The ancient British roadster is a brand-new barn find.
[I removed a few photos from the article. Nothing new or nothing you haven’t seen before. Mark]\
The Morgan Plus 4’s doors are cut so low you can hang your left arm out while sitting behind the wheel and drum your fingers on the left front fender’s long tail. Through the flat windshield the view is all swoops, sweeps, and louvers. This is a car designed by people—long since dead—using nothing but their carpentry skills and an eye for grace and drama. Everything about the 2020 Morgan Plus 4 is archaic and uncompromised by concerns for practicality, comfort, noise, vibration, or harshness. The navigation system is a door pocket in which to stow a map. A thin, paper map. Bumpers are optional.
HIGHS: Gorgeous, beautifully built, rife with old-world charm.
Conventional wisdom doesn’t apply here. This is a car without a trunk. Trunks were a well-proven technology when this basic design went into production in 1936 as the 4/4. It was slightly stretched into the Plus 4 in 1950. It’s not impractical because it’s old; it’s impractical because that was the choice the designers made way back then. This is style first, everything else second. It’s not that fast, it doesn’t handle well in any ordinary sense, and the non-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is fine at speed but agony when parking. But look at it. So pretty.
Morgan has bounced in and out of the American market over time and is looking to reenter it again when the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015 finally goes into effect. That’s the law that directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to conjure up some regulations that would allow low-volume manufacturers like Morgan to sell mere handfuls of cars without the burden of overwhelming regulations.
But until that happens, Morgans sold here arrive via a circuitous route. The Plus 4 that C/D drove came to the United States without an engine. Its Ford 2.0-liter —basically the standard direct-injected inline-four installed in the just-euthanized North American-market Focus—came over in a separate crate.
LOWS: Primitive, uncompromising, with the compelling character of a psychopath.
The reunification of engine and rolling stock was done at Dennis Glavis’s Morgan West in Santa Monica, California. It’s the sort of small shop that persists because of its owner’s love of Morgans rather than on strictly economic grounds. The place is crammed with new, newish, old, and ancient three- and four-wheeled Morgans. It’s the kind of place best visited while holding a pint of Guinness, indulging a garrulous enthusiasm, and having an afternoon to kill. What are the legalities involved in all this? Hey, you’re not reading the Harvard Law Review here.
Back in the December 1967 issue, we tested a Plus 4 when the car was only in its 18th year of production. What was written then holds true now. “A tar divider strip will launch the Morgan on a flight that would put a Hell Driver [Hell Driver referred to any of the numerous stunt-driving exhibition teams that toured the U.S. from the 1930s through the 1990s – Ed.] to shame. A genuine bump will qualify you for flight pay,” the article explained. “Still, it’s not the takeoff that gets you; it’s the landing. About 3 landings a week should be tops. Anatomically. If you’re contemplating a Morgan, see your doctor first.”
Medical specialization has progressed over the last 52 years, but the Morgan? Not so much. So, beyond a back surgeon, keep a renal specialist on call. Because not only will a Morgan driver’s spine regularly compress, but their kidneys will also get shaken to the point where the car could qualify as a diuretic.
In a car that weighs 2150 pounds by our estimate, the stated 154 horsepower available is adequate. It’s actually 50 horses more—almost a 50-percent bump—from the 104 ponies claimed for the Triumph TR-4 iron-lump four in that 1967 example C/D tested. That one had considerably more power than the original Plus 4. When the Plus 4 was introduced at the 1950 Earls Court Motor show it was propelled by a 68-hp 2.1-liter Standard Vanguard four. The current engine, by the way, feeds a Mazda-made five-speed manual transmission from an early-generation MX-5 Miata.
Exhaling through a beautiful exhaust header, the Ford four barks awake with a raspy growl. There’s some sort of radio thing aboard, even a USB port, but the real sound system is the powertrain itself. No surprise, the Mazda five-speed snicks into gear easily and switches between ratios with little effort and absolute precision. The entertainment comes when the power is transmitted back to the solid rear axle, which is lashed to a pair of leaf springs.
