Morgan Motor Company continues to defy convention and build cars that are seductive, distinctive, appealing and beloved by generations of the brand’s enthusiasts. And it does so in a contemporary way, Ruari McCallion learned from operations and sales director Steve Morris.
It was Friday evening in Newport, South Wales, at the end of a rain-soaked first day of the Ryder Cup. An American visitor was gazing across the car park, trying to find his car – a Ford, a silver one’, he says.
I looked across the shining sea of silver European cars stretching out to the horizon and wished him good luck, before setting off to find my own silver conveyance. Our American visitor would have done better to hire a Morgan. Its distinctive shape is unmistakable, they come in a wide variety of colours and even the silver one has a contrasting black roof.
The Morgan’s shape, all swooping wings and 1940s style, is so unusual that it has actually been patented.
The 4+4 and Plus 8 Roadsters have been familiar sights on the roads of the UK and overseas since the late 1950s and look very much the same as they always did – purchasers can even specify a vintage-style leather bonnet strap, if they so wish. The Aero platform, now manifested in the £120,000 Aero SuperSport, is different. Launched in 2000, it is not a radical departure from the established, classic silhouette but rather a very effective reworking and updating of an enduring design. Underneath the exterior is a thoroughly modern car, with a bonded aluminium chassis and a 4.8-litre 367bhp BMW engine, with top-end tuning undertaken by Morgan itself. With a power to weight ratio of 315 bhp/tonne, it burbles and growls in a very purposeful manner and is capable of pushing the car to 170mph.
Racing versions have enjoyed success in GT and Britcar competition.
Morgan is a small company but it has its place in the motoring marketplace, a fact recognised by no less a person than Soichiro Honda, who says that, in the future, there would only be a few large auto manufacturers – and Morgan. The name is all about passion.
Its customers are passionate about their cars and the marque itself. Purchasers often own more than one – when they want a new vehicle they buy another and keep what they already have. The price of the entry-level 4+4 tops £30,000 and even the new three-wheeler, with an iconic frontmounted 1800cc V-Twin two-cylinder engine, will lighten your wallet to the tune of £25,000 ex VAT or so. Buying a Morgan is not simply about practicality; it is about passion, an emotional relationship with the badge and its products.
The feeling extends to the company itself, whose premises nestle at the foot of the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire.
“Passion is a big part of the business,” says Steve Morris, operations and sales director. He has been with the company for nearly 30 years and started as an apprentice. “We employ 185 people and that attitude, that passion, feeds through to the results, what we get out at the end of it.” Head of the company, Charles Morgan, is the grandson of the founder. When asked ‘what are you most proud of?’, Charles Morgan’s father’s reply gives an indication of the company’s core values. He responded that he was most proud of never having made anyone redundant, and that record continues right up to today.
“We have grown very gently and organically,” says Morris. “Looking back eight or nine years, we were making 400-500 cars. Three years ago we made around 700; this year, we will make between 1000 and 1100.” This is an interesting statistic. Morgans are discretionary purchases – they are non-essential and you can’t really ‘downsize’ to a smaller or cheaper model if times are tight. The results from other luxury or specialist car companies show that their sales fell off a cliff in the aftermath of the credit crunch; Morgan sales did not just stay steady, they actually grew. We discussed the contrasting fortunes of other names in the same price bracket and Morris offered some interesting observations.
Traditional values, advanced techniques
“For me, exclusivity is part of that magical formula. I’m not saying [Brand X – a luxury car manufacturer] is not exclusive but perception is a wonderful thing,” he says. “Our differentiation includes the way our cars are put together, the way our customers perceive how the cars are made, that is all part of it.” The way the cars are built is, indeed, both unusual and crucial – and it attracts around 500 visitors a week, who pay for a factory tour. Morgan is a craft-based company but it has never been averse to exploring new technologies and new ideas. It had a substantially GRP-bodied car as long ago as the early 1960s. When the Aero first appeared, in 2000, it was something of a revelation and its dramatic looks were the manifestation of new ideas.
“We were the first users of Superform in the auto industry, in 1997, for the Classic [model],” says Morris. “We have seen changes, big changes, over time, but they happen bit by bit. It’s only when we look back that we realise how far we have come.
In 1997 we could just Superform the wings; today, we can do the whole of the Aero platform range bodywork in Superform.” What is Superform? It uses air pressure and heat rather than conventional beating, to form panels into complex shapes.
“The aluminium is heated to 450 C, – to the point where it is malleable,” he explained. “It is then blown by air pressure and formed over the steel tools.” Body Panels are designed and the forming shapes are made in cast steel in-house. Forming itself is carried out by Superform Aluminium, located a few miles away, in Worcester.
