Imagine the exhilaration of racing down rural country lanes in an iconic British handmade sports car, in the blazing sunshine, with the top down and the glorious countryside whizzing past: a cliché craftily exploited in the image of Matthew Crawley racing home to Lady Mary, concluding the last series of Downton Abbey.
This fantasy became reality thanks to my friend and neighbour, Robert Jarman, who founded and edits The Vintage Magazine, inviting me to accompany him to collect a Morgan 4+4 from the factory at Great Malvern.
It was a dream I was struggling to keep hold of when Robert and I set off on a damp, grey, miserable morning in September for the Morgan factory in Malvern to collect a test car for the weekend and write a review for The Vintage Magazine.
A dreary journey up the motorways from Hampshire was a real dampener on my enthusiasm for the forthcoming venture. It became increasingly clear that vulnerability to bad weather and slow traffic was what we were most likely to be testing over the forthcoming days.
On arrival at the Pickersfield Road Factory, the site of Morgan car production since the early 1900s, we were greeted by the sight of a flawless Burgundy Plus Four awaiting our collection. In spite of the dreariness of the atmosphere my spirits immediately lifted.
Flashback to the beginning of my passion for these beautifully designed cars: I have been a Morgan aspirant since I achieved my first salaried position at the BBC, years ago and blithely assumed that one day owning one would be within my grasp. A more peripatetic career than I had imagined and the increase of commitments that come with a family, requiring a more practical life style put paid to that dream.
My interest and enthusiasm was rekindled when, a year ago, I came across the Morgan display stand at The Three Counties show in Worcester. The dazzling array of models, seemingly unchanged over the years, immediately caught my eye and lead me into conversation with one of the company representatives, who subsequently rewarded my interest with an invitation to a factory tour the following weekend.
So the following Saturday morning, at the crack of dawn, I was off: a flying trip up to Malvern and I was having my morning coffee whilst watching a fascinating DVD history of about the origins and growth of Morgan cars.
This was followed by a tour of the factory and an opportunity to see the care and attention that is lavished on the creation of each individual car from the shaping of the Ash frames to the mounting of the Aluminium bodywork right the way through the multi-layered painting process. It provides the opportunity to see all the stages of the manufacturing process of the different models and is a real insight into how we would all like to have our cars made for us – individually.
The factory tour was followed by the opportunity to test drive various Morgan models around the Malvern area – the purpose being that a prospective purchaser can then be sure that the model they have set their mind on is the most appropriate one for them or, better still, that they might be tempted to buy more that one of the quite different cars they produce.
I seized the opportunity to test the 4/4 and the Plus 4 as well as the company’s thrilling 3 wheeler. It is modelled on their first production model and unsurprisingly to anyone who has driven it – their hottest selling model. It is particularly successful in the US where its motorcycle originated engine – a modified Harley-Davidson design has given it a wide and growing appeal.
Flash-forwards and it was with enthusiasm I greeted the prospect of having a two-litre engine Plus Four to be put through its paces across all kinds of roads and different driving conditions. Before setting off however we had to be introduced to the Morgan method.
There is a specific technique and routine that has to be followed in taking down the canvas hood and removing the side window panels to really open the car up. It’s not difficult but it is precise and is best done step by step. Having been shown how to disassemble the car we quickly reassembled it as it was clear that the journey back down the motorway was going to be a wet one.
To prepare for the journey we set off quite gingerly to the nearest pub to get the measure of the car on a short journey and to fuel ourselves for the return trip. We were recommended The Swan Inn five minutes down the road from the factory and fittingly a good traditional English hostelry serving a good range of beers and ciders along with some very tasty home cooking.
Robert Jarman, once he had mastered the art of folding himself into the driving seat, enjoys the whole Morgan Experience!
The first two experiences of getting in and out of the Plus 4 made it clear that the potential owner, particularly a taller more mature person like me needs to keep limber to enter and exit gracefully.
The manoeuvre requires the dedication of a Yoga practitioner to gracefully manipulate the foot towards the clutch whilst sliding the knee under the steering wheel and simultaneously getting the rest of the lower body across the sills and into place.
