Having built a car fit for a prince, the fashionably unfashionable Morgan Motor Company has decided to make 100 more. James Foxall drives the first AeroMax
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Morgan has never run with the pack. While homegrown rivals have designed machines using the ubiquitous modern sports-car jelly-mould, Morgans still look like they've escaped from the set of Jeeves and Wooster. While some car-makers have floundered by designing cars just for the home market, Morgan has quietly sought and won the legislative approval it needed to sell abroad. And while many have existed on credit or chased foreign businessmen to bankroll them, Morgan remains family-owned and unencumbered by debt.
Purity of line: the gorgeous one-piece wings of the AeroMax hark back to the 1930s|
After years of building what was basically just one model, in 2001 Morgan launched the Aero 8, a car whose looks caused a certain, well, let's call it "debate" among loyal customers. Yet the Malvern company has managed to sell 480 of them so far. And now, just weeks after TVR's downward spiral turned into freefall, Morgan's trajectory continues upwards with the news that it's going to build the £110,000 AeroMax. In so doing, it remains deliciously and fashionably unfashionable. And that's why there's a decent chance it can successfully compete against the likes of Ferrari and Aston Martin in an arena from which others have emerged beaten and bloodied.
Unlike its equally expensive rivals, the AeroMax is a curious blend of ancient and modern. Take the gorgeous one-piece wings that flow back from the front wheels. Their shape harks back to the 1930s but they are formed during a high-tech process that heats aluminium-alloy to a semi-molten state so that it flows into its eventual form. It's a technique Jaguar would love to employ on its alloy cars, but each pair of AeroMax wings takes eight minutes to make and that's way too slow for mass production.
The AeroMax, of course, will never be mass-produced. Morgan is to make just 100 examples and it has taken 30 deposits already. But despite this relatively limited run, boss Charles Morgan, grandson of company founder HFS Morgan, believes the car is vital for his firm. "AeroMax will take Morgan to customers who are willing to spend more money," he says. "It makes us credible as a bespoke car-maker." In an age where most companies judge success by sales figures, you'd have thought a workforce of 155 producing 620 cars a year was already pretty bespoke. But in fairness, the AeroMax does lift Morgan to a new level.
It was originally built as a one-off for the Morgan-loving president of Baring Brothers Sturdza bank and former pro tennis player, Prince Eric Sturdza. Morgan is using this car as a template for the production version that will see the light of day next year, so this is the car I drove.
In the aluminium-alloy it's a surprisingly good-looking machine. The view from the front is particularly satisfying, with headlights that appear less cross-eyed than those on the original Aero 8 and wings that look like pontoons joined by the deep chin spoiler. The Stingray Grey paintwork helps with the purity of the lines, particularly from the rear, where the Lancia Thesis lights look perfect on bodywork unencumbered by anything other than an offset number-plate holder.
The facia is made from polished aluminium-alloy topped with ash|
The twin rear windows both open and look fantastic. Even if a conventional hatchback is a much more satisfactory way of loading luggage, it can't maintain the structural integrity provided by the spine of the twin-window design. This car looks slightly awkward square on from the side; it is too slabby around the rear quarterlight and the roofline above the door is too angular and clumsy. But those areas will be more rounded on the definitive version.
Like the Aero 8, the new car uses a bonded aluminium-alloy monocoque to create a racing-car-like cell for driver and passenger. The suspension is hung on either end of this, and by doing away with rubber bushes in favour of ball joints they can run relatively soft springs. The result is twofold. There's a surprisingly compliant ride despite 20in wheels and low-profile tyres. And there's still oodles of grip with none of the tail-happiness you might expect from such a thoroughbred. Even the electro-hydraulic steering is responsive, accurate and communicative, despite one of BMW's finest occupying the space between the front wheels and the driver.
Morgan reckons owners spending upwards of £60,000 deserve the sense of security the Bavarian engines provide. The car comes with bespoke electronics and a six-speed manual gearbox; the production version will also have the choice of an auto box, a first for Morgan. And while this car is powered by the 325bhp Aero 8 unit, production models will have 380bhp on tap. There is even dynamic traction control, although Morgan is keen to point out that it is less aggressive than traditional systems and intervenes only when it senses the rear wheels losing grip.
With an even weight distribution, the AeroMax has few vices, borrowing heavily from the already well-sorted Aero 8. Road and wind noise are two, however, and the driving position would be near-perfect if the pedals weren't so far offset to the left (apparently a peculiarity of this left-hand-drive car). But there's plenty of visual stimulation inside the cockpit to take your mind off that.
The facia is made from polished aluminium-alloy and the dash is topped with ash. No cheap veneers here: this is a solid piece of wood, lovingly carved with two humps to accommodate the instrument binnacles, and the strip that runs down the central spine is equally beautiful. In a world dominated by carbon-fibre and other space-age composites, pieces of tree might seem out of place. But it's this unique craftsmanship and charm that will allow the AeroMax to compete in its market and help Morgan celebrate its centenary in 2009. And for that the company is to be warmly applauded.
Morgan AeroMax [tech/spec]
Price/availability: £110,000. Limited to 100 cars, on sale now (30 orders already taken) with delivery in February 2008.
Engine/transmission: 4,398cc BMW V8 with DOHC and four valves per cylinder, constantly variable exhaust camshaft timing and sequential fuel injection; 325bhp at 5,400rpm and 330lb ft of torque at 3,600rpm in prototype form (production car will have 380bhp). Six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive.
Performance: (prototype) top speed 160mph, 0-62mph in less than five seconds, EC Urban fuel consumption 23mpg (estimated), CO2 emissions N/A.
We like: Agile handling, wood detailing, engine sound, supple ride.<!--MPU BLOCKED BY PAGECLASS-->
We don't like: Offset driving position, road and wind noise.
Alternatives: Ferrari F430, from £121,795. Aston Martin DB9, from £109,750. Porsche 911 Turbo, from £97,840.
Morgan's cars might look as if they're anchored in the past but the firm has ambitious plans for the future. It's joined forces with technology firm QinetiQ, Cranfield and Oxford Universities and BOC to produce the LIFECar. Based on the Aero 8, this will have a hydrogen fuel cell powering a motor in each wheel. Charles Morgan insists its light weight will prove that just because a car is environmentally friendly doesn't mean it has to be boring to drive.