THRILLS ON THREE WHEELS

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After 100 years, Morgan is building three-wheelers again—complete with a bulletproof gearbox. Paul Markillie is pleasantly surprised ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

Putting on Biggles goggles seems a bit silly. But the cockpit is open, the windscreen is tiny and a fly in the eye will make you cry. Being so exposed is not the only reason this could be hair-raising. The little car resembles a Star Wars pod racer and the shark jaws painted on its side suggest it might bite. The engine growls menacingly after being fired up by pressing a button which usually serves as the bomb-release on a Eurofighter. The really worrying thing is what is not there: one of the wheels. “No one else would dare do this,” Charles Morgan says, and the touch of hype is well earned. He is talking about putting a three-wheeler into production that looks like the one his grandfather made when he started the Morgan car company in 1910.

I had never driven a three-wheeler, or wanted to. Del Boy’s Reliant Regal in “Only Fools and Horses” always seemed to be about to roll over on corners. But the Regal is a sloth with one wheel in front. The new Morgan 3 Wheeler, good for about 190kph (120mph), has two wheels in front and a single, rather fat one behind. This, as I discover taking corners ever faster, is a surprisingly stable arrangement. 

For some reason the 3 Wheeler is best driven looking slightly along one side, rather as you might lean out of the cockpit of a Tiger Moth for a better view. It lets you keep the front wheels in sight and position them exactly where you want. A couple of bikers nod approvingly. They probably recognise the S&S chrome-plated two-litre V-2 engine stuck on the front—a motor also used on customised Harley Davidsons. The noise it makes turns plenty of heads. The gearbox comes from a Mazda MX-5, and is bulletproof. The car itself is built on a tubular-steel chassis with a body made from handcrafted ash and aluminium. This is typical Morgan: blending old with new to give the looks of a classic but without any ancient bits to go wrong or fall off. The 3 Wheeler is light, agile and gives a sense of speed that is highly exaggerated because the driver sits so low down. The effect is thrilling.

Charles Morgan knew this would happen. “It’s like a toy cupboard,” he says when we meet among the cluster of workshops where Morgans are made in the foothills in Malvern. “And the best bit is taking the toys out.” Modern cars have a sophistication that makes them easy to drive, but at the cost of coddling the driver, insulating us from the road. That may be what most people want, but for Morgan it makes for boring cars. “It is behind the wheel where you get the pleasure of driving, and that has been lost in modern cars with all their technology and increased weight.” Enough people have been in agreement to keep the family business going by placing orders—600 alone for the 3 Wheeler, even before it went into production.

Most family firms don’t make it to the third generation, and Morgan has had its share of troubles. In the early 1990s the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, in his television series “Troubleshooter”, told Charles Morgan and his late father Peter, then managing director, that the firm would be bankrupt in five years if they did not boost output beyond 400 cars a year and modernise production. The advice was famously ignored—or at least it seemed to be. “That’s television for you,” says Morgan. “But he was right, we had to become more efficient.”

Morgan knows about television. Before joining the family firm full-time in 1985, he was a cameraman for ITN, working in many hot spots, including Afghanistan. “It was the best time to be doing that job,” he feels, because in those days a press card would let you visit both sides of a war on the same day. But cars were never far away and when not filming he was racing Morgans. Back then, a small, specialist carmaker could “race on Sunday, sell on Monday”. But manufacturing was changing, becoming more complex, with regulations that were ever more Byzantine—especially to sell cars overseas. Even though “Troubleshooter” helped to win the firm more orders with its exposure, Morgan decided he needed new skills to prepare for the future. So he did an MBA in manufacturing management and eventually took over the reins in 2005.

Outwardly the Morgan factory still seems archaic with men bending aluminium, carpenters sanding wood and cars being pushed from one workshop to another. But some of that aluminium is “superformed” in a high-tech process used by the aerospace industry; and wood, used well, is still hard to beat in structural engineering, besides looking rather elegant. The boss, who has a handkerchief billowing from the top pocket of his sports jacket, is constantly busy, greeting suppliers, customers and chatting to some of his 185 staff. 

Morgan has brought in young designers and engineers who are respectful of the heritage, but eager to give Morgan cars a new look. Although the company still makes its classic range of 1930s-style sports cars, for which demand is steady, its Aero models are an altogether different breed with striking Gothic looks and supercar status. Morgan smiles approvingly at a photo on the wall of an Aero leading a pack of Porsches around a racetrack: “If you are passionate about cars, this is perfect.” 

Morgans are partly bespoke. Customers visit the factory to see their cars being built and tell the workforce how they would like things done. With the addition of the 3 Wheeler, production is now exceeding 1,000 cars a year. There is still a waiting list, of about a year, so the numbers are a balance between meeting demand and retaining exclusivity. The task now is to produce new models, incorporating technologies like electric and hybrid engines, but retaining the whiff of a unique history. Morgan’s excitement about what is possible is irrepressible—however many wheels it has.  

THE BEST OF MORGAN

Morgan 3 Wheeler For having fun in, with no other excuses needed. Around £30,000

Morgan 4/4 Original vintage: whenever possible, park next to a Spitfire. From £30,000

Morgan Roadster With a 3-litre V6 engine, this is a meatier and quicker proposition. From £40,000

Morgan Aero SuperSports Strong looks and a BMW V8 engine deliver a top speed of 270kph. From £130,000

Morgan EvaGT Light, quick and stylish. Still in development, but a sniff of things to come

Paul Markillie is the innovation editor of The Economist

Illustration by Nick Hardcastle