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First unwrapped in 2000, the Aero 8 was a modern(ish) take on Morgan’s tried-and-tested olde-worlde formula, and, despite its age, good examples can still be found
For all that the new Plus Six does to take Morgan belatedly into the 21st century, with its all-independent suspension, lightweight aluminium chassis and punchy turbocharged straight six, it doesn’t exactly advance the Malvern brand’s design language beyond, say, 1964.
That’s part of Morgan’s charm, of course, and its steadfast commitment to traditionalism is an integral component in its quiet but sustained success. So when the cross-eyed Aero 8 was unwrapped at the 2000 Geneva motor show, all bets were off.
Here was a genuine, up-to-date sports car, with a BMW V8 giving it a competitive 4.8sec 0-62mph time and promises of engaging dynamics, courtesy of new inboard shock absorbers, double-wishbone suspension and AP Racing performance brakes.
The modernisation didn’t stop there, either: niceties including air conditioning, cruise control and a heated windscreen placed the Aero 8 in another realm entirely to the brand’s existing models. Morgan being Morgan, of course, it was all still assembled around an ash wood frame, and the asymmetrical metal dashboard would look equally at home in the cockpit of a 1960s airliner. If it ain’t broke…
Just over 200 examples of this first-generation car were produced between 2000 and 2004, and they still pop up in the classifieds periodically. Its Series 2 successor, subtly restyled to comply with US safety standards and allow for a roomier cabin, packed a hefty power upgrade but was built for only a year in limited numbers, so most have been retired to private collections.
The closest the Aero 8 came to receiving what you might call a facelift was in 2005, when the Series 3 was launched with Mini headlights in place of the previous New Beetle items, giving it a more conventionally styled visage without compromising on its retro appeal.
Mechanicals were left largely untouched until the roadster entered its final form in 2007 with 362bhp from a 4.8-litre V8 that BMW kindly continued producing on a limited basis for Morgan after retiring it from its own line-up. An automatic gearbox was also made available for the first time, featuring an optional Sport mode and offering improved straight-line performance over the six-speed manual unit.
The Morgan Aero 8 has pace and kerbside status in spades, but it’s very pricey.
Later variants include the ultra-exclusive, boat-tailed AeroMax coupé and its Targa-topped Supersports sibling, the traditionally styled Plus 8 and, more recently, the Series 5 – a revived, subtly updated version of the Aero 8, produced from 2016 to 2018. The austentacious Aero GT acted as the car’s swansong, and was made in very limited numbers.
Happily, because improvements and tweaks made to the supercar over its 18-year life cycle were so subtle, choosing which version to go for is simply a matter of deciding your budget: prices for early cars begin at £40,000 (plus shipping costs if you opt to import), but you can expect to pay above £120,000 for low-mileage Series 5 cars and special editions.
How to get one in your garage
An expert’s view
Melvyn Rutter, Melvyn Rutter Ltd: “It’s a very finite market, and not that many come up for sale, because people tend to like them and drive them. Initially, there was a huge rush and Morgan couldn’t make enough. It was only the really determined who stuck with it and waited; they weren’t impulsive buyers. Like the 3 Wheeler, there were people who had never really thought about a Morgan before, and we got new people into the fold.”
Engine: The side-exit sports exhaust is a highly prized option, giving post-2004 cars a bassy growl. Both BMW-derived V8 engines are characteristically durable, but stick to their servicing schedules and shell out for genuine parts.
Body: Series 1 and 2 cars are known to suffer leaky roofs, so keep them garaged. Wooden element of the chassis means crash repairs and restoration work is a specialist job best undertaken by a Morgan dealer. Body panels, especially the bootlid, evolved over the years, so research before replacing them. Low front splitter is prone to stone chips.
Gearbox: Don’t be put off by a noisy manual gearbox. The Aero 8 features far less soundproofing than a contemporary BMW, so a degree of crunchiness and whirring is par for the course. Installing a quick-shift gearstick helps to eliminate some of the clunkiness.
Electrics: Exposed indicator wires can come disconnected, so check under the front wings if they’re playing up, and later Beetle headlights have a tendency to let water in and become misted. Series 1 cars suffered from a sticking starter motor, especially after long periods of non-use. Fit a conditioner to keep specialist gel battery in working order. Power-steering pump is a weak spot, but replacements are easily found.
Interior: Later interiors are more modern but still prone to wear if not maintained properly. Popular modifications include an aluminum steering boss and a Mota Lite steering wheel, while an upgraded stereo is a wise investment.
Also worth knowing
The manufacturer offers a full maintenance and restoration service at its Pickersleigh Road headquarters, with a fixed price servicing structure.
