Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Morgan is a working car company rather than a Ye Olde tourist attraction. That’s especially true if you visit the manufacturer’s Malvern HQ just as one of the hugely popular factory tours is about to kick off. For £24 – or £12 for kids – visitors get to see cars being hand-built using techniques that have barely changed in a century. It’s become one of the most popular attractions in Worcestershire, tickets often selling out weeks in advance.
But for many enthusiasts, Morgan’s models remain tweedy, old-fashioned and irrelevant. The company’s current line-up - the 4/4, Plus 4, Roadster and 3-Wheeler largely stopped evolving decades ago, and still use sliding pillar front suspension, an idea the rest of the motor industry regarded as archaic by 1950.
Yet the company has, occasionally, tried to move on. The biggest and most radical jump came in 2001 with the launch of the Aero 8, the cross-eyed range-topper which made the radical switch to a bonded aluminium chassis with twin wishbone suspension at each corner and a BMW V8 under its bonnet. It went onto spawn a series of other alloy-chassis models, the most recent Plus 8 only dying last year. But while these were vastly more advanced than the heritage models, they were expensive and always sold in tiny volumes.
Which is where the Plus Six comes in, Morgan’s first all-new model since the Aero 8 and one that is intended to offer a far more modern driving experience than the classic models without a six-figure pricetag. The design is about as Morgan as it is possible to be, but underneath the ‘Six sits on a newly developed aluminium chassis with power now coming from BMW’s twin-turbocharged ‘B58 3.0-litre straight-six. It made its debut at the Geneva show in March, its unveiling immediately overshadowed by news that Morgan had been sold to an Italian investment fund. Now PH has been invited to Malvern to sample it in the alloy-and-timber.
Although handsome, the design is as reverential as a note perfect tribute band. The Plus Six is considerably shorter than any of the Aero 8 family were, but styling is so Morgan-traditional you could send it back to 1950 reasonably confident that nobody would notice. But getting closer reveals manifest differences, too. The keyfob includes a separate remote with lock and unlock symbols on it; Morgan has finally got to remote central locking, although the doors are still released by stiff, low-mounted catches.
The cabin is still big on wood. Like the company’s other recent models, it has a speedometer and revcounter in the centre of the dash with smaller fuel and temperature gauges ahead of the driving position. There’s also a small digital display screen behind the wheel and – greater heresy – two of the rotary air vents that Morgan has been resisting since they were invented. And, of course, the incongruous sight of BMW’s bulbous automatic gear selector in the centre console.
There are no plans for a manual Plus Six; all will use the combination of the 3.0-litre BMW engine and the eight-speed ZF auto that it is happiest working with. Morgan admits it can’t justify the cost of separately engineering a manual transmission and the auto is critical for success in some of its more important markets. That’s a shame, but despite the entire budget for the development project standing at just £7m, Morgan has done its own calibration for the engine. The result is a power output of 335hp, a small increase on what the engine makes in non-M40i BMWs.
The first big surprise is getting in without skinning a knee. Spacious is not a word that has been applicable to any earlier Morgan, but the Plus Six marks the first time I’ve had a driving seat in one of the brand’s cars in anything other than its rearmost position. The seat itself is narrow and the position higher up than the sportscar norm, but the view forward through the flat windscreen glass remains properly special: the heavily contoured front wings, headlight mouldings and long bonnet covered in stamped vents. It still has triple wipers - another fine Morgan tradition - each arm fitted with a dinky little blade.
Having adjusted the aircon and enjoyed the novel feeling of face-level cooling, it’s time to get rolling. The next surprise arrives before I’ve even reached the factory gates, and it’s not a good one. V8 powered Morgans always did a nice line in rortiness, but the six-cylinder is disappointingly hushed, the soundtrack a reedy exhaust note and some whooshing from the turbocharger. It turns out that there is an optional sports exhaust, but this car doesn’t have it. It’s definitely going to be a must-tick option.
Left in Drive, the gearbox also changes up as early as it possibly can, by just over 30mph it’s running in sixth and the rev counter is showing 1,500rpm. The engine has plenty of low-down torque, but there’s still a pause when harder acceleration is required as the transmission gathers its thoughts and shifts down. Selecting the Sport mode by moving the selector sideways switches to a more aggressive shift map that suits the car far better. Less likely is the Sport Plus mode, selected by a button, which basically puts the ‘Six into the lowest available ratio at any time.
While the Plus Six is good at trundling it takes the first derestriction sign to bring the revelation that it’s seriously fast as well, responding to a floored accelerator like a scalded Moggy. It has less power than the outgoing Plus 8, but it also less weight – just 1,075kg on Morgan’s numbers – and acceleration is actually quicker. The company claims a 4.2-second 0-62mph time; from the driver’s seat that feels entirely feasible. Don’t be fooled by the Edwardian design, this is a proper weapon.
The sense of speed is increased by the breezy cabin and limited protection from airflow provided by the shallow windscreen. With the roof down and the detachable windows removed refinement is limited, but the view of the road zipping past below the low door is properly exciting. Even worked hard, the engine never sounds more interesting, but it does deliver speed without drama. The autobox works well when shifted to its manual mode, too – although the steering wheel paddles feel insubstantial and plasticy (like the changer they have come straight from BMW.)
On some of the smaller and tighter roads of the Malvern Hills, the most noticeable difference is definitely rigidity. Morgan claims the Plus Six is more than 100 per cent stiffer, the new car’s body does without the gaps the outgoing Plus 8 needed to accommodate flex. There’s still a small sense of movement over big bumps, but overall the ‘Six feels vastly stronger, the suspension able to deal with loads and motions without the distraction of undamped body harmonics. I’ve had plenty of fun in earlier Morgans, although usually of the grin-and-bear-it kind over non-smooth surfaces. This is the first one that feels, let’s say, dynamically modern.
Not that it’s in any way aggressive. There’s not much steering feel and it takes a big wheel input to get the front end turned into slower corners – the turning circle still isn’t great. Once committed, the Plus Six holds a line tenaciously and the Avon ZZ5s have plenty of grip to call on, but there’s little sense of throttle adjustability. On dry tarmac it takes the combination of a tight bend and a big accelerator opening to make the rear relinquish grip, despite the absence of traction control, and when it lets go it does so suddenly. Don’t expect to see many Plus Sixes at drifting events. Brakes are another massive improvement for the brand, the Six stopping well and pulling up straight without tramlining or grabbing cambers. Quaintly “ABS” also displays on the digi-dash when the anti-lock is working.
Of course, there are still more than enough traditional Morgan values to appeal to the brand’s loyalists. The Plus Six’s hood is still features poppers, a savage-looking latch mechanism and the prospect of at least one blood injury during any operation. Although much better finished than more basic cars, you don’t need to look too hard for evidence of hand-building in the cabin with various exposed fasteners and wires if you know where to peek.
But that’s the key point – it is hand-built, and that’s a vital part of its appeal. It’s also substantially cheaper than any of the V8 models ever was; for £77,995 for the regular car, or £89,995 for the (sold out) First Edition it stacks up well against robot-crafted alternatives. The faithful seem to agree, Morgan has already taken 150 orders. With a plan to double sales over the next five years, from the current 750 cars a year, that’s a good start.
SPECIFICATIONs - MORGAN PLUS SIX FIRST EDITION
Engine: 2,998cc, straight-six, turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power: 335hp @ 6,500rpm
Torque: 369lb/ft @ TBC
0-62mph: 4.2-sec (claimed)
Top speed: 166mph
Weight: 1,075kg (dry)
MPG: 38.2 (NEDC)
CO2: 170g/km (NEDC)