Part 2 of our history of Morgan picks up in the early 1930s when, after a decade of success, Morgan's founder, Henry Frederick Stanley (HFS) Morgan, saw the need to develop a new machine, one that would set the company on its path for the future.
Many firms, not just automotive ones, suffered during the Great Depression, but this was one of only a few factors behind the crisis that Morgan found itself in in the early 1930s. Cyclecar sales had been on the decline since the late 20s, but one other factor that Morgan had never really had to contend with before was a better cyclecar than the models they produced. Morgan had always welcomed competition, as it encouraged interest in cyclecars in general, but HFS was confident - with good reason - that the models he produced were better in almost all respects, a confidence backed by many years on top of the cyclecar sales charts and a number of speed and endurance records.
The arrival of the BSA FWD (Front Wheel Drive) in 1929 rocked that confidence, as the BSA three wheeler was an advanced, well engineered product, that came from an established and successful firm, no mere fly-by-night effort, as some three wheel competitors had been in the past. Powered by a 1,021cc V-twin engine previously used in a conventional BSA car, the FWD was a more than adequate performer, with a three speed & reverse gearbox, plus independent front & rear wheel suspension. An electric starter, speedometer, foot controls and up-to-date electric lighting made it more like a regular car than some previous cyclecars. A faired-in engine and front-mounted radiator meant it looked like a regular car, too, at least from the scuttle forward. At _115, the FWD was only marginally more expensive than a Morgan, but Morgan would retain a small price advantage over the BSA throughout its production life.
Another factor that worked in Morgan's favour was the fact it took the FWD two years from its 1929 debut at the Olympia Motor Show to reach regular production. This gave HFS time to add improvements to his own machines in response to the BSA product. Despite this, the FWD outsold Morgan by almost four to one during its five years on the market. What saved Morgan was the fact that the FWD was only ever a sideline to BSA's tremendously successful motorcycle business. If it had gone into large volume production (only around 6,600 were built over seven years), the BSA FWD could have certainly buried Morgan.
After adding a number of improvements, including a four cylinder engine in 1933, BSA ceased production of the FWD in 1936, in favour of the 'Scout', a four wheel development of the FWD, dropping car production altogether at the outbreak of World War Two.
Changes and Challenges
A four wheel car is hardly innovative, but for Morgan, the company that had built its name and fortune upon three wheelers, it was. The change wasn't one the company particularly chose to undertake, but rather one that was forced upon it by the changing public tastes of the day. Despite the tax advantages offered by three wheelers, more and more motorists were choosing compact and cheap conventional cars like the Morris Eight & Ten, Austin Seven and Ford Y. With their greater level of driver/passenger comfort, weather protection and ride quality, these cars left the three wheel Morgans, with their harsh ride, rudimentary appointments and very basic level of driver comfort, for dead.
Similarly, sporty roadsters from the likes of MG and Singer were starting to draw enthusiast drivers away from Morgans, too. In the wake of this, Morgan shifted the focus of their advertising that compared the Family, Sports, etc., models to cars, to presenting them as a better alternative to a motorcycle. This was coupled with annual price cuts to the point that, in 1930, four models within the Morgan lineup could be purchased for under _100, a bargain for the time.
A year later, as the Depression began to bite, HFS dropped the price of the Standard model even further to _75. For a small scale business like Morgan, this was actually less than cost price. The company finished 1931 with a operational loss for only the second time in its history, and would remain in the red throughout the rest of the Thirties, kept alive only through its investments.
Something had to change.
The first was a surprise when it made its debut in 1933, and one that showed the direction that HFS was taking Morgan in. The Model F (later known as the 'F-4') was the first Morgan to feature a 4-cylinder engine, a Ford-sourced 933ci sidevalve unit that produced 8hp.
It was an idea that HFS had been developing since 1930, trying out a Dorman, then a Coventry-Climax unit, settling on 750cc as the best combination of torque and power. However, late in the development phase, the cheaper, more powerful Ford inline 4 was selected, which could match most of the motorcycle engines in terms of horsepower, but not the bottom-end torque that made earlier Morgans so suitable for trials and other competitive events. Testing also proved that the Morgan's traditional tubular chassis was unsuitable for supporting the larger engine, so a Z-section ladder-type chassis was developed for the production version.