The relaunched classic boasts old-school beauty – and breathtaking speed
When jovial business guru the late John Harvey-Jones visited the Morgan Motor Company in 1990 for the BBC’s Troubleshooter show, he declared the firm “almost automatically doomed” due to its outmoded manufacturing and inability to edge production beyond a quaint nine-and-a-half vehicles per week. The waiting list, often 10 years long, that sometimes resulted in would-be owners being laid to rest long before their cars emerged from the factory really would have to be addressed…
Thirty years later, production has soared to a heady 15-plus cars per week (for contrast, Toyota builds more than 13,000 per day on average) and Harvey-Jones’s recommendation to modernise has finally manifested in the most radical leap forward: a redesign of the resolutely retro Plus Four. It’s a key model in the marque’s offering that has remained largely untouched since its introduction in, er, 1950.
Arriving at the ramshackle brick buildings in Pickersleigh Road, Malvern Link, Worcestershire – Morgan’s home since 1914 – I am pleased to see that things still look much the same as ever. The timber store is well stocked with blocks of ash for making the wooden framework to which bodywork and vintage-style running boards are attached; part-finished cars are still being pushed by hand from one build process to another; and there isn’t a robot in sight.
But when it comes to the finished product, Morgan has modernised – and then some. Instead of the steel chassis that formed the basis of the original Plus Four, the new car sports a “CX-Generation” platform made from bonded aluminium, at the front of which sits a two-litre BMW TwinPower Turbo engine tuned to produce a useful 255hp.
The combination of new underpinnings and lightweight aluminium panels set around the signature ash frame make for a weight of a gossamer 1,009kg in the automatic model, giving the car a power-to-weight ratio of 253hp per ton – which makes for true 21st-century sports-car performance (0-62mph in 4.8s and a top speed of 149mph).
Until recently, the Morgan line-up comprised several four-wheel models with similar looks, plus the more aggressively styled Aero Eight and the quirky Three Wheeler that harks back to the brand’s origins as a maker of lightweight “cyclecars”. Now the range has been distilled to comprise the Three Wheeler, Plus Four and Plus Six (an ultra high-performance model also on the CX-Generation platform but with a six-cylinder BMW engine), with the Plus Four set to become the most popular model.
Outside and in, it looks similar to the old car, with the same slightly fiddly manually folding roof, low-cut doors and a cockpit that, while easier to get into, still demands a fair deal of flexibility. Once ingress is achieved, there’s miles of legroom and a comfortingly low-tech dashboard with just the basics: speedo, rev counter, start button and one knob each to control a blower and heater (nothing too precise – just cold, warm or warmer). The flat windscreen is just the same too – so long and narrow that it requires three short wipers to cover its area. The sound system, however, has had an upgrade, with Bluetooth connectivity and some quality speakers for music streaming.
But it’s only in driving the Plus Four that the difference from its predecessor becomes readily apparent. The rigidity of the aluminium platform completely eliminates all of the old model’s shakes and rattles and, combined with up-to-date suspension and braking systems, it’s far smoother, sharper and more relaxing at both low and higher speeds. When the occasion demands, it really is blisteringly, cartoonishly quick…
And with the waiting list now down to six months, you can even have one delivered in the same lifetime.
While Harvey-Jones might not be too pleased that annual production numbers are only just hovering around the figures he was hoping to see 30 years ago, he would not be sad that Morgan has moved away from its original remit of 1909 to produce cars for everyday motoring (its first model was called the Runabout): the car I drove, with extras including special paint, box weave carpet, sports exhaust and luggage rack (an essential) carried a price tag of £74,949.
And with the waiting list now down to six months, you can even have one delivered in the same lifetime.
This week marks a historic moment for Morgan Motor Company, as the boutique sports car manufacturer has made its last-ever steel chassis.
Introduced in 1936, the steel chassis has been produced continuously ever since, making it the longest-ever running production car architecture. But even a company as traditional as Morgan must keep up with the times, which is why the UK-based firm switched to the CX-Generation bonded aluminum platform last year.
All its current four-wheeled models are underpinned by the modern architecture. Nevertheless, Morgan still had some pending orders for steel chassis cars and this week the last of them was built, putting an end to an 84-year tradition.
Morgan’s steel ladder chassis debuted in 1936 in the Morgan 4-4, the brand’s first car to have four cylinders and four wheels; up until that point, the company had only sold three wheelers.
With many alterations and improvements, the steel chassis went on to underpin a variety of models over the years, including the Plus 4, Plus 4 Plus, first-generation Plus 8, 4 Seater, V6 Roadster, and the 4-4’s eventual successor, the 4/4. Actually, every four-wheeled Morgan produced before 2019 has used a variation of the steel chassis, with two exceptions: the Aero range and the second-generation Plus 8.
