Remember 1936? Just in case it’s a bit hazy, here's a quick rundown of the highlights.
King George V died, and then after barely getting the throne warm, his son Edward VIII abdicated so he could marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. At the Berlin Olympics, African American Jesse Owens won four gold medals to the obvious displeasure of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Closer to home, the last known Tasmanian Tiger died in Hobart Zoo.
It was also the year English sports carmaker Morgan produced its first-ever four-wheeled car, the 4/4. This was done using a steel chassis beneath a semi-structural wooden frame, and suspension through sliding pillars at the front and a live axle hung between semi-elliptical leaf springs at the rear.
While much has happened in the intervening 84 years, little changed at Morgan. Improbably, a barely altered version of the steel chassis fitted with the same timber structure and archaic suspension remained in production until last month.
I got the chance to go along to the company’s Malvern factory to say goodbye and compare it to the car that is going to replace it. I actually got to drive it off the line.
Morgan has always been agnostic about power plants, and by the end of production, the 4/4 and Plus 4 had switched to Ford power.
Other technical innovations arrived over the decades, including integral front wings, front disc brakes, and even five-speed gearboxes. But the fundamentals were similar enough that the last car, a 70th Anniversary Plus 4, would have been immediately familiar to the blokes building the first one.
Morgan never set out to be old-fashioned, it’s just it didn’t feel the need to change as demand stayed high and its cars got more antiquated. By the ’70s that had become a core part of their appeal, especially outside the UK. Morgan has long done well in both Japan and Germany, where a select group of buyers want a driving experience as traditionally English as a thatched cottage in a double-barreled village.
The company did try to change. Morgan attempted to replace the steel chassis in 2000 when it launched the cross-eyed Aero 8.
This was a vastly more advanced car built on a bonded aluminium chassis constructed using a very similar technique to the one employed by Lotus for the Elise and Evora, and Aston Martin for everything it has made since the first Vanquish.
The Plus 8 had BMW V8 power, double-wishbone suspension at each corner, and a level of performance and dynamic precision vastly beyond Morgan’s traditional models. Yet, these continued to outsell it by more than 10-to-one; the company’s clientele knowing what they liked, and liking what they knew.
The ‘Aero’ chassis was quietly retired last year as Morgan advanced plans to modernise the whole range. The steel chassis was already struggling to pass safety standards in large parts of the world – a problem the company knew was only going to get more acute. But it also wanted to broaden its appeal to those expecting something sharper than a late Edwardian driving experience.
That led to the development of a new, cheaper bonded-aluminium structure to underpin two new models, both with BMW engines. The Plus Six – which effectively replaces the old V8 – uses the 250kW 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo, and the new 2021 Morgan Plus Four gets a 190kW version of BMW’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot.
The arrival of the new Plus Four means the death of the old Plus 4 – the generation shift marked by the change from digit to word. My invitation to visit the factory to experience the fresh model had a compelling add-on – the chance to drive it back-to-back with the last-ever steel chassis car, a 70th Anniversary Plus 4.
Morgan was just restarting production after a COVID-enforced shutdown, which had disrupted the transition between the company’s two eras, to the extent the first of the new Plus Fours had actually overtaken the final Plus 4 as they worked their way through the factory. Meaning that, with pictures of the pair completed, I got the entirely undeserved honour of driving the last-of-line car out of the factory for the first time.
Spot the difference? It’s certainly hard – despite the decades that separate them, the two cars are similar enough to be visually interchangeable at more than 10 paces. (For the record, the new car is the blue one with extra driving lamps.)
That’s the whole idea, with Morgan wanting to update the driving experience without putting off the traditionally minded, hence the decision to stick with both hand-formed aluminium bodywork and a (considerably less structural) wooden frame for the new car.
There’s another reason, too. Morgan is planning to sell the Plus Four and Plus Six in the States under forthcoming replica car legislation that requires them to be substantially similar to models sold 25 years ago.
But beneath near-identical looks, dynamic performance is transformed. The old Plus 4 feels brisk thanks to the efforts of a 115kW 2.0-litre Ford engine driving just 877kg of weight, and delivers punchy progress with a rorty soundtrack that suits the car perfectly. But the rest of the experience feels closer to the dawn of motoring than the 21st century.