With an eye toward recapturing the "family" market lost to the Austin Seven, etc., the Model F was initially offered only as a four seater and priced accordingly. At _120, it sat in the middle of the price range, as all models had increased in price since the fire sale days of 1931, the cheapest being _105. Publicity photos from the period showed the Model F at family picnics and the like to emphasise its passenger carrying abilities and suitability as a family tourer. At the same 1933 Olympia Show, another Morgan feature made its debut. The barrelback design which had appeared a year earlier was modified so the spare wheel sat within a recess in the rear, rather than mounted on a flat angled panel. This became a standard feature from 1935.
1934 saw the sales slide for three wheelers reversed, with general three wheeler sales up 18.9 per cent, although Morgan sales only increased 11.5 per cent. Not a great result, but there was enough good response to the Model F to look at expanding that section of the range to include two different 2 seater variants for 1936, one with the same 8hp Ford engine as the Model F, the other with a 10hp Ford unit. The new additions, dubbed 'F2' (for 2 seater) lead to the original Model F being relabelled 'F4'.
The "car-engine" Morgan also made it mechanically easier to execute the next evolution - the four wheel Morgan.
Four wheels on my Morgan
Despite stepping back from the day-to-day running of the company by the early '30s, HFS Morgan still visited the Malvern factory regularly to check the progress of upcoming models and improvements to existing ones. The ever-declining sales of three wheelers had convinced HFS that the company could only survive by developing a four-wheeler. The design and layout of the F4 made this prospect relatively easy, and an 8hp F4 served as a mule for Morgan's first four wheeler, which HFS and works manager, Charles Goodall, tested throughout 1935.
With four wheels, stability was no longer an issue, so the front track was narrowed, and the chassis rails straightened to accommodate the new rear end. The sliding pillar front suspension remained as per the three wheelers, but a number of configurations were tried at the rear before a underslung semi-elliptic leaf spring set-up was selected. The gearbox was centrally mounted, away from the engine and, unlike the BSA FWD, drive was to the rear wheels.
The F4's Ford engine proved to be unsuitable to the demands of the new vehicle, however, and was replaced with the 34hp 1,122cc Coventry Climax inline 4 that was rejected for the Model F. Various snippets about a 'four-wheel Morgan' had been circulating throughout 1935, so when it was revealed just after Christmas, it wasn't a huge surprise. HFS, wary of the impact that the new car may have on three wheeler sales, assured enthusiasts that the new model, dubbed the "4-4" (4 wheels - 4 cylinders) didn't mean the end of three wheeler production, and that the market wouldn't die despite only 286 three wheel Morgans being sold in 1935.
In a case of history repeating itself, HFS chose to generate exposure and publicity for his new car by running it in the 1935 London to Exeter Trial, where it won a premier award and special mention from the motoring press. HFS followed that up with more success in the London to Land's End Trial of 1936, by which time the 4-4 had been revealed to the broader motoring public and Morgan appeared at the London Motor Show (as opposed to the Motor Cycle Show) for the first time, ahead of its official launch in March, 1936. Between its debut and motor show appearance, a number of modifications had been made, including rubber engine mounts, as well as an improved cooling system and steering. The front suspension was treated to bigger diameter spindles and the dynamo was modified, too.
Thankfully, the ugly bodywork on the prototypes, especially around the rear, was improved into the attractive, flowing form shown in the image below. The positive reaction to the 4-4 and generally good year for the company in 1936 was tempered by a fire which destroyed part of the Pickersleigh Road coachworks in October. But this was not as devastating for HFS as the passing of his supportive father and company chairman, George Morgan in November.
Beyond supporting his son, Morgan senior had been instrumental in generating publicity during the company's early days, writing to the press and other motoring concerns of the time, to generate awareness of Morgans and cyclecar competition. Debut success for the 4-4 increased in 1937, to the point where demand comfortably exceeded supply - a situation that has endured on and off ever since. Morgan's French concessionaries, the Darmonts, were also overwhelmed and started building their own 4-4s in 1937 to meet demand. All that success meant the company could absorb the decline in three wheeler sales - only 137 were sold for 1937 and annual revisions consisted of little more than colour scheme and specification changes. However, there was one exception for 1937 in the form of a Super Sports version of the Model F, later dubbed the 'F Super' built on a shortened chassis, with a 10hp Ford engine and cable-operated Girling brakes.