The chassis’ famous design elements include its combination of sliding pillar front and leaf spring rear suspension, a setup used by very few other car manufacturers. In total, Morgan has made 35,000 four-wheeled cars with a steel chassis, and they were delivered in 65 countries around the world, with many of these models still being used today.
The final steel chassis car is a Morgan Plus 4 70th Edition, purchased by a loyal Morgan customer who also owns the famous Le Mans-winning Plus 4 ‘TOK 258’. The Plus 4 70th Edition marks 70 years of production of the Plus 4, which began in 1950. It is limited to a run of just 20 individually numbered examples, all of which feature a gold-painted chassis, Platinum Metallic paintwork, and a host of other upgrades.
The all-new Morgan Plus Four, launched in March 2020, has switched to the new bonded aluminum CX-Generation platform. It remains to be seen if it will last as long as its predecessor…
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.
[This is a fairly positive report about the new CX Chassis’d Plus 4. The rumor is that this Plus 4 will come to the US as a component car. I am not sure when. Talk to the dealers if you are interested. Cheers, Mark]
Like other UK based car factories, Morgan Motors stopped production back at the end of March to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. This week the company has resumed production at its Malvern Hills based factory on Monday 12th May, bit in a limited fashion, only twenty staff have returned back to work.
“This very small scale reintroduction provides us a good opportunity to prove some of the new social distancing measures we have put in place throughout the factory alongside government guidelines. The welfare of our employees and compliance with social distancing measures remains the number one priority when we’re considering any of our business operations. We will reintroduce more staff back to the factory only when we feel it is safe to do so.”
Morgan is probably one of very few British companies that still has a spring in its step during lockdown. The Malvern firm’s first big international launch for the Plus Four has had to be postponed due to the disruption of the pandemic, but you sense the work done just before it temporarily shut up shop was enough to get over the hill, one it had been climbing since the first digital drawings of its ground-breaking CX platform were produced more than four years ago. Along with the Plus Six, the already-popular Plus Four has put Morgan on a totally new path, one that head of design Jon Wells thinks will enable his team to make some pretty bold moves with subsequent products – both aesthetically and technically.
“It’s no secret that we’ve a space at the top of our line-up for an Aero successor,” Wells, a member of the Morgan Cars family for twelve years, tells PH. “Its successor is being worked on and, without giving too much away, we’re prepared to go further than we’ve done before thanks to the flexibility of the CX platform. There’s no monocoque so we’re certainly not tied to one look, we’ve shown with the Plus Four how different the platform can become, and with the BMW engine partnership, we’ve a great supply of powertrains to choose from.”
How does a turbocharged 4.4-litre V8 two-seater to succeed the AeroMax sound? From the tone of his voice on the phone, it seems Wells is on board with the suggestion, but he refrains from getting into the future halo model’s specifics. Right now “it’s about the Plus Four”, he says. Instead, he leaves the door wide open, stating that the “CX platform had flexibility designed into it from the start, so we could use a higher specification of BMW’s modular engines [including the Plus Six’s 3.0-litre B58] or even go down the alternative fuel route. That’s certainly something we know about thanks to the hydrogen fuel cell LIFEcar and EV3 project from a few years back”.
Ah yes, electric. Something not even a brand as firmly tied to tradition as Morgan has been able to avoid. Not that it’s ever wanted to, as the EV3 showed the firm has plenty of ideas when it comes to zero-emission motoring. He says the shelved 2016 model continues to have an impact to this day, with the response to its reveal demonstrating “that people want to see Morgan doing new things for the future”, while “keeping to [its] heritage and remaining a genuine, authentic coach-built car”. The company trained its dealer network to work on EVs so it’s ready to hit the ground running. And, handily for Wells, the packaging freedom offered by an electric car is self evident.
“But when it comes to EVs, we’re making an electric Morgan, not making a Morgan electric,” he affirms. “And there are things that I’d like to retain even the most forward-thinking designs; like the driver will always sit just behind the car’s centre line, behind an A-pillar on the centre and with a dramatic view down the bonnet. That proportion probably stays but beyond that we’re free to play with the Morgan philosophy, so you can expect something to illustrate that it has performance, but without looking too aggressive. How do you maintain the Morgan identity without an intake? We’re thinking about that, with functional design as priority.”
Wells refers to the EV3’s brass fins, there to keep the batteries cool, as an example of EV functionality that’s aesthetically-pleasing and “adds to the car’s story”. He admits that round headlights are likely to remain a staple feature of the Morgan face no matter the powerplant behind them, although new LED technology does allow for variations of the inner details.
