Theme – Film: The Mystery of Inspector Morse’s Car

This piece relates not to a film, but to a TV series translated from a collection of detective books. Hopefully readers will allow me a little latitude.

If that were my car, I would not be happy with even John Thaw placing his foot on the number plate.

I think most people know that (Chief) Inspector Morse was originally the owner and driver of a Lancia, not a Jaguar Mark 2 (or was that really a Daimler?). Having read most of the books by Colin Dexter many years ago on the back of viewing a few of the TV episodes (pre-kids, one had time to waste like that), a few thoughts were stimulated by the changes wrought by the TV production company in its literary adaptations.

Firstly, in print, Lewis is a Welshman in the latter stages of his career, rather than a rather young and guileless Geordie (the clue’s in the name and should, on reflection, have been an obvious incongruity to anyone watching the TV series). Second, and most obvious, there’s a red Jaguar with a black vinyl roof instead of the Lancia. Third, and most importantly, exactly what was the Lancia in question?

Trawling the web, there seems no really satisfactory answer as to why there was the change in nationality and age profile for the Sergeant side-kick: perhaps it was just down to the fact that Kevin Whately was popular at the time, having been a member of the cast of the cult Friday night hit Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and that there were few near-60s Welsh actors around at the time.

Please let this be Dexter’s intended car for Morse.

More relevantly, on the question of the use of a Jaguar over a Lancia, there’s a scurrilous reference on one site to the ‘fact’ that John Thaw insisted on the switch as a condition of taking the role. Elsewhere, the view seems to be that the change was for entirely pragmatic reasons in that the production company just could not find a suitable, classic Lancia in the locale.

What is quite fun is a comment attributed to Colin Dexter that, in his view, Morse “would not have been seen dead in a Jag”. Later, he seems to have concluded that a Jaguar was a more logical choice given that Morse was so patriotic (I don’t recall getting that impression from reading the books). Either way, perhaps recognising the popular success of the TV programme, in later books, Dexter writes of Morse as a owner/ driver of a Jaguar and the Lancia is silenced.

Which leads us to the question as to the identity of the enigmatic Lancia. The thing is that Dexter leaves very little in the way of clues as to the actual model. My trawl of the ‘net has turned up nothing of any concreteness. There is some wag on a Lancia website who proclaims that he knows (‘Martin D’, only you know who you are and of the now endless angst you have caused by NOT actually ending your interminable tease), but otherwise it’s all just speculation.

One person seems convinced that the only logical answer is the Aurelia … which I have to say would be so lovely that I fear that said person has just got a bit rose-tinted in their deductions. Others deduce it could be a Flaminia or Flavia. Just thank God that, given when the books were written (and the vintage of the TV series), the production team did not resort to popping down to their nearest FCA dealership and picking up one of those Chrysler based Flavias instead.

From a personal reflection, given that Morse was written to be a deep-thinking person, somewhat introverted, and with a penchant for high art and quality real ale, I think that he was more likely to have had a passion for the more rare and exotic Lancia. Equally, I think the casting of John Thaw as Morse might have had more subversive influence than first realised; doesn’t the Mk2 Jaguar seem a bit The Sweeney for a man called Endeavour?

More on Jaguar.
More on Lancia.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

20 thoughts on “Theme – Film: The Mystery of Inspector Morse’s Car”

  1. This is a question I’ve pondered many times, and a question that bears some thinking. On the back of the tv-series and the popularity of the John Thaw version of Morse, Colin Dexter made the retrograde step to make the Thaw-Morse canon. He subsequently ret-conned the question of car, Morses appearance, Lewis’ age, and so on, to let the books follow the tv-series. I don’t know if he changed the Lancia to Jaguar between editions, but he definitely changed the fact in the books written after the show.

    As for the Lancia, it has to be one of the more upscale ones, and not one of the racerish ones. So, forget the small coupes and the Rallye specials and everything that got Zagato stamped on it, they are simply too boy-racerish for poor Morse. The Appia and Aurelia is too old, that leaves the Flavia and Flaminia range. The Flaminia Berlina is too statesmanlike, I’d put my hopes on a Flaminia Coupe. The coupe is actually more common, counterintuitively, they made more coupes than sedans of the Flaminia. If not a Flaminia, I’d put my money on a banger Flavia coupe.

    In the new “Endeavour” series they made Morse the bagman to his superior Thursday. It’s his job to pick Thursday up and drive him around, and for Thursdays car they’ve chosen a very beautiful Mk I Jaguar. I find it hilarious and not a little bit clever they wrote that part in. As “Endeavour” is a freestanding part of the Morse franchise, not written by Colin Dexter but with his blessing, I find it very heartwarming they are taking such care of fixing up Morses past so long after the fact.

    Knowing Morses character, it is a very plausible chain of events following his choices of car. Speculate he bought his own Mk II in the 70’s for banger money, it was always quite shoddy. I was an unloved 2.4 and with that black vinyl roof, it had probably been on the lot for some time, and Morse probably wouldn’t have had to pay that much money for it. And he probably bought it for sentimental reasons, because it remined him of his days at bagman for Thusday in the 60’s. Now, all of this thinking and ret-conned after the fact, but I find the logic behind it both plausible and quite beautiful. Being a big Morse fan since the 80’s, I’m just glad someone is taking care of the franchice that actually knows what they’e doing…

  2. Also, on the Lancia. I’m not really sure Colin Dexter ever mentioned year or model except it being an old Lancia, and I’m not really sure he cared. The name and connotations was enough to describe Morse as a character, and the details simply weren’t that important. So, I’m not really sure there is a “right” answer on this one, though it’s still very funny to speculate and extrapolate just for the fun of it.

