Join Date: Nov 2004
Morgan is celebrating its 100th anniversary, but just how has this family-owned British car maker survived against all the odds?
One hundred not out is always worth the raising of a glass. In life span it warrants a monarch's telegram, on the cricket pitch (a rare occurance from the English cricket team) a century's appreciative applause, on an old motorcycle the magic ton deserves a tall story in the pub. But surviving a century also demands perseverance, cunning and not a little luck.
So this year's centenary of the Morgan Motor Company is not without its ironies. The Malvern-based sports car maker has had its share of good fortune skimming over life's potholes like its patented, sliding-pillar front suspension. As it celebrates survival while toasting the future, just how has it made it this far when so many other car makers have fallen by the wayside?
Of the 19 premier cru car makers listed in JR Buckley's irrepressibly snobby Cars For The Connoisseur, just three remain independent, another two are adjuncts to larger automobile manufacturing combines, the rest are lying, toes turned upwards, in the automotive mortuary. Of Morgan, there is no mention. Harry (HFS) Morgan's car maker, founded with the help of his astute father, the Reverend Prebendary Henry George (HG) Morgan, rector of Stoke Lacy, remains unworthy of Buckley's frosty scrutiny.
Morgan's 100-year celebrations this August, moved from Malvern to the more accommodating expanses of Cheltenham race course, had the air of a village fête, with traction engines, Morris dancers, open-air concerts and auto tests in a roped-off car park. The Royal Signals White Helmets leapt over Morgans, ice creams were consumed with cream teas, pints of ale with pizza and fish and chips, and while there was no bowling for the pig, or tombola stall, most of the 23 nationalities in attendance regarded as it as the sort of eccentricity which couldn't take place anywhere but in England.
When the Morgan family's Super 8, home-movie archive was shown in a flickering magic lantern display to the 1,000 dinner guests, the images of gawky legs, squinting expressions and knitted bathing suits was touching rather than excruciating and even the sound track, Richard Harris singing MacArthur Park, seemed apposite, although a couple of German guests were completely nonplussed: "Vot is the recipe ve vill never hav again?"
Charles March, along with Bill Ford, Akio Toyoda, Ferdinand Piech and Robert Peugeot, has the rare privilege of still working at the family's car shop. I felt quite choked up at the poignancy of it all as he did a microphone walk around the dinner guests, Charles, however, has little time for such introspection.
Asked how he felt on a night when many might have felt their eyes pricking, he shrugged. "I didn't really think about it, I was lucky to have a wonderful 15 years working with my father, but I suppose I've always been a car enthusiast. Even when I was 10 I was in the passenger seat while Dad was testing a car and we survived an almighty blow out."
As for the secret of survival, he puts it down to enthusiasm and passion for building cars. Plus, of course, the cars themselves. "The way they look, the way they are built and the way they feel when you drive them; by the seat of your pants…"
Ebullient as ever, Charles is emphatically looking forward to projects like the Lifecar, an electrically powered Morgan 4/4, which has morphed from fuel-cell to hybrid power but still with target carbon dioxide emissions of under 100g/km, potentially making it the most environmental-ever sports car.
Morgan's sales and marketing director, Matthew Parkin, reckons Morgan's survival owes a lot to its family ownership. "There's no shareholder pressure," he says. "If there had been, Morgan wouldn't still be around."
He also credits Morgan with making something well for which there is continued demand. "Everyone has tried and failed to make the great British sports car," he says. "The designs are always well done and the reception has been good, but it's when they start to build it that things fall down."
He's still grinning at the build-up to the Cheltenham celebrations. With Morgan banners flapping untidily in the wind, the office boy was sent into town to buy tent pegs to secure them. "He stood at the customer service desk at the local supermarket, demanding 'tent pegs' in heavily accented English," says Parkin. "Eventually the staff directed him to the feminine hygiene aisle."
On Sunday, the climax of a week of celebration, more than 3,200 Morgans are parked up at Cheltenham and there are all-Moggie traffic jams throughout the town. People seem to love these cars and even the cyclists smile benevolently at them.
"It puts a grin on your face every time you use it," says Ray Hancox of his immaculate 1934 barrelback three-wheeler with a Matchless V-twin engine. "And Morgan still has time for the three-wheelers, they'll help you identify the car and when it was built, and Charles [Morgan] always has time for a word."
Ray's friend, Terry Priddy, is sitting beside his 1933 Family three-wheeler, its Matchless engine polished like a tailor's mirror. "Other car companies, they're too grand and they're not interested in you once they've sold you the car. Morgan is different, like a family."
