It is not often a tiny independent carmaker can steal an entire motor show from under the noses of the automotive giants. But that is exactly what the Morgan Motor Co. managed at this year's Geneva auto show.
Morgan did it with a blend of charm and the latest in materials technology. The new $75,000 Aero 8 contains the above and also is Morgan's first all-new car to be launched for 64 years.
It rained on the afternoon of the Geneva launch, but Morgan's luck was unstoppable. While the company's joint managing director and grandson of the founder, Charles Morgan, paced nervously back and forth on the tiny show stand, his family had planned to be enjoying the Swiss countryside.
Instead, they were staring glumly through rain-streaked hotel windows. As a diversion, Morgan suggested they come to the launch. Perhaps his daughters, Harriet and Kate, might enjoy pulling the covers off the new car in front of the world's press.
When you see this sort of thing done by mighty car makers, there is an unmistakable touch of phony informality ('Hi Bob, we were just dropping by the stand today and saw all these crazy kids around your latest Bulgemobile. ...'). In Morgan's case, however, there is no hint of stage management. This company is genuine, without a magician in sight.
AN ENGLISH INSTITUTION
Morgan has managed 90 years of continuous production. Three generations have run the company in the red brick sheds that sit in the shadow of England's Malvern hills. With its craftsmen who assemble the car by hand, it is a small wonder that Morgans are so popular in such places as Germany and Japan.
But this particular launch had blasted the nerves of most of the Morgan staff. At the Geneva show, they looked as wooden as their cars' frames. Perhaps it was their lack of practice: Morgan's last vehicle launch was in 1963. By contrast, Harriet and Kate appeared rather unconcerned about the gravity of the occasion as they carelessly whipped the covers off the car.
Over the past three years, Morgan secretly had been working with BMW AG and Canada's Alcan Aluminum Corp. to produce aluminum body panels.
The Aero 8's laser-cut panels are bonded, bolted and riveted together. That is the latest technology, compared with Audi's aluminum space frame, Fiat's modular space frame or Lotus' extruded and glued aluminum spars. The resulting boxy structure is remarkably rigid. To emphasize the point, Morgan displayed a bare rolling chassis at the Geneva show.
For nearly a century, Morgan had stuck with an independent sliding front pillar suspension patented by company founder H.F.S. Morgan in 1910. Among other automakers, only Lancia has used this system with much success.
But the new Aero 8 finally has abandoned its museum-quality sliding front pillar suspension in favor of a wishbone system. To be fair, Morgan had revised and refined the sliding pillar system. However, the cars have been notorious for their teeth-rattling hard rides.
Enthusiasts might be forgiven if they were stunned at the new frame and suspension. But Morgan did not stop there: Perched under the hood is an enormous BMW V-8 engine. Displacing 4.4 liters and delivering 286 horsepower, this is a mighty powertrain for such a small car. With 322 foot-pounds of torque and a six-speed Getrag gearbox bolted to it, this engine ensures the Morgan's reputation as a pocket rocket.
The performance is beyond the understanding of most Morgan owners. The car offers a top speed of 260 kilometers per hour and can accelerate from 0 to 100 kilomoters per hour in less than 5 seconds. Yet the light 1,000 kilogram body shell allows reasonable fuel consumption if the motorist is so inclined.
Charles Morgan is proud that the Aero 8 will accelerate in sixth gear without a stutter from 16 kilometers per hours to 260 kilometers per hour. 'Flexibility doesn't begin to describe this car,' he said. 'It passes all current European emissions requirements and the next ones as well.'
While independent tests have not confirmed this, it would be a mistake to underestimate the abilities of Morgan's engineers. Charles Morgan told of how his test drivers took an early Aero 8 to BMW's Miramas test track in the French Camargue.
In the hot sun, the Morgan men set up camp with their cricket hats, biscuits and flasks of tea. BMW's engineers, who up to that point had not been aware of the project's existence, thought this was funny.
Then, Morgan's engineers fired up the Aero 8. When the bellowing car pulled through the corners on road tires, BMW's engineers were dumbstruck, especially when they looked under the hood and saw the body resting on a frame made of wood.
And that's one of the oddest things about the new car. It has some of the most modern technology under its skin, yet its hand-beaten aluminum and plastic coachwork rests on a frame as old as coach-building itself.
The Morgans, father and son, have a shrewd understanding of their car's appeal. They make money, they live in a beautiful part of the world, they have a conscience and they are happy.
A CROSS-EYED CAR
Unfortunately, they've also fallen in love with a set of headlamps - big Bosch ones, expensive and similar to those used on the last generation of Porsche 911s.
The Morgans have stuck them between the Aero 8's fenders and radiator grille, on the slant. It looks as though someone has punched the car in the face and given it a squint. Worse, it looks cross-eyed. One senior car designer refused to talk about the Aero 8:
'Not because I'm worried about the reaction to my comments, but because it makes me so angry that they have wasted such an important opportunity.'
Morgan's marketing manager Matthew Parkin explained that numerous different headlamps were tried, but only the Bosch items looked right. This, of course, depends on what you mean by right. Enthusiasts don't seem to mind the headlights. Morgan has received 200 advance orders, enough for a year's production.
'We expected 80 percent of people to hate it and just 20 percent to like it,' Parkin said. 'As things turned out, it looks as though those figures are reversed.'
Previous attempts to update the Morgan's styling have not been a great success. There was the fiberglass Plus 4 Plus coupe of 1963, with Lotus Elite-like tapering aerodynamic looks.
Just 26 were produced in three years, and even Morgan's official company history pronounced it 'not in the Morgan image.'
Styling aside, the Aero 8 is a key model for a number of reasons. Charles Morgan says future Morgan Plus 8 cars might use the 4.0-liter version of the BMW V-8 engine. If that goes well, he also might have the pick of the four-cylinder BMW engines for his smaller cars. The Aero 8 also may enable a move back to the race track, particularly Le Mans.
At any rate, the Aero 8 already has proved that to get the lion's share of the publicity at a major international motor show, one simply needs charm, two bouncy daughters and a cross-eyed car.
Andrew English writes for the Daily Telegraph