Motoring: The Classics: New Morgan - but same old wait

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Optimism is ordering your next Morgan at the age of 82 when there's a six-year waiting list. Tolerance is accepting with good grace that your new Morgan has been hijacked for a press launch when you call to collect it. But as Roger Bell discovers, buyers are still prepared to put their names down for one. Peter Morgan, managing director of the world's oldest privately owned car maker, once confessed: "You need a sense of humour to own a Morgan." He is right.

The buyer deprived of his car was invited along to Eastnor Castle (handily close to Morgan's headquarters in Malvern, Hereford and Worcester) to lunch with the press as a placatory gesture. I asked him when he had ordered the Ford-engined 4/4 (the cheapest model) that the photographers were now snapping. October, 1991. And what did he enjoy most about driving a Morgan? Couldn't say: he'd never driven one before.

I was tempted to suggest that he might be in for a nasty shock, but pondered instead on the patience of Morgan's customers. Waiting years for the privilege of owning a much-loved anachronism fuels the Morgan experience, it seems.

So do the car's flaws. In what other motor would you accept as endearing, features such as crude weather protection, door handles that cost extra, front suspension based on that of a 1911 three-wheeler, and a tempestuous ride that curdles your stomach? And this at prices ranging from pounds 20,000 to pounds 32,500 - more with expensive options.

Morgan's last launch (for the Rover-engined Plus 4) was nearly a decade ago. The next is likely to take place in 2003, when Land Rover's supply of venerable V8s for the flagship Plus 8 is due to run dry. (Ask Peter Morgan what will replace them and he will tell you that his son Charles is very friendly with BMW). The press function at Eastnor was prompted by a raft of changes that might be dismissed as running improvements elsewhere. At Morgan's, they border on the revolutionary.

Biggest news is that the flagship Plus 8, which accounts for half of the 470-odd cars Morgan hand-makes annually, gets as an option LR's mighty 4.6-litre V8 engine. All-out performance is little better than that of the ongoing 3.9, but acceleration - particularly at low revs in a high gear - is boosted from fleet to fearsome.

The fastest ever production Morgan will just about hold a Porsche 911 Turbo up to 60mph. Beyond, wind drag akin to that of a double-decker bus blunts speed. No matter. The legal limit is fast enough for most people in an open car that is built to point and squirt rather than attack the horizon.

Only the keenest Morganists would spot the changes on the latest cars. The doors have been extended (making access easier) and the narrow cockpit is longer (so you sit more comfortably). Other improvements common to all three models include pressed aluminium front wings, a new dash, optional air bags and the use of stainless steel for the bulkhead, bumpers and exhaust system. And for a safety impact bar, too.

Amazingly, Morgans survive crash testing better than most modern convertibles. The glued-and-screwed ash frame that supports the classic bodywork was never intended to cushion impacts, but it happens to do so rather well. The ash, by the way, is now seasoned British wood. The First World War bullets embedded in the Belgian timber once employed broke Morgan's saws.

On the face of it, Morgan's new sales and marketing director, Matthew Parkin (late of Volvo) has the cushiest job in the motor industry. His problem is not so much to drum up business (Morgan rarely advertises) but to a satisfy demand that for 30 years has exceeded supply.

Parkin aims to reduce the delivery delay to two years, a quest that hinges on recent shop-floor improvements. Although the Malvern plant is still as quaintly old-fashioned as the cars it turns out - memorably leading to near-apoplexy from management guru Sir John Harvey-Jones in his television series a few years ago - the opening of an ultra-modern paint shop (offering a choice of 30,000 hues) has created space to expand elsewhere. Increasing the output is not simply a case of speeding up the machinery, though labour- intensive Morgan employs craftsmen, not robots.

Things do not happen overnight at Britain's fourth biggest independent car maker (after Reliant, Rolls-Royce and TVR), so talk of a modern Morgan, with decent suspension and a rigid chassis, need not horrify traditionalists.

If such a model did materialise sometime in the 21st century, it would supplement, not replace, the lovable Thirties-style cars that are seen by devotees as antidotes to modern motoring. Rat-race escapees can join the queue for a deposit of pounds 250.

Roger Bell is the author of a new book, `Morgans to 1997', price pounds 14.99, from Motor Racing Publications.

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