It's a theme continued by Mike and Enid Smith, sitting next to their gleaming 1950s midnight-blue, flat-radiator Plus 4. "Morgan is still a family business," says Mike, "but owning one is like being welcomed into that family. There are owners' clubs all round the world." He gestures at the Spanish Morgan owners' club flag fluttering in the breeze. "And owners are ordinary people and their families, not like Porsche or those other makes."
"They even call the race series, 'Cuprinol Racing'," Enid chips in.
There is an almost irresistible intimacy about Morgan that sucks you in until you find yourself thinking of reasons you need to own one. But Morgans are not as other cars. Perry McCarthy, racing driver and former Top Gear Stig, tells a great gag about the Morgan sat-nav guidance introducing the ash tree on the village green to the driver: "That's my grandfather," it says.
"A Morgan is not just a car, it's a state of mind," says Stuart Stew, owner of a ruby-red V8.
"It's a historical shape, a hand-built car that doesn't cost a fortune and it allows you to take part in stuff unobtainable from other car makers," says Philip Male, who has just collected a brand new Aeromax from the factory and is attending the celebrations with his wife Caroline and Morgan-owning friends, Howard and Jane Parsons.
Not that Morgan has followed a flawless strategy. On occasions it looks as if it has been driven by the seats of the pants. Having set out with £3,000 from his father, HFS had profitably sold 2,500 three-wheeled Morgans by 1921, but by 1935 increasing affluence and rivals such as the Austin 7 meant sales plummeted and HFS was forced to develop the four-wheeled models.
Martin Adeney the former BBC industry editor in his book The Motor Makers, suggests Morgan's rigid adherence to buying in engines and gearboxes and making its own bodies and suspension is the survival key, but plenty of other firms with the same strategy now lie by the wayside.
The distinguished contributors to Britain's Motor Industry – The First Hundred Years, suggest that Peter Morgan's rejection of the takeover offers from Sir John Black of Standard Triumph (as well as subsequent offers from Rover, Leyland and others) contributed heavily towards Morgan's continued survival.
Peter's instincts were mainly sound (the 1969 V8-engined Plus 8 was a stunning success), but he had his failures, such as the disastrous Plus 4 Plus coupé. "I think I also called it 'the future' and even pushed it out of the same factory doors," he said as Charles introduced the controversial Aero 8 model to the 160-strong workforce at the Pickersleigh Road factory in Malvern in 2000.
"I suppose my big mistake," he continued, "was to imagine that a car with a glass-fibre body, built off-site, would go down well with a load of metal bashers and carpenters."
Hovering above the proceedings like Banquo's ghost is the late John Harvey Jones, the former ICI chairman, who presented the BBC's Troubleshooter series, which in 1990 took Morgan to task for its antediluvian practises, jumbly production flows, seven-year waiting lists and low production volumes and prices.
Peter Morgan was furious, as much at the way the television programme had misrepresented itself to his firm as for the way it misrepresented Morgan to viewers.
Of course Morgan was never as bad as the BBC portrayed it and in the intervening 19 years it has stealthily adopted most of Sir John's recommendations. Waiting lists are down to six months, production flows are smoother, the most modern metal-shaping techniques are used and production is up from 1½ to three cars a day.
For all the bad feeling that Troubleshooter created, it sold a good few cars. "We did well out of it," grins Morgan archivist Martin Webb. "The order book went up in the six months after the programme."
I ask him what he thinks lies behind Morgan's continued survival. "Clever and astute people at the top," he replies. It's a clever answer. For all that people remember HFS, it was his father, the wealthy and charismatic George, who backed and supported his son. Similarly the Morgan family have made the odd wrong turning in management such as the outsiders bought in during the 1990s, but in the end they have trusted their own judgement. "They've never got greedy or overstretched the company in the good years," says Webb.
Perhaps that's the secret, don't get greedy, don't sell out and do what you do best. It's been a cataclysmic year for the motor industry and it's as well to remember that a lot of the injuries have been self-inflicted, often through rigid adherence to the advice of business gurus and troubleshooters.
As I watch Charles bend down to speak to a young child anxious to climb into a Morgan exhibit, it's a tempting if bucolic thought that Morgan has all the answers. Of course it hasn't, but as we ponder the sleazy smoking black hole that once was Rover, Morgan's essential decency and straight dealing with customers and workers seems a pretty sound basis for advancement in the art of making motor cars.
That and a bit of luck, of course