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Morgan Factory Tour

Peeling out of the parking lot, it all starts to make sense. The hundreds of hours of preparation, assembly, and work all culminate with this. As the engine surges to the 6,000-rpm redline, its 3.0-liter V-6 crescendos to its classic sports car tune. Clutch in, second gear, clutch out. The wind in the cabin begins to pick up, cold air pressing harshly against your face, and in combination with the engine note coming from right behind your head, the senses are wonderfully overwhelmed. Before we get to entirely antisocial speeds, he lays off the throttle, filling the air with a lovely crackle of the exhaust. Pitching the car into bends, rolling around on the suspension like only a classic car does, both occupants are grinning from ear to ear. If only I could get into the driver’s seat.

We had arrived in a Mercedes C250 rental car that we had driven around for a few days. Its upscale interior and sporty styling were certainly an upgrade from our usual daily driver, a perfectly ordinary VW Golf, but its initial lustre had begun to wear thin. Driving around the English industrial town, it became increasingly difficult to figure out where this place was. There were no huge buildings, no giant billboards proclaiming “Morgan Motor Company – Next Exit,” or anything of that sort. Eventually, with some help from the Internet, we found what we were looking for, and it appeared . . . completely ordinary. Nothing about the place told anything of its century-long history. Parking the car outside the building and walking to the tour, a bit late from the unintentional detours we managed to take, we start to see a few of the factory cars around the lot. Most of them appear as if they are looking for the local classic car show and are lost, like us. After apologizing for our lateness in as British of a manner as possible, we join the group for the beginning of the tour.

As we enter the factory area—a double row of buildings going down a slight incline towards a grass field—we start to learn about this factory’s rich history. It was designed on the hill so the cars could be rolled from one building to the next using only the force of gravity. Parallel to the first few buildings sit a few completed cars as well as the aluminium bones and mechanicals of a Plus 8, the V-8 version of Morgan’s classic body style. The V-8 shoehorned into the chassis without any bodywork whatsoever looks like the coolest go-kart imaginable. As the tour starts, we move into the first of many buildings and are greeted by six different cars, including the Plus E, Morgan’s first delve into modern-day electric cars, the 2004 #80 Aero 8 Le Mans car, and a few old prototypes from just after WWII. This small collection of cars seemingly captures the essence of the company, strongly displaying its history through classic styling and great craftsmanship while testing new technology and proving its ability to produce a world-class car through racing.

The Morgan Motor Company got its start in 1909 when Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan designed and built his own car, a simple three-wheeled runabout powered by a small two-cylinder engine; the following year, he put it into production. As the company developed, H.F.S. Morgan took some of his three-wheelers racing in endurance and reliability events. Success on the track brought a great deal of demand, and the company prospered. In 1935, the company made its first four-wheeled car, dubbed the 4-4 for its four-cylinder engine and four wheels. During WWII, production was halted, but after the War the company continued producing the car. Variations of the car developed, including the larger Plus-4-Plus and, in 1968, the Rover V-8–powered Plus 8. Throughout the decades of production, the overall design of the car retained the same classic body shape, and by the 2000s Morgan decided it needed a newer, fresher car. The Aero 8 was thus introduced, a lightweight sports car propelled by a BMW V-8 and styled the way someone from the 1920s might imagine the future. The newest version of the car produces 367 horsepower and accelerates from 0–62 in just 4.5 seconds to a top speed of over 170 miles per hour. In contrast to this modern interpretation of what a Morgan should be, in 2011 the company revived the 3-Wheeler, with the classic two-cylinder motorcycle engine and body to match. To this day, the company continues to improve its cars and incorporate modern technology while still keeping its rich history alive.

Through the tour of the factory, we see the modern continuation of all these cars being produced in largely the same way they were for over a hundred years. All the parts are put together by hand, and the aluminium and steel architecture of the chassis is cut into shape onsite. The second building we reach contains dozens of these chassis, each with an inline 4, V-6, or V-8 slotted into them. Even without the 1950s bodywork, it’s easy to visualize the classic lines and retro styling draped over the mechanicals.