The Classic models use Superform for their wings and cowls; most of the Aero’s curvaceous and aerodynamic bodywork is produced in the process. It is expensive but it offers high quality and guaranteed repeatability.
Underneath the seductive shapes are further examples of the crafts that are Morgan core skills. Ash – the wood, not the by-product of burning – is still an integral part of the cars’ frames. They are made and shaped using a blend of traditional wooden presses and contemporary bag techniques. In the latter process, a former is used to create the shape for the part and a vacuum sucks the wood down onto it. The process produces very strong components – the central spine for the AeroMax’ roof is made this way and if it is good enough for a 180-mph sports car, it is good enough for pretty much anything.
The company does not have robots and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future. Part of the reason is the capital commitment but the company’s traditions also weigh heavily in the balance. The basic chassis frame – ladder in the case of the Classic and bonded aluminium in the case of the Aero platform, including today’s SuperSports – is brought into the top end of the factory (in the case of the Classics) and placed on two trestles. One operative then has the responsibility of building it up to a rolling chassis, adding the differential, axles, suspension, electric wiring loom and much else, short of the bodywork and engine. It is then wheeled down the hill to the next stage, which is painting.
Achieving a balance
“Above the chassis, the two models have very similar construction processes,” says Morris. “We are trying to build-in flexibility in manufacturing. If I want to, today I can schedule five more SuperSports next week, or six to seven Classic cars.” There are differences in processes between the two models and also in location – the SuperSports have their own dedicated facility but the personnel are trained to build either or both and can move easily between the two lines. So how does the company balance the line? Morris indicates a large chart on the wall in his office.
“This is the master planning chart although we have it on the IT system, too. It controls the different model line-ups, different colours and so on,” he explained. Different colours can be an issue in itself; there are thousands of different paint and trim options. “In September each year we go out to the dealer network to get their forward forecast, of numbers and product mix.
That’s not to say it then never changes – it does, especially in today’s markets.
We have increased production in the last three years and our planning has been fluid, to an extent – but the planning chart schedules the model mix and how many we are building each week.” The waiting list is currently six to nine months.
“We see seasonal variation. In the last fortnight, it has been like turning a tap on,” he says. “January was a bit busier than usual and then the sun comes out and more and more orders come in.” The cars are currently painted after the body panels have been added and then move onto final finishing, with trim, instrument panels, carpets, seating and everything else required for completion. There is a trend towards painting the panels separately and then meeting them up but Morgan is about evolution, and lean is a driving principle.
It is a never-ending journey,” Morris says. I am a believer in challenging the things we do. We have come a very long way in recent years and all those good things have come out of continuous improvement. The site may be prohibitive in how far we can ultimately go and it is a continual battle to make ourselves more efficient and effective. The low-hanging fruit has now been taken, the challenge is now to look at peripheral activities.
Morgan has been an ISO 9001-accredited company since 2009.
Each vehicle has a build book with it, which starts with the high-level BoM (bill of materials). It governs and drives stocking procedures and practices “Anything that goes down the line from the warehouse is added to the BoM, consumed and then ‘backflushed’ to say it has been consumed,” he says. “Lineside items come along to meet it. The build book ensures good quality control, covers the standard time required for each task – we have standard operating procedures – and as soon as the car goes through a certain point it is all backflushed. If, at any time, one of the operators is not happy with something on the car, he can raise it with the supervisor. It then goes back through root cause analysis, we raise care points, identify them and pay attention.” At the back of the book is the PDI (pre-delivery inspection) sheet, which is copied to the dealer. The dealers themselves also identify any points they encounter and alert Morgan. It is another manifestation of the emphasis on quality, which also involves purchasing and the supply chain.
“Purchasing can mean the difference between a good year and a dreadful year,” says Morris. This is because the company is small and does not have the leverage that larger OEMs can command. It can be the case that the company would have to take on more stock than it would normally want, in order to secure good prices. But every issue is being addressed.
“We have three people at the core of purchasing and it is important to have them involved with our suppliers,” he continued. “We pull our suppliers in, make them aware of the BoM and are always looking for improvement – and we are getting across to them that there is more work for them here – we have just launched the new three-wheeler, for example. We will give them as consistent and solid schedule as they will get from anyone in the world. We have done supplier presentations and supplier forums and made clear that the people we invite to them are the people who we value as strategic, long-term partners.” Altogether, the Morgan approach is very much like Morgan cars. Underneath that traditional exterior is something modern, effective and efficient but still firmly attached to its roots and origins.