James May

Illustration of a Morgan

The Mo’ the merrier

If someone had asked me in the pub, I would have said that everything about a Morgan sports car is definitely not me.

For a start, they are made in a place called The Malverns, which my school atlas reveals is as near as damn it to Wales, a place where I have been sentenced to death by the Welsh National Assembly for making fun of their road signs. Buying a Morgan involves going to the factory, and that rules it out since no car is worth the risk of being summarily dispatched by some woad-smeared Celtic separatist.

I must admit, I seem to be pretty much the only person in Britain who has never been on a tour of the Morgan factory. And I don’t want to. I know, from people who have, that ‘there’s an old bloke with a spokeshave working away on a piece of ash, and it’s based in some Nissen huts, and you just walk in, it’s amazing, really, imagine that happening at a Toyota factory, and they push the cars around to work on them, it’s so funny when you see it but it works, it’s so traditional, and that John Harvey-Jones went there and they just told him to bugger off and they were right you know, they’re completely British and they still make a profit, I’d love a Morgan, I wish I’d put my name down for one when I was younger, the waiting list is 250 years.’

This sort of thing makes me want to stick my head under a milling machine and end it all.

Who, in their right mind, would want a car made the way cars were made in the 1930s? I’d wager that none of the people who hanker after them wash their smalls in a zinc tub, or go outside to use the lavatory. Nobody really wants to live in the past, so why drive there? You may as well send your kids to the workhouse.

My good friend Richard Hammond – a Morgan fan – made an interesting observation about these cars. It is this: these days, many ‘prestige’ makers finish their cars off with a light dusting of wood trim. At Morgan, however, the manufacturing process actually starts with wood. Underneath the Dad’s Army bodywork, these things are made of wood. It’s not even MDF or that fake Timberlux stuff that the Koreans use. It’s wood, for Pete’s sake.

Here is a quote from Morgan’s promotional blurb. ‘There’s one room visitors to Malvern cannot enter. This is the development area, where important things of a technical nature are going on.’ What, exactly? Sharpening chisels?

And then there’s the styling. Morgan obviously suffered something of a crisis during the Nineties, when retro design became all the rage. Other manufacturers were plundering their heritage for design themes, but when Morgan opened the filing cabinet to seek inspiration from their old cars, they discovered that they were still in production. So they decided to try something modern and came up with the Aero 8. It looks as though it’s been drinking.

“God in heaven it’s quick. A Morgan is like having a microwave disguised as an Aga”

You can imagine my disquiet, then, when Hammond rolled up outside my house, with a wholly unnecessary blip of throttle through the side pipes, in the ‘latest’ Morgan Roadster – what essentially used to be the Plus 8, only now with six cylinders. “You’ve got to come and have a go in this,” he enthused. “No I haven’t,” I replied and began making my way to the pub.

But he skipped alongside persistently, like a child wanting an ice cream. “It’s great. It’s really quick and it makes a great noise and I love the way the doors come apart,” and so on. And then the bombshell: “I’m thinking of buying one.”

Clearly, I couldn’t stand by and watch him do that. So I climbed into the driving seat and prepared to steer him away from Malvern’s dangerous and subversive carpentry cult.

A few things struck me. First, the door, on my elbow, as I shut it. And then the dashboard. The last Morgan I drove was a Plus 8, which had a wood fascia and some slightly clumsy cast-off warning lights and switches from the Great British Motor Industry parts bin. But here was a veneer of carbon fibre with neat, coherent minor controls. But there was no clock, and I couldn’t help admiring this bold assertion that if you’re driving a Morgan, time is of no consequence.

The steering wheel was very close, but the radio, mounted down on the transmission tunnel, was so far away I couldn’t read the display. The seats were simple, yet felt excellent, and the whole thing was beautifully assembled in a no-nonsense nuts’n’bolts kind of way.

God in heaven, it’s quick. Sixty comes up in well under five seconds, which somehow makes the tally-ho styling even more incongruous. It’s like having a microwave disguised as an Aga, allowing you the romance of olde England with the convenience of a pizza done in 60 seconds. Better than that, it contravenes current supercar thinking by being bendy. And it’s bendy because (in case you’d forgotten) it’s made of wood.

So every undulation in the road, every tweak of the steering wheel, and every change in the pace of the engine comes back to you as a subtle tremor in the fabric of the thing. I haven’t enjoyed such intimacy with the road since I last fell off my bicycle. In fact, I’m going to admit that I haven’t had so much fun in a car for ages.

I also think that Morgan may have pulled off a clever stunt with the Roadster. Where so many are struggling for a truly contemporary design and resorting to retro tinsel to maintain our interest, Morgan has continued to build its old car but given it a smattering of modernity – the dash, the switches, the performance, the exhaust note – to stop it feeling crusty. Morgan bores may lament the passing of the old Rover V8, but I think it’s a good thing. The new Ford-derived V6 makes the car feel modern, and it’s related to the one found in a Noble rather than the one found in a fibre-glass kit car.

In the end, I don’t care if the Morgan Roadster is British, or traditional, or built by a man who still wears an apron. That’s not, in the end, why it appeals to me. It appeals because, rose-tinted glasses locked away securely in the glovebox, it’s just a bloody great car.

This article was first published in April 2005.

 

James May, Column, Morgan

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