100 not out

Posted on 11 Aug 2009 by The Manufacturer

Morgan – makers of elegant, timeless motor cars, as English as strawberries and cream – has just celebrated its 100th birthday. Will Stirling talks to operations director Steve Morris about a famous brand, its process of business transformation and taking the next bold step towards supercars and hydrogen fuel cells.

Who would not want to own a Morgan? The classic sports car marque – the flared wings, moulded bonnet, louvers and leather trim – that epitomises a bygone era of motoring. The Morgan Classic: at once the genteel, top-down country lane cruising two-seater and the white knuckle, teeth-gritting racing machine with an enviable winning pedigree. More recently, the seductive and sublime AeroMax and Aero8 series have extended the range, cars that have effortlessly transformed the essence of Morgan into a very modern sports car body.

In any guise, they are beautiful, hand-built quintessentially English motor cars.

Morgan Motor Cars is 100 years old this year. The company was founded by H.F.S. Morgan, a clergyman’s son, who opened a garage and workshop in Malvern Links in 1906 and started serious manufacture in 1909 Morgan’s long history is sprinkled with events; new model launches – from the famous original three-wheeler, now reproduced as a £2500 child’s toy, to the brand new Aero Super Sport set for launch in January 2010 – racing successes, stories, and famous people.

Mick Jagger joins Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Richard Hammond and even Miss Piggy among an elite alumni of Morgan owners. The cars have appeared in a host of films and TV programmes, including Moonraker, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, My Girl and The Trip. Several books have been published about Morgan cars. In April, Princess Anne officially opened the brand new Morgan Visitor Centre, a modern museum bedecked with memorabilia, photos, films and the inevitable gift shop, housing a remarkable range of merchandise for ‘Moggie’ enthusiasts young and old. Steve Morris, Morgan’s tireless operations director, is proud of the way the centre came together in time. “It was touch and go before the opening – let’s say we worked a few nights that week.” The entire visitor centre was shopfitted by Morgan staff, whose round-the-clock efforts Steve applauds – there are some clear benefits to running a business with in-house carpentry skills.

Redesigned, nimble production
Morgan Motor Cars Ltd is located in Malvern Link in Worcestershire, an area full of hilly, twisty roads perfect for testing the steering linkage on an open top sports car. The premises – 10 long purpose-built workshops built on a hill – evokes the image of UK manufacturing as it used to be, in old buildings using traditional crafts, hand-making products of great workmanship and high quality. Today these old skills are needed, but are married with advanced technologies, such as the use of superform aluminium moulded sections – for which Morgan was a car industry pioneer in using panel section moulds for its Aero cars –wood engineering techniques and technical paint formulation. This is a cottage industry that has grown up, from its humble three-wheeled roots to a company that can make over 700 cars a year and exports 65%-70% of product to over 30 countries. The business has changed a lot, particularly over the last 10 years, by implementing lean techniques, more training programmes, developing an inhouse styling team and a better arrangement of the site, “We reconfigured the whole factory, to better use the gradient of the hill to move cars.

Now cars move downhill from the chassis stage to final fit-out. We used to have to push cars up and down the hill, with less thought to the site design,” says Morris.

All of this along with a very demanding push to achieve the ISO 9001 accreditation has enabled the people to be better equipped for the changing requirements in a innovative design led Business.

Satisfying strong demand for a growing model range has required leaner business practices, and there has been more production process analysis recently.

“We look at takt times to ensure better product flow through the business, constantly reviewing the balanced work stations to ensure we get consistent throughput.” Morris says. “The whole business model has changed to enable delivery of an expanded product range, to ensure we can still build 15 plus cars a week.” The two main model types, the Classic and Aero, have different assembly processes but the company’s size means that products can move from one workstation to another, when orders favour one model more than another. There are no moving Assembly lines at Morgan, so reconfiguring a production line section is easy. A skills matrix has also been developed to show management an overview of the compatible skills available to switch to different lines, should orders dictate.

KTPs lead to in-house styling unit
Until recently, the company had outsourced car styling. Then managing director Charles Morgan received a letter from a Coventry University student who wanted to design a car. “We had CAD and design capability, but not styling capability,” Morris says. “Matthew Humphries is the designer who came from Coventry on a two year KTP [Knowledge Transfer Partnership]. Once completed, we took him on and we’ve gone from strength to strength, winning various awards like the Lord Stafford award.” Morgan now has another two KTP-derived students on the payroll. With KTPs and KBPs, knowledge based partnerships, while the programme lasts the students are employees of the university. Morgan has run KTPs on styling, production engineering and R&D. The design studio, which runs Dassault Systeme’s Catia V5 – widely regarded as the car industry benchmark CAD modelling tool – and Autodesk Alias for simulating finishes, was the last piece of the jigsaw for the firm’s in-house R&D and product design. “It’s given us product design capability evidently, but as a business we can look at everything from stand design, branding, merchandising and brochures. It’s helped us in other areas like producing shows – we were a featured marque at Goodwood, Villa Deste and Pebble Beach this year,” says Morris in reference to the three – world-class motoring festivals.