  3. Might it not have been a Stratos?

    For the general reader, whether he drove an old Jaguar or an old Lancia probably makes little difference. What was relevant is that it establishes him as someone who drives a classy sounding old car, to go with his music (and again, to most it doesn’t matter if he prefers Beethoven or Mozart). But, to car people, it makes a difference. I’ve never read the books, and if I did now I’d inevitably read Morse as John Thaw. But if I’d come to them before the TV series, I’d have created my own image of him. And as a Lancia driver it would be different than if he’d been a Jaguar driver -apologies to any Jag owners, but I’d have ranked him as that little bit more cerebral.

    On the actual TV car, I’ve said it somewhere before, but I always found it a distraction. As someone who was so particular in his tastes, I more imagine the scenario :

    Lewis : Here Sir, look at that lovely old Jag
    Morse : But it’s got a vi-nyl roof Lewis
    Lewis : Well, I still like it.
    Morse : You would.

    And as for young Morse, as a rookie DC, he is quickly given custody of a Jaguar squad car (albeit one that would be maybe 5 or more years old) and no-one thinks that strange. What’s wrong with a Ford Anglia I ask?

  4. Knowing a few academic types, it seems against type that Morse was in any way bothered about what he drove. In that case, it is curious that Morse was not foisted with one of the many cars produced in the Oxford Morris factory over the years. Given the series started in the 1980s, he likely would have driven an SD1 (not a bad motor for a top plod) or an Ambassador. If he wasn’t cracking the cases, Chief Superintendent Strange would have punished him with the imposition of an Ital or a Maestro.

    1. I don’t know about that, Morse was peculiarly snobbish sometimes. Being an audiophile, he had a Roksan Xerxes record player, with a price today of about £3000.

      “Throughout the Inspector Morse TV series, the lead character, when seen at home, is often listening to music on his Xerxes. According to the manufacturers, the producers of the show deliberately sought to feature one in the series, from the first episode, to highlight Morse’s passion for music. In the first episode, The Dead of Jericho, the people associated with the fictional manufacturer of the turntable (Richards Audio Research) were the focal point of the storyline.”

    2. Like others here I used to idly wonder what model Lancia the old curmudgeon would have driven. I pictured him driving a second series Flavia berlina – subtle enough to blend in, but distinctive enough to set him apart. Mind you, given his snobbery, he may have viewed the Fessia cars as being inferior to the Jano era.

      You can imagine the producers going; ‘what’s a f**king Lancia anyway? Viewers’ll think he’s driving a pissing Lada! Get him a nice old Jag or something’. Looking at Morse the TV show now, I think both car and actors are somewhat miscast. I saw an episode recently and found it really rather dated.

  5. LEWIS : Late again Morse? Let me guess. More trouble with the Lancia?

    MORSE : It’s Lant-sha Sir

    LEWIS : Stow it Morse. I’m the Super and you’re the Sergeant remember? What’s it this time?

    MORSE : Well, the Gamma started overheating and then I thought I could hear a bit of slap in the cam belt.

    LEWIS : You and that bloody car! Anyway, you didn’t miss much here. All done and dusted. Just another Don-on-Don. He stabbed him with a sword belonging to Edward the Confessor and then hung the body from the cross on top of the Chapel dressed in a tutu. Nothing special. Apparently they fell out over something called a Palter

    MORSE : Psalter Sir, a devotional book, usually medieval …

    LEWIS : Alright Morse. Always got the right word haven’t you? Just not the right car. Anyway, you can take me for a beer … oh, I forgot, you don’t drink any more

    MORSE : No Sir, I’m saving. Lancia have got a new model out, it’s called the Beta. If I sell my stereo set-up and record collection, with what I’ve got saved I might just stretch. It looks bloody good. I thought if I got one of those, I’d get a few trouble-free years and could get down to concentrating on that promotion……..

    1. Hilarious! Just finished the first Morse novel after enjoying all six seasons of Endeavour. Thanks for the chuckle!

  6. You might like to know that Morse actually drove a Lancia in the 1992 episode set in Italy titled – Death of Self. Admittedly it was a Dedra but I remember him being keen to get behind the wheel whereas in an episode set in Australia, he point blank refused to drive the Ford Falcon station wagon provided.

  7. In Endeavor 3:1, the source of the red Jaguar is explained.

    That was fun … I also loved the first meeting of Morse and Strange, as portrayed in Endeavor (1:1, if I remember correctly).

    I enjoy the references to the original series!

    1. Hi, I do not recall that from 3.1 (will have to review it again!). I also enjoy the way that Endeavour quite deftly and wittily references the characters and traits of them from the original Morse characters, series and books, it’s well written and treads a fine line that means it also stands on its own as a work in its own right. Most enjoyable. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  8. I appreciate all of the dialog on the Morse’s Jag v. Lancia, but what I really want to know is how could Dectective THURSDAY afford a Jag?

  9. Never noticed this thread before.
    I should say that TV prod staff are under time and financial constraints almost unknown to real film people — who could have sourced exactly the right Lancia for Thaw.
    The snag is that Dexter probably had a Flavia in mind, possibly a Milleotto, as Morse would have loved driving it. A good one would have been findable, but only a coupé is telegenic. As you say, most viewers would have thought a berlina was a Lada!

    A B20 would have done, as it’s timeless, even to this day. But Thaw would have had to have had the Nardi floor-change conversion, as five on the tree is fiddly.
    Betas had a trashed reputation in Britain by the time of the TV series, and Dedras had no aura (although are also nice drivers).

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