The 1967 Plus 4 galloped to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds and ripped out the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 81 mph. For the day, that’s hauling—at least for a British roadster. Morgan claims the current Plus 4 goes from zero to 62 mph in 7.5 seconds and tops out at 118 mph. If Car and Driver had tested this Morgan, which we haven’t yet, we could probably crack 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. So, it’s not that quick by today’s standards, but it’s not shabby either.
Unburdened by the relatively massive heft of a Focus, the Ford four delivers crisp throttle response and a friendly, wide torque band. Once the pilot has acclimated himself to the Plus 4’s, let’s say, demanding driving position, the responsiveness of the machine is exhilarating. The relatively tall 205/60R-16 Avon tires aren’t aggressive in the sense of what Porsche installs on 911s, but the mass here is modest enough that they aren’t challenged much. There’s plenty of stick, even without low-profile sidewalls.
And really, what would the Plus 4 do with additional tire adhesion even if it had it? The rear axle’s natural state is to be always on the verge of hopping, and Morgan’s sliding pillar front suspension is a hammer in search of a nail. The suspension is a road-divot amplification mechanism. Lower profile tires would only exaggerate the ride motions even further.
Accommodations inside the Plus 4 are tight. It’s a stretch to call them accommodations, and the word “inside” doesn’t really apply to a vehicle that leaves its driver and passenger so thoroughly exposed to the elements. The seats are good enough, but the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for height, rake, or anything else. Over time in the Plus 4, you learn to hold your left leg in a position where your calf doesn’t rub up against anything and to skew your right leg so that it’s not bouncing into the center tunnel but also doesn’t cramp up. The footbox is very tight, and the bottom-hinged brake and clutch pedals take some acclimation time. In fact, the footbox is so narrow and the pedals so close together that it’s actually possible to stomp on all three simultaneously if you’re wearing thick cross-trainers. Instead, consider Capezio ballet slippers.
Yes, there’s a convertible top and a pair of side curtains. We didn’t bother to put them up. Best to save the part of one’s brain where those intricate processes would be stored for future use memorizing, well, almost anything else. And besides, Southern California in the early November sunshine is a dang swank place in which to be driving a brand-new antique roadster with the top stowed.
As easy as it is to point out the Morgan Plus 4’s challenges and deficits, its charms are just as obvious. This is a car built to deliver a wholly analog and elemental experience. As a driver, you always know exactly what the car is doing, even if it is hopping over a lane after encountering a freeway expansion joint. Even under braking the tail lifts up disconcertingly.
All vehicles behave just like the Plus 4 to some extent or another. The difference is that the Plus 4 doesn’t even pretend to mitigate this behavior. Many of the things we know as manners in other cars are exposed as insulation from the road in a car as direct as the Plus 4.
Morgan will only ever export about 300 cars—three wheelers, 4/4s, Plus 4s, V-6–powered roadsters, and the new BMW turbo-six–powered Plus Six, which gets a new chassis to handle the power, even though it looks like a Plus 4. Every Morgan is built to the eccentricities of the person who has ordered it, and that makes each its own special thing.
If there’s one way in which the Morgan has truly improved over the years, it’s in the quality of its construction. The aluminum skin covers the ash body framing with tailored precision. (The chassis is galvanized steel.) And the paint is impeccable. It used to be that Morgans were great 50-foot lookers. Now they’d hold up under a microscope.
To get this experience and quality takes money. The Plus 4 starts at $69,995, and the demonstrator handed to us for two days cost considerably more. It’s not cheap, but truly unique experiences never are.
Specifications – Morgan Plus 4
- VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door convertible
- BASE PRICE: $69,995
- ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4, 154 hp, 148 lb-ft
- TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
- DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase: 97.4 in, L: 157.9 in, W: 67.7 in, H: 48.0 in, Curb weight (C/D est): 2150 lb
- PERFORMANCE (C/D EST): 0 – 60 mph: 6.4 sec, 0 – 100 mph: 16.7 sec, ¼-mile: 15.1 sec, Top speed: 118 mph
- EPA FUEL ECONOMY: Combined/city/highway: 25/23/28 mpg