An Indelible Marque

  • Ray Thursby

No business school professor would tout the Morgan Motor Co. as a model for modern entrepreneurs to follow. The British firm’s story, simply put, is as follows: Morgan released its first product in 1910, manufactured that product for more than 25 years, added one significant component in 1936, and then continued building the updated item with essentially the same technology and techniques until the turn of the 21st century. Even the introduction of a new, more modern design in 2000 failed to end the firm’s reliance on prewar production methods.

That the products in question are sports cars, more specifically British sports cars, may help explain Morgan’s staying power. In a world that consumes millions of new cars every year, a small but lasting niche exists for truly eccentric machines that only the British seem able to create. Anyone who wishes to experience an example of what motoring was like in the heroic age must drive one of these anachronistic cars, which emerge in a steady trickle from the Morgan works in Malvern Link, England.

Morgan fanatics—and there are many—will dispute the assertion that the company’s product has remained stagnant, citing myriad improvements that separate H.F.S. Morgan’s 1910 model from, for example, today’s 4/4. After all, the newer car does have a fourth wheel; all Morgans built prior to 1936 were three-wheelers. Morgan has made other additions and enhancements, but casual (and some not-so-casual) observers may struggle to distinguish the Morgan of 1910 from the final three-wheel model, which the firm built 42 years later, and they may find it even more difficult to find any difference between the 1936 4/4 and today’s version. Regardless, the current 4/4 and other modern Morgans are, beyond any doubt, safe, fast, and extremely well-built examples of British sports cars.

In contrast to other current models, Morgan’s Aero 8, which the company offered in the United Kingdom in 2001 and released in the United States this year, abandons virtually all of its forebears’ principles of design and construction, save for some family resemblance in body shape and cockpit layout. But the company continues to build its classic models—including the 4/4, Plus 4, and the new Roadster—based on the ideals and methodologies of Harry (H.F.S.) Morgan.

The son of an Anglican vicar, H.F.S. Morgan displayed an early interest in, and penchant for, machinery. He apprenticed as a youth at the Great Western Railway, and his locomotive training (a background he shared with another British car manufacturer, W.O. Bentley) led to a venture into the then-new world of the automobile. In 1906, Morgan opened a business repairing and selling cars.

Within two years of opening his business, Morgan purchased an engine with which he intended to build a motorcycle. He used a local technical college’s workshop to construct his bike, which, by the time of its completion, had sprouted a third wheel. Rudimentary as it was, the small three-wheeler attracted local interest and some potential customers, and so with a loan from his father, Morgan established the Morgan Motor Car Co.

Morgan’s spindly three-wheel machine (to which he added a second seat before production began) embodied design principles still adhered to at Malvern Link. Foremost among its features was a unique front-suspension system that consisted of a wheel carrier on each side that slid up and down a vertical shaft. This sliding-pillar design, which Morgan copied from the Decauville, a now-forgotten French car, had its limitations, but it since has been fitted to all classic Morgans, and it works well with another of the company’s mainstays: a rather flexible chassis. Morgan’s first three-wheeler also introduced the marque’s rear-suspension design of semi-elliptic leaf springs mounted below the axle.

Over the next two decades, Morgan gradually incorporated technical advances into its vehicles. Front-wheel brakes debuted in 1923, and engines—usually twin-cylinder J.A.P. or Matchless motorcycle units—became more powerful. In 1934, Morgan adapted a small automotive engine, the side-valve English Ford 4-cylinder, for use in Morgan trikes. The company mated the powerplant to a chassis made from Z-section steel rails, which is basically the same configuration that it employs today.

 

These and other improvements paled in comparison to the addition, in 1936, of a fourth wheel. In typical Morgan form, the step occurred only after much deliberation; the company built its first prototype of a four-wheeler in 1915. The 1936 4/4 (four wheels, four cylinders) caused a sensation, and within a year, Morgan began production of a four-seat version.

Since the late 1930s, Morgan has altered certain details on its vehicles (such as the adoption of a more streamlined radiator shell in 1953), but a Morgan owner from 1936 would be able to drive a 2005 model without hesitation. Most of the evolutionary progress has occurred under the hood; in 1939, Morgan began offering two powerplants, the small Ford flathead and a then-new overhead-valve engine from the Standard Motor Co. These choices, which have been updated over the years, were integral to Morgan automobiles through the 1960s, and the company’s alliance with Ford continues today.

The adoption of the Standard engine would, in time, lead to one of the most exciting and sought-after Morgans. The connection between the two companies had begun several years earlier, when John Black, later Sir John Black, owner of what became Standard-Triumph, drew early plans for H.F.S.’s 1910 three-wheeler. Decades later, the Morgan Motor Co. dropped Standard-Triumph’s 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine into a Plus 4 two-seater clad in an alloy body. The resulting automobile, the Super Sports, achieved considerable racing success in the United States and won its class at the 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Whether destined for competition or cruising, all classic Morgans were, and continue to be, constructed using methods that are unique in our injection-molded, industrial-robotics age. Each car begins with its Z-section chassis rails, which come from an outside supplier. Morgan installs suspension components, power trains, and a pressed-steel cowl/foot box unit by hand before the rolling chassis heads for the wood shop. There, craftsmen assemble and install an elaborate body frame made of Belgian ash. (In recent years, Morgan has tacked the aluminum skin to this frame before attaching it to the chassis.)