The same goes for the wood that mounts to the CX structure, which Wells expects to remain across the board due to the production freedoms it enables, like “actually changing the shape of the car without affecting the platform beneath”. That’s not to say that Morgan wouldn’t consider other things; Wells points to the EV3’s use of sustainably-sourced carbon as evidence of the changes that could be brought about when relevant. But the company needn’t forget about the technical merits of its unique wood-framed engineering.
It does, however, need to consider the potential wider-reaches of its CX platform cars. With improvements to NVH and refinement provided by the aluminium, CAD structure (so no more “pencil and pad sketches”), Wells isn’t the only one expecting the firm’s present customer base – typically men aged between 45 and 60 – to expand. Retro style is at the height of fashion, after all, and Wells is fully aware of a growing hunger for film cameras and vintage clothes, a trend Morgan is well placed to take advantage of. It seems to be going well, despite the impacts of coronavirus; Morgan received record levels of online exposure with the Plus Four, a car the company reckons could become a driver’s favourite thanks to its manual gearbox and one-tonne kerbweight.
“We’re also at a stage now where we can consider future technological and safety regulations before they’re implemented, rather than always reacting as we used to before CX,” Wells says. “We think about pedestrian impacts, which require clear space between the car’s front and engine, and how to place cameras for driver assistance tech, which normally spoils the A-pillar’s lines. And we’ve already proven that we can effectively cool a hot turbocharged engine in what’s a very tight package, while showing that we can make modern wishbone suspension work with a bespoke wire-wheel design. Our pot of technology available for future cars is really very large.”
2020 might not go down in history as a particularly favourable year, but as far as Morgan’s story is concerned, it’s looking like a turning point. Wells says the Plus Four’s enquiry list exceeded expectation, suggesting that once things return to normal, the brand will expect to hit the ground running. Using his enthusiasm as a guide, it’s what’s to come after that which will really get the marque into its 21st century stride. For now, Morgan’s design boss is “itching to get back out on the road for a drive.” We couldn’t agree more.
On a stunning road trip to the Gamble House, we rediscover the joy of doing things the old way.
The gamble house is the greatest surviving example of American Arts and Crafts-style architecture, and it was saved by an offhand comment. Completed in 1909, the peak of that building style in Southern California, the house was considered passé by the mid-1940s. The owners wanted to sell the place until someone suggested painting all the woodwork white, “so it won’t be so dark in here.” Instead, they took the house off the market, kept it in the family, and in 1966, gifted it to the city of Pasadena. The residence is now a historic landmark, preserved and maintained by the University of Southern California School of Architecture.
Decades later, we’re in an Arts and Crafts resurgence. The forgotten style is now sought after in antique furniture and original buildings. “It’s lasted more than twice as long in its rediscovery as it did in the first place,” Robert Siminger, a docent at the Gamble House, told me.
The Morgan Plus 4 I parked in the driveway shares something with the residence. Each is of a kind, created to remind us of the joy in simplicity. Introduced in 1950, the Plus 4 was discontinued, revived, canceled, and, in 2005, reintroduced again. Built by a small, family-founded firm in England, the car has been in production as a throwback for longer than it existed as a contemporary design. And now, for the first time in years, you can buy one in the United States, brand-new. A few days before our long weekend with the Plus 4, I showed my girlfriend Natalie a picture of the car, all pouncing fenders and pert headlights. Gumballs on the doors, no bumpers. The perfect air of an old race car, despite the fact that the car is neither a race car nor technically old.
“It’s going to ride terribly,” I warned her. “If it rains, we’re screwed. If it gets cold, we’re screwed. There’s no trunk. The body is made mostly of hope, and it’s all comically unsafe.”
Natalie eyed the Plus 4 the way she looks at Christian Bale. I might as well have been warning her about sunburn while booking tickets for Waikiki. “We’ll be fine,” she scoffed.
We picked the car up at Morgan West, a dealership in Santa Monica, and spent the rest of the day roaming Southern California. Los Angeles is car-blind. Monotonously good weather and an obsession with image make six-figure supercars as common as mailboxes. You go wailing down Sepulveda Boulevard in some carbon-fiber drop-top, nobody bothers to look up from their phone. Not so with the Plus 4. Not since 1968 has the model been an official U.S. import, but it now crosses our border as a “component car,” with a drivetrain in a separate crate and installed upon delivery. Other similarly shaped Morgans (the Plus 8, the 4/4) came to the U.S. in small quantities in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, but any car from the marque’s small village of Malvern is a rare sight in the States.
