Who was it who said, “They don’t make them like they used to”? Whoever it was, they clearly had never been to Malvern, England.
Arriving in this Victorian Spa Town, close to the Welsh border, there is little indication that it is home to one of Britain’s most enduring car makers. But, nestled away in a quiet residential area, on Pickersleigh Road, stands steadfast a relic of the early 20th Century.
The red-brick workshop, built in 1914, remains in a good state of repair today and the old sign above the door is still just about legible. This has been the home and head office of the Morgan Motor Company ever since.
The company’s origins go back a few years further to when Harry “HFS” Morgan, the son of a wealthy clergyman, decided, with his father’s blessing and financial backing, to produce his own version of a cycle-car. These fashionable three-wheeled vehicles made motoring more accessible to the masses, who were still getting used to the idea of horseless motor vehicles. Back in 1909 when the company was founded, only the well-to-do could afford such luxuries but, in Malvern, HFS had found a well-to-do market, and his cycle-cars were a huge success.
Skip forward more than a century later and we find Morgan Motor Company thriving and, remarkably, still wholly owned by the same family.
The sight of a three-wheeler powering out of the factory gates today, ‘V-Twin’ engine exposed ahead of the car’s nose, suggests that not much has moved on in the last hundred years. But be prepared for a shock when you open the doors of that original workshop. The car that greets you inside is a brand new electric three-wheeler, which is unlike anything seen before on Britain’s roads.
This EV3 is a Special Edition built in partnership with Selfridges & Co, the famous London department store. An unusual partner for a car maker you might think, but Morgan has form here. Back when HFS Morgan presented his three-wheeled “Runabout” at London’s Olympia in 1911, the then-owner of Harrods took an interest in selling the vehicle from his prestigious Knightsbridge store and so became Morgan’s first official dealer.
That agreement ended when it was found that the heavy, luxurious bodywork Harrods was commissioning for the Morgan chassis was impacting on the performance potential of the car. A founding philosophy of the car maker was to bring the performance up by keeping the weight down – a mantra since adopted around the world by the most successful sports car designers. With the right lightweight body, Morgans could compete very successfully in some of the toughest reliability trials of the day, breaking 10 British and World records before the start of the Great War.
This lightweight philosophy continues today at Morgan. The cars have always had a steel or aluminium chassis with a body shaped from extremely light ash wood. While its insistence on using wooden frames has often been the source of derision, Morgan has always proven its unique formula out on the race track.
Of course, Morgan, like any successful company, has had to move with the times and when the likes of Austin and Triumph were turning up with cheap and popular four-wheeled cars, threatening to eat into Morgan’s market, HFS responded with a stylish four-wheeled roadster. With a four-cylinder engine tucked away under a long louvered bonnet, the 4/4 became the Morgan’s new icon in 1936. What makes Morgan so extraordinary is that, eight decades on, you can still order this car from the factory.
The “Classics” range, which include the 4/4, Plus 4, Roadster and Plus 8 models are distinguished by minor visual differences but most noticeably by the engine sizes. They are still hand-built to order, by the enthusiastic team of craftsmen on the Pickersleigh Road site, which has expanded considerably over the years to meet demand. HFS Morgan’s son, Peter (below), ensured that his customers were given the car they wanted, and they wanted the classic British sports-car.
When the troubleshooting industrialist, Sir John Harvey-Jones turned up with a BBC Film Crew in the early 1990’s, on a mission “to turn failing companies around” Peter Morgan put him right. He passionately insisted his company wasn’t failing at all. The programme did have an effect, however. Peter’s son, Charles, enrolled on Coventry University’s unique Engineering Management MBA course, leading to a raft of efficiency changes to the production process and the introduction of a bold new product – The Aero 8. Subsequently, the Morgan episode of the BBC’s “Troubleshooter” series became the stuff of legend, often shown in Economics and Management classes in schools around the country.
Today, the various Aero models, each with an ultra-contemporary design yet still unmistakably ‘Morgan’, are hand crafted in the same workshops as the Classics, albeit in their own distinct way. The skill of the craftsmen at Morgan allow them to build a thoroughly modern car, alongside a thoroughly old-fashioned car, using the same management principles. Leaf-springs and Ladder Chassis still under-pin the Classics while bonded-aluminium tubs and super-formed bodies (another Morgan innovation) create the Aeros. It’s little wonder these 4.8-Litre, BMW powered lightweight machines are referred to by team members as “The Supercar”.
Walking through the build process is a special experience. During the build, the cars progress from workshop to workshop, gradually descending the natural slope at the foot of the Malvern Hills, until they are ready to cross over to the Paint Shop and Final Trim. The artisans in Final Trim craft the interior of the body in a choice of leather specifications or even a vinyl upholstery for customers of a more vegan constitution.
The hand built nature of each and every Morgan lends itself to opportunities for personalisation. Yet clues abound around the workshops to the kind of quality-led approach to car-building used in even the most advanced and high-volume manufacturers. Kanban cards manage the supply chain requirements while pedantic teams, in highly illuminated Quality Control bays, go over each and every car to identify any imperfections and ensure that the cars leaving the gates, are in the very best possible condition. Even in the build process if a fault is discovered or a process is found to take longer than it needs to, the problem is analysed and a solution implemented to ensure that the fault cannot re-occur, or the process can move more quickly, on all future builds.
The company, famously, once had a waiting list over a decade long. While this kind of demand ensured the company’s longevity, the risk was that orders would be cancelled mid-build, as customers had a change of heart, or faced a change in circumstances. Today, thanks to changes in the production process, the company are proud that customers can order any car, in any colour or trim, and have it delivered within a year.
The atmosphere in the Malvern factory, among the staff, is tangibly upbeat. There was a time when the Morgan family had taken the decision to sell and lease-back the land under its feet to fund the development of the Aero models. This strategy proved successful, and with the re-introduction of the Morgan three-wheeler, business is once again booming. The management recently announced, after a sustained period of strong sales performance, that the land had been purchased outright and was once again in the ownership of the company. Not only did it give the team a sense of job security moving forward, there is more than enough land available for Morgan to expand on the same site in Malvern when the need arises.
If you ever find yourself despairing that “they don’t make them like they used to,” just remember there’s a small corner of England, where they’ve been doing exactly that for over a hundred years.
To learn more about the origins of Morgan and the motorcars built in, and around, Malvern, the company’s Archivist, Martyn Webb, has compiled a fascinating book called Morgan, Malvern & Motoring (ISBN 978 1 84797 039 8)