Leaning back in his chair just outside his garage workshop behind his brick home in Hillsborough, Ray McArthur can see his classic-looking ‘Douglas’ motorcycle in its entirety, leaning askew on its stand; soft brown leather sewn tightly over the cushionless seat; shiny pea green petrol tank reflecting the morning sun.
Also visible from his chair is the equally reflective deep green rear of his Morgan 4-Wheeler. If you stand behind the car and look up to the right of the nested spare tire, you’ll find a thin piece of metal bent and twisted to write “McArthur” in cursive and attached to the car where the word “Morgan” is written . should be.
It would be a mistake to call it a kit-car, just as it would be a mistake to call McArthur a mechanic. The automobile – and the motorcycle – are art projects, and McArthur – a retired dentist who moved to Hillsborough long ago from Chapel Hill – is the artist.
As a kid, in the 1950s, McArthur always wanted a Morgan. Back then, British cars were pretty much the only sports cars. His fascination with the vehicle evolved from wanting one to wanting to build one. He got a job, married, and had children, but never got over his childhood infatuation with the Morgan.
McArthur built a 2,000 square foot addition to his Chapel Hill home just so he had room to build his car.
In the 1990s, McArthur lost $300 on a non-running Triumph GT6 and embarked on a journey of negotiations, compromises, sacrifices, milestones and disclosures. “It was a cool little Triumph with a six-cylinder engine,” said McArthur. “I took the body off, disassembled it down to the frame. I cut the frame because I needed it a foot longer. The GT6 had an 88 inch wheelbase and to get Morgan proportions I needed a 95 to 96 inch wheelbase. So I lengthened it by about a foot, added it and put it back together and let it roll.”
McArthur’s shop might be considered a shade tree mechanic’s dream, but it could just as easily be said to be a dream for anyone who is good with his or her hands. Generous storage space for an adequate supply of tools. McArthur dryly professes his “control freak,” though the cleanliness and organization of his store admits this without words. His Morgan is parked on a hoist and a motorcycle (actually two motorcycles) is displayed on its stand nearby. One of the smallest touches in his shop is a fortune from a cookie that reads, “Work will show you how.”
“I’m not a mechanic,” McArthur said. “I’m more of a sculptor or a fabricator. i do stuff I create things. I’m not a mechanic and will have to ask for help to push it across the finish line. The wiring and things like that, I just don’t feel comfortable.”
For the parts of the auto-making process that he’s less comfortable with, McArthur pays people to do the work, which drives up the cost of the project, but one benefit, he said, is that he’s met a lot of nice people, a lot of them will travel to McArthur’s workshop to complete the required work. Over the course of his time building cars (he’s built three), he met a village of people with common interests and specific mechanical skills, each bringing their own stories of haggling over bits and parts that didn’t last or not fit.
McArthur knows none of his handcrafted cars will ever pay for themselves. When you factor in the thousands of hours of labor, cost of parts, and labor for mechanics, it’s not even remotely cheap. But the downside to that, he said, is that it’s cheaper than paying someone to talk to you.
“This is where I go to work every day,” McArthur said. “It gives you a certain focus. It gives you a reason and it keeps you mentally and physically active, up and down and under cars. And you focus on that and the problems you’re trying to solve, because, honestly, you’re putting pieces together that shouldn’t necessarily fit together. Things get stuck and you have to make decisions. They are life lessons, and life is made up of choices and compromises. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do that, but I’ll do this and that,” and then it goes on. That’s just the nature of these things. They are full of compromises.”
Check out the sleek, curvy fenders. (They’re from a Volkswagen Beetle.) The leather belt stretched across the hood is just right for what you’d expect from a Morgan. (Two belts from Walmart sewn together.) The round Stamp Duty emblem on the side of the car. (Cut from a Campbell’s Soup can.) The two hood pieces have almost perfectly matched curves made over a length of PVC piping.
For McArthur, the Morgans and the bikes he built are ships of life lessons. And the hardest lesson is often the hardest step in creating a project: getting started. “I had a grandson who asked me one day, ‘Grandpa, what’s the hardest part about building one of these cars?’ And that’s a good question. The answer I gave him was to start and not stop. On big projects, people so often get bogged down. It requires focus.”
He’s referring to the fortune on the wall in his shop: once you’ve taken that first step, it will tell you where to go next and what to do to get there. McArthur has crossed the finish line three times with his Morgans. Though he’ll tell you – quite truthfully – that the adventure is in the journey, McArthur admits he enjoys the feeling he gets when he’s done. When he finished his first Morgan, he sat with a six-pack of beers and looked at his car.
McArthur had three children and his original plan was to give each of them a Morgan. One of his children died, and after a while McArthur began to wonder if he wanted to pass all of the toil and maintenance of the cars – chores that were already tiresome to him – onto his busy kids in their own lives.
“Eventually it becomes a burden,” McArthur said. “It’s not fun anymore. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy driving and waving at people who see me, but it has to be a strain. Because they are not Hondas and they are not Toyotas. They are creations that you never really get through. There is always something to tinker with. I have to think realistically about my kids: what are they doing with these cars? You have a busy life. Do you know what they’re going to do with them? Realistic.”
McArthur reached out to Mark Terry, director of estate and collectors vehicles at Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough, to discuss the potential sale of his two Morgan 3-Wheelers. The first of his 3-wheelers sold for about $17,000. The second, a rich maroon replica of a four-cylinder powered F2, will be auctioned on June 15th.
McArthur said he has no regrets selling the two Morgan 3-wheelers. Building them was a different process as it worked with motorcycle engines. The 3-wheelers are considered motorcycles and are registered as such. His plan is to keep his 4-wheel, which was his first home-built car. He said he wants to build a few more cars, but as he’s getting older he’s not sure he’ll have the time.
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