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It's been a rough 20 years for British cars. For more than two decades the English automotive industry has been undergoing a rather painful and public shake-up. The shuttering and sale last April of the last mass-production independent British auto maker, MG Rover Group, to Chinese Nanjing Automobile Group served as an end point to a long unhappy process.
Between that milestone -- which the likes of Tony Blair and Richard Branson tried to avert -- and the beginning of the phenomenon in the early eighties, the venerable Bentley came under VW control, the royal Rolls Royce became exclusively licensed to BMW, and Ford (F) nabbed Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover.
But as the big brands have undergone pride-bruising changes of hands, one small manufacturer has kept cruising along uninterrupted since the very beginning of the British auto era. Ever since its founding in 1906 in Malvern, England, the Morgan Motor Company, has been handcrafting luxury and performance roadsters. More than a venerable British brand, it's the oldest privately held sports car manufacturer in the world.
TIED TO TRADITION.
With sales of $35 million a year, Morgan sells about 650 cars annually. Close to 70% are exported out of Britain, mostly to the U.S. and Europe. "We've always been enthusiasts before businessmen," says Charles Morgan, the third in the Morgan family lineage, who has been running the private company since 1999.
Nevertheless, under his tenure, Morgan has expanded its offerings more than at any other time in its nearly 100-year history. To keep the brand's reputation for craftsmanship, he and his team have maintained traditional one-of-a-kind, Morgan manufacturing practices.
The market for roadsters is growing rapidly. Philipp Rosengarten, an analyst with Global Insight in Frankfurt, Germany, notes, "Cars are definitely trending towards fast and fun." At this year's Geneva Auto Show, General Motors (GM) was showing off three new two-seat roadsters, albeit all three on the same platform. "Luxury brands in this segment are doing very well," added Rosengarten. "Despite the trend towards lower-cost labor markets, people still prefer their cars be crafted in Britain than China."
LUXURY CAR OR BOAT?
Morgan doesn't seem too worried about competition from the big auto makers. For one thing, on average, Morgans tend to be about 20% lighter than corresponding commercial cars. The Aero 8, for example, has a chassis made out of aluminum. (Coupled with a 4.4 liter V-8 engine from BMW, the Aero 8 can zip from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds.) That makes them peppier to drive and endows them with better high-speed handling. What's more, Morgan's internal market research has shown that its real competitors aren't other cars but leisure items like speed boats and even vacation property.
At present, Morgan has another big trend going for it as well. From Ford to Lamborghini, manufacturers are looking backward for design cues and product ideas. It's a phenomenon Morgan's management is particularly thrilled about. "The taste in looks is coming back around full circle," notes Morgan. "The trend of looking toward the past has given us a real boost because when people look backwards they often end up asking about the original."
Morgan is not shy about criticizing his mainstream counterparts either. "The big manufacturers aren't getting it quite right," he says. "The secret is in the proportions -- they're so much worse in today's retro design. It costs them the elegance."
"KEEP VOLUMES LOW."
It's not the first time big names have trodden into Morgan territory either. BMW explicitly tried to reproduce the Morgan driving experience in 1986 with the release of the Z1. The car featured distinctive, electrically powered doors which dropped down into the side sills. The experiment was a dismal failure, and BMW scrapped the model two years later.
Morgan notes, "At the time we watched that development very closely. But they lacked the elegance. The key is to keep volumes low and only make cars for customers. All of our cars have a customer's name on them before production starts."
Fittingly, Morgans have long-standing racing credibility. In 1962, Morgan was banking on a good showing at the international Le Mans trial. Competing with much more modern engineering than the competition, the Plus 4 entry managed to take first place. The Morgan pushed ahead of the field at only 148 mph, featuring a mere 175 horses from its four-cylinder engine. The year 2004 marked the return -- after a decades-long absence -- of Morgan to the Le Mans circuit.
Despite the supercar Aero 8 GT's capabilities -- 190 mph from 465 horses, Morgan failed to repeat the 1962 upset victory. Not to be deterred, the company is working on another race-ready version.
But the cost of doing business is higher for Morgan than other small manufacturers around Europe. Unlike those specialty manufacturers who stick to their home markets or sell vehicles that aren't street-legal, all Morgans roll off the assembly line meeting the world's highest standards.
Morgan's homologation costs -- the costs associated with meeting crash-testing, emissions regulation, and safety guidelines -- are high for such a small manufacturer.
HARDLY MASS ASSEMBLY.
For Morgan models to be street-legal, they've got to meet the same development approvals as giants such as Ford and GM. Nevertheless, Morgan is optimistic about the company's growth potential. "The future is bright," concludes Morgan. "The trick is not getting too big, too fast, like Aston Martin, for instance."
As for the British motoring industry at large, his hopes remain geared up, too. "After all," he says, "the best racing engineers in the world are still British, not German or American. But then again," he jokingly admits, "Henry Ford was a lot better at scale than my grandfather."