Hand-Built and High-Tech
by Phil Scott
Jul 2 2008
Morgan Motor Co.'s custom cars may look classic, but with fighter-jet bodies and fuel-cell innards, they're far from throwbacks to a simpler time.
Eric Sturdza was always intrigued by Morgan Motor's sexy, low-slung cars. "I've seen many times the traditional models from Morgan, and I always thought the aura was beautiful," says the president of Banque Baring Brothers Sturdza. "But I thought the chassis was in wood, and I heard the suspension was terrible, so I never looked very much into it."
At the 2000 Geneva Auto Show, Sturdza got a look at Morgan Motor's Aero 8, the company's first new design since 1948. But he wanted a few minor changes to the features—left-hand steering instead of right, for instance. That wasn't a problem given that Morgan, a privately owned British automobile manufacturer, builds all its cars by hand. But it does have a reputation for making its customers wait. And wait.
"They told me I would receive it in one year's time," he says of the company that has been known to leave customers cooling their heels for a decade. "And, of course, I waited three."
Founded by H.F.S. Morgan in 1913, the company's annual output is minute. In 2007 Morgan assembled just 640 cars, compared with Ford's 6.5 million. "It's a bespoke car, built to the customer's order," explains Mark Ledington, Morgan assistant sales manager. "We treat every car as a one-off. If you want it metallic orange and a pink-color leather, we can do it." Ledington claims they gave up counting the colors available once the number surpassed 50,000.
For the roughly $52,000 to $130,000 base price, buyers get Morgan's standard graphite wheels, leather steering wheel and gear knobs, and quilted leather upholstery. (Among the optional luxuries for the Aero 8 are a "photographic build record" for $292, or a two-case set of fitted luggage from Schedoni for $1,981.) And although 10 of the 14 car models Morgan makes haven't changed in looks since they first rolled out the factory doors, not everything is a throwback to the early 20th century. Morgan's two Aero lines are made using the same technology as fighter jets and feature a 4.8-liter BMW engine, optional automatic transmission, and airbags. And the company is pressing the frontiers of automotive technology with its prototype LIFECar (Lightweight Fuel-Efficient Car), a fuel-cell-powered vehicle capable of hitting 100 miles per hour and going from zero to 60 in seven seconds, while not putting a scratch on the environment.
"We can do everything, from hydrogen cars to four-cylinder roadsters," Ledington says. "We're a small company, but we punch above our weight."
At the tiny factory near Worcester (if you chucked a dart at a map of England, Worcester would be the bull's-eye), the company's home since 1920, 160 craftsmen painstakingly build each automobile one at a time, with a handmade frame molded from ash and bodies hammered from sheets of aluminum. Each craftsman, Ledington adds, serves an apprenticeship that lasts five years.
The Aero 8 and AeroMax are built a little differently than Morgan's usual fare. To shape the body's aerodynamic, compound curves, each panel of high-grade aluminum alloy—about the hardness of soft steel—is fed into a mold that's heated up to 500 degrees centigrade (932 degrees Fahrenheit). Air pressure is blown in, pressing the aluminum over the mold. Once it's cooled, the craftsmen assemble the pieces around a 4.8-liter, 370-horsepower V-8, capable of zero to 62 m.p.h. in 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 170 miles per hour.
And never fear wrecking a hand-built car—besides for your personal safety. "If you got a [Morgan] bought 50 years ago involved in accident, we have the patterns to recreate it," Ledington says.
For American buyers, there's one small problem: Some current Morgan models don't meet Department of Transportation or Environmental Protection Agency standards. For instance, the production 4/4 (shorthand for four wheels, four cylinders) lacks an airbag. Put another way, Americans can't legally purchase a brand-new 4/4. But other models are available in the States, including the Aero 8.
Sturdza has one of them—and then some. His bank ended up sponsoring the Morgan team at the 2004 24-hour Le Mans, and he received the first AeroMax, a hardtop coupe prototype, and the racing version of the Aero 8. Sturdza now owns four AeroMax automobiles, along with 11 other Morgans. Among other reported Morgan owners are Jay Leno (who once feared he'd been busted speeding his 1934 Morgan three-wheeler on Mulholland Drive, only to discover he'd been doing 35) and British actor Rowan Atkinson, who has an Aeromax.)
"You can't believe what an exciting car it is," says Sturdza. "The technology is state of the art, and the rest is hand-built. At the same time, you have better performance than most modern cars you can find. It gives you a very exclusive car."