Customisation, critical supply chain
Morgan has its own particular headaches. Kitting 20,000 parts a month from goods in stores, most of which are outsourced, its supply chain is one. “Supply chain is critical to us. You can look at the typical SC philosophies, the manuals for running a business, that say ‘you should only have 50 suppliers for a business of this size’ but there are always realities that make it hard to enforce that,” says Morris. “You may not be big enough to demand these things. We do a lot of work within our supply chain. We have a lot of line side components, the number of components we kit has grown with the model variance.” Making 15 cars a week, Morgan’s scale of business is such that it doesn’t always get the stock turn it would like, making it difficult to make standard orders across the board. “You might have one metre of seal per car, times 15 cars a week, so you buy an economic batch quantity and you don’t get the stock turn that you want because may end up with 12 months worth of that seal.” It’s an issue that needs constant review.

Component supply and storage has been complicated by the Morgan customisation model. Customers can choose from myriad variants of body, engine size, paint colour, dashboard and leather trim. But this has been simplified where possible to make it easier for the business to deliver product. For the entry level Classic 4/4, the choice is limited to six outer body colours, one interior and the car is standard. “There’s a pack of purely aftermarket fitments you can do, but it’s not through the line,” says Morris. A customised car range affects inventory. For example, four years ago the company had eight dashboard variations. Today it has 24 variations, when including left and right hand, MPH and KPH versions.

With a heavily specified hand-built car, suppliers are key and Morris singles out a few as being vital to Morgan’s success.

“Radshape Sheet Metal in Birmingham is a very good supplier to us, who’ve been with us for 10 years. They’ve turned themselves into a big spend, crucial supplier.” Glasurit, part of BASF, supply all Morgan’s paint either directly as custom colour formations or mixed on site in by in-house paint specialists. Superform Aluminium is another key account, supplying the carmaker with all its preformed SPF aluminium panels (see below). Is supply chain risk an issue in the recession? “Our biggest supply chain risk is mainly from the biggest people who supply the mainstream OEMs. We deal with people who are supplying JLR, Aston Martin and Bentley. If schedules have been cut sharply it affects these people, but we’ve not had as many problems as we envisaged. Forecasting last year we expected more.” Interestingly, supplies from Germany have been less reliable, with more interruptions than forecast due to more short-time working and extended holidays at some German companies.

Morgan has felt it could be left last on the list for some companies that supply to the bigger OEMs, which has been an issue.

Lean and professional development
Morgan is operating a lean programme in collaboration with Birmingham City University where the aim is to have all factory-based employees trained in lean processes. It’s an interactive programme, Morris says. They take operators from different areas of the business, mix them up and put them in groups of 12 in the same training room. Staff run through the programme, finishing with a project that is certificated by the university. The programme uses all the main lean techniques applicable to most businesses, tailored to Morgan, then they try to make it as interactive as possible. “It’s not purely academic, they are looking at the real benefits of single piece flow, and team-building etc. At the end of it, they do a project which assesses the tangible benefits, so they can really apply the learning into something very relevant in the workplace.”

How a Morgan is made

Starting at the top

There are six main build stages: chassis, assembly, sheet metal, wood, machine, paint and Trim (Upholstery). The first stage, chassis assembly, is done at the top workshop near the site entrance and the build stages progress downhill.

What is obvious, and very satisfying, is that the factory has a very manual operation throughout – there are no robots at Morgan. Classics and Aero models have different build stations, but these can be switched at varying stages of construction. The Aero8, for example, has a bonded rivet aluminium chassis. When finished the completed car weighs just 1170kg – “the power to weight ratio is phenomenal” . At this bare chassis stage, everything is configured in the car – you can plug a laptop into the car and drive it away. Full configuration, including checks for fuel leaks, drivetrain and engine checks, is done at this stage as it is far easier to pick up here.

Every car is issued with a build book, containing a tracking document and quality document, where every build stage has its own page. “This follows the car right through the factory to the dealer, agent or customer who picks the car up – a full record of everything that’s gone into it.” This system was installed six years ago and is part of the continuous improvement and lean programme at Morgan.

The Classic chassis station has a totally different set-up, due to the fact there is a lot of configuration later on with the Classic, and it’s not as advanced as the Aero series cars at this stage – there’s no wiring for example – so there are more chances to access parts of the Classic as it is being assembled. As the cars go through the production line they start to jockey together at different stages, with some models overtaking others on lines.

