In the 1950s and 60s, it was good to be British. The Americans had invented rock ‘n’ roll, but the best bands were coming out of England. So were the best fashions, and so were the best cars.
Aston Martin’s elegant DB5, the charming Triumphs and MGs, Bentley, Rolls Royce, the iconic Jaguar E-Type. And there were more: Allard, Healy, Triumph, Austin, Gilbern, Lanchester, Jensen, Humber, Riley, Jowett, Sunbeam, Morris, TVR… Only the United States was building more automobiles. Today, of course, things are different.
Most of the old English marques are gone or foreign-owned. But for all of the distinctly British badges sold off or garaged for good, one of the old guard is still building cars under a British flag: the Morgan Motor Company. Morgan’s resilience is due to a few factors, not least its relatively small size and the fact that it is still family owned. But beyond its manageable scale of operations and the estimable loyalty it inspires in its home community of Malvern, Morgan’s staying power might be attributed to the fact that it is, perhaps, the purest example of a form. When one envisions thundering through the English countryside in a classic open-top roadster, scarf flying in the wind, the sky in the dream is impossibly sunny and the car is invariably a Morgan.
When a marque becomes part of a cultural identity (Coca Cola and Harley Davidson come to mind) it is sure to endure, and that’s certainly the case with Morgan.
But here there’s a twist, because Morgan isn’t just some kind of living argument for tweed coats and flat caps. In fact, while it seems to have largely coasted through the last decades not fixing what wasn’t broken, today’s Morgan has revived another aspect of traditional British motoring—namely, raising the bar.
“This is right up there with the best,” says Morgan archivist and museum curator Martyn Webb, standing in front of a new Morgan Aero SuperSports. He’s not exaggerating. The car’s sumptuous curves cover a nicely tuned 4.8L BMW V8, which makes 367hp and produces a roar that, if expected, is still supremely satisfying. But it’s the roughly 2,600lb dry weight that lets the car run, the lightweight bonded aluminum chassis and superformed aluminum body helping the Aero get from 0-60 in just over 4 seconds on its way to a 170mph top speed. These are supercar numbers, and a far cry from the picture Morgans have traditionally painted, at least in recent decades.
Credit adaptability and solid decision-making by the company and by Executive Director Charles Morgan in particular, whose grandfather Harry “H.F.S.” Morgan built the first Morgan in 1909.
“They were quite receptive, actually,” says Matthew Humphries, Morgan’s 28-year-old chief designer. Humphries was still a design student at England’s Coventry University when he sent some sketches to Morgan and subsequently landed an internship (a “work experience,” in UK parlance). They found some space for him to work, and he started drawing Morgans as he saw them, which was absolutely in line with where Charles and his team wanted to go.
“Morgan didn’t have a design department per se,” he says. “They were just making adjustments in the shop to the designs that they’d always had. I think I was able to show them what was possible, perhaps, and help bring it forward into the 21st century.”
Humphries certainly did that—the AeroMax was based on sketches he did during his internship, and the newer four-seat EvaGT is his design. “But what about tradition?” a few stalwarts might ask, looking at the sweeping fenders and dramatic lines of the newer Morgans. Though we feel detractors will be in the minority, those whose upper lips are perhaps a bit stiffer need not worry. Morgan still makes the venerable 4/4 which, aside from a slight facelift in the 1950s and appropriate engine modernizations, hasn’t really changed since it was first introduced in 1936. It’s the oldest car in continuous production from any maker. Furthermore, even the SuperSports is mostly built the way Morgan has always built their cars: that is, by hand.
“I could be sarcastic about some of my colleagues, but in truth you won’t see any robots here,” says Robert Dance, a tour guide at the Morgan Motor Company, which offers factory visits by appointment. “We don’t put a piece of metal into a big tunnel and out comes a car. No. That said, I think you’ll find that we use the most advanced computer in the world here—and that’s the one between the ears.”
Morgans are built in the town of Malvern in a factory on Pickersleigh Road that was first established in 1914, after demand compelled founder Harry “H.F.S.” Morgan to expand beyond a smaller garage on Worcester Road. Today’s classically styled Morgans get a modern galvanized steel chassis with a live rear axle and rear leaf springs—“The quintessential, traditional British sports car,” Webb correctly notes. A variety of Ford engines and trims are available, and a number of aspects can be customized. The Aero cars, including a new +8, get a bonded aluminum chassis and a superformed aluminum body. In a process more common to the airline industry, aluminum is heated and blown into shape, yielding the lush curves on the Aero cars. Both styles of Morgans get handmade ash wood frames to which the aluminum body panels are affixed. In the case of the classic Morgans, aluminum sheets are “folded, hammered, trimmed with tin snips and shaped to fit the individual car, all of it by hand,” Webb explains. The body fitters are artisans indeed, as are the frame builders.
“You won’t see a shop like this at any other car manufacturer in the world,” he says of Morgan’s frame workshop. Racks of ash wood planks and strips line the walls, with frames in various states of construction sitting nearby, clamped and drying. There are 90 pieces of ash in each frame, some of them bent in jigs that have been in the factory for as long as anyone can remember.
“It’s often thought that the wood is steam-bent,” says Webb, “but it’s not the case. We have no idea how old the jigs are. They should be in the museum, but they won’t let me have them.”