So people stop and gawk. They snap photos and shout questions. The Plus 4 doesn’t project wealth or power. It’s approachable, and it extends that grace to anyone sitting inside. Nobody could be scowly or standoffish in a car with such a wide-eyed, pleasant face.
Or such a small footprint. Photos don’t do justice to the car’s scale. Those sweeping fenders are based on a design Morgan first put into production in the Thirties. They evoke huge, stately coupes á la Cruella De Vil, but the Plus 4 is nine inches shorter and more than a foot narrower than today’s Miata. You sit in the thing like a kayaker, bodywork barely reaching your elbow, looking like you’ve wrapped the hood around outstretched legs. And you drive it with your heels together. The steering wheel and windshield are both about a foot closer than in modern cars, coaxing you into the bent-elbow driving position of prewar racing heroes. The seat snuggles up to the rear axle, inches behind your spine and way behind the car’s longitudinal center. You turn the wheel and watch that long, tapered nose swing into the corner as if you were sitting in the back of a bus.
The ride is… taxing. Morgan founder Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan designed his signature sliding-pillar front suspension back in 1909, and the company has since seen little reason to mess with it. Our car, on sport springs, informed us of every dip, sway, and imperfection in the road. On certain stretches of freeway, the Morgan picked up a strong front-to-back seesaw motion. You nod along helplessly, looking like you’re vigorously jamming out to the eighth notes of a hot jazz number.
Bless all of it in its glorious imperfection. It is impossible to drive a Morgan distracted. The manual steering tells you how much weight is on the front axle down to the pound. The firm brake pedal will lock up all four tires on a panic stop. The exhaust thrums like the getaway car in a black-and-white movie. The drivetrain is deeply plebian—2.0-liter, direct-injected, Ford four-cylinder, and a five-speed manual borrowed from an early Miata, 180 horsepower to the leaf-sprung solid rear axle—but sitting down there, low enough to palm the pavement, wind trying to steal your sunglasses, it’s all exhilarating. And unmistakably a product of the nation that birthed Luddites, that launched the Arts and Crafts movement. A sense of keeping the old ways alive with ancient dedication. Writing about the history of the movement in 2002, British architecture historian Alan Crawford said, “Unlike their counterparts in the United States, most Arts and Crafts practitioners in Britain had strong, slightly incoherent, negative feelings about machinery.”
No wonder no other nation produces brand-new cars with structural components made from wood.
In an essay explaining Arts and Crafts at its beginning, the English artist Walter Crane in 1893 described “a protest against the turning of men into machines.” The movement began in Scotland, at the end of the 19th century, as people left their farms and villages to live in cities and work in factories. The labor was often dangerous and always dull, and the products felt cheap and artificial, designed for profitability over functional utility or enjoyment. “The concern that the Arts and Crafts movement was trying to address was that people were becoming ‘alienated from their work,’” Jennifer Trotoux, interim director and curator at the Gamble House, says. “If you were doing just one repetitive thing all day long, you didn’t see the big picture of what you were creating. That was considered an unhealthy mode of work.”
“The whole point of the movement was to go back to a simpler life,” Siminger says. “The house itself was as much a part of the art as the objects within the house.”
Every visible surface of the Gamble House has thus been shaped and styled by human hands. Huge timbers span the structure, traversing every upstairs room and making the home feel like an upturned wooden ship. The details draw your eye closer until you’re fully consumed by items you wouldn’t give a passing glance anywhere else—the metal straps cinching two joists, the joinery of a picture frame, the way every corner of every brick in a fireplace has been hand-filed to make it friendlier, more approachable. There are no finish nails covered by putty, no joints painted over. Artisans capped every fastener with a contrasting piece of wood. “The house is telling you about itself: ‘This is how I’m held together. This is what I’m made of,’” Trotoux says.
An entire generation of California bungalows have Arts and Crafts touches, but Gamble House luxuriates in the style. Architect brothers Charles and Henry Greene had an unlimited budget to create both the structure and nearly everything inside it. They finished each room in its own exotic wood—mahogany, teak, cedar, fir—with intricate custom furniture to match, all chosen to evoke a particular mood. Aunt Julia’s bedroom, upstairs in the southwest corner, is warm and hushed. The flooring and furniture are made of blond ash—the same flexible, resilient stock found in the Morgan’s wooden framework.
Gamble House cost around $50,000 to build in 1908—roughly $1.4 million in 2019. To recreate it now would take far more. Old-growth exotic woods in these sizes and quantities are basically impossible to come by. Even at the turn of the last century, amassing such a timber collection was virtually unheard of.
