As a little boy I used to play with toy cars. My favourites from the fleet were a red Rolls Royce, a battered Lamborghini Miura and a raceworn Jaguar XJR-9. But there was one rather quaint toy car which I remember as having a particular significance. It had elegantly curved front wings, delicate cutouts in the side doors, and a distinctive wedge of a rear which, however many times you had seen it, always tempted your gaze down to the chromed rear exhaust.
Holding it in my hands, I remember asking my dad what it was. “This is a Morgan,” he said. “It’s a very special kind of car.” Little was I to know that twenty five years later, I would find myself feeling like a very special kind of driver, coaxing a purring jet-black Morgan 4/4 along a winding country road with a huge grin on my face.
But let’s not get carried away too soon.
The basic design of the Morgan 4/4, Morgan’s entry level sports car (its elder brothers being the Plus 4 and the Roadster) has not changed since 1936. In fact, it’s the longest running production vehicle in the world. While the internal components have been updated over time, with increasingly powerful engines and increasingly reliable electrical bits, it’s fundamentally a car based on a heritage design, executed faithfully.
For the average modern driver, this faithfulness to history means a few features are slightly…challenging. There are no airbags. No power steering. And with apologies to our Atlantic readers, no cupholders. Getting in with the roof up is either an elegant acrobatic manoeuvre or a comedy of contortion. The only air conditioning aside from the “hot, hotter, sauna” settings on the fan heater is the rush of a chill breeze through the slats in the plastic windows, unless you chuck the door covers entirely. When it rains (which it will, because it is Britain) the inclement weather rushes through the open slat into your lap. The only luggage you can store behind the seats is of the waffeur thin variety. And the three tiny chrome windscreen wipers, while doing the job, do look like they wouldn’t get out of bed for less than a biblical deluge. Speaking of which – the sliding pillar suspension is somewhat abrupt over any meaningful undulations, and at serious speed threatens to put even Samson to shame.
However, you’d be a total philistine to take that last paragraph as the final word on the Morgan 4/4. In fact, you shouldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about any of it. At all. Because when merely trundling along in first gear feels like a regal procession, second gear a sprightly canter and third gear a celebratory fly-by to strains of Elgar, and your cheeks are aching from the smile your friends and family thought had disappeared forever, you know you’re on to something special.
Whatever your opinion about the impracticality of it, you end up respecting this car. In an age of increasing computerisation and mechanisation, a Morgan is a stubborn and beautiful homage to a particular design vision and the artisanal work of human hands. It’s a craft product from top to bottom.
Every vehicle is built by hand on-site in Morgan’s factory in Malvern, established about a century ago by Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan soon after he began commercial production of his roaringly successful three-wheeled “Runabout” in 1911. The design specification of the 4/4 is essentially the same as it was in the original cars. Like other Morgans, the 4/4 has a conventional steel chassis, but the frame of the vehicle is assembled from ash wood, each part of which is carefully cut, sanded, glued and shaped on multiple jigs before it is assembled ready to support the Superformed and hand formed aluminium panels constituting the body of the car. Then comes the leatherwork, the windscreen installation, and all the finishing touches including bespoke tailoring of the hood. It’s a time-intensive process done largely by hand, which takes huge amounts of skill and time to get right.
Yet Morgan do get it right. The 4/4’s body shape stays faithful to the classic Morgan aesthetic, a timeless piece of visual design work almost by definition. It’s just a beautiful object. The interior is an exercise in refined simplicity. Leather, metal, wood. Clear dials, simple controls, and (on our test car) a gorgeous handcrafted Moto-Lita steering wheel. In a nod to modernity, there is a radio – but hidden so far under the dashboard as to effectively be out of sight, like some embarrassing cousin at a family wedding.
Most shockingly of all, the 4/4 is actually incredibly easy to drive, thanks to the sweet and happy union of Ford 1.6 litre Sigma engine and vaunted Mazda 5 speed gearbox. While the 110 horsepower produced is not quite enough to compete with a modern performance car, it’s not supposed to. This is a sports car of the old format, propelling you along country lanes fast enough to get a thrill but not so fast that you (or the people who stop to admire you) miss the view. The Morgan 4/4 encourages a relaxed, flowing driving style where you plan your moves far in advance and simply waft through gears as the wind ruffles your hair, with a bit of progressive and never fretful braking to keep you out of hedgerows…
Then there’s the effect the Morgan has on other people. I’ve never been in a vehicle which has elicited such a universally positive response from the public. It came in many guises, from the delivery scooterist in Covent Garden who leant over at the traffic lights to proclaim in spotless, gravelly Cockney that the 4/4 was “pure class, son”, to the joy of the pocketwatched old fellow somewhat unhelpfully stopping in the middle of a pedestrian crossing and beaming like a schoolboy while being shoo’d along by his entourage, to a friend of ours deciding spontaneously to clean the dust off the bonnet because the car ‘deserved it’.
The positivity continued in the countryside. At one point an Aston Martin DBS Volante swung out from behind us and roared past, all burble and spitting hellfire. Instinctively I raised my fist out of the cabin in a friendly gesture. To my surprise, a split second later, the driver of the Aston returned the salute. Solidarity across a nearly 500 horsepower deficit. That’s what motor cars do to people.
You should note that a Morgan is a frustrating car to use in a big city. Or perhaps more accurately, a city like London frustrates a Morgan and its driver. It didn’t stop us gunning the 4/4 across Vauxhall Bridge before roaring back across Westminster Bridge, up Whitehall, down Pall Mall, hooting like Toad of Toad Hall before we set out for Kent. But a Morgan’s natural environment is clearly the winding country road; given the sort of car it is, it’s a beautiful and somewhat unique escape capsule from the modern urban dystopia.
Escapism with a large dash of heritage is inevitably where you come to with this kind of vehicle. It would be unfair, though, to see the Morgan Motor Company as a dusty family enterprise stuck in the past making old-fashioned cars for niche enthusiasts. Following a record 2018, investments include electric vehicle development with an eye to future-proofing the brand; in particular, the development of the historically popular Morgan three-wheeler into the EV3 electric vehicle indicates where strategic thinking is going. Even a quaintly historical car company needs to move with the times.
Vehicles made according to heritage designs but with modern components and tweaks also shouldn’t be left to crusty, niche enthusiasts. They are a part of modern motoring in the same way that, say, your craft coffee is a reaction to consumer coffee culture. Going back to basics is an experience which ultimately teaches you more about the modern cars you drive. And arguably almost none of them look as good, or make you feel as good, as a 4/4 making its way along a country road at dusk.
As I sweated and cursed in stuffy Friday night traffic in London, desperately trying to get the 4/4 back to London Morgan in Kensington on time, I was overcome with a swirling mix of emotions. I was restless and keen to escape the small cabin of the Morgan after a solid two days of driving; I was also frustrated by the jarring contrast between the beauty of my conveyance and the terrible, palpitation-inducing driving of my fellow motorists (to the lovely lady who almost crashed into me at the Hotel Edelweiss on the Shepherd’s Bush Road – clutch control, madame!).
However, I also really didn’t want to return the car. Call me slightly odd but alongside the evident beauty of the thing, there is a sense of quirky good spirit and comic bonhomie which radiates out of the 4/4, as if the car contains some trace remnants of an explosion of the joyous frenzy of early 20th century motoring. It’s comforting in the way that very few cars are. Most of all, it’s a consciously evocative and beautiful object signifying a kind of purity – of vision, execution, and respect for heritage. It’s a vintage design which, rather than rusting unburnished, shines in use.
Ever since I gave it back, I’ve often caught myself thinking about driving the 4/4 again.
And that really is something quite special.