After a generation, the Morgan Plus Eight has finally given in to political correctness. Has the institution been thus ruined? Not likely, says Collin Goodwin
I have had two hugely enjoyable drives in the last few weeks. The first was in a new Nissan Skyline GT-R in Scotland, right through the Highlands, very rarely dropping under three figures. Blew all the cobwebs away and damned nearly my driving licence too. The second driver was on a sunny end-of-summer Sunday in Morgan’s new and heavily revised Plus Eight. The roads were not as dramatic as those in Scotland, far from it. Surrey lanes, with no small amount of crawling Sunday traffic either. Never did I get near three figures; probably never went over 70mph, in fact.
The two cars could not be more different. The Skyline a laboratory on wheels with four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, ABS and just a couple of turbochargers thrown in to make it work; complicated for sure, but also one of the finest high-performance cars in the world, and definitely among the fastest across country. The Morgan on the other hand is simplicity itself. There’s a live axle at the back with drum brakes on its ends and sliding pillar suspension at the front. No power steering, no ABS, nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.
The drive in the Nissan was all adrenaline. Fun, but a bit hard on the nerves. The Morgan is the exact opposite. Driving it relaxes you, mentally if not physically. In so many modern performance cars the primary sensation is speed; take that away and you’re not left with much. The Morgan Plus Eight is fast too, but it also sounds wonderful at low speeds and provides a fabulous view across the bonnet. But more importantly, it gives pleasure when you’re not even driving it. Just looking at it is a pleasurable experience. So would be polishing it on a Sunday morning, perhaps after an early morning rumble for no reason other than the hell of it. In this age of clogged roads and speed cameras the arguments for Morgan ownership are stronger than ever.
Pop down to the Malvern factory and it looks as though time has stood still. Time doesn’t, though, and Morgan has had to move with it. You’d be hard pressed to tell looking at it, but this Plus Eight has been radically changed; more than ever before in its 29-year life. Safety and emissions regulations have made it inevitable. Experienced Morganists will spot some of the changes as soon as they slide into the car. For starters, they’ll have found the act of ingress easier than before as the doors are now two inches longer. There’s more room inside because the seats have also moved back two inches and the dashboard forward one. You can’t see it, but there’s a stainless steel tube that runs around the dashboard to limit deformation in side impacts.
Our car is not fitted with them, but the Morgan is now available with air bags. With them out goes the glovebox, which is rather a loss as it’s a big percentage of the available space gone west. I haven’t seen the airbag wheel, but it’s not likely to be a thing of beauty and it’s certainly a thing of great cost a cool £2056 for the full option. The standard wheel on this car has a nasty bit of padding stuck to its spokes. It would go in the bin straight away and be replaced by a wood-rimmed wheel. The Morgan now uses a Range Rover steering column and stalks. The column is adjustable for rake, but in such a small arc that it hardly makes a difference. The 15in wheel is still nearly in your lap. The stalks are much better, though. They used to be so near the dash you grazed your knuckles using them.
That’s safety out of the way, now it’s emissions. Actually, it is the emission of noise that Morgan’s engineers really had to address. To get the car to chug past the delicate ears of the noise meter in the drive-by test a 3.23 final drive was fitted instead of the previous 3.45 gears. Obviously that’s taken some of the Plus Eight’s sprinting ability away, so the chaps at Morgan have popped a 4.6-litre V8 under the car’s louvred bonnet. Morgan always tries to use as many production parts as possible but the new 4.6 engine is not pulled straight from the Range Rover 4.6 HSE. It uses the block from that engine, but the 3.9’s heads. The block has to be machined so that the 3.9’s timing cover can be fitted. That’s used because Morgan puts an old fashioned distributor on the motor instead of the hugely complicated direct ignition system and mammoth ECU. The Range Rover is automatic only and the ECU gets so upset that the auto ‘box has gone that it refuses to function with a manual gearbox. Good riddance to all that complicated electronics and welcome back the distributor, say I.
The new engine doesn’t feel as responsive as the 3.9 or even the old 3.5-litre for that matter, but it does have huge torque. It is quite possible to pull away from a junction in fourth gear. Pulling off in first gear is really not worth doing. I found myself leaving in second gear and then going straight into fourth. It hardly hampers your progress. Besides, super-quick departures in first gear result in most unpleasant axle tramp that gives the impression that the whole tail end is going to destroy itself. The 4.6 Plus Eight is at its most impressive when asked to overtake from about 60mph. It’ll blast past traffic as briskly as any supercar.
The new engine fits the Morgan’s character to perfection. The last thing a car like this needs is a motor that’s all top end. Besides, if you start trying to thrash this car around the place the whole driving experience starts to become rather frantic. A young colleague couldn’t believe it when I told him I thought this new Morgan rode quite a bit better than previous Plus Eights. And better it is, albeit still pretty appalling. The older cars used to crash into potholes with such a bang that it was a toss up as to whether the car’s or the driver’s backbone would be the first to break. Trouble is, the roads that are most enjoyable these days are often among the bumpiest. There you are, cracking along in the Morgan at quite some pace, judging where to brake for the upcoming corner, pressing hard on the brake pedal (no assistance), then suddenly you hit a bump and the front end jumps, the brakes lock for a moment and it all gets a bit fraught. You have to fight the heavy steering to get the car settled and on the right track again. Some may say this is all part of the challenge and fun of driving a car like this. I’m not convinced.
You enjoy the Plus Eight much more when you drive it in a more relaxed fashion. Top down, side screens in place, engine rumbling away gently. It still sounds wonderful, this engine, despite the fact that it complies with the rules. You drive the Morgan hoping that around every corner you’ll find a tunnel so that you can blip the throttle, sling the thing down a gear and bounce that lovely noise off the walls. I’ve never seen the attraction of a four-cylinder Morgan, and it’s not just a matter of performance.
Ordering your Plus Eight without the optional leather, mohair hood and wood trim would almost be sacrilege, even if it does add almost £3000 to the Morgan’s albeit reasonable £28,000 price. The Plus Eight’s interior is very comfortable, at least while it’s stationary. There’s now plenty of legroom and even some extra elbow room. Sidescreens are a must, even on a warm day, as without them you are blown around rather too much. Cold days are no problem even with the roof down as the heater is nuclear in its output. Turn it on full blast and you’ll be worried that there’s a fire raging in the footwells. The stubby windscreen is now conveniently fitted with a heating element so that you no longer have to use your scarf to wipe away the mist. No Morgan has ever been easier to live with.
I was rather hoping not to take the car back to Malvern myself because I’ve had several narrow escapes from the place in the past. I’m usually fine until I step into the building where rows of Morgans await finishing off and then collection by their owners. It’s a fabulous sight. This is when the cheque book starts to flutter in your pocket. There’s a magic about the place that tempts you in. Owning a Morgan isn’t like owning any other car; just as the car itself cannot be judged against others. It is unique.