Going through this exercise makes one realise that it is a misconception that Morgan ownership will enhance a man’s image and pulling ability equivalent to the belief that one’s youth and sexiness are supported by a toupee.
The Morgan quickly establishes itself as a car that needs to be driven: the clutch is quite heavy and has a long travel, which takes some getting used to and the brakes require a firm pressure and considered application to make them work at their best.
Nothing happens instantly in this car which brings home the fact that the advances in motoring have made driving some much easier and almost passive. That said the gearbox is superbly positive and as soon as the driver engages with the fact that this car requires some effort to get the best out of – that effort is quickly rewarded.
The seating position is supportive and a driver feels moulded into the bodywork – really at one with the car. The aerodynamics are superb and one feels a sense of speed quite quickly – a feeling very much akin to my experience of riding motorbikes.
The majority of the return journey was on motorway and dual-carriageway and the Plus 4 quickly establishes itself as a long legged driving experience capable of comfortably eating up the miles and holding its own against the competition, a reminder that the company has always tested its products and held its own on some of the world’s toughest and most competitive race circuits.
Rain Sodden Morgan Bonnet
The final leg of the return trip home is through the winding and potholed roads of South Hampshire, a good test of the cars suspension and manoeuvrability.
The 4+4 seems quite a handful on the narrow lanes and I still harbour a fondness for the 4/4 but this is a gutsy vehicle that holds the winding roads well and almost defies other drivers to get in its way.
The most attractive things about Morgan cars are their elegance and their pedigree so it might be useful at his point to crib a bit of history from the Morgan website:
click here to open the Morgan Motor Company History site to discover chronological images of the development of these iconic cars.
The founder and the man who guided the destiny of the Morgan car for almost fifty years, Henry Fredrick Stanley Morgan was born in the village of Moreton Jeffries, Herefordshire, in August 1881.
The success of the Morgan Motor Company was founded on an icon, the Morgan Three-Wheeler. This brilliant but simple design by H.F.S. Morgan became one of the most successful lightweight cars of the early days of motoring. The principal of fitting a powerful motorcycle engine and simple transmission into a light-weight chassis and body inspired a new type of vehicle which generically became known as the ‘Cyclecar’.
This novel machine attracted the interest of the managing director of Harrods, Mr. Burbridge, and as a result the car appeared in the shop window of the famous store, the only car ever to have done so. Harrods became the first Morgan dealer with an exclusive deal to sell all Morgan runabouts.
Not only was the Morgan one of the first Cyclecars, it was without doubt, the best engineered, the most reliable, and the most successful vehicle in its class which set the standards for all other manufacturers to follow. It featured a simple two speed transmission (fast and very fast), but no reverse gear (to go backwards required gravity, or the driver had to get out and push).
In the few years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, Morgan’s had secured 10 British and World Records for various classes of cyclecars, won 24 Gold Medals in major reliability trials and had achieved numerous victories on the race track.
In December 1913, H.F.S. purchased a plot of land on Pickersleigh Road, Malvern Link, from Earl Beauchamp. This was open farmland just a quarter of a mile from the Worcester Road factory and here, in the summer of 1914, two large workshops were built.
This is now the site of the present factory, which has traditionally been known as the “Works”.
Development of the Pickersleigh Road site was soon curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War, and whilst car production continued at Worcester Road, the output dwindled as men were called up to fight and existing resources were allocated to munitions production.
When peace returned in 1918 Morgan was one of the first manufacturers to resume full production mainly due to the simplicity of the design.
New models were added to the Morgan range, and for the first time a four-seater “Family” Runabout was available. This was launched at the Olympia Show in London in November 1911.
So advanced had H.F.S. Morgan’s first designs been, that little alteration, apart from bodywork modifications, were needed for several years. The car retained its sturdy, lightweight construction and the two-speed transmission system remained in production until the early 1930s. Electric lights replaced acetylene lamps and starters were added.
