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Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha, Harvey-Jones

The BBC's `troubleshooter' said Morgan would be lucky to last five years. It's gone from strength to strength. By Roger Bell
Five years ago Morgan was doing it all wrong, according to Sir John Harvey-Jones. The BBC's "troubleshooter", formerly ICI's boss, reckoned the sports-car maker should double production to clear its backlog of orders, increase prices to pay for new investment, and update its cars and plant. In the most memorable of his compelling television series, broadcast in the summer of 1990, Sir John said of Morgan: "Their pride seems to be in manufacturing from the furthest-back state they can, and buying the most basic material. I am surprised they don't start with the tree itself."

Morgan's directors were dumbfounded. What was the man advocating? A timberless, mass-built, all-metal Moggie? Modernising Morgan would be like squaring the Albert Hall, or firing blanks on a pheasant shoot: what would the point of it all be?

Five years on from its TV grilling, Morgan has no regrets about rejecting Sir John's advice. Business is booming and profits are up, despite his pessimism about the company's future. "He gave us five years," says Charles Morgan, grandson of the founder, HFS Morgan.

By preserving old values and traditions, and styling that evokes a golden age of motoring, Morgan advances slowly but safely without losing touch with the past. Critics talk of dated relics made by antiquated means - you won't find any robots at Morgan's labour-intensive factory in Malvern Links, in Hereford & Worcester - but Morgan enthusiasts see the cars as antidotes to modern motoring, coachbuilt classics with an unbroken 60-year ancestry. The legacy of Morgan's first production four-wheeler, announced late in 1935, is evident in every Morgan made today.

Peter Morgan, son of the founder, was against radical change. "If we had gone ahead and implemented Sir John's recommendations, we'd be in deep trouble. Such is the recession, we wouldn't have the demand." Cautiously maintaining demand ahead of supply, so that good times cancel out the bad, has been central to Morgan's philosophy for decades.

"We've not felt the recession at all," says Peter's son Charles, formerly of ITN, now a third-generation Morgan director. "All that's happened is that delivery times have come down a bit, from six years to perhaps four or five in Britain. We don't build cars on spec like other manufacturers. Every car is built to order. I don't think Harvey-Jones understood that."

A refundable deposit of around pounds 250 gets you on the waiting list for a new Morgan. You tie up the details much later - a month or so before the car is built - on a five-page specification document that could well make your purchase unique. Had Sir John had his way, Morgan prices might now be in the pounds 25,000-pounds 40,000 bracket. As it is, they run from pounds 16,662 for the Ford-engined 4/4 (the name used for Morgan's first four-wheel, four-cylinder car in the Thirties) to pounds 26,608 for the 3.9-litre, Rover- engined Plus 8. Largely because of supply restrictions, Morgans hold their value better than any volume-made car on the market.

Morgan has increased production - this year it will be about 500, up from 442 in 1990 - but at nothing like the rate advised by Sir John. "His methods would result in making many changes to the traditional way the Morgan is built," says Charles Morgan. "We believe Morgan's policy of gradual and carefully considered change will enable us to maintain the car's qualities and unique appeal."

Without compromising hand-crafted quality, Morgan's production methods are being steadily overhauled; developments since the Troubleshooter programme include computerised stock control. "But we shall retain our coachbuilding traditions," says Charles Morgan, who speaks of a three-point plan for the future: more efficient assembly methods to improve productivity; better teamwork and training (it can take six years to attain craftsman status); and a steady increase in output to perhaps 750 cars a year. That would be roughly a third of what Morgan achieved with its three-wheelers in the Twenties, but still well below Sir John's recommendation. There's no mention of new plant or a shift in design or production philosophy.

Morgan's workforce of 130 (the same as in 1990) makes only 10 cars a week, so productivity is very low by industry yardsticks. But as an independent company, Morgan has no outside shareholders to satisfy. It is not driven by avarice or expansionist ambition. It has, though, been compelled to embrace much new technology. Air bags are on the way. Ditto a state-of- the-art ICI paintshop. Computer-controlled "clean" engines, from Ford and Rover, are obligatory, of course.

So is crash-worthiness. Here, the Cuprinol-dipped ash frames that brace the Thirties-style bodywork (in aluminium or steel, to customer choice) are remarkably effective. "The 100-year-old wood we use performs well in crash tests," says Charles Morgan. "Nothing else combines such strength, weight and durability." Morgan reckons that two-thirds of the four-wheelers made in the past 60 years are still on the road.

Although the Troubleshooter programme shook Morgan, it did the company no harm. Orders increased in the months following the 1990 broadcast, and Morgan's viewpoint won widespread support. Rest assured, the world's oldest privately owned car manufacturer is not about to do anything rash.