The wood frames and light aluminum bodies deserve some credit for Morgans’ high performance, but they also get a nod for safety and environmental concerns. Following testing, it’s been found that the frame’s flexibility helps tremendously in the event of a collision, absorbing much of the impact and in some cases outperforming steel-framed vehicles. As for environmental friendliness, “There’s virtually no plastic in a Morgan,” says Webb. “Aluminum and wood, it’s about as environmentally sound as you can get.”
Each body frame is built by only one craftsman. Likewise, the body panels are formed and fitted by one individual per car. Morgan keeps records of who worked on what, and thus a Morgan owner could find out who, exactly, built his car. Once it’s basically assembled, the car is pushed down to the paint shop. The doors, hood, and other panels are removed and painted separately from the rest of the body, which remains on the chassis. There are more than 100 shades of leather available for the seats, which are made and fitted by hand, and near 40,000 colors of paint for the exterior. Bring in your favorite lime-green driving tuxedo and they’ll match it. It’s all part of the Morgan experience, which ultimately is about creating an individual’s dream vehicle. They’re good at it, and they should be—they’ve been doing it for more than 100 years.
An engineer by training, “H.F.S.” was originally planning to build a motorcycle when, at the last minute, he changed his mind and instead used the 7hp Peugeot engine he’d purchased to make a three-wheeled “cyclecar.” It was 1909. The car was simple—a tiller for steering, no real bodywork—but it featured a rather sophisticated front suspension of his own design. (A variation of the suspension is still used on the more classic of Morgan’s offerings today.) Local people liked his car, and soon started wanting one of their own. So in 1910, he began building. His father, vicar of the nearby community of Stoke Lacy, put up the money to get a factory started and, according to a book co-written by Charles Morgan, instilled a crucial value that would serve the company well: “Finance everything out of your own pocket, never borrow.” Within a year “H.F.S.” was exhibiting his cars at shows, and within two years he was building a two-seater that proved incredibly popular. So popular, in fact, that it was sold by the luminary London retailer Harrods—the only car ever to appear in the store’s windows. Racing and exhibiting the cars became integral to Morgan’s success, and “H.F.S.” earned numerous gold medals, race victories and speed records in his creations, which were steadfastly three-wheeled. It wasn’t until 1936 that Morgan decided to put a fourth wheel on the ground, and the result (the aforementioned 4/4) was an immediate hit. It sold so well overseas that demand was nearly impossible to meet, while at home it enjoyed tremendous support as well, essentially establishing the foundation for the company’s future. Based on the basic platform of the 4/4, the next several decades saw a series of variations and innovations; a more powerful +4 was introduced in 1950, a fibreglass-bodied +4+ was built in 1963 (only 26 models were made, but it attracted serious attention) and the first +8 (eight cylinders) rolled out of Malvern in 1968. That year’s Morgan was a half-second quicker to 60mph than the Jaguar E Type, according to Webb, putting it at the top of the market. Indeed, for the next 30 years and beyond, Morgan continued to fare well in racing, regularly placing in the top of the group or winning its class at all manner of events. So durable were the cars, in fact, that racers Chris Lawrence and Richard Shepherd-Barron not only drove their Morgan to the 1962 Le Mans 24-hour race, they won the 2-liter class and then drove the car back to England after the race.
In the 1950s company leadership had transfered to Peter, son of “H.F.S.” Eventually it transfered again to Peter’s son Charles (the current director), though Peter was actively involved right up to his death in 2003.
Both Peter and Charles steered the company into its modern era, which you might say properly began in the late 1990s with production of the first bonded aluminum Aero chassis. Like many Morgan innovations, the inspiration came from racing. With Charles driving the high performance project forward, and a solid team of people around him pushing to expand the company’s traditionally narrow comfort zone, a host of new technologies were introduced at Morgan. CAD (computer assisted design) equipment was brought in, along with a modern paint shop, a sophisticated new wheel design and—in the most significant change to the company’s machine shop since WWII—a computer-controlled lathe was installed. (The wartime manual Ward lathes are still running strong.)
In 1999 a 4/4/ Four-seater was unveiled by Morgan’s consumer division, and in 2002 the company’s specialist racing division (Morgan Aero Racing) debuted the Aero 8 GTN at the Autosport International Show in Birmingham, England. It was an important step. With the classic Morgans still in production and at the heart of the company’s identity, the Aero division is what has allowed Morgan to drive forward, pushing not only itself but the industry as a whole. With a team that eventually included Humphries, the Aero 8 became the lush AeroMax, an elegant and powerful touring machine with a distinctive rear (inspired by the beautiful Bugatti Atlantic of the late 1930s) that raised as many heartbeats as it did eyebrows when it first appeared. Limited to just 100 examples produced, the design eventually yielded the current Aero SuperSports, which added a targa roof with panels that can be removed and stored in the trunk. The company is playing with an electric, the +E, and it’s already demonstrated a lack of fear when it comes to forward thinking with its LIFECar, a Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle with radical technology and styling. Soon to appear on U.S. roads is the new +8, basically an Aero with a traditionally styled body, and the EvaGT. The latest incarnation of the Aero line, with four seats and all the luxury and performance you could want shaped into a beautiful work of automotive art, the latter is yet another example that Morgan—the quintessential, traditional British car maker—is anything but a throwback.
“We’re offering a 21st century coach-built experience,” says Humphries. “We’re building high-performance modern cars, but we want to show that there’s still romance here.”