And that gets us to an irony. Maybe you recognize the Gamble name—as in Procter & Gamble, the giant industrial manufacturer founded in Cincinnati in 1837, still one of the world’s largest corporations. Ivory soap, and a contract to supply it to the Union Army during the Civil War, made millionaires of P&G’s founders. David Berry Gamble, second-generation, commissioned the California house as a retirement retreat. An architectural movement launched as a rebuke against industrialization came to comfort a man whose name is synonymous with America’s industrial revolution.
There’s some symmetry here. The Morgan is far from our standard definition of luxury, but with no options, a Plus 4 will run you $70,000. Our test car, loaded, commands $90,000. Door check straps are optional. The Plus 4, like every modern Mog, is clearly meant for occasional use, a plaything for those wealthy enough to spend BMW M4 money on a car built like a shed, and tenacious enough to snag one of the 50 to 100 examples Morgan says it will ship to the U.S. annually.
The car has seen updates, concessions to modernity, but Malvern has been smart enough to keep most of them buried. It took us two days to discover the stereo, a detachable-faceplate head unit tucked under the dash and against the firewall. Reaching the volume knob is like grasping for your shoelace with your seatbelt on. No matter: Wind noise completely drowns out the speakers above 30 mph. And even in sunny Southern California, the car can seem underdressed for the weather. Erecting the mohair top requires two people and a week of steady practice. Still, with the roof closed, the side curtains jabbed into place, and heat blowing from the two swivel vents hidden in the footwells, the Plus 4 is delightfully cozy. The gauges give off the warm sans-serif glow of an old console radio. A cool breeze sneaks in at the rear edge of the door and whispers at your elbow.
Every good convertible feels like a secret, special place with the roof up—an intimate, slightly clandestine hideout for two people who enjoy each other’s company. The Morgan, its side windows rising only about as high as your nose, reminds you of the joy of being hidden from the world while traveling through it. Somewhere in the middle of the crossover explosion, we forgot that we don’t need acres of glass to operate a motor vehicle. We can simply duck to a low window to check in with the rest of society.
Twenty-first-century luxury yearns to disappear, smooth and seamless, and from a certain perspective, the idea is noble. It banishes ornery design, anticipating every desire. We like to think this frees us to put our minds to greater problems. But the result is domestic amnesia, when you walk into a room and don’t know why you’re there, or when you get to your destination and recall nothing about the drive. Worry behaves like a gas; it expands to fill the space we give it. Short of giving everyone a Gamble House to hide out in, psychologists should prescribe Morgans as therapy.
These are modern problems, of course. To have too much stuff, so cheap and ubiquitous as to be sickening. To be so catered to and comforted as to be anxious. It’s hard to acknowledge these ills without sounding like a spoiled child, surrounded by toys but still not having fun.
Somehow, the auto industry manages to embody both of these diverging traits, cranking out charmless, disposable cars that do most of the thinking for us. And here, we find our brethren. Gamble House docent Robert Siminger drives a wicked little Ford Model A hot rod to give tours of the residence. I chatted with a master carpenter in the driveway as he loaded tools into a small-window 1967 GMC pickup. Several Gamble House volunteers, when they’re not in Pasadena, donate time to the Petersen Automotive Museum, just a half hour away.
Nice to know there are folks like us out there, people who aren’t satisfied by cheap consumerism or cosseting luxury. Artisans keeping the old craftsman ways alive— at home and on the road.
BY CHRIS POLLITT April 12, 2020 (https://www.carandclassic.co.uk/)
Photography by Bruce Holder
The lead shot for this feature wasn’t easy to get. A close-knit tracking shot is only ever millimetres away from looking like a Hollywood car crash, so you have to have your wits about you. On this occasion, that was somewhat difficult. There was a Morgan ARP4 ahead of me, and ahead of that was the Land Rover Defender tracking car, from which our photographer, Bruce Holder, was dangling precariously.
To my right, almost close enough to touch, was a Caterham Seven, exhausts barking while Paul, the driver, jostled for the perfect position to satisfy Bruce’s eye. As for me, I was in the Lotus Evora. I’ve already put plenty of miles on an ARP4. Plus, my mop of hair would have ruined the shot had I been in the lead car sans roof. Besides, I didn’t mind driving the Lotus, especially having discovered the button that makes the exhaust system even louder.
So why was it so difficult? Quite simply, because it was one hell of a distraction. Yes, other motorists were left agog at the sight of us three bombing along while a man on a string tried to take pictures (special acknowledgement goes to the man who’s chin was quite literally on his dash as he drank in the spectacle), but so was I. It was a hell of a moment. Three cars (four if you include the Defender) that all show why us Brits are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to going fast. When it comes to sports cars, Britain is at the top of its game.
