Morgan cars evoke an image of speeding down English country lanes with the wind in your face while admiring the walnut dashboard. So it may come as a surprise that this quintessentially English handmade sports car is proving popular in Asia.
In these days of big global car brands and automated production lines, it's heartening to know that a small, independent car manufacturer like Morgan can survive in its base in sleepy Malvern, located in the west of England. Not just survive, but flourish as discerning motorists join the long waiting list for a cherished Morgan roadster, coupé or even its head-turning 3 Wheeler.
Morgan cars are part of a rich British sports car heritage that includes classic names such as MG, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Triumph. But the Morgan brand, which has been in existence for more than 100 years, hasn't fallen into foreign hands or gone bust like the others, and remains the last British independently owned carmaker. Well-known brands like Land Rover and Jaguar are now owned by India's Tata Motors, while Mini and the Rolls-Royce brand are in the hands of Germany's BMW group.
One of the reasons for Morgan's resilience is that its cars are so unique there's nothing else like them on the road. This is the goal of any small carmaker if it wants to prosper, and Morgan definitely achieves that.
While the cars have always had international appeal, particularly in America, they have not been big sellers in Asia. But that looks set to change as the region's growing army of high-net-worths start looking for character-defining brands outside the mainstream luxury sports car marques that include Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini.
Charles Morgan, the grandson of founder Henry, is managing director of the company that bears his family name, and China is now firmly on his radar as huge personal wealth is created alongside its impressive economic growth. Affluent Chinese are now looking to emulate the rich lifestyles of the West, developing a love for fine wines, super yachts and vintage cars.
“Morgans tend to be bought by people who want to have fun in a car, who like tradition and for whom the appeal of something handmade is important,” he says.
“The very British-ness of the car also draws people to the brand. We have a real history built over 100 years and people love that whether they are in LA or Shanghai.”
Morgan is a family business in every sense of the word. Not only did founder Henry Morgan pass the company onto his son Peter, who handed it over to Charles, but many in the workforce are sons and grandsons of previous Morgan employees. Having met Charles during his recent trip to Asia, he has an infectious enthusiasm for the cars as they are literally in his blood. His passion runs so deep that last year he and his wife Kiera drove a Morgan 3 Wheeler across America as part of the gruelling Gumball Rally.
The entire range is proving popular in China with Plus 8s, Roadsters, Plus 4s and a Coupé already snapped up by eager Morgan aficionados. Jim James, managing director of Morgan's Beijing dealership, says the Classic range, such as the Roadster appeals to the more mature buyer in China. The Roadster 3.7 contains a powerful Ford Cyclone six-cylinder engine which gives it plenty of kick. (Morgan doesn't make its own engines but carefully selects the best one for each model from trusted global manufacturers.) Weighing just 950kg, thanks to its aluminium body, which is a third of the weight of steel, it makes the Roadster's ride even faster.
Customers also like the fact that they can personalise their Morgan to a high degree, much like buying a tailor-made suit. For example, there are thousands of different colours to choose from, along with 100 different leather options. Colour and interior aside, Morgan owners can also pick their own wheels, mirrors, treads and steering wheel to make their car truly bespoke.
While Asian buyers may be attracted to Morgan's reputation for genteel classic British sports cars, its newer models are bringing a more modern feel with their sleek and sporty designs. Popular among the 30- to 40-year-old set is the Aero Coupé which holds its own in the style stakes against racier European peers like Ferrari and Porsche. The sleek aluminium body was inspired by Morgan's race-winning GT3 Aero and houses a 4.8-litre BMW V8 engine.
With demand from Asia likely to grow, Morgan is confidently ramping up production to 1,500 vehicles this year. Its participation in the Asian Le Mans Series, taking place later this year, will also showcase its cars, raising its profile even further. Part of Morgan's game plan to expand its footprint in Asia involves looking for new countries to set up dealerships in. “We are just starting to look at Singapore. There are Morgans over there already sold privately and so we do believe that the time is right to appoint a dealer there,” says UK-based Mark Ledington, its global sales manager.
While Morgan prides itself on building iconic British sports cars, it also has a playful side, demonstrated by its popular 3 Wheeler. The model was the first one ever to be produced by Morgan when it was first established back in 1909. In fact the company only made 3 Wheelers for the first 26 years, finally introducing a four-wheeler in the 1930s. That it is still being made today is testimony to its enduring popularity. Still putting fun and passion into driving, it has been updated with modern technology, including a Mazda five-speed gearbox, while safety features such as twin roll bars have been added. But true to itself, the classic bullet shape of the car is unchanged, pleasing the traditionalists. Morgan made its name with this car and it would be a sad day if it ever fell out of favour.
Given the time it takes to put together a handmade sports car, compared to one on an automated production line, adds to the costs of owning a Morgan. But cash is not king when it comes to owning a Morgan. Patience is, for there is currently a waiting list of between nine months to one year, depending on which model you buy. (To put it in perspective, Morgan's annual production can be easily achieved by a major car manufacturer in just one day.)
Among Morgan's celebrity owners is American talk show host Jay Leno who owns a 1932 3 Wheeler and describes himself as “a huge Morgan enthusiast”. Leno has also been to the Morgan factory in Malvern, one of the 20,000 fans who visit the site each year to see a craft that has changed little in more than 100 years.