Chassis flex is obvious and ever-present, the Plus 4 creaking and wobbling over what look to be smooth surfaces, and crashing and shuddering its way over actual bumps.
Grip levels on the eco-grade Yokohama tyres that have been chosen to match the chassis’s modest ability to transmit loads are low. Also, there is no encouragement to go and explore the limits from the heavy but feel-free unassisted steering and wooden-feeling brakes (with no ABS, obviously).
The Plus 4 delivers plenty of experience, but with little useful feedback within the sensory overload of battering airflow and the proximity of rushing tarmac beneath the low-cut doors. 60km/h feels like 100km/h, and by 100km/h – pretty much bang on the UK’s 60mph highway speed limit – the Plus 4 is delivering the sensation of speed that you’d need to be past 160km/h to get in something like a Mazda MX-5.
As Jersey’s highest speed limit is 40mph – 65km/h – it’s going to the right place.
Large parts of the experience of the new Plus Four are similar. The cabin is slightly less tight-fitting, but similarly traditional in layout, with evidence of hand-building in details like exposed screwheads. The windscreen rail is similarly low, the cut-down doors equally vestigial, and the sense of exaggerated speed isn’t far off.
But beneath that, the sports car basics feel decades better, with a hugely stiffer structure and suspension that can both keep the tyres in proper contact with the road, but also handle lumps and imperfections without putting on a wet-dog act. Grip from the Avon ZV7s is in a different league to the old car, and the steering has gained both electric power assistance and respectable feedback.
It’s also become pretty quick. The Plus Four’s BMW four-banger isn’t in a particularly punchy state of tune, but it is working against a dry weight of just 1014kg, giving a power-to-weight ratio sharper than the four-cylinder BMW Z4 30i that uses the same engine.
Morgan claims a 5.2-second 0–100km/h time with the standard manual ’box, or 4.8 seconds with the optional eight-speed auto.
Yet, while effective, the engine doesn’t sound as good as the gravelly Ford unit of the old car, getting louder under hard use without becoming more harmonious. The manual ’box doesn’t have a particularly incisive change action; the Mazda ’box of the old car was a bit cleaner.
Gearing is tall, too – second runs out at nearly 130km/h – which doesn’t particularly suit a car that is never going to be a high-speed cruiser. I didn’t get to experience the auto, but would be surprised if it wasn’t the better choice.
To be honest, this doesn’t really matter. Hard acceleration in a Plus Four is for making passengers squeal or overtaking a dawdler. The car’s natural pace is a gentler one, making use of the engine’s abundant mid-range torque and enjoying the view through the narrow windscreen (with its triple wiper arms) and over the louvred bonnet.
It’s a much more modern car than the old Plus Four, but it definitely isn’t excessively up-to-date. And it still feels like a proper Morgan.
Having controlled the company since its foundation, the Morgan family sold a controlling stake in the business to InvestIndustrial in 2019 – the same Italian equity fund that had a large stake in Aston Martin. This came after the investment to create the new models had been made, but the new ownership is predictably keen to increase sales from the 850 or so it makes each year.
That means both expanding volumes in existing markets, principally Europe and Japan, but also re-entering the United States. I chatted to MD Steve Morris at the factory, who says that Australia is still on the list of ‘maybe’ territories for the new cars, but that ADR compliance remains a major issue.
I also got the chance to speak to some of the longer-serving employees about the switchover. Neville Watkins – in charge of pre-delivery inspections – reckons the biggest difference the blokes in the factory will notice from the generational shift, is that the aluminium-chassis cars have their engines fitted early enough in the process to be driven between different areas as they get built. The steel-frame cars had to be rolled or pushed.
But the obvious sense of pride is the same, so is the use of saws and big hammers in construction. Small wonder the Morgan factory has become a major tourist destination in its own right.
Morgan admits its new architecture has been designed to accommodate both hybrid and, in the fullness of time, even purely electric powertrains. If it survives for as long as Morgan’s first platform, it will be being used in the 22nd century.
NOTE: As something of an iconic anomaly in the modern automotive landscape, we have left this review of the Morgan Plus Four unscored.