(13 June 2020 / https://www.barrons.com/)
The Morgan Motor Company is a fascinating remnant of a once-thriving British car industry. Morgan was founded in 1909 by H.F.S. Morgan, whose first product was the delightfully wacky Morgan Three Wheeler, a car that the company put back into production in 2011 after 50 years away. Morgan has sold more than 2,000 of the model since then, and it also showed an electric version, the EV3, in 2016.
That’s the kind of sports car company Morgan is. Its approach is the very opposite taken by the American automakers in the 1950s and ’60s. The Yanks changed styling every year, but left the mundane mechanicals exactly the same. The Morgans then as now, are constantly evolving mechanically, but wear bodywork that’s basically prewar, right down to the ash wood framing.
Morgan owners are very loyal. Waits of six months or so are normal. Electrical engineer Gerry Willburn is membership director of the Morgan Plus Four club of Southern California, and owns three of the cars, from 1946, 1956, and 1975. His Morgan ownership goes back to 1959, when the family bought a Plus Four Drophead Coupe. Willburn says Morgans are “living antiques.” He adds, “I can’t imagine not owning one.”
Morgans are built in Malvern, England, a spa town in Worcestershire, where the company was founded all those years ago. Some 800 to 900 are sold globally in a good year, and revenue was £33.8 million in 2018.
But Morgan hopes to up the ante to a heady 1,400 annual sales with the launch of the new version of the Plus Four, as a 2021 model. The car was launched in Britain last March with a price of £62,995 ($78,798), but while the American market is very important to the company, there’s no U.S. release date or pricing yet. The name denotes a four-cylinder engine, but not the Triumph power plants of old—instead there’s a two-liter, 255-horsepower BMW turbo, connected to a modern six-speed manual transmission. The car may still look like something P.G. Wodehouse Bertie Wooster would zip around in, but it can reach 62 miles per hour in 4.8 seconds and get near 150 miles per hour.
The new Plus Four shares a new aluminum platform (dubbed CX) with the six-cylinder Plus Six announced at the Geneva Motor Show in 2019. That one also has BMW power, and produces a mighty 335 horsepower. The Plus Four was supposed to debut at the same event this year, but Covid meant that the show didn’t happen.
Fairly sacrilegious for a Plus Four Morgan buyer is the choice of an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission (with manual shifting capability). The auto is, in fact, the only choice in the Plus Six. The axiom used to be that automatics slowed cars down, but the technology has gotten so much better. In the Morgan’s case, it’s the manual that compromises performance, in part because of added weight.
Owning one of these cars still involves some old-world compromises. There’s Bluetooth stereo connectivity, but the top is manual and securing it involves pop fasteners. The car has side curtains instead of roll-up or power windows. There’s no airbag, traction, or stability control, but ABS brakes are a feature.
The 1950s British sports car was very popular with American buyers, so much so that England became a leading automotive trading partner. But quality problems were rife, the industry was crippled with strikes, and the company’s Lucas electrical systems were dubbed “the Prince of Darkness.” By the time the Mazda Miata (modeled on the very English Lotus Elan) came along in 1989, the British industry was moribund. But Morgan was keeping its candle lit.
Morgan was the last family-owned carmaker in Britain, with the fourth generation involved, but in 2019, a majority stake was sold to the Italian financial group InvestIndustrial. Don’t expect the cars to start looking like Fiats, though. The brand’s whole appeal is the traditional British history and legacy.