The thrill of renting a Morgan sports car for the day

Travelling back in time has much charm

Friday 07 September 2018 15:14 BST
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(Morgan Motor Company)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

For those of us who’ve always quite liked the idea of a Morgan sports car but have never quite managed to afford one, never mind have a garage to put it in or the sheer gall to go around in one, well there’s good news. You can rent one by the day. Just like a Vauxhall Corsa at the airport. But more fun, obviously. Bit of a treat?

Yes, for sure. I was invited to try the new service by London Morgan, the only Morgan dealer in the capital, which is, even by the modest ambitions of Morgan, a remarkable thing.

For the moment, London Morgan is the only outlet offering the service – which is unfortunate and makes me sound London-centric, which I am certainly not. The only other place you can rent a Morgan is from the factory in Malvern, from whence Elgar country is all yours.

All pluses, no minuses: the heritage car is a blast from the past
All pluses, no minuses: the heritage car is a blast from the past (Morgan)

I was offered the use of a Morgan Plus 4, which I accepted with some joy and a little nervousness. You remember the old joke that the fastest cars on the road are rental cars? Well, I didn’t really feel like I should be running the Morgan ragged, because I suspected that I might come off worst and, after all, I was in charge of a small piece of British national heritage. Plus there’s the excess…

It is an unfamiliar environment. The look goes back to the 1930s, and is as striking, elegant and handsome as ever it was; the ornate hand-beaten panels at the front with the famous (though rarely glimpsed) Morgan grille, contrasting with the rather flat and utilitarian boot. It’s a convertible, with a relatively simple-to-use manual roof and, of course, you sit very low, as in any proper roadster. In town it means, obviously, you’re a little more exposed to the events and pollution, and you generally feel rather vulnerable. I tend to keep the headlights on when I’m in such machinery. Best you can do in the circumstances. There’s no cruise control, lane assist or any of that lark, and the brakes need a very firm push.

Dashing looks: the Plus 4 has timeless style
Dashing looks: the Plus 4 has timeless style (Morgan)

Under all the classic bodywork lies some decent engineering, old and new. It’s not quite true to say, as legend has it, the Morgan motor car has a “wooden chassis”. There is, though, an ash frame to which much of the bodywork is bonded, and which flexes just the right amount to make the chassis responsive without too much “flex” (and is a cheaper alternative to very expensive engineering solutions). The Plus 4 has a 2-litre Ford V6 petrol unit up front, a well-known unit that delivers more than adequate performance in this very light machine. What you can be sure of the certainty it is both breathtaking and noisy. It’s fun, apart from a rather wide turning circle that hinders its use in town. The Morgan 4/4 is slimmer but similar, and would be the cheaper to hire.

Morgan hire rates (Morgan 4/4. Price per day)

1 day: £280
2-3 days: £250
4-7: £225
8-28: £175
29-56: £125
6 months: £75

Nigel Smith is the friendly chairman and founder of London Morgan, which operates from classic mews premises in Kensington (the Queen’s own mechanic, RJ Creamer, who looked after royal Jaguars and Daimlers, was only just up the road). Indeed, London Morgan shares its business with a VW franchise, the Monaco garage, the first in Britain. It was established after the war by a Polish emigre, and was the first place where you could purchase one of those funny little VW Beetle cars, back in about 1950. Like Morgan itself, the business has much heritage, and a good deal of genuine enthusiasm for cars (Smith’s 1961 Morris Mini is also a tenant along the mews, alongside three-sheer Morgans and modern Passats. The Mini is the car I really envy).

Being keen to push their “quintessentially English” line, they offered to throw in high tea at the Langham Hotel, just next to BBC Broadcasting House in the West End of London, and I wasn’t going to turn that down. The experience, I have to say, was marred by the dense traffic in trying to get there, but the couple of hours I whiled away in the Langham’s Palm Court made the modern brutal digital world seem very far away indeed. Taking a 1930s car (sort of) to a 1930s hotel (sort of) with only a short distance of the 21s century in between was a bit Doctor Who, and one of the more bizarre experiences of 2018.

Living the high life: afternoon tea and cake is part of a ‘quintessentially English’ experience
Living the high life: afternoon tea and cake is part of a ‘quintessentially English’ experience (Langham Hotel)

Anyway, I can commend the rare breed egg sarnies, excellent choice of teas and the best honey infused cakes this side of the Bake Off tent. As far as I can tell, you can eat as many cakes, sandwiches, pastries and other treats as you can manage, so it’s best to turn up feeling a little peckish. Everything, including the passage of time itself, stops for tea at the Palm Lounge. It’s an underrated meal, high tea, compared to the business lunch and romantic dinner.

Smith is keen to stress how international his business is, with many of his sales going abroad. Different nationalities, he tells us, see different things in a Morgan, apart always from the exclusivity gained from limiting production to 1,000 cars a year. For the French (well presented in Kensington still) it is about having the air of a “public intellectual”: for the Chinese, a display of ostentation; for the Russians, a rare status symbol; for the Italians, an entry into automotive aristocracy. The Morgan has, he says, gone through the eras when it was new and exciting (pre-Second World War), through to the time when it was seen as an anachronism (by the 1980s; showcased in a famous TV documentary about the factory portrayed as hopelessly archaic); and now it has returned to being an important brand, albeit still handmade and small, and with a preference for making components inhouse.

Road worthy: the car has returned as an important British brand
Road worthy: the car has returned as an important British brand (Morgan)

The Morgan, then, is plainly one of the last handmade cars, and should have a bright future as such, even with emission and safety rules always closing in. There are newer models now, such as the Aero, and more powerful. I don’t think I will ever be in a position to take custody of one (although the low deprecation makes it a more viable purchase then others), but borrowing one for a few days makes plenty of sense. It’s an extravagance, no doubt – up to £280 per day – as is tea in the Langham (from £49 per head). But if you can it is worth doing once, at any rate.

Morgan cars can be hired from London Morgan via 0207 244 7324 or 07860 921 371. Drivers must be over 25 with a full licence. Tea at the Langham can be booked via 0207 636 1000.

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