MOTOR SPORT visits the oldest and most unique sports-car factory in the World
IN THE PAST I have paid several visits to the Morgan Motor Company at Malvern Link in Worcestershire. I went there after the war to take delivery of a new Morgan 4/4. When its gearbox seized up and there were no spares for it I went down again, towing the stricken 4/4 and part-exchanging it for a Vanguard-engined Plus-4. When I crashed that enjoyable car on black ice it went to the factory for comprehensive repairs. I arrived there again, to collect it, and I have since made Press visits there.
Just recently I have been feeling nostalgic about my Morgan days and it occurred to me that another visit to their birthplace was overdue, to see what Peter Morgan, Managing Director of this long-established Company, is up to. The Morgan, with its three-wheeler ancestry dating back to 1909, is quite unique, being a modern sports-car in much the vintage tradition, and one that, in my opinion, makes the purchase of “imitation vintage” cars a farce. It is very good to know that in an age of emission and accident stipulations, financial disasters, and threats of Nationalisation, and with politics changing the face of Rolls-Royce Aero Engines, British Leyland and British Steel, this small specialist sports-car factory in the shadow of the Malvern hills has never closed and is, in 1975, going about as strongly as ever.
Whereas most pocket-handkerchief car manufacturers are obliged to mould their bodies in “compressed milk and coconut”, Peter Morgan continues to make his bodywork on old-time coach-building principles. Although the old craftsmen are nearly extinct, he finds that the young operatives are very good, and willing to learn the old crafts. At Malvern they construct the high-performance Plus-8 with eight-cylinder Rover 3500 engine in two-seater form and the 4/4 with Ford push-rod o.h.v. 1600 Kent engine in two and four seater versions. Coupes are no longer made, as they would use enough steel to make two to two-and-a-half open bodies, although Mrs. Morgan’s Plus-8 coupe with automatic transmission attracts much attention.
Malvern is steeped in Morgan history. I drove through the town, past the last house of Mr. H. F. S. Morgan, Founder of the business (in later years he was a Rolls-Royce and Bentley owner), and bought Shell petrol for the BMW at Bowman & Acock’s, which was the original Morgan three-wheeler factory, next to which is the house where Peter Morgan was born. Then I turned right into Pickersleigh Road and the long, low redbrick single-storey factory building faced me as I came to the T-junction. All around are green hills and grazing sheep, at this decidedly rural factory setting at Malvern Link. You enter the works through an insignificant porch, unchanged since 1916 or thereabouts, after opening a faded blue door. Through another blue door, smarter this time, and you are in a tiny unoccupied hall, the walls of which carry long lists of Morgan competition successes dating back to before the First World War, together with historic photographs and certificates, etc.
Peter Morgan has a modest office, heated by a small electric fire, on the left, the general office being on the right. One is now in the main building of the factory, used when the original works was vacated, and onto which seven brick bays were later built, on up to circa 1925. Nothing has altered very much since, apart from the acquisition, some three years ago, of two fine new shops and a boilerhouse for works’ heating, when Chance’s moved out. The Morgan Motor Company remains, as ever, a combination of assembly plant and manufacturing unit. The chassis frames come from Rubery Owen, electrical equipment from Lucas, instruments from Smith’s, back axles and bumpers from Salisbury-GKN, steering boxes from Cam Gears, brakes from Girling, and seats and seat frames from Ambla.
This, of course, requires some qualification. Customers can have leather upholstery at extra cost, which is why unupholstered seat frames as well as complete seats are ordered. They can specify their own colours, providing these are not special to other makes, and a very smart Morgan in brown, with fawn mudguards, was recently delivered, while in the dispatch-bay I saw another, rather astonishing two-colour paint job. These days Morgans are finished in ICI cellulose. There is the expected careful attention here, the recent tendency being to employ more operatives on the paint processes. The cars are first undersealed, then have the undercoats applied, followed by a filler, and then another undercoat, before four or five final coats of cellulose are sprayed on. Five standard colours are listed.
Reverting to the suppliers, timber for the bodywork comes from Glikstein’s, being Belgian ash, kiln-dried. The Plus-8s are fitted with Dunlop VR tyres, the 4/4s with Pirelli Cinturatos. Dunlop supply the wheels for the latter, to Morgan specification, both wire and disc, but the aluminium-alloy wheels for the Plus-8 come from Telcast. The Ford engines are supplied through Power-Torque of Coventry but Morgan’s fetch the Rover units from Solihull in their own Ford Transit van. The power units, apart from small modifications necessary for installation, are untuned, to retain the marker’s warranty. Peter Morgan prefers tuning specialists to instil any extra power required by customers, although he said with a smile that a Formula Ford camshaft works wonders for the Kent engine.
The Morgan, apart from the engine change, is much the same as when I enjoyed using the Editorial Plus-4. The headlamps are now recessed, which make for a cleaner front-end, and although the windscreen can be detached it will not fold-flat. (Mr. Morgan is dubious about the safety of this old-time wind-defeating dodge with speeds now in the region of 130 m.p.h., remembering an occasion when the folded-down glass flew up on his car. The greater width of modern bodies is against such screens, too.) Some time ago a wider wheel track was used, so that the Morgan now has a reversed-crab-track of about an inch, and the overall gear ratio of the Plus-8 was raised to 3.3 to 1, from 3.58 to 1. Otherwise, not many changes have happened over the years. The body panels are still tacked to the ash body frame—as author Gregory Houston Bowden has it, “it is chiefly with tin-tacks and a few screws that the Morgan body is held together . . .” The long, louvred bonnet, those long flowing front mudguards, the low build, and the high-gloss paintwork, usually in bright colours, typify the age-old but undying appeal of the Morgan.