HFS and Goodall continued to campaign Morgans, mostly 4-4s, in trials events throughout 1937, including the London to Edinburgh Trial, where HFS's son and future leader of the company, Peter Morgan, made his debut. That same year, a 4-4 four seater was announced, while HFS relinquished his position as Managing Director to George Goodall, and took over his father's position as chairman in what amounted to a semi-retirement, although he continued to compete in trials, alongside his son and Goodall for the next couple of years.
In 1938, Morgan went to the Le Mans 24 hour race for the first time, in a privateer outfit that finished second in its class. The result prompted the release of a 'Le Mans replica' model the following year that featured minimal motorcycle-style front wings, fold down windscreen and single spare wheel (most 4-4s carried two). Interestingly, engine capacity was 24cc down on stock, but thanks to a polished cylinder head and balanced crankshaft it was quicker - able to reach a top speed of 80mph (128kph).
Post War - 4-4 becomes 4/4, Plus 4, Plus 8 plus more
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Morgan three wheeler sales had fallen to almost nothing. As the four wheeler range was expanded, three wheelers were dropped, so that in the last year of peace, only the MX4 Super Sports, F4 and F Super were still being made. Only the latter two would emerge from the other side of the war.Morgan built their last car in July 1940, before moving into war work full time. Being a small operation to begin with, and losing many employees to the services meant that Morgan couldn't take on the big military contracts that other carmakers could. The firm still did their bit, though, making aircraft undercarriages and anti-aircraft gun components. Morgan also leased out unused factory space to other contractors, like the Standard Motor Company, with whom Morgan would strike up an association after the war.
Late in 1945, Morgan started to assemble a number of cars again, but rationing of steel meant that export businesses were given priority. So, Morgan could build cars again, provided they export them. In light of this, the decision was made to use up the last of the surplus Matchless motorcycle engines for these export machines, but without the tax breaks they enjoyed in the UK, three wheelers were almost unsellable overseas. Morgan did luck out when Cec Warren, a wealthy Australian race driver, placed an order for no fewer than nine cars, all three wheeler MX4 Matchless-engined Super Sports models. These cars, some of the last motorcycle-engined Morgans built, arrived in Australia in 1946, with three others dispatched to overseas destinations in 1947.
Warren used them in various motorsport events, including the only appearance of a three wheeler at the Australian Grand Prix in 1948. One of the Warren Morgans would later end up in the extensive car collection of US comedian and talk show host, Jay Leno. At the same time as the Warren exports, the 4-4, for reasons unknown, was relabelled as the 4/4 and a Standard Special 1,267cc 4-cylinder engine replaced the Coventry-Climax units, which were no longer being built. Standard's John Black had been a close friend of HFS Morgan during the pair's early days in the motoring industry, so was willing to help Morgan get back into regular production.
Aside from the engine change, Morgan's lineup remained unchanged and petrol rationing meant precious little motorsport was being undertaken. All that changed in 1950 when rationing ended and a new Morgan appeared - the Plus 4. The Plus 4 featured an engine almost double the capacity of the Standard Special, which was no longer being built. The 2,088cc, 68hp unit from the Standard Vanguard proved to be just the shot in the arm the company needed. The traditional construction and ash body framing of the Morgan may have been from another age, but the performance offered by the Vanguard engine was up there with the best of them. The chassis was lengthened by four inches and widened by two, while the traditionally rock-hard suspension was softened in order to get the most out of the new engine.
The eighteen year lifespan of the original Plus 4 saw a number of engine changes and other modifications, including the adoption of Morgan's signature grille design in 1954. This came about as the demand for integral radiators dried up. So rather than create their own, Morgan reshaped the cowl to suit, creating the now familiar curved 'waterfall' grille in the process. The previously free-standing headlamps were also incorporated into the body during this period. The introduction of the Plus 4, and the factory space required to build it, put the final nail in the coffin of the three wheelers. The last Ford-engined F4 and F Supers were built in 1952, marking the end of an era.
Seven years later, HFS Morgan died, on June 15th, 1959.
HFS had left the business jointly to his son, Peter, and four daughters. Peter had already taken over as managing director in 1958, also assuming the chairmanship after his father's death. The following decade presented a lot of challenges for both Peter and Morgan. Peter had to contend with tax issues that arose following his father's death, as well as pressure from the family to sell off the business. The market for small sports cars was also modernising, as were the cars themselves. MGs that were pre-war contemporaries of the Morgan looked like something from the future compared to the "vintage" stylings of a Plus 4.
