“Ask Amy” advice columnist and self-help memoir author Amy Dickinson has the late Ann Landers’ old slot on the Chicago Tribune. She also has a 1967 Morris Minor. She fell in love with the car the first time she saw one, soon after she moved to London with her then-husband, in 1986. “They are so cute, they look like ice cream cones,” she says. She loves the clatter of its engine, and the way people smile when she drives by, and she says it is her favorite material object in the world.
So after her husband embarked on an open-endedly extended business trip, in 1988, Dickinson, then a housewife, took her five week old baby, Emily, in a taxi to a dealer who restored Morrises, and made her purchase, for 1,500 pounds (roughly $5,000 in current dollars). “One advantage of driving a beautiful, quirky vintage car is that it really helped me meet people,” she says. “So many men said to me, ‘I had one of these,’ and ‘my dad had one of these,’ not to mention ‘getting rid of my Morris Minor was my biggest mistake.’”
Soon her marriage came undone, and in 1990 Dickinson returned to the US with her daughter, to become a journalist. Before she left London, she was able to have the steering wheel and controls switched from right to left, an operation that was easy by design, since British Motor Corporation sold Morris Minors all over the world. (This was the first British car to produce a million copies, the millionth rolling off the assembly line on December 22, 1960, according to the Morris Minor Owners’ Club.)
The car actually jump-started Amy’s career. Her first radio piece was a commentary on National Public Radio, where she described the Morris as “…shaped like a Volkswagen [old] Beetle with a water retention problem. It manages to seem both massive and tiny at the same time. It has kind of full-figured fenders that remind me of the Duchess of York’s hips. And the grill in front looks like a gaping, demented, laughing clown mouth, the kind that shows up in your dreams when you’re a kid.”
Those descriptions notwithstanding, Amy also has a sophisticated… uh, well, experiential appreciation for this well-regarded 20th century design by Sir Alec Issigonis, who is perhaps best known for penning the original Mini, but whose reputation extends well beyond the world of cars. “There is not a plane on the entire surface of that car,” says Amy. “You realize this when you try to put your cup of coffee down somewhere as you go to open the door.” (Amy admits to having spilled her coffee more than once.)
Amy drove the un-air conditioned and poorly heated car year-round, joyously ferrying her daughter hither and yon, despite Washington, DC’s miserably hot and humid summers. Daughter Emily says that the Morris always got lots of attention, and one of her friends used to love to ride in the car so he could get noticed doing the Presidential wave, and that when her mother let her off for preschool, a neighbor of the preschool would always let her mother park the Morris in his driveway. Unfortunately, the winter salt corroded the sheet metal, and in 1995, Amy regretfully stowed the Morris, and bought one of those rust-free, plastic Saturns.
“The Morris sat in a garage [for eight years], quite neglected, like an old boyfriend, and I got to where I felt so bad about it I couldn’t even look at it,” she says, mournfully. But remembering all the Englishmen who had told her how much they had regretted selling theirs, she hung on to hers.
Then, in 2003, the Chicago Tribune hired her, boosting her finances, enabling a resurrection. Before she and her daughter set off for the windy city, she drove the Morris to Vintage Restorations, now in Mt. Airy, Maryland, where they worked on pride and joy whenever she could send money.
“She’s an unusual kind of person,” says John Tokar, owner of Vintage Restorations, noting that the handful of owners of Morris Minors he has restored have all been endearingly eccentric.
Amy says her love for vehicles of all sorts stems from having been raised on a dairy farm. “My family’s primary vehicle for some years was a dump truck, which my mother drove like a pro,” she says. “I’m not a gearhead, but I do love cars. I always have. And I love to drive.”
In 2008, Amy moved back to her hometown, Freeville, NY, population 505, not far from that dairy farm, to help care for her elderly mother. There, the Morris gave Amy valuable cred with some important people at a critical juncture in her life. She took up with a local guy she’d known since seventh grade. Soon they were married. “He has four daughters,” she says. “Once they got a load of this car, I think that increased my mystique.”
One of the great things about the car, says Amy, is that it spreads good cheer everywhere it goes. It looks cheerful, she says. The Morris even cheered Amy after her recent bereavement. “My mom passed away in February, and I had the car in the barn [for the winter], and I couldn’t wait for spring to come so I could pull the cover off, jump in, and tool around,” she says.
In the Morris, says Amy, she thinks not about where she’s going, “but how much fun I’m having getting there. There’s no radio to distract me, the engine chugs along, the windows squeak up and down, and people smile, wave, and honk. It’s really fun to tool around in something that inspires universally positive reactions.
“You know how beautiful women get notes? My car gets mash notes. Instead of people asking me for my phone number, very frequently there will be a note on the car, addressed to the car, saying ‘if you ever want a new home, call me.’”
In fact, despite the ample cost of the restoration, Amy says that if you amortize all the money she has spent on the Morris over the 23 years she has owned it, or even just the 15 years she’s had it running, it has bought her a cornucopia of inexpensive joy.
“If I were a car, I would be this car—a little past my prime, but I still run pretty well, pretty simple, not too complicated,” says Amy. She adds that “I have always enjoyed lots of different vintage things,” including vintage clothing. “People who know me say, ‘oh, yeah, that car is you.’”
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Fun fact about Morris Minors, courtesy of Amy: The Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organization, would remove the drive shafts, and use them as rocket launchers, after which they’d reinstall them and drive off.