The Kuwaiti cone is bleached white by the sun and suffers from both wobble and creep

John Windsor
Sunday 08 January 1995 00:02

LIKE giant bullets, red traffic cones tumble off David Morgan's production line at the rate of 3.5 million a year, nearly three times as many as the rest of the world's put together. On his office wall is a map of the world pierced with pins: Ger many, France, Italy, Turkey, Kuwait, China.

Not all foreigners have conceded the invincibility of the British plastic traffic cone. But Mr Morgan, its 53-year-old inventor, biggest manufacturer and sole collector, has the jutting jaw of a man who knows that resistance is crumbling.

The Germans have over-engineered and over-priced theirs: £16 each compared with Mr Morgan's £8. They are fighting a rearguard action with the only weapon they have left: table-thumping on EU standards committees.

The plastic traffic cone may not be an obvious icon of the British way of life: it has a built-in modesty. But next time you see a mile or two of them winding toe to toe o'er the motorway, shielding motor-ists from a trench, savour their quiet assertiveness and comic allure and remember that such profusion can be seen only in Britain. Traffic cones are British through and through.

As for German suppliers, those who tangle with Mr Morgan receive a taste of British assertiveness and humour that confuses them. He has their measure. Glancing through his office window at cattle grazing the grasslands of Brough-ton Poggs, Oxfordshire, then at his world map, he steeples his fingers and says: "Not terribly on the ball, the Germans. People think they are, but they're not. We're giving them a hard time.

"Actually, they're quite easy to beat. They have this social charter - only 30 hours a week and paid more than our lot. My people here [he has 60 employees] work 12-hour shifts, 6am to 6pm and 6pm to 6am. Lots of British industry does that. That's why we're so competitive."

With a grin, he shows me his latest letter from Adolf Elektrobau, export manager of a road hazard warning light company in Tonning, Germany. Herr Elektrobau complains that he "felt really confused" after reading Mr Morgan's letter. That was the one in which Mr Morgan had tried to beat down his price of £5 for each of the flashing lights that his company mounts on some cones.

Herr Elektrobau's confusion verges on outrage. His letter says he sees the end coming very soon - they will have to resign from the UK market if Mr Morgan insists on a lower price. It chides him that it is not possible always to be the winner and remindshim that his company supplies a good-quality product that has to reach a reasonable price according to the quality standard.

Mr Morgan is tickled. "In Britain, we'd invite the fellow out for a pint and say, `Oh, come on, you can do better than that. Why not knock 10p off?' Then we'd say, `Have another pint. Now, what about knocking another 5p off?' The Germans are not like that. If you challenge their price, they say `You mean we are not doing good work?' It's as if you've in-sulted them. And they won't have things out on the telephone: language difficulties, they say. When you write, instead of just taking the drift, like wedo, they analyse every word. Still, I'll say this for them: they are an honourable people."

Outside, his collection of 160 cones is being trundled out of the factory by fork-lift. As we walk across the yard, he says: "The Germans are always reminding us that Britain uses more cones per kilometre than any other country. But at least we don't kill each other on the autobahns like they do." True: I later found out that last year British road deaths dropped below 4,000 for the first time since records began. Nearly twice as many Germans die in road accidents. Could this be the result of Mr Morgan's beloved cones?

First, the collection's one-piece Kuwaiti cone. Dangerous stuff. It is bleached white by the sun and suffers from both wobble and creep. The tall, lightweight plastic structure wobbles on its base and each wobble prompts a creep - a drift of a few fractions of an inch to one side. A line of cones sent creeping in unison across the road by the backdraughts of lorries will still be obeyed by drivers - who may be lured into trenches. Mr Morgan believes his Johnstone cone with lightweight base of around 1972 is the sole survivor of a generation of creeps. The rest got run over.

Then there is the Lindvale of about 1970, a fascinating Scottish cone made from a mystery substance, an apparent cross between PVC and rubber. He spotted it beside a hearse. The undertaker, who had been using it for years, gladly swopped it for another. Mr Morgan keeps a selection of swops in his car boot. The incident inspired him to launch black undertakers' cones. He sells 50 a week.

A Finnish cone has a yellow plastic sleeve that shows up against the snow. An Irish cone has a spy-hole in the top to reveal hidden explosives. Tipsiest cone is the Europalite of 1975, the product of one of three other British cone manufacturers. Tall, with a lightweight base, it is the industry's "really silly" cone: it does not stay upright for long.

He found his Malaysian no-waiting cone in the Scillies, and one of his oldest - a Sixties Adaptaform, the ever-interesting product of a double rotating mould process in ethyl vinyl acetate - while on honeymoon in Corsica in August. Somehow, it had found its way there from Leicester. Customs at Heathrow inform-ed the newlyweds that they could find no regulations to prevent them importing it. Mr Morgan's bride, aged 28, does not share his passion for traffic cones.

The Lindvale still has a courtroom exhibit tag attached. Along with 60 other cones it was an exhibit in a three-day High Court case in which Mr Morgan was alleged to have copied another firm's cone design. He was able to show that the common features were dictated by British standards regulations. The judge had no passion for cones either. He kept nodding off. Afterwards, the exhibits formed the core of Mr Morgan's collection.

His Eureka moment came in 1960 while he was employed by ICI to find uses for new plastics using rotating moulds - the process he now uses. Having experimented with plastic elephants whose trunks resolutely stuck in the mould, he spotted a wooden Metropolitan police no-waiting cone in the street - an ideal shape for plastic moulding.

He set up on his own, later finding a backer, businessman Ray Close - whom he told: "Traffic cones is the future. This is what you ought to be doing" - and is now managing director of Mr Close's company, Peter Cook Safety Products, which has a turnover of £6m.

Curious about the extent of conical German wiles, I telephoned Mr Morgan's friend, Steve Parkinson, secretary of the Retroreflective Equipment Manufactur-ers Association - which includes cones. Was it true, I wanted to know, that the Germans had hastily thought up national design standards that only their own manufacturers could comply with? And were these impossible to harmonise with EU standards? "Yes," he said. "The new federal regulations are in total disregard of the spirit of EU harmony."

German regulations permitted reflective surfaces that attracted dirt, he complained, eventually turning the cones black. What was more, one British cone manufacturer, having spent a five-figure sum complying with the new German regulations, had been refused an import certificate - while a German firm failed the standards tests but got the go-ahead.

Mr Parkinson said: "The Germans are happy to accept any products so long as they are German. The British are playing cricket, but few other countries are."

On the motorway, tight lines of thousands of cones stretched over the horizon in the direction of Europe, protectors of the British motorist, guardians of all things British. "Take that, Fritz," I said.

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