I need to declare my position from the outset. I don’t do cars. I’m very happy with my little Fiat 500 that I never wash or valet, thank you very much. Jeremy Clarkson and his idiot, fawning acolytes are giggling nincompoops. I don’t need to strut around festooned with powerful, gleaming mechanics and electronics to pretend I’m something I’m not and to conceal my own inadequacies. I’ll keep those to myself. I know that in the greater scheme of things I’m utterly irrelevant and wholly without significance. I don’t feel the need to crave attention, shouting to the world “look at me, look at me, I’m so important and I’m better than you!”
I did enjoy tinkering about with old nails in my youth though. After law school, at the age of 22, I spent a whole summer rebuilding a vintage VW Beetle, only to write it off the very first time I took it out. My first car had been a two-tone blue Triumph Herald with walnut veneer dashboard and no synchro on the gears from 2 to 1, bought with the proceeds of a factory job during the interregnum between university and law school. When I arrived home with it my dear old Mum gave me a big hug and said, “it’s lovely; that’s your first step towards your Morgan, Our Ni!”
Because Our Mum knew, you see, that as a kid (and even into adulthood) I had been fascinated by the Morgan Motor Company with its compact factory tucked away in Malvern Wells, nestling comfortably in the lee of the great hill and its beautiful, sleek, hand-built cars.
A Morgan has always been a thing of great beauty. HFS Morgan Esq set up the enterprise in 1909, five years after he opened a garage (elsewhere in Malvern Wells) for servicing cars. He wanted to design a three-wheeler for his own use so he could pootle up, over and around the hill. The factory remains in production to this day, the longest-running family-owned car manufacturer in the world, still turning out cars in the same old way, still on the basis of three primary elements; wood, aluminum and leather.
20-odd years ago a bellicose captain of industry and emerging TV personality was sent to the business under the aegis of one of those banal goggle-box programmes to show the company how economies and modernisations would reap dividends. He was given short shrift and left with a flea in his ear.
That said, a number of concessions to the march of progress have been made over the years. Around the time I’d join the hordes at the International Motor Show at the NEC (remember that?!) just to gaze with simpering affection at the 4/4 and Plus 8 on display (and even, Heaven forefend, to sit in one!), the wait from order to delivery was around 7 years. Today a nod to certain elements of the electronic and digital age has brought that wait down to a mere four months.
Yet the founding principle of having a bunch of blokes building bespoke cars of stunning beauty and craftsmanship to individual order remains the fundamental rationale of the company, every bit as much as it was 109 years ago, as I discovered when I walked the factory earlier this week.
“Let’s get something in the diary” Mike had said as we ruminated over coffee and a plate of crumbly out-of-date mince pies in the grey featureless dog days of mid-January. We agreed on a ramble over the Abberley escarpment. A gentle stroll to Worcestershire Beacon atop the Malvern Hills also featured in our deliberations. I asked Mike if he had ever toured the Morgan factory. I’d always wanted to of course. I’d intended to take my dear old Dad and I should have done, but I left it too late. But missing opportunities and leaving things too late is another story for another day.
Within an hour of Mike setting off for home a message pinged in my Inbox. “I’ve booked our tour,” it read. I was a little surprised by how excited I was, and how eagerly I counted the days to last Wednesday.
We set off in lovely winter sunshine and as we meandered the old ways (“motorway, what for?!” said Mike, a tad tetchily I thought), the dark clouds gathered ominously from the West. We arrived in a gale and a hailstorm, three old blokes on a little boy’s adventure.
I spied ‘York Café’ on the main drag to Great Malvern. The urgent search for comestibles had become a pressing imperative. A Greasy Spoon was the first choice of us all, though the sign on the door announcing ‘No Toilets on the Premises’ heralded little promise of the delights we discovered as soon as we crossed the portal.
We’d happened on a way to bend the Laws of Time. Inadvertently we’d reversed through the decades and stumbled into the early 1960s. We were on the set of a black and white Tony Richardson movie. I expected to find Tom Courtney and James Bolam emptying the fruit machine in the corner (ten points to Gryffindor for naming that film).
The menu chalked on the board was comprehensive but there was no question of accommodating individual foibles, other than being asked in agricultural fashion “you want sauce with that?”
But when my sausage, bacon and fried egg sandwich was delivered (along with the steaming builder’s mug of frothy coffee that had been expelled from the whooshing, gurgling coffee-bar machine of yore), all I could do for a long, lingering spell was to gaze in wonder at its glory. Upon one factory-sliced piece of white bread had been piled fried bacon and sausage (not just fried, but really, properly fried). Another slice of white bread lay at an angle thereupon, itself sporting a fried egg, which in turn was adorned with another (third) slice of bread. A triple-decker. A club sandwich. A behemoth of saturated fat and calories. And it was the finest, most sumptuous example of exquisite culinary expertise I’ve encountered in many a long while. I relished and coveted every wonderful mouthful.
We sat in post-prandial silence over a second mug of coffee, taking in our surroundings, luxuriating in memories of lost and half-forgotten childhood. The furniture, the linoleum, the faded pictures on the walls, the counter, the old display units all tugged at inchoate remembrances, snapshot images from the past. We’ll be back.
As for the factory tour, it was everything I wanted and needed it to be. The group was small (just five). Our guide was affable and urbane. Tale followed anecdote, and each morphed easily into affectionate vignette. The wood used for the body of each vehicle is still ash, as it always has been. It was formerly sourced in Flanders, though too much of it was found to contain shrapnel from the Great War. Now it comes from Lincolnshire. For each tree that is cut down, three more are planted.
The enterprise employs 200 people and it’s more than obvious that the Morgan brand is a family one, both in the literal and in the pastoral sense. Everybody buys in to the company’s philosophy. When the bell sounds for a tea break, everyone and everything stops. Just one bloke is assigned to work on the first job in the manufacture of each individual vehicle (the assembly of the frame). It’s a task that lasts 37½ hours, a week’s work. How satisfying it must be to begin the process of crafting a masterpiece of precision engineering first thing on a Monday morning, then to leave for home at the end of the working week with that piece of art completed. We had the opportunity on the tour to observe five such blokes at work on five different frames.
Reminders of the company’s glorious past are everywhere to be seen as the visitor makes his way from one stage of the manufacturing process to another. The first (display) room has an upright piano in the corner, as well as a cabinet crafted of wood from the ocean liner RMS Mauretania. On display within are the racing trophies of Peter Morgan, the son of HFS (the first company chairman for 49 years), who succeeded his father as chairman and spent 44 years in the role himself until he died in 2003. The cabinet was made by the father of the secretary to Charles Morgan, son of Peter and a former managing director.
Buyers who place an order are invited to visit the factory from time to time during the course of construction to inspect progress. Anyone unable to take up the offer (an overseas buyer, for example) is presented with an album of photographs charting the build from beginning to end when taking possession of the finished article. The album is bound in the same leather the buyer choses for the car’s trim.
Long may the Morgan Motor Company remain true to the legacy of its founding father. For my part I’m no nearer to getting my own Morgan than I was the day I returned home with my Triumph Herald all those years ago, though a charming day out at the factory (at long last) goes a little way towards tempering my disappointment. And now I know where to find York Café. Bit of a result all round, I’m thinking.
© Nigel Roberts 2018