Yes, it’s been a turbulent journey, with many great names falling by the wayside over the decades. But even though many British sports car builders have gone, that doesn’t mean we’ve been left with the dregs – far from it in fact. What we have now are the purest cars, the machines that have survived and evolved with such commitment that they have escaped our nation’s involuntary automotive cull. Basically, we’ve got the best of the best. But even so, that begs the question; which one floats my boat? And what of the ones that don’t?
To work that out, we have to look at the other cars flanking the ARP4. First of all, we have the Caterham Seven. Small enough to park under your stairs but with enough punch to rip them from the foundations, it’s a little brute. Obviously its origins are intertwined with Lotus, given that the Caterham started as Lotus Seven built under licence, but that’s where the ties end. A modern Caterham does not try to win over a modern Lotus customer. It’s too wild, too bare, and
too barmy in fact. The Caterham Seven, in any guise, exists to appeal to those of us who put speed and excitement above all else. There are no compromises with this car. There is no boot, no creature comforts of any kind. It’s just man and machine working together; nothing more, nothing less.
Power-wise, the Seven is available with various outputs. In the case of the 310 we had our hands on, 152bhp was on tap from the 1.6-litre Sigma Ti-VCT engine, pushed through a five-speed transmission to the rear wheels. If that engine sounds familiar, that’s because it is. You’ll find it under the winged bonnet of a current Morgan 4/4. In the Malvern offering though, it’s a tame 110bhp unit that gently encourages the Morgan along. In the Caterham, it’s a different animal thanks to more power and a lot less weight. The Seven moves the scales to 540kg, which is about the same as the weekly ‘big shop’.
Drive the Seven and you need to adjust. Not only is your face contorted in ways you didn’t think possible by the rushing air, your body is also shocked. This thing is wild, untamed almost. It has no godly right to be as shouty, as outright fast and ultimately, as raw as it is. It feels unfinished, but not in a negligent sense. It just feels like it’s not a full car, it’s so light and basic. Given its tiny weight and silly power combination, you’d assume that the Seven has no grip. To do so would be to assume incorrectly. The De Dion semi-independent rear can put the power down without worry, while the front double-wishbone set-up ensures that the direct and mechanical steering points the car exactly where you want it.
Disc brakes all round with no end of bite make sure you don’t end up in a tree. Driving a Morgan is an occasion, it’s an event. That’s why we love them. The Seven? It’s a swift kick to the senses. We love it, but for some, it may be a bit much. You can’t drive a Caterham in a civilised
manner. It’s the devil on your shoulder, the terrier tugging at its lead; it wants to go wild at all times. We applaud it for that but at the same time, we’re not sure we could live with it. It’s a car to be enjoyed when the mood takes you, not to be suffered when it doesn’t.
At the other end of the scale is the Lotus Evora. Full-bodied, it feels wider than it has any right to. But out of the three cars here, it also feels the most conventional and ‘car like’. Sitting in this thing, it’s obvious that the Evora is the kind of car that can swallow the miles while still rewarding the driver when he or she wants to push the pedal into the carpet. And rewarded you are. The Evora we have here is a 410, which as the name suggests, has 410bhp.
The Evora is an enigmatic beast. I won’t lie, I’ve never driven one before this and when I did, I was astonished by how quiet and civilised it was. You really could use an Evora every day, providing of course you’re limber enough to clamber into it on a regular basis. It doesn’t feel fragile or delicate; it felt tough and well engineered. It’s clear that Lotus has upped its game considerably over the years. But with a price tag around £80,000, so it damn well should.
Powered by a 3.5 litre 24-valve V6 complete with an Edelbrock supercharger, there’s no doubt that this is a powerful car. But even so, it drives around with ease and without drama. You can quickly change that. A button on the dash allows you to make the exhaust louder, which is good for a giggle. If you want more, the Sport and Race buttons focus the Evora even more. The most remarkable transformation, however, simply comes via pressure on the accelerator. Give it a stab, hold it in gear and the Evora comes alive. The bark from the engine is incredible and with it, addictive. The suspension is firm but remarkably forgiving. The gear-change is mechanical and direct.
To drive an Evora fast is to be a part of the experience, not just a passenger. Back off though, and it’s just a car – albeit one with terrible rear visibility. We liked it – a lot. You get out of an Evora what you put into it. You’re in control, and that’s nice. But at the same time, we can’t help but feel it lacks a little soul. The switch between its ‘moods’ is so vast that it’s hard to bond with. It’s one thing or the other, but without any real emotion.