Handbuilt coachwork
All the cars arrive at the body mount stage where the craftsmanship really kicks in. For the Classic body frame, an all ash frame is made in the wood shop, dip treated for rot outside, brought back in to be panelled by hand and then mounted to the body. “It’s a very timesensitive stage. It’s three days work here, as soon as they’re done they must be fitted to the cars,” Morris says. Nearly all the metal is aluminium – on the AeroMax and Aero8 apart from the wishbones and the discs the car is almost entirely aluminium. The Classic has a galvanised steel chassis, a stainless steel bulkhead and firewall, and inner wings – beyond that everything is the same, ash frame panelled body and aluminium. The Aero series wings are made from super plastic-form (SPF) aluminium. “You take a sheet of aluminium, its superheated to 450°C, you blow it into a bubble and using air pressure form tools and heat it is stretched over the steel form. You can get some absolutely stunning shapes.” The body shapes are designed in-house, cast steel forms are made and the panels are formed at Superform Aluminium in Worcester. Classics also use SPF for the wings and cowls, but not body panels.

Superform is expensive but has passed the cost / benefit analysis, in that it offers high quality and repeatability. This choice of metal is important to Morgan to deliver cars that match their ‘light and fast’ ethos, which Morris says also reduces CO2 emissions making Morgans extremely environmentally friendly. The Classic car uses a mixture of hand cut and Laser cut blanks which are then very skilfully shaped and panelled onto the body frame, which exemplifies the traditional skills of the workforce in contrast to Superform’s cutting edge technology.

Woodwork – or wood engineering – is a core strength at Morgan. Their ash frames are shaped using traditional wooden presses and more modern bag press techniques. “A bag press is essentially a vacuum bag. You produce a former, for the part, and the vacuum literally sucks the wood down onto the former. It produces laminates with immense strength – you could drive a tank over it,” says Morris as he asks me to try and break the moulded wooden piece. Not a chance.

It’s all about pressure, while some ambient heat is used to cure the glue. This and clamp pressure techniques can produce some extremely complex shapes. Morris shows me an AeroMax centre roof spine – beautifully moulded, super-strong. It’s based on an old leaf spring for carriages, and while it isn’t required as a structural part it has that structural property. “It gives us differentiation in the automotive world – no-one else is using wood this way.” The next stage, after the body mount where the wings and ancillary parts are assembled, is where the Classic and Aero cars mix and jockey for work in the same area. A car is rolled in, where Aeros are fitted with the body and wings and go straight to paint. The Classics has the body and wings fitted then it has pre-drilling, wiring, a heater, oil pipes etc all fitted here before going to the paint line. Both models are painted after being assembled at the Body in White stage.

“We do this is because the quality is so paramount in new vehicles – I’d rather invest a little more time at this point to ensure the product looks perfect here.

But we’re sliding towards painting the panels separately and meet them up later without building body in white.” Morgan can offer almost 250,000 colour combinations from its own paint division.

Post Paint, cars are fitted out with leather trim, windows, bonnets and other auxiliary parts such as lights are fitted.

Upon completion of the build process the cars are all road tested, they then go through a full technical PDI before having an under body protection. When this process is complete the car then receives a full PDI in preparation for Despatch to either the customer or dealer.

Resilience and a bright future
Morgans are not cars that deliberately target the recession-proof super-rich, but the cars’ name and caché has made the marque resilient. “Yes we’re pretty resilient, but a lot of factors underpin that. Morgan’s business model has been robust. Firstly the cars have great residual value – an AeroMax that sells for £110,000 new can go on sale in Germany for Eu160,000 within a year.

The centenary festival has produced a groundswell of interest and we’re building extra cars at the moment.” Morgan is going through a transformation.

The company, once synonymous with the flared wing and cherry dash Classic sports car, is set on expanding the range further and making the most of its heritage and brand name. With the Super Sport it will be on the verge of supercar territory. “Something that is close to Charles Morgan’s heart is raising the brand profile,” says Morris. “There is no danger to the Classic model’s future – while legislation lets us build that car we will build it. Dovetailed to that, though, we have raised the bar with the Aero8 and AeroMax. The Super Sport is really a big leap, a new phase.” The business model changed when they introduced the Aero8 and AeroMax. The Super Sport is really a big leap, a new phase.” The business model changed when they introduced the Aero8 and AeroMax, which has perhaps given Morgan the courage to enter uncharted territory. Both Aero models, intended for a production run of 100 units, were launched from rendered drawings, with upfront deposits of £25,000 per car required 12 months before build. They quickly sold 100 on plan. The new Super Sport has taken 50 deposits within three months of the concept launch at Geneva. Also, a crucial trick in this business, Morris says, is to secure regenerative business and repeat business has been very important to Morgan with strong owner loyalty. This has further driven invention and the new models.

The company’s whole business model is based on longevity and brand reinforcement. This is not a get rich quick business.

“If you just looked at the numbers, when you talk about investment in product, the scales are very heavily tipped in the long term – it’s not a quick payback. But 100 years on, we’re still here and there must be something right about our model.” Looking ahead, this small 100-year old factory in the Malvern Hills has more plans to jump feet first into the 21st century, with the launch of the hydrogen fuel cell powered LIFE car.

Continue the Malvern story at www.morganmotors.com