Road Test: Morgan plus 4

Vintage Theory

A new car from the Morgan Motor Company is bound to stir the interest of the avid magazine reader sated with friction-free multi-valve all-electronic machines of depressing practicality. But there is no need for alarm; this latest offering from Malvern Link sticks to a well-loved designation, reintroducing the Plus 4 title after a short absence.

In its last incarnation, the Plus 4 (which has always been one model above the basic 4/4) offered a Fiat twin-cam engine of some 120 bhp — a perfectly respectable power-unit, but the wrong provenance for this most English car. Only a small number were sold. Since then the queue of patient customers waiting several years for their Morgans has had only the choice of the uninspiring 96 bhp 1600cc Ford CVH unit in the 4/4, or the outrageously fast Plus 8 with its 200 bhp injected Rover V8. Now that unfairly wide gap has been filled with the installation of a very fine engine developed in this country, Rover’s 138 bhp M16.

This twin-cam four-cylinder 16-valve design has already won much acclaim for its efficiency. It easily complies with the latest EEC noise and pollution rulings, and its Lucas electronic engine-management system enables it to run at the high compression-ratio of 10:1 for cleaner burning and fuel thrift. Normally it sits transversely under the bonnet of the Rover 820i, but here it shares with the Plus 8 the longitudinal five-speed gearbox from the Rover SDI.

Under the Morgan’s centre-hinged and louvred bonnet this uncompromisingly modern-looking engine looks rather out of place: the broad square head-casting and silver intake trunks are of a different generation to the rest of the car, still assembled by hand in tiny quantities in the same brick sheds in Malvern.

Little else has changed with the new Plus 4: the ash frame is clad in steel or aluminium to choice, and the traditional sliding pillar suspension still keeps the front pair of wire wheels rigidly parallel. But there has been a mild compromise in the rear: new narrow laminated springs are slightly softer than previously, an unexpected concession for a marque known for its steamroller ride.

The Plus 4 body, like its engine, is mid-way between those of 4/4 and Plus 8: wider-tracked than the Ford-engined version but not aspiring to the awe-inspiring length of bonnet needed to decently cover the eight-cylinder power-unit. Similarly the price (of new cars, that is — the premium on availability means that recent second-hand Morgans often fetch more) presents a more balanced choice between £17,703 for a Plus 8 and the surprisingly cheap 4/4 at £11,766: the Plus 4 slots in at £13,691.

Ours had a plain leather dash in red to match the seats and the piping between wings and body, though a wood veneer dash is also available. But these seats are leather for practicality, not luxury: when the rain is heavy the last thing one wants is absorbent cloth. They are specially-made, narrow and stiff, and only the fore-aft distance can be adjusted; yet after some 800 ache-free miles they seemed quite as comfortable as any £600-a-time electro-pneumatic sports designs, though that must in part be the way they match the character of the car. In a conventionally-suspended vehicle they would no doubt feel dreadfully hard by comparison.

Step in around the tiny door and wriggle down onto the seat. You really are sitting on the floor, with the enormous wheel close to your stomach and a sliver of windscreen between you and the tapering length of the heavily-slotted bonnet. There is barely knuckle-room around the wheel’s rim, and the chromed pillar of the fly-off handbrake is better placed for passenger than driver. Somewhere in the depths are the small pedals, housed in a box structure which projects well under the bonnet; little room to spare here, even though the throttle consists only of a small roller-bearing, Bugatti-style.

In short, this is how real sports-cars have always felt: snugly settled tlose to the wheel, cut-away door under the elbow, shoulder-toshoulder with your passenger, and the exhilarating view down the valley between wing and bonnet. Once the wheel would have had a thin wooden rim: now generous leather padding gives a much more secure grip—and it is needed.

That wide wheel is not there for nostalgia; the Morgan’s steering is plain heavy, and you need the leverage. It is also amongst the most direct, responsive and informative of any sports-car you can buy today. No play, no vagueness at any speed, simply direct communication between the road and the driver’s hands. Though the big wheel means larger movements, the Gemma steering is actually high-geared: gentle flexing of the forearms guides the car eagerly through most grades of bend, and even parking takes only a couple of half-turns.

That small, steep screen logically ought to a mean a terrific wind-battering inside, but, as long as the side-screens are bolted in place with their knurled aluminium knobs, conditions remain perfectly tolerable right up to the 100 mph mark. This and the more compliant ride mean that motorways are not the unsuitable environment one might imagine; in fact the Rover engine’s pulling power in the top two gears coupled with the accuracy of the steering puts the Plus 4 ahead of many quieter streamlined vehicles as a long-distance machine.