However, Peter Morgan has problems. There are difficulties over supplies of relatively small numbers of proprietary components, for instance, so that he thinks the small British manufacturers will be wise to stick together. He hopes that if we remain in the European Common Market the scope of supplies will be widened—there was once an offer of engines from Volvo, for instance —and that healthy competition will result.
Then the strict American emission and safety laws have priced the Morgan right out of the once-flourishing American market, a market which probably saved the Company in the 1950s. But sales are going well in Sweden, Japan, Italy, etc., and there is a fast-growing market for Morgans in Germany.
Mr. Morgan does not think that open cars are in danger of being made illegal on safety grounds, although he foresees that roll-over bars may one day become compulsory. He is troubled, though, about rising costs, which might put the price of a car “over the top”— today a Plus-8 costs £2,925 and a two-seater Plus-4 £2,094—but he hopes that this may in fact enhance the appeal of specialist cars over the also-very-expensive family conveyances. To resume the American market he would need a stable five-year guarantee that no fresh legislative requirements would be introduced. He is happy that Morgan sportscars have sold to widely-differing customers —a King, Brigitte Bardot, and Club racing drivers, most of whom are very enthusiastic and willing to “talk-Morgan” to one-another. He is essentially a modest manufacturer, claiming only a “niche in the Industry”, and he doesn’t seek to increase his production much above its present level of 400 to 450 cars a year. It is far more important to guard against a sudden fall in demand, he says, than to try to boost output figures.
If any change in the Plus-8 is contemplated it is likely to be an arrangement whereby its Rover power unit, which has such great potential, is encouraged not to run out of power at around 5,200 r.p.m. Rover themselves are naturally well satisfied with it for non-competition purposes and only in that still-born mid-engined V8 coupe has it officially so much as been given bigger carburetters. A Budget favourable to three-wheelers from the tax viewpoint has not induced Mr. Morgan to think in terms of tricycles. He has faith only in those with two front Wheels and remembers his father saying that the transmission to a single back wheel was more costly to make than that for a four-wheeler which could use a proprietary axle; like the Salisbury axles in modern Morgans.
All told, however, this great little motor manufactury does quite nicely, employing about 100 to 105 operatives, who build up from eight to ten cars a week, of which the Plus-8s represent from three to four of this production. Reverting to his wish to expand modestly, Peter Morgan points out that with this sort of output an extra Morgan a week represents a 10% improvement! This ambition is governed by inability to find more skilled workers and by restrictions in outside supplies—if even small parts are unavailable, cars cannot be completed. He likes to have a month or six weeks’ stock of engines, say 20 Rover and 25 to 30 Ford engines in stack, and similar quantities of other components and parts.
Production goes as follows. The seven bays of the old factory are divided into the machine shop, carpenter’s shop, tin-shop (or metal-working shop), paint-bay, chassis erecting shop, and dispatch bay. From the erecting shop the chassis are pushed to the carpenter’s shop for the hand-built bodies to be put on. They then go back to the tin-shop for fitting of mudguards, etc., are then painted, to end up in the dispatch-bay. The machine shop is equipped with about 30 machine tools, mostly dating back to 1940 or so, manned by 14 operatives, although two new turret-lathes have been added. Here suspension lugs, hubs, hood frames, brake drums, Morgan’s own lead-coated fuel tanks, etc. are made. The exhaust system is the last item to be fitted.
The almost-complete cars are then pushed across to the new buildings opposite, where the bodies are trimmed, upholstery being made by three girls at sewing machines, and where the electrical items, windscreens, etc., are installed. Each Morgan then goes for a test run of four to six miles to bed-in the brakes, etc., and finally is taken by “Ledbury Jack”, the tester, for a check over 15 to 20 miles. The engines do not need bench-testing and there are no assembly-lines at the Malvern factory, a week’s output of Morgans being stood on trestles in the erecting-shop, surrounded by those working on them. If they have to be moved, they are humped about by the men. It is this individual method of manufacture that is much of the attraction of Morgans, 65% of which are exported. In addition, though, the Plus-8 is a very potent sports car, even with the undeveloped Rover-Buick light-alloy engine, having as it does a maximurn speed of approx. 125 m.p.h. and a 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration time of well under 7 seconds. MOTOR SPORT carried out a comprehensive test of one when it was a new model.
Steel sheet for the bodies is shaped in simple hand-presses, and the radiator cores now come from Germany, each one having five rows of tubes totalling 174, against the 98 of the radiator formerly fitted. The plated shells are made at Malvern. The body shop contains two ordinary saws, a couple of handsaws, a cross-cut saw, a router, a planer and a spindle miller. Wooden floorboards are still used, by the way. Incidentally, each completed Morgan is given a label inscribed with its future owner’s name and that of the agent who ordered it and who will soon collect it.
Some of the Foremen started in this little factory as mere boys. Peter Morgan has Jim Goodall as his right-hand man and Derek Day is the Sales Director. Apart from Bardot, Anna Carena, and Mick Jagger, etc., more recent sales have been to Peter Sellers and to Rodney Patterson who tows his “Flying Dutchman” behind a Morgan. Peter Morgan’s son Charles cut his teeth in racing on a fully race-tuned 4/4 and is now competing in Prod-Sport events with a Plus-8. His father’s weakness is Ferraris and he has just changed his earlier coupe for a 365GT 2+2.
Thus things go on at Malvern much as they have done for years past. The demand for Morgans is reflected not only in the happy atmosphere at the factory where the new ones are made but by the interest displayed in used cars of this make, albeit prices for the latter are very high and perhaps this is the reason why the exact figure you will be asked for one of the older models is something of a mystery.—W.B.