As a result of experience gained in reliability trials, front wheel brakes were installed, the Morgan car being one of the first in the field to enjoy this innovation. More powerful overhead valve V-twin engines were fitted, giving the Morgan an exceptional performance for its time.
Throughout the 1920s the Morgan continued to have success after success in racing and was so fast that at Brooklands it was required to start a lap behind four wheeled cars in the same class.
Likewise, Morgan’s were dominant on the trials hills, where they won more medals and trophies than any other comparable machine.
Not only were the cars dominant in motorsport, they were now one of the most fashionable machines to be seen driving on the open road.
1931 brought a new transmission system with a three speed and reverse gearbox, a single chain and detachable wheels. This arrangement was eventually used on all models, with engines now supplied by Matchless, the high performance machine (a development of the Super Aero) being known as the Super Sports.
1933 was a vintage year for Morgan, bringing in its train a large number of World Records. 1933 also saw the advent of a new model known as the F-type fitted with a Ford engine. The first production F-type was a four-seat family tourer called the F4, this was followed soon after by the F2, a two-seater version.
Rather than the tubular steel chassis, the F-types used a Z-section steel ladder-frame chassis. Featuring a conventional bonnet and radiator, this was one of the most popular three-wheelers ever produced and encouraged a number of other firms to copy the idea.
In 1936, after a prototype had been tested in trials and on the track, a four-wheeler was exhibited at the London and Paris Exhibitions. The new model was called the Morgan 4+4 to differentiate it from the three-wheeler, indicating four cylinders and four wheels.
Since that time Morgan had a chequered history including contributing to the WW2 effort without undermining their ability to quickly return to post-war car production, a continuing ability to distinguish themselves on the International racing circuits and an innovative contribution to car design and engineering of the future with their latest prototype.
The rest of my test weekend was spent with sorties around the lanes of Hampshire, testing the cars friendliness with short jaunts into town and local haunts and its responsiveness to modern restrictive parking spaces.
The Morgan 4+4 looking resplendent, in spite of the rain, parked in front of
The Royal Southern Yacht Club at Hamble-le-Rice
The car was much admired in Winchester where it fitted into the picturesque landscape and also attracted numerous envious questions about what the Morgan driving experience was really like.
The return journey was a flog through wind and rain of Shakespearian dimensions and a reminder to be attentive, when opening and closing the doors, to getting the roof flaps over the window frames to avoid getting embarrassingly wet – no doubt something second-nature to hard core Morgan owners. So all in all a delightful weekend albeit with a steep learning curve, so as to get the best out of the journey back.
Morgan incredibly varied range of cars tend to appeal to a cognoscenti. As a consequence their factory operates daily tours, which seem to be extremely popular, provide a real insight into motor car manufacture and need to be booked in advance.
For the determined Morgan car purchaser, the factory tour with test drive is a must but can only be arranged through contact with a dealer. I would suggest that the best route in, however is to join the Morgan Sports Car Club www.mscc.uk.com.
The club publishes a magazine entitled Miscellany which contains adverts for previously owned cars for sale, as well as dealer adverts for all the various models and information about obtaining parts for repairs and improvements to the cars.
Owning a Morgan is not like buying one of the more mundane production-line vehicles, it is a life-style choice and so membership in the Morgan Sports Car Club opens an introduction to the wealth of annual meets around the country, indeed around the world, that bring proud Morgan owners together, including my favourite – The Morgan Club de Monaco Meeting (this year’s October meet is the 15th) to which each car attending is given a souvenir badge, includes a Fun Run rally to San Romolo, Italy, a Concours d’Elegance and the MOG Charity Ball.
Classic car ownership doesn’t get much better than that!
For more information visit the informative and appetising Morgan website:
John Barlow spent the majority of his eclectic career as Producer/Director with extensive credits in both Theatre and Television. his work has been seen in London, on the Fringe and in the West End as well as at the Edinburgh Festival, Paris and the US. His television work gained major awards at both the Chicago and New York Film festivals. More recently John transferred his skills into teaching in Higher Education and he currently runs a BA Performance degree which he created in 2003. He also works as a consultant providing senior management Performance coaching