Of course, as any VSCC member knows, one of the strongest vintage tenets is that hoods should be ignored except for parking the car. Since the Morgan is not so much a convertible as an open car with weather equipment, I never got round to trying it with the top up, instead leaving the detachable canvas covering folded behind the seats. Much more useful is the tonneau with its central zip arranged to allow one to drive half-open; a flick of the zip while pressing in a couple of poppers leaves the car sufficiently weatherproofed for overnight parking. And the driver’s door can even be locked, which if nothing else might deter the curious from peering inside.

Under the half-closed tonneau, if you pull a knob on the steering column, the hearty heater will soon have your legs toasting, and above the gearbox there is another knob which diverts heat to the screen for demisting — but of course you will never need that if you keep the top down. On a stretch of M4 seething with spray I stayed quite comfortable and dry, the three tiny wipers keeping the front of the windscreen clear, though a chamois for the inside would be a wise precaution.

Both speedometer and rev-counter are easily read, though the four minor dials tend to fade into the gloom at night, and the row of plain switches in the centre of the dash could not be simpler. Column-stalks are in the usual pattern: indicator and dip/flash to the left, wipers to the right, while the small but adequate central mirror sits down on the dash.

With uninterrupted vision all around, the odd glance over the shoulder fills in the mirror gaps; snap into fourth and the Morgan surges past knots of vehicles before they have time to dribble blindly into its path. And unlike certain Munich saloons, other drivers do not mind being overtaken by it — grins and waves and pointing fingers are its normal diet.

But motorways and fast A-roads are not what the Plus 4 is about; perhaps uniquely, Morgans are bred for their own territory, and though I had been impressed by the way the car performed in everyday motoring in the Home Counties, I began to marvel when I was able to put in some mileage in Wiltshire and Worcestershire. Sweeping over Salisbury Plain with the sad sight of beleaguered and embattled Stonehenge to one side, the car finally dispelled any thoughts I had of its being a quaint anachronism with a funny wooden frame and old-fashioned suspension. Instead it revealed itself as a beautifully balanced machine with exhilarating roadholding from its 195/60 tyres, its Z-section steel chassis as stiff as many a modern convertible. Sudden bumps are barely damped by the stiff suspension, but the wheels seem to stick to the ground against all logic, so that the car can be flicked into demanding corners even on irregular surfaces with confidence.

On the winding road north from Bulford to Netheravon with its surprise brows and dips, the Plus 4 neither left the ground nor scraped its sump as it sped between the steep grassy banks with the hard note of the 16-valve engine echoing in its wake. It feels a little different from many four-valve-per-cylinder units in that it does not insist on being revved to get the best results; instead of second and third gear on roads like this one, the Morgan sprints over the brows in fourth, with third ideal for powering out of the tighter bends.

Change quality of the Rover gearbox is adequate, the very short lever making the action as heavy as the steering but much less accurate. Rush a downward change going into a bend and it is not hard to find fifth instead of third , which means a strong yank on the wheel with the right hand to kill the understeer while making another try for that middle ratio. And reverse is so brutally difficult to engage — a two-handed struggle on every single occasion — that it actually affects where you park.

But the ratios are well spaced, with a satisfying short gap between them which the quick clutch makes the most of, and once the each needle is pushing for the 5000-mark the Rover engine’s broad-shouldered torque pushes the chassis exactly where the front wheels are pointing. The wheel shudders and the dampers crash over the bumps, the abbreviated gear-stick clacks back and forth, and the driver’s hands and feet make only the smallest of movements to control this car which ought to have been left far behind by thirty years of automobile advance — but somehow hasn’t been.

These Wiltshire roads, sometimes tight and deceptive, sometimes wide-open, offered the perfect lesson on the Morgan’s abilities when following friends in a Renault 5 Turbo, one of the most agile of front-drive superminis. We were in a hurry, making the best possible progress within sensible safety limits, but there was nothing the Renault could do that did not have the Morgan champing right behind. Acceleration, cornering through the sudden right-angle bends, and braking for the scattered villages; all seemed to show that venerable vintage theory is the match of computer-designed practice.

On paper the Plus 4’s 9.1 seconds over the 0-60 dash looks prosaic up against the faster end of current small cars, but it is the ability to maintain a high speed, not just arrive there, which defines a car’s true capabilities, and that is where Morgan’s faith in the old ways is borne out. Not only is the road-holding of a high level but, sitting as one is almost over the rear axle, it can be consistently exploited, relying on the quivering steering wheel and taut chassis to stay just on the right side of the limit. There is a competition feel to the brakes: a hard pedal with little movement which shows no deterioration after heavy use, simply providing continuing strong and straight stopping.

These dynamic delights drive away all thoughts of conventional comfort; noise levels are simply not quantifiable in an open can, the degree of effort needed at the controls is forgotten over a sinuous country road, and luggage is made to fit the car, not the reverse.

It may look like self-denial to others, but the reward is a motoring indulgence to savour, preferably in the right company. A like-minded enthusiast and I drove by Morgan across the plain to Salisbury on a bright dry night spread with stars; the film was good, but the drive was better. GC