From that point, the panel-beaters take over, crafting each outer shell from sheets of steel or aluminum as required. They form most of the panels, including those of the hood, using English rollers; hammers are utilized less for shaping the bodies than for pounding in the tin tacks that hold them to the wood frames. Until recently, some panels (including the front fenders) consisted of several smaller pieces welded together into units. With the new Superform process used to make Aero 8 bodies, only the headlight pods are separate, but the practice of filling and sanding seams by hand continues.

To complete the process, Malvern Link paints the panels and installs the hand-cut and -sewn upholstery, the wiring, and other components. Each Morgan then undergoes a test-drive before being released for delivery to its new owner.

Morgan produces a remarkably high percentage of its parts in-house. The wood shop is responsible for body frames, floorboards, and dashboards, while the metal shop makes bodies, fuel tanks, and assorted smaller pieces. Pedals, drive shafts, and front-suspension components come from the machine shop; nearby, a small blacksmith’s shop produces spring clamps and mounting brackets.

 

The dawn of the Aero 8—with its aluminum chassis, ready-to-install power train (from BMW), and alloy body—has caused some changes at Malvern Link. Morgan now relies more on components produced off-site, and, in time, machines will supplant some of the labor-intensive assembly techniques that have served the company well over the years. But as long as Morgan is still building its classic models, the firm likely will remain true to its traditional ways.

In a world that consumes millions of new cars every year, a small but lasting niche exists for truly eccentric machines.

Its faithfulness to tradition notwithstanding, Morgan has not been averse to experimentation. In 1966, Peter Morgan, H.F.S.’s son, who took over the company and operated it through the 1990s, commissioned his engineering chief, Maurice Owen, to develop a Morgan using the all-alloy V-8 engine introduced by the Rover Motor Co. The idea was not new: Morgan had constructed a prototype V-8, using a flathead engine from Ford of England, before World War II. But the 1966 unit, which General Motors developed for Buicks and Oldsmobiles, was light, compact, and powerful, and in the diminutive Morgan, it seemed certain to deliver impressive performance.The Plus 8 that Owen designed was wider and longer than the Plus 4, the car from which it derived. Otherwise, the vehicles were nearly identical in all aspects but one: speed. Considerably quicker than its predecessor, the Plus 8 would become the flagship of the line for more than three decades, undergoing minor tweaks along the way to comply with emissions and safety legislation. The Plus 8’s reign ended in 2003 when Rover, which in the intervening years had come under BMW and then Ford ownership, ceased production of its V-8 engine.

 

 

Another Peter Morgan experiment, this one in 1963, involved collaboration with a plastics company to create a hardtop, the Plus 4 Plus. EB Plastics designed a fiberglass coupe body to place atop the Triumph-powered Plus 4 chassis. The hardtop’s lower body was sleek and modern, although it incorporated a version of the classic upright Morgan grille shell. But Peter Morgan’s insistence on sufficient headroom for tall drivers (of which he was one) led to the adoption of an ungainly roof shape that detracted significantly from the car’s appearance.

To few observers’ surprise (except, perhaps, Peter Morgan’s), the Plus 4 Plus received a less-than-enthusiastic response from potential customers. Before ceasing production of the bodies, EB Plastics made only 28 Plus 4 Plus shells, of which 26 were mated to chassis and sold. The few that existed, however, were reportedly quieter and less prone to chassis flex than standard Morgans were. All 26 examples of the Plus 4 Plus have survived, including one driven for many years by Peter Morgan, whose son, Charles, now runs the Morgan Motor Co.

A relatively small number remain of the approximately 40,000 three-wheel vehicles Morgan constructed from 1910 to 1952. The production total for four-wheel Morgans is perhaps less, as the company’s annual output rarely has exceeded 800 cars. As collector’s items, the vehicles lack the appeal of more exotic machinery, but the only way an owner can lose substantial amounts of money on a Morgan is to abuse it to the point where it requires a total restoration.

For those in the market for a new Morgan, the choices are limited, especially in the United States, where the Aero 8 and V6 Roadster are the only models available. However, a number of pre-owned classics—Plus 8s, Plus 4s, and 4/4s—can be found in the States. Because government regulations dictate the inclusion of awkward headrests, oversize bumpers, air bags, and a bevy of lights and reflectors on new Morgans, the used models often are more desirable than factory-fresh examples.