Thanks largely to Peter's determination to stick to the company's successful formula, Morgan survived this rocky period. Sure, the cars may have looked 'old', but that's the way customers wanted them, and Peter wasn't about to change that. But it wasn't a case of time standing still at the Malvern works, either.
The 4/4 model was reintroduced in 1955, with a Ford sidevalve engine initially, but only in a two seater body. The Plus 4 received various Triumph TR2, TR3 and TR4 engines from the early 1960s, until it was superseded by the 'Plus 8' in 1968. As the name suggests, the Plus 8 featured an eight cylinder engine, the Rover 3.5lt V8. This necessitated lengthening and widening the body by two inches each way, although the basic chassis design remained the same and, outwardly, the new model looked little different from the Plus 4 it replaced.
The waiting list for these powerful two seaters (0-100 in 7.5 seconds), especially the alloy-bodied versions available from 1977, was very long, right up to when it was replaced by the Aero 8 in 2004. At this point, special mention must be made of Chris Lawrence, a racer and engine tuner, who can take at least some of the credit for Morgan's performance credentials today. In 1962, Lawrence and co-driver, Richard Shepherd-Barron campaigned a modified, Triumph-engined Morgan Plus 4 at the Le Mans 24 hour race, winning their class. The win was made all the more sweeter by the fact that Lawrence's Morgan had been refused entry the year before, on the grounds it was "too old"! The interest generated lead to a collaboration between Lawrence and Peter Morgan to create the 'Plus 4 Super Sports'.
At the heart of the new Super Sports was a Triumph TR4 or TR4A engine, which was stripped down and treated to a polished and gas-flowed cylinder head, modified inlet manifold, balancing of all internal moving parts and twin Weber carburettors. All this was done at Lawrence's own "Lawrence Tune" facilities, before the engine was returned to Morgan for fitting to a body with light alloy or aluminium body panels in place of the regular steel panels. It was conceived as a race-ready car, and that's exactly why many customers bought it. The upgrades and modifications more than doubled the price of a standard Plus 4, but 115hp and a 0-100kph time of around 7.6 seconds (compared to 14 seconds in a standard Plus 4) couldn't be argued with. Only 102 (approximately) were built.
Lawrence had a hand in the creation of another racer, the short-run SLR, an exotic hardtop coupe. Only four were made, three of which were based on Morgan Super Sports chassis and componentry the fourth on Triumph. The 'SLR' stood for 'Sprinzel Lawrencetune Racing' and was a collaboration between Lawrence and Austin-Healey Sprite tuner, John Sprinzel, in 1964. Never truly a Morgan model, as little more than the chassis and suspension were used, the SLR nonetheless deserves its place in Morgan competition history. One of the three Morgan SLRs was on the market in the UK as this feature was being compiled. On the other side of the Atlantic, Lew Spencer campaigned his 'Baby Doll' Morgans for many years, winning the 1962 SCCA C-Production title, and beating Porsches and E-Types in the process!
With all this success, it seemed that despite its anachronistic ways, Morgan could do no wrong. There was one misstep along the way, though. The 1963 Morgan 'Plus 4 Plus' was, until this century at least, the firm's only concession to fashion, and one that failed miserably. Based on a Triumph-engined Plus 4, the Plus 4 Plus featured a fibreglass body that carried a hint of early DB Series Aston Martin at the rear end and Lotus Elite at the front, but none of it really worked well together and what could have been attractive was spoiled by an ugly, bubble-like canopy which looked out of proportion to the rest of the body. Peter Morgan regretted it almost immediately and a mere 26 sales over four years confirmed that very few others were fond of it either. The 'cross-eyed' Aero 8 would provoke a similar reaction four decades later.
Modern engines - classic style
A four seater option was added to the 4/4 in 1968, when Ford's 'Kent' 1600cc crossflow engine became the standard power unit. When supplies of the Kent dried up, the 4/4 was dropped in 1981, but replacement inline 4s from Ford and Fiat lead to a revival of the Plus 4 nameplate in 1984.
Later models featured Rover four cylinder engines, but the Fiat engined-examples remain popular among enthusiasts today, as they performed well in stock spec without the need for extensive and expensive modifications. Like the Plus 8, the waiting list for the Plus 4 was anywhere up to eight years when new, but many can be found second hand today, privately or through UK brokers that deal exclusively in Morgans.
Next Issue - the modern Morgan lineup, plus classic Morgan replicas
Source: Just Cars, December 2009, Collectors Issue 166