Finally, we have the ARP4. Even with its 225bhp Cosworth 2.0-litre Ford engine and modern, opinion-splitting LED headlights, it’s still far more anachronistic than the Lotus and even the Caterham. It looks classic despite being new. The lines of a Morgan are from the past, and it’s proud of it. It’s charming and enigmatic just from an aesthetic standpoint. As for the drive, yes, it’s firm and somewhat unforgiving on the more poorly-maintained surfaces but even so, you know where you are with it.
The Caterham is wild and angry at any pace. The Evora? It has the potential to be many things, but it needs you to choose via the onboard nodes. The ARP4 is a mix of all that. The engine has charm and character, whether you’re going 30 or 130mph. The only difference being that it shouts a bit louder at the latter.
It’s a balanced car, by which I mean it has no shifting personality. It takes very little time to bond with any Morgan and the ARP4 is no exception. It wants you to like it from the off and when you push it, it rewards you. You don’t need to be The Stig to get the most of it, but if you are, you’ll be rewarded appropriately.
Price-wise, the ARP4 we had here can be yours for £60,000, which when put alongside the Caterham’s £30k and the Evora’s £80k, plonks it firmly in the middle. But it’s not a middling car. I’m not saying this with Morgan’s crosshairs aimed firmly at my temple, I’m saying it because I mean it: I would definitely have the Morgan. It’s a car for when the mood takes you, granted. I am certain that time spent behind the wheel purely out of necessity would mar the experience. But in a way, that thought is moot, as you would never buy such a car for ‘necessity’. You’d buy it for fun. And that’s why the ARP4 shines. It’s pure fun. You just jump in it and go. The Evora is great, but it’s too muted. The Caterham, for me at least, leans too much into compromises. It’s too raw, too full-on. It’s a machine you have to drive at 110%, and that would be exhausting.
For me, the ARP4 is a happy mix of the two, but with infinitely more charm, and charm is something I like in a car. The other two have their merits, of course. I love that as a country, we have cars like these. I loved the Lotus a lot. Its bark was infectious and had I been given more time with it, I’m sure my love would have grown. But even so, I know I would have been the one to provoke and create a reason for that love by driving it hard all the time.
As for the Caterham, I love its unabashed madness, but you’d get sick of it quickly. As I said earlier, it’s a lot. It’s in your face at all times. But don’t get me wrong, I love that we, as great Britain, have these cars on our books. I love that all three are steeped in heritage and I was staggered by how far Lotus has come as a car-maker. But even so, the allure of the Morgan shone through for me. But that’s just me. You may choose a different fighter, and if you do, I’m confident that, as long as you buy it for the right reasons, you will be very happy indeed.
With thanks to Williams Automobiles in Chipping Sodbury, Bristol, who supplied all three cars for this shoot.
The principles of family have defined the Morgan Motor Company
for generations. We’re not just talking about H.F.S Morgan – who founded the
company 111 years ago – and his descendants, but the wider Morgan family: our
workforce, our customers, our dealerships and our fans around the world.
To these people, few things are more important than building
and driving Morgan cars. Normally, our factory does not close, but today our
craftsmen and women will put down their tools.
It’s for one simple reason: without family, nothing else
matters. And at this time, our family and your family are all that matters.
For the first time since World War II, and following [UK] Government advice, we have made the decision to close the Morgan factory for at least one month. During this period, we are committed to looking after each of our employees.
We would urge you to keep your Morgan in the garage, to
follow Government advice and stay at home. The next adventure can wait, and
when all of this is over, your next drive will feel like your first.
It’s more important now than ever before that we stay
connected. We’ll still be online, so let’s keep the conversation going…
The Morgan Motor Company factory and offices are expected to
be closed from 25 March to 20 April 2020. During this period, most of our usual
business activity is suspended.
Morgan factory tour, car hire, and experience drive bookings
during this period have been cancelled. These bookings can be rescheduled, and
we will be in touch with you upon our return to work to assist you to with
Bookings made directly though Morgan Motor Company can be
refunded if you are not able to reschedule. If you have purchased a voucher
through a third party and are not able to reschedule, please contact the
provider for more details.
All vouchers with an expiry date on or after 24 March 2020
will now be redeemable until the end of 2021.
Our online shop remains open.
For sales enquiries, please contact your Morgan Dealer. You
can find your nearest Dealership here.
For Morgan Works Malvern aftersales, factory servicing or Aero Racing enquiries, please email email@example.com
For all other enquiries, please use the contact form on the
link below and we will deal with your enquiry as best we can.
Thank you for your support during this period, we wish the
best of health to all of you and we look forward to seeing you soon.