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Driving Back To the Future

5 minute read
KATE NOBLE

One of the oddities of the Morgan sports car is that if you had an accident in one, you’d have to call out a carpenter. Well, maybe not a carpenter, but you’d certainly have to find a garage that could fix a car body crafted from ash wood. The Morgan Motor Company, based in Malvern, Worcestershire, has the distinction of being the only car manufacturer that has a carpentry shop as part of its production line.

The ash body frame is part of the mystique of the classic Morgan 4/4, whose style has not changed since 1936 and whose shape is so idiosyncratic that it is the only car in the world with patents on its design. On the edge of the

Malvern Hills where Edward Elgar composed such quintessentially English music as Land of Hope and Glory, the Morgan family runs a uniquely English company dedicated to creating very fast sports cars: the classic 4/4 and four liter V8 engine Plus 8 models on which the Morgan company made its reputation, and the retro-looking but all-new two-seater Aero 8, a stunningly beautiful machine that can reach a top speed of 260 km/h.

The sleek Aero 8, filled with modern technology but based on an ash body, is put together in a new production shop. The classic Morgans, though, are still built in the adjacent 80-year-old factory, where production line means rolling the chassis gently downhill through a series of workshops for craftsmen to add their components. Though the steel sheets for the body are laser cut these days, metalworkers still cut the bonnet by hand and punch out the distinctive louvers individually. If the finished bonnet doesn’t curve to a perfect fit, they roll it over an old log to get it just right. Charles Morgan, managing director and grandson of the founder, is happy with the way they do things — he’s more concerned with what comes out at the end. “Other cars are built to price,” he says. “Ours are built to last.”

Morgans inspire passion. Quentin English, who has owned three, says, “It is more than a car, it is part of British tradition.” Each vehicle is made to a client’s specifications — they can choose from 34,000 body colors and an equally vast palette for the interior leather. Like other customers English is tickled by the fact that when he orders a new car, “It goes through the factory with my name on the ticket.” That personal touch is so attractive that future owners often visit the factory to watch their car being made.

The process takes 18 days from start to finish. That’s because the company’s 150 workers can complete only 12 cars a week. Not surprisingly there is a long waiting list, up to three years for the classic models, though Morgan aims to increase production enough to bring that down to two, and 18 months for the Aero 8.

But producing large numbers of cars has never been a priority at Morgan. When Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former chairman of I.C.I., visited the Malvern plant in 1989 for a BBC TV program, his brief was to advise the company on how it could improve its manufacturing process and financial position. He told the Morgans to change virtually everything, install modern manufacturing methods and double production. But that was not the Morgan style. “What he suggested,” says Charles Morgan, “would have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

The company adopted some new working methods — like turning the line round so that cars in production moved downhill rather than up — and slowly increased output from 480 cars a year to 600.

The Morgan company shifted into future gear in 1998, two years after development engineer Chris Lawrence designed a car just to race. Having raced it for two years, he said to Charles Morgan: “This is the new Morgan. Let’s put it on the road.” Morgan was enthusiastic and started designing the Aero 8, a “cruising express” with all the modern features of a luxury car on a lightweight bonded aluminum chassis with an advanced suspension system, smooth aerodynamic shape and a 4.4-liter V8 BMW engine that does 0-100 km/h in under 5 seconds.

When it was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in February 2000 it caused a sensation. “People either loved it or hated it,” says Morgan. “But I was quite pleased, because we want an extreme car that people have fights in pubs over.” Customers started fighting immediately, putting in orders for the entire first year’s production of 300 cars.

With the Aero 8 Morgan is surprised to find the 90-year-old company at the forefront of automotive technology and is already planning the next model. Lawrence relishes the chance to use modern engineering within “the beauties of a coach-built body. You can change it much more easily than the pressed tin boys, because they’ve got umpteen million pounds worth of tooling to change. We’ve just got to go and buy a few new trees.” Those new trees will keep Morgan carpenters busy for many years.

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