Last month was not a typical time in the 100-year history of the Morgan Motor Company Ltd. A typical week is pretty simple; roughly 14 new cars emerge from Morgan’s factory gates, on Pickersleigh Road in Great Malvern, UK. Ten of those 14 will be “the little ones” – 4/4s, Plus 4s, 4 Seaters and Roadsters – which remain the bread and butter of this resilient old English car brand. Three cars will be larger Aero 8s, with their all-aluminum bodies, double-wishbone chassis and BMW V8 engines. And one car – usually only one – will be an example of Morgan’s flagship, the achingly elegant and genuinely rare Aeromax coupe.
Last week, however, Morgan did more. It opened a new visitors’ center on site at the factory, where anyone can wade through the firm’s century of tradition. And even more importantly, it sent a new and different kind of Aeromax on its way, bound for the Villa D’Este Concourse of Elegance in Italy.
This car came not from Morgan’s production line but out of its research and development center. Its aluminum panels were not air-molded as every other Aeromax panel is, but beaten into shape over specially made wooden crates. It took four months to go from drawing board to reality.
Why go to all that trouble? Because this car is Morgan’s next new model: the Aeromax SuperSports, an updated version of the company’s $166,000 range-topper..Supply and demand, dear boy
The first Aeromax has an amazing story, one to which that of this second version is closely linked. The original 2006 car was never supposed to enter series production. It was commissioned as a one-off by Swiss banking magnate and Morgan devotee Eric Sturdza. He liked the Aero 8 roadster, but wanted it turned into a modern car more suited to cruising and touring, and offering better protection from the weather.
The project was taken up by Charles Morgan, who enlisted the help of a talented car designer called Matthew Humphries. But back in 2005, Humphries had yet to complete his design degree at Coventry University, let alone accrue the kind of experience you’d expect of someone you’d ask to design a flagship GT.
“For a few months I would drive over from Coventry to Malvern, get a few hours of drawing done, and then get back to my uni digs just as my mates were getting up. It was a bit unreal,” he says.
By the end of 2005, Humphries had completed his Aeromax design – a long-nosed coupe with a teardrop-shaped cabin, a large trunk and split rear windows – and turned it into a clay model. Sturdza saw it, loved it, and completed his order. Humphries duly became Morgan’s first proper salaried designer. And that would have been the end of the story, but for the fact that Sturdza gave Morgan permission to show the car off at the Geneva motor show – where the crowds went wild.
So Morgan went back to Sturdza, who graciously gave permission for a run of 100 cars exactly like his to be made. They were snapped up in a matter of weeks. It took a further two years to “productionize” the one-off, and, as sales and marketing boss Matthew Parkin explains, that’s why Morgan is still finishing production of that initial run of 100 Aeromax models.
More than three years after the first Aeromax appeared at Geneva, interest in the car remains serious and considerable. “A hundred cars was never going to be enough,” Parkin says, “but we’ve got to respect the agreement we made with those 100 customers. We couldn’t simply double or triple the production run.” But, equally, firms like Morgan can’t afford to turn customers away, especially when they’re offering to spend more than $150,000.
“We had to come up with a car that was similar enough to the coupe to capitalize on all the interest,” says Parkin, “but different enough to honor our promise. And that’s what we’ve done… we hope.”The top’s been dropped
You’ll have noticed the chief point of difference for the Aeromax SuperSports: it’s a convertible. It’s not a soft-top like the Aero 8, though; a pair of removable panels form the roof, which you can take out by hand and stow in the car’s generous trunk. The idea is that this car will feel enclosed and refined with the panels in place, and yet still as special as a full-on roadster with them off. It’s a CC, they say, without all the associated motors and folding metal.
To observe that fact alone doesn’t do justice to the work that Humphries has done to update the silhouette of this car, though. The new Aeromax sits 40mm lower than the current car, and has a lower roof line and a more shallow glasshouse.
The old car’s extended teardrop cabin has gone. Its outline remains in the shape of two flying buttresses that extend rearward along the car’s shoulder line, meeting in a point at the tip of the car’s “boot.”
Because it’s missing that gently arcing roofline, the new car doesn’t quite have the same vintage aesthetic appeal as the first Aeromax. Morgan has traded a little of the first car’s likeness to a pre-war “fastback” for a much more contemporary, ground-hugging look that wouldn’t be out of place on America’s West Coast. “There’s definitely more of the American low-rider about this one,” admits Humphries.
The car’s trunk is larger, too, thanks to the only major structural change that’s been made, also with America in mind. “We’ve moved the car’s fuel tank from behind the rear wheels to between them,” Humphries says. “It does raise the roll center slightly, but it’s necessary in order that the car can pass a 50mph rear impact test without leaking fuel.”
That’s a test you’ve got to pass if you want to sell cars in the USA, and Morgan foresees as many as 50 of the 200 SuperSports it will make going to the States.
Inside the new car you’ll find an even more characterful and upmarket cabin than the first Aeromax’s. “We opted for larger, sportier seats, and the softest leather we could find,” Humphries says. “The stitching on the seats will be repeated on the inside of the roof panels and on the rear bulkhead.
“The champagne bottles and flutes won’t be in the finished road car, though,” he continues, referring to two bottles of fizz and glassware strapped behind the seats.
Otherwise, the new Aeromax is similar to the original. It’s got the same 4.8-liter 367hp BMW-sourced V8 engine, the same extruded and bonded aluminum underbody structure, and the same aluminum-panels-on-ash-frame body, which allows it to weigh just 2,425lbs, and accelerate to 60mph in 4.2sec.
So what’s the schedule now? “We’re already well in advance with our testing on the new chassis,” claims Parkin. “Assuming the concept goes down well with customers, we expect to be able to begin deliveries early in 2010.”
What then? Isn’t it time for a redesign of Morgan’s sub-$50k 4/4, to bring it up to date without entirely dispensing of its inimitable character?
“Perhaps,” says Parkin. But then, this isn’t the kind of company that would rush into anything.Matt Saunders/Autocar