Regardless of investment value, anyone who truly loves driving should take a turn behind the wheel of a Morgan, preferably a Plus 8. It is, put mildly, an experience. Despite the harsh ride, wheel hop, and unruly handling characteristics, Morgans are superb back-road racers. The impression of speed transcends numbers on the speedometer; driver and car work hard for every mile per hour. Add to this sensation the spartan surroundings, the chassis flex, the noise, and the inescapably vintage aura of each of the car’s components, and driving a Morgan becomes a retreat into a past era.


The Morgans Change, the Morgans Stay the Same

Test-drives of the Roadster and Aero 8 prove that, despite their differences in appearance, the cars have much in common.

The Morgan Motor Co. produces only two models for the U.S. market: the V6 Roadster and the Aero 8. The Roadster, which debuted in the United Kingdom in 2004 as the successor of the 35-year-old Plus 8, features a basic configuration similar to that of nearly all Morgans from the last half-century, while the new Aero 8 marks a radical departure for the family-owned firm. But once on the road, the two vehicles reveal their shared British bloodline.

 

 

Roadster Rules
Taking the wheel of the Roadsteris a more pleasant experience than it was with Morgans past: Unlike the marque’s 1960s-era vehicles, which featured seat cushions that drivers adjusted by inflating or deflating, the Roadster offers comfortable accommodations with backrest rake adjustments and excellent torso support. The greatest pleasure, however, derives from unleashing the diminutive car’s 225 hp, dohc, V-6 engine.

 

The Roadster’s clutch and gearbox work in harmony, although the location of the brake and throttle makes heel-and-toe operation nearly impossible. Rather than a pedal pad, the standard throttle on the Morgan is a roller, not unlike that of a 1930s-era Bugatti. A familiar organ-style pedal is optional, and it is a must for enthusiasts who demand simultaneous use of the clutch, brake, throttle, and gear selector.

The sonorous, Ford-sourced V-6 on the Roadster offers sharp throttle response and produces impressive torque. The car’s outstanding power-to-weight ratio—more than 200 hp per ton—helps the Roadster race from zero to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds.

 

Sans power assist, the Roadster’s rack-and-pinion steering is pleasingly light and provides excellent feedback. The car rides on a sliding-pillar front suspension that Morgan first adopted in 1910, but the system’s grip and tracking belie its antediluvian origins. As with Morgan’s first four-wheel model, the rear suspension on the Roadster utilizes a heavy beam axle and thick semi-elliptic leaf springs. Although imperfections in the road remain capable of sending car and driver airborne, the Roadster’s springs press the wide tires into the pavement with huge amounts of force and, when combined with the Morgan’s flexible chassis, present a classic ride.

With its responsive engine and handling, and the incredible view over its long louvered hood, the Roadster (of which only 82 examples are available in the United States) begs to be driven quickly. It always delivers sufficient power to break the rear end loose, and its suspension is stiff and stable enough to slide the car through every corner. Such attributes are what make the Roadster so enjoyable to drive and, quite possibly, the most endearing motoring experience available for less than $75,000.


 

Shot to the Heart
The Aero 8’s modern rendition of the Morgan shape is polarizing: Some love it; some hate it. Introduced at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show and released in the United States this year, the car presents an odd mixture of flat surfaces juxtaposed against the soft curve of the hood and grille. The swooping rear end has a spoiler lip, one of several details that may offend loyalists of the marque. Still, the Aero 8’s striking body is instantly recognizable as that of a Morgan, and the car’s true innovations lie beneath its Superform aluminum panels.

 

Priced from $105,000, plus duties and shipping—and available with a virtually endless array of paint and interior options—the Aero 8 is the most sophisticated car Morgan has ever produced. The vehicle’s body panels, which are supported by an ash-wood framework, mate to an advanced chassis of bonded and riveted aluminum. Its racing-style suspension utilizes A-arms, rockers, and coil-over dampers, all of which ride on spherical bearings.

 

To fit large Americans into its leather seats, the Aero’s cockpit has been widened on U.S.-bound models. The footwells are narrow, with racing-type, floor-hinged organ pedals for the throttle, brake, and clutch. In typical Morgan style, the seating position is bolt upright (the car inexplicably lacks the Roadster’s backrest adjustment), but the Aero 8 includes several amenities heretofore unimaginable on a Morgan—everything from air conditioning and power windows to cruise control and power steering. Cup holders, however, are appropriately absent.

The road performance of the Aero 8 is breathtaking. Its hyperresponsive, 340 hp, 4.4-liter BMW V-8 helps the car sprint from zero to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds. The assisted steering function filters out little of the road feel, while the suspension makes excellent use of wide performance tires to achieve 1.0 g around corners. The car’s floor-mounted pedals and immensely powerful A/P racing brakes may require some getting used to, but the Aero 8 offers a taut, well-damped ride that is free of the Roadster’s magnetic attraction to road irregularities.

Although some purists may scoff at its design, the Aero 8 is what Morgans always have been: lightweight, excellent performers with unique and entertaining driving characteristics. It ranks among the best-performing road cars in the modern world while remaining true to its early-20th-century ancestors.

Morgan Motor Co.
www.morgan-motor.co.uk

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