the near side bonnet.
The dynamo was moved away from the top water manifold to a special cradle to minimise the risk of overheating.
Gearbox and Axle
The gearbox was a Meadows unit with 4 forward gears and a reverse. The 1939 regulations stated that all internal ratios were free so it is safe to assume that Dick Anthony changed the ratios to gain higher speeds on Le Mans long straights. This is borne out by contemporary reports that state that the little Morgan was reaching speeds close to 100mph.
The axle was a Salisbury but again ratios were free. Again, Dick would have replaced the standard ratio with one more suitable for Le Mans.
Wheels and Brakes
Morgan were still offering cable operated brakes in 1939 activating 8” drums. By this time, Girling and Locheed had been selling hydraulic braking systems for many years.
From 1936, Aston Martin had reverted to hydraulic brakes and MG had adopted them from 1935 on their saloons and from 1936 on their MG TA. Even bread and butter Morris cars were being supplied with hydraulic brakes by 1939. What Dick Anthony thought of the Morgan’s brakes one can only conjecture.
Dick Anthony was very keen on good brakes and went to great lengths to modify the Aston Martins he campaigned each weekend. Examples of his race prepared Aston Martin cars still exist sporting bespoke drums machined by Dick himself.
With nothing in the Le Mans regulations to the contrary, one can assume that Dick Anthony improved the standard Morgan brakes by either converting to a hydraulic system or by increasing the size of the drum or more probably, both.
The wheels remained the 17” ‘easiclean’ type wheels offered by Morgan.
The road going Morgan 4-4 was offered with Morgan’s patented sliding pillar front suspension damped by Newton fully adjustable telescopic shock absorbers. The rear was suspended by leaf spings damped by fully adjustable Andre Hartford friction dampers.
It is likely that the 1939 Le Mans car deviated little from this set up as few road cars of the day were offered with an adjustable suspension.
The Le Mans regulations gave entrants a choice in fuels, the only stipulation that the same fuel should be used throughout the race. The choice was between ‘standard’ touring fuel, benzol, ‘super esso’, ternary fuel (a mix of touring, benzol and ethyl alcohol) and standard gasoil. Oil could be added to the fuel. It is not known what the Morgan used.
The Le Mans regulations stated that a minimum of 30 “replicas” of the car must have been “sold, manufactured or stocked” by the time of the race a statement to this fact had to be signed by the Managing Director then HFS Morgan. It can only be assumed that this was taken as relating to the chassis as no other car was ever produced to the same specification as the 1939 Le Mans car.
On finishing the race, the 1939 Le Mans car was whisked back to the factory and hidden out of sight under a cover. There the car remained throughout the next decade.
In 1950, the car was sold to Jeff Sparrowe in recognition of the competition success he had achieved in his white Morgan 4-4 Le Mans Replica (JUO 177). Jeff continued to campaign his Le Mans Replica but on the odd occasion, brought out the 1939 Le Mans car. In 1951, the Le Mans car competed at the BARC Brunton hill climb where it temporarily sported the ‘JUO 177’ number plate.
1951 Morgan 4-4 that competed at Le Mans in 1939 at Brunton Hill climb (Ref 12)
Today, the car is either in the UK or in the USA the name of the owner is a well kept secret!!!
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Information on this page has been gathered from historical journals and contemporary text books.
Please refer to the reference page.
© 2002 John Clarke