The Morgan Motor Company’s low profile—you’re forgiven if this is the first you’re hearing of it—is not for lack of history. With more than one hundred years of continuous (albeit limited) production from a family-owned firm, at a time when classic British marques such as Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover have all been snapped up by foreign companies, the current chairman, Charles Morgan, the grandson of the founder, H.F.S. Morgan, calls the brand “a national treasure.”
This is not hyperbole: Officially founded in 1912, the Morgan Motor Company has been a legend from British racing’s earliest days at Brooklands, in England, and at France’s Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance, and its cars still compete on the FIA GT3 circuit. Speed remains part of the appeal of a modern Morgan: Thanks to its hefty power-to-weight ratio, a V6-equipped Morgan Roadster can outpace a Porsche Cayman S. Yet one look at the badge’s signature swooped wings, exposed fasteners, wire wheels, and missile-shaped, louvered bonnets, and it’s clear that the difference between a Moggie (as they’re sometimes nicknamed) and a Porsche or, say, a Ferrari is deeply philosophical.
While carmakers in Stuttgart, Germany, and Maranello, Italy, create ruthlessly efficient, high-tech marvels, the crew at Malvern Link has retained a cult following by handcrafting small numbers of quirky, idiosyncratic, and polarizing automobiles that look to drag a long-lost vision of British motoring into the modern era. (Unlike these badges, Morgan is also quite egalitarian: While a new Aero SuperSports can run several hundred thousand dollars, a 1.6-liter Morgan 4/4 Sport can be had for just over fifty thousand.) Mick Jagger famously piloted a yellow Morgan Plus 8 convertible around Saint-Tropez in the 1970s; in more recent times, Morgan automobiles, both classic and new, have graced the collections of some of the world’s most eminent automotive enthusiasts, such as Top Gear’s Richard Hammond and, yes, Mr. Ralph Lauren.
“These cars exude personality. They’re not antiseptic, like many other sports cars have become,” says Dennis Glavis, the managing director of Morgan West in Santa Monica, California, and the owner of H.F.S. Morgan’s original prototype four-seater Drophead, among other examples of the badge. These cars are built for driving, not for posting lap times: “Reading your supercar’s graphic charts is bragging rights for some,” Glavis continues, “but that lacks the ‘grin factor’ of sliding through a corner. These are the biggest grin-factor cars man has ever produced.” In other words, while the heart of a Ferrari beats fastest on a track, the soul of a Morgan yearns for the road.
In a sense, Morgan models are indeed born from the road—or at least the trees that line it. In an era when carbon fiber and other space-age materials rule the high-end sports car market, most Morgan models are still built from a lightweight, super-strengthened ash-wood subframe, crafted by hand at the Works. The outer shell of Superformed aluminum (the process of creating a bubble from superheated metal, then forming the vehicle’s shape from that mass is akin to combining glassblowing and sculpture) is mounted, along with the subframe, on a lightweight, superstrong bonded aluminum chassis. It’s a modern take on the art and craft of coach building, a mix of old and new in terms of both materials and processes that infuses each model with the unmistakable, irrepressible Morgan DNA.
That character is what makes drivers of classic and modern models alike such devoted members of the de facto Morgan fraternity. The display walls of Morgan West are lined with fist-size metal discs of varying shapes and designs: a collection of badges, meant to be displayed on the car’s fender, which identify membership in any of the numerous Morgan clubs around the world or commemorate a cross-country drive or another notable event. In fact, vehicle customization is a vital element of the ownership experience: With only a handful of production models—the 4/4, Plus 4, Roadster, 4 Seater, Aero SuperSports (since 2005, the only model exported to the United States), and 3 Wheeler Pedal Car—customers are encouraged to go to practically any lengths to make their cars uniquely theirs. Refitting the modern headlights for a more retro look (a popular touch), customizing chrome badging, recreating vintage paint schemes, and swapping in vintage toggles or custom-made, burled-wood dashboard panels are not only possible but applauded—and that’s after a customer has picked from the fifty thousand exterior colors and a wide range of leather—detailing options available from the factory.
Still, creating automobiles from wood, let alone sports cars that happen to lack power steering, automatic windows, and antilock brakes—at least until the Aero SuperSports model launched in 2009—is hardly the way to attract the average go-fast customer. This is a good thing. A Morgan automobile is the end result of a very particular idea of driving, one executed by no other modern manufacturer. These cars are for drivers who yearn to experience speed and a connection to the road on a primal level, those for whom no stereo system sounds as sweet as the symphony of a well-tuned exhaust note. As David Tuckerman, a Morgan owner, suggests, the brand is for drivers who appreciate personality more than perfection. “Once you’ve owned a Morgan, you come to accept that every single one of them comes with its own quirks,” he says, before adding “but it’s worth it—nothing else gives you that kind of ride.”
The individuality is something that Morgan owners seemingly cherish: The well-heeled sheet metal and sparse but luxuriant interiors belie willful, impractical, often temperamental machines. The engines, sourced from manufacturers such as BMW and Ford, bark and gurgle at you. The balance takes getting used to, with the driver poised directly over the rear axle and mere inches from the ground—the embodiment of driving by the seat of your pants—and the steering and brakes alike make you work for mastery of each mile of asphalt. Combined with stomping acceleration, piloting a Morgan is a visceral, emotional, addictive experience—something Charles Morgan describes as “like firing a well-balanced gun.”
"These cars exude personality; They're not antiseptic like many other sports cars have become."
– Dennis Glavis
For all its old-school motoring charm, the Morgan Motor Company continues to look forward even as it celebrates the past. Committed to reducing the environmental impact of its vehicles, the firm has produced two concepts: The lightweight and fuel-efficient EvaGT, inspired by aircraft manufacturing technology, and the LIFECar, originally conceived as a fuel-cell vehicle but now headed to production as a series hybrid−powered car designed to be easily recyclable at the end of the product life cycle.
Some may wonder whether futuristic, technology-heavy vehicles can provide the same punch for which the Morgan name is known, but the answer is simple: Any car that lacks the essential Morgan character won’t make it out of the gate at Malvern Link. If you happen on any model wearing the badge out in the world, you can be sure all the wondrous potential is there, waiting. All the car needs is the right kind of driver.
Josh Condon heads the MSN Autos Exhaust Notes blog and is a contributor for Inc. Tech. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Esquire, and Men's Journal, among other print and online publications. He is based in Los Angeles.
All photographs courtesy of Morgan Motor Co.