In the next building, the wooden frames are assembled. Two different ash frames sit on stands next to each other, both in a similar stage of completion. We are told that one of them is for a brand new car and the other, from 1953, is undergoing restoration. Without being told which is which, it’s almost impossible to determine which is more than six decades older than the other. The wooden frame, a staple of the classic Morgans, is often ridiculed for being old fashioned and placed on the butt end of many jokes made by a certain television presenter. No names, but it starts with a “J” and ends with an “-eremy Clarkson”. As we learned, the ability of a wooden frame to flex and bend actually gives it an advantage in accident situations. As Morgan only makes around 1,300 cars a year, it can dodge crash test regulations, but our guide assures us that its performance in such tests would be quite good. Seeing as the doors are about as thin as my arm, we decide to take his word for it and move on.

We get a quick glimpse of the paint shop, where the aluminium body shells are sprayed with layer upon layer of paint. Morgan takes pride in the amount of personalization it offers its customers, in addition to the handful of colours it offers as standard; the company can take any colour the customer wishes and apply it to the car. Every layer of paint is inspected for mistakes and inaccuracies by a few highly trained staff before applying the next coat. The attention to detail continues after the body, frame, and chassis are married together. In the next building, we see the final touches being made to the cars. The hand-sewn leather seats, intricate wooden dash, and the rest of the interiors are all placed in the cars at this stage, which completes the classic appearance. Adjacent to the standard cars being finished, a couple of modern 3-Wheelers are getting their finishing touches as well. These modern interpretations of the design that started the company seem like they would be a hoot to drive, and the tour guide said he’s never seen anyone drive them without a smile on their face. Before the cars can be delivered to customers, they go through one final quality control, where a few staff check for any errors made during assembly and make sure the vehicles are running properly.

After the tour concludes, we are presented with the option of being driven around in one of the factory-owned cars, and so of course we take the opportunity to do so. After a few minutes, a red roadster, the classic body style powered by a V-6 engine, pulls to the front of the building. After opening the door and slotting myself down into the passenger seat, the car seems totally alien, completely different from any car I’ve ever ridden in before—but at the same time exactly as I expect a proper car to be. The hood extends out in front far more than that of your average sedan or hatchback; you sit very low, and the sparse but wonderfully furnished interior feels as though it was pulled straight out of a ’60s sports car. You keep telling yourself this is a brand new car, but your brain insists you’ve been transported back a half century. Leaving that parking lot and getting onto the road, you can almost feel the work that’s been put into piecing the car together. Sixty miles an hour is quoted to come about in around five seconds, but with the top down, cold wind in your face, and the exhaust note coming from right behind your ear, it feels a hell of a lot quicker than that. The best thing about it, though, is the reaction we get from other people. Whenever another car pulls up next to ours, it’s nothing but smiles all around. Everyone seems to love the car, and I imagine most would think it was the same as the one their grandparents had driven decades ago.

The appeal of the car was not limited to the people looking at it; its occupants loved every minute of it. Even though the driver gets to do this kind of thing on a regular basis, he claims it never gets old. When we pull back into the factory lot and the car goes back into its garage, all I want to do is go out for another drive. Our rental Mercedes now seems like a car from the distant future, but it feels like something is missing. Some people call it the X-factor—that feeling you can’t quite put your finger on that makes all the difference. Every single one of the cars that comes out of these factory doors, with their thousands of pieces all assembled by hand, feels like it is something special, something more than the sum of its parts, carrying a rich tradition of over a hundred years of company heritage on its back. Each and every automobile that rolls out of the doors and onto the open roads of England is quintessentially a Morgan.

Theo Makler is a young, car-hungry enthusiast from the San Francisco area who—along with his father Chris—visited with Alain Squindo at the RM Sotheby’s Monterey preview this past August. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of collector cars and in this article recounts a very memorable journey to the Morgan factory in the U.K.

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