From its HQ in the Malvern Hills, British manufacturer Morgan has been producing highly covetable sports cars for over 100 years. To understand the marque’s lasting appeal, we slip behind the wheel of a Plus 8 Speedster
For a nation that has supposedly lost its motoring industry, Britain produces an awful lot of cars.
We think of ourselves as past it when it comes to manufacturing, when in fact every week the docks of Lowestoft, Southampton and Bristol are packed with gleaming new models made right here, waiting to be shipped around the world. Jaguar, Land Rover, Mini, MG – classic British marques have never been more in demand.
But hang on, I hear you say: none of these firms are really British. They have been bought by BMW and Tata and Chinese conglomerates, which is where the profits go. Maybe, but you only need to head 120 miles west of London, into the Malvern Hills, to find an example of a truly British firm making more cars now than ever before. I give you Morgan. The name alone is enough to conjure images of leather gloves, silk scarves, and the whoosh of an English hedgerow passing at speed.
Morgan conjures images of leather gloves, silk scarves and the whoosh
of a hedgerow
passing at speed
For over 100 years, the winged Morgan badge has been appearing on two- and four-seater sports cars, with their distinctive flared wings and curved vertical grille. The story of how Morgan has survived while so many firms have dwindled is a lesson in keeping it simple, and in sticking to what you know best. That’s not to say Morgan is trading on former glories: as I’m shown round the factory, I see some of the latest technologies from the aircraft industry being used to mould a wing. But what is special about Morgan is how it has put craftsmanship and tradition ahead of profit and expansion.
To start at the beginning: the first Morgan was built in 1909, and was a three-wheel cyclecar. It was built by Henry Morgan and no longer exists, but it featured a two-cylinder front-mounted motorbike engine and not much in the way of a body. This meant it was extremely light and powerful, ideal for zipping up Malvern’s famously steep slopes. The following year, when Henry Morgan entered his “Runabout” in the MCC London to Exeter Trial, he won a gold medal.
Soon enough, he was manufacturing and selling his cyclecars to the public. Back then, Malvern was a prosperous spa town, where smart Edwardians would come to take the waters, and it helped that Morgan’s garage was located by the railway station, getting maximum footfall from the town’s well-heeled visitors. In the Twenties, he bought a few fields further out of town and built a handsome red-brick factory, which is where the cars continue to be made.
Ian Patton, Morgan’s publicity manager, who shows me round, says that the company’s history has always undergone some kind of change roughly every 30 years. The first of these was in 1936, with the Morgan 4/4 – it had four wheels and four cylinders. This is the car most people think of when they visualise a Morgan, and indeed is one of the models still in production today.
One of the distinguishing points about Morgan is that it has never made its own engines. Some might say this is a shame but in reality it has probably been the key to survival. Without investing thousands in the development and construction of new engines, the firm has been able to concentrate on maintaining high standards on every other aspect of construction.
Take the bodies. They continue to be made of ash frames with aluminium panels, which are cut and beaten and assembled by hand. It is a fascinating experience, to walk in at one end of the building and see piles of wood, metal and engines in crates, bought in from Ford and BMW, and to walk out and see them turned into a row of finished cars. Of course, you could say this of any car factory, but at Morgan the scale is so small that you get more of a sense of the whole process.
There are 175 staff, of which around 100 are involved in the assembly. These are skilled workmen, many of whom have been here for 30 years or more. After Henry Morgan, the company passed on to his son Peter, and then to Peter’s son Charles, a flamboyant character who stood down two years ago. The board is still made up mostly of family members and there is a tremendous loyalty among staff to both the family and the firm. They are well looked after. The hours are very civilised: from 8am till 4pm Monday to Thursday, and finishing at 1pm on Friday.
There was a moment in the Eighties when demand for Morgans was immense. Most companies would have increased production to meet demand but a decision was taken to make fewer, rather than more, cars. This proved to be a stroke of genius: like Ferrari, which chooses to have a limited output, Morgan enjoys long waiting lists for all its models. This means that every car is made to order and is finished to the owner’s specific requirements. There are 40,000 paint colours to choose from and endless combinations of leather, wood and metal trim.
As each car is assembled, a logbook accompanies it round the factory, stating the owner’s name and preferences, into which the men jot down the hours each stage took to complete, and at what time. These records are stored, which means Morgan has one of the most complete archives of any car manufacturer.
At 12.30pm, the factory suddenly goes quiet, as the men down tools and head outside to eat their packed-lunch sandwiches in the sun. For me, it means a chance to sample the fruits of their labour. Ian takes me to the main entrance, where a gleaming Morgan Plus 8 Speedster awaits me.
This is a low, wide monster into which BMW’s exceptionally powerful 4.8-litre engine has been dropped. It looks much like a classic Morgan, except that the performance is of a supercar. Acceleration from 0-62mph is a mere 4.5 seconds, while the engine puts out an extraordinary 367bhp.
He hands me the keys and waves me off, and I spend the afternoon winding round some of England’s finest lanes, hedgerows whooshing past me faster than I have ever known before. In villages, people stop and stare, as if we are a vision from a foreign land. When, in fact, it is a vision of a British success story, that will probably be going strong 100 years from now. ML
All 1,300 Morgans produced each year are coach built and made to the specification of the buyer. Three core elements are used: ash, aluminium and leather. A hundred assembly staff are involved with car manufacturing at the Pickersleigh Road factory at the foot of the Malverns – Morgan’s home since 1914