Here's one they made earlier
Why make cars entirely by hand when machines can now do the job much better, asks Jonathan Glancey
Saturday 15 July 1995
Britain's vast, profitable and octopus-like heritage industry thrives on this conceit. Every summer weekend, we drive to country "fayres" and load up with craft products - all those wobbly glazed ceramic bowls, well intentioned but unresolved wickerwork baskets and frilly pots of pippy jam.
We dream of the day when, like the Prince of Wales, we can have a last made and our shoes hand-stitched by Lobbs of St James's. We like the idea of an oak dining table made specially for us by a gnarled Cotswold craftsman, sporting cloth cap and tie as he saws, chisels and tugs his forelock. And how splendid it would be if we could replace the family hack with a hand-tooled (hand buffed, honed and polished, too) Bristol or Aston- Martin motor car. A Morgan for those mythical high days and holidays, perhaps, or a big, brutish TVR (made in Blackpool) for dad when he begins to look too old for jeans but still has something to prove.
There is no doubt that part of the charm of a two-seater (or, even better, a four-seater) Morgan is that it is built largely by hand. Largely, but not all of it: Morgan buys in engines and other components from manufacturers such as Ford and Fiat. To manufacture means to make by hand, as Morgan does, but the word has long been appropriated by big companies who do no such thing. You will see true manufacturing if you visit Morgan's Worcestershire workshops. These are a delight to those who revel in the sight and sound of sheet metal being hammered into complex curves and of timber being sawn into precise shapes.
A Morgan is pieced together in a way guaranteed to give a modern business school executive, or old-fashioned time-and-motion man, apoplexy. It did just that to John Harvey-Jones, the management efficiency expert. In his TV series, The Troubleshooter, Mr Harvey-Jones berated Morgan management (the Morgan family) for not producing more cars more efficiently. The Morgans, father and son, produced their "pleased to meet you, old boy" smiles and ignored Mr Harvey-Jones's tough, no-nonsense advice.
Morgan continues to thrive, selling on a heady mix of charm, idiosyncracy, looks and speed. But although the long, ventilated bonnets and flowing front wings are as hand-crafted as any Cotswold table, "Moggies" are not 100 per cent the fruit of human toil.
Neither is the latest Aston-Martin DB7, nor the next generation of Rolls- Royces, due to be unveiled at the turn of the century. The DB7 is powered by a mass-produced Jaguar engine, while the millennial RRs and Bentleys will feature V8 and V12 engines designed and built by BMW in Stuttgart. The ever-increasing number of electronic components and plastic parts that hide beneath the hand-finished flanks of Aston-Martins, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys means these famous and famously expensive marques are destined to become products of machine production within the foreseeable future.
Is this a bad thing? Probably not. A few years ago, I went with a colleague to visit Aston-Martin's factory in Newport Pagnell. My colleague's first question when we entered the production area was: "Where are the bodies?" In nearly every car factory in the world, bodies are pressed or moulded into shape by machines either some way from the assembly plant, or in factories many miles away. At Newport Pagnell, the bodies of the outgoing generation of beefy mechanical bulldogs (the Virage and Vantage) are made from sheets of aluminium leaning against the factory walls. My colleague was taken aback: "I didn't know they were that hand-built."
Victor Gauntlett, chairman of Aston-Martin at the time of our visit, pricked the bubble of my colleague's enthusiasm when he admitted that, if he could maintain Aston's hand-crafted image, he would be quite prepared to buy in bodies pre-formed by a contractor. And, even better, he would like to have been able to buy in machine-made engines from BMW rather than have his own men make and assemble big, gruff Newport Pagnell V8s by hand. Gauntlett was speaking "strictly off the record" then, but what he wanted has come about. However, rather than BMW engines, the new DB7 employs one by Jaguar, albeit tuned to sound a little gruffer than normal.
So the hand-made engine was a liability rather than the asset of legend? Gauntlett explained that making the AM V8s by hand was neither especially efficient not did it result in a better engine. While the doomed AM V8 engine is a device of great power and brute beauty, it is not so precisely made nor so exact in terms of performance and reliability as mass-produced engines from BMW.
When the last of the bespoke Aston-Martins is driven off the assembly line at Newport Pagnell, those who witness the event will be well aware of the passing of an era. From then on, with the exception of Formula One and other racing cars, the British motor industry will have all but abandoned the hand-made car. And the myth that goes with it. Should we be sad? Not really. The hand-made cars that have survived into the mid- Nineties are either eccentric, if dynamic and enjoyable, antiques such as the Morgan, or automotive dinosaurs like the Aston-Martin Vantage and that curious survivor, the pounds 110,000 Bristol Blenheim, latest and least of the extroverts made by Bristol Cars.
The design of the Bristol Blenheim - a kind of superfast, road-going carriage clock - mirrors the decline not only of a famous marque but of the bespoke English car. Compared to its distinguished predecessors (from the Bristol 400 to the 411 of the late Sixties), the Blenheim is ungainly and distinguished only for being odd. No amount of hand-turned wood, hand-stitched leather or hand-beaten aluminium can substitute for design and engineering excellence. The Jurassic car park beckons the dinosaurs of the age of the bespoke motor car.
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