Morgan cars at the cutting edge of automotive design
Words that spring immediately to mind when the Morgan Motor Company is mentioned may include 'vintage', 'heritage', 'classic' or even 'iconic'. However, the truth is that the list is unlikely to include 'innovative'. A chassis famously made of wood, running boards and – let's face it – the long-term endorsement of Jersey's most famous TV detective have all contributed to an image of this Malvern-based car company that would suggest it looks more to yesterday than tomorrow.
Appearances can be deceptive, however. While extremely proud of its past, Morgan retains a keen eye on the the present and future. As the company's owner (and grandson of the founder) Charles Morgan puts it: "Although steeped in history, we are actually quite innovative as a company. That's particularly the case with the materials we use and the philosophies we have, which seem to coincide with what people want from the motor car at the moment."
Certainly, a brief glance at the company's product range leaves you in no doubt that there is now a great deal more to Morgan than the well-known 'Classic' range. The Morgan brand now either encompasses or will shortly encompass four-seaters, electric vehicles and an extremely successful range of three-wheelers.
Chief designer Matt Humphries outlines the main ranges, saying: "The three-wheeler is a really raw, very vintage-looking vehicle. It's a design that is self-evidently about getting out there and having fun. Moving over to the 'Classic' range, it's a bit more civilised, but it still has those 'DNA' qualities that you have on all the products, so the interior choices are still wood, leather and aluminium. And from that Classic range in the centre, you've got the Aero product range, which is a lot more futuristic and has a lot more technology in it."
This expansion and progress has clearly placed considerable strain on the design team to deliver desirable, modern, roadworthy vehicles while still conforming to the design priniciples that underpin the Morgan 'look'. These are outlined by Jon Wells, Morgan's senior designer, who says: "Every Morgan is going to have the classic proportions, whereby the driver is sat on the rear axle with miles of bonnet in front of them. Combine that with the Morgan 'Face' with the cowl and the headlights. You then look at the materials – leather, ash wood and aluminium – and the way those materials are worked entirely by hand. And then you have the essence of the wing line, the rear arches – if you put all those things in the pot, you're going to end up with a car that looks unmistakably like a Morgan – there's just all that DNA in there."
Matt Humphries concurs, saying: "You can jump from a three-wheeler straight into an Aero Coupe and they retain very similar qualities in terms of the way that you feel when you're in one."
Of course, a number of other constraints exist for the design team, not the least of which are practical, commercial and regulatory. Says Humphries: "At the end of the day, anything we design in here has to be manufacturable. We can sketch absolutely ridiculous ideas, but if they're completely unfeasible, then we're wasting our time. We're not Audi; we're not able to just build everything. So everything has to be designed at a feasible cost."
In fact, the use of sketch and rendering software has made a huge difference to the way in which Morgan now designs vehicles. Because Morgan offers buyers high levels of customisation, the ability to sketch surfaces in Autodesk's Alias and then quickly render them into Autodesk's Showcase allows the company to put realistic models in front of customers mere hours after discussions on specification have taken place. Indeed, in one case, this capability meant that that the company was able to secure 300 deposits for the car long before it was built.
The software packages also confer the ability to move the design process forward quickly. Jon Wells uses the example of a steering wheel redesign: "Because the airbag design is coming to the end of its life, we've still got to redesign the wheel to accommodate that. So it's quick sketches, then going from those and going through the Alias models and making quick surface models in Alias, spinning them around on screen in front of the directors, whizzing through the ideas and very quickly being able to make a decision."
This capability is crucial for a company that, as Charles Morgan says, has set itself the task of bringing out new models slightly faster than some of the big manufacturers. For this reason, he says: "We need the latest design software and equipment to keep making cars rapidly."
This type of innovative design is also present in terms of Morgan's use of materials and technologies. The Morgan AeroMax, for example, was the first car in the world to feature a body made entirely from superformed parts and the Aero Supersport, which is based closely on the existing AeroMax, also shares much of its superformed aluminium body. The superforming process uses heat and air pressure to force the sheet into a single surface form tool creating complex three dimensional panels in a single cycle.
Morgan was also one of the first car companies to see the advantage of a bonded aluminium chassis to give rigidity but also to save weight. Says Charles Morgan: "We want to be pioneering a number of new technologies. We've started with bonded chassis and before that we started with superforming, which was an aircraft technology we brought into the car industry."
One of the biggest challenges facing Morgan when designing a vehicle, of course, lies in ensuring that what is – superficially at least – a vintage-looking car is able to conform to modern standards of safety and environmental impact. Again, this has driven the company to innovate in terms of design and material use. For instance, in 2008, the Morgan AeroMax re-introduced wood laminates under the aluminium as 'meat in the sandwich' to increase durability and soften the intrusion pulse during crash tests. These innovations mean thatcurrent Morgan cars are typically 20 to 30% lighter than similar vehicles made from steel, yet the cars have comparable safety standards.
That said, however, there are regulatory requirements in certain countries that would so fundamentally alter the Morgan 'DNA' that it is simply impossible to comply. Says Matt Humphries: "There are massive challenges from regulation. They have an absolutely huge impact. For instance, we'd love to be able to sell the Plus 8 into America, but we just can't do that because of the fuel tank position. And if you move the fuel tank up, you can't have that flanked back anymore, so it affects absolutely everything."
Moving forward, there is no doubt that innovation will remain central to Morgan's future product offerings. It is currently developing an electric version of the Plus 8 called the Plus E, which is both all-electric and all-aluminium. Its Zytek 70kW (94bhp) electric motor develops 299Nm of torque for a car weighing just 1,250 kilos. Even more unusually, the car features a five-speed gearbox. This, says Humphries, offers "the best of both worlds: top speed; acceleration; and you've got distance out of the motors because of the gearbox. And it's still fun to drive!"
Materials remain a key area in which Morgan is seeking to innovate, with Humphries acknowledging that the company is looking into the use of composites in a number of areas. However, the most intriguing step lies in the development of the forthcoming EvaGT 2+2 coupé, which has had its launch delayed while the company investigates the use of magnesium in its chassis.
This came about because Morgan secured funding from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to allow it to participate in and manage a £1.4 million collaborative project to use revolutionary materials in a chassis application. The project (named MagMog) involves five partners who are all experts in their relevant fields. The project partners are Morgan, Penso Consulting, Superform Aluminium, Coventry University and Magnesium Elektron UK – the world's largest manufacturer of magnesium sheet.
The advantages that the use of magnesium alloy would confer include the fact that Magnesium is the lightest structural metal of all, being two-thirds the weight of aluminium and one quarter the weight of steel. In addition, as the eighth most common element and the sixth most abundant metal, it should present few supply problems.
The major objections to the use of magnesium, however, have traditionally been centred around its perceived flammability and tendency to corrode. However, tests have included burning a hole in the new material with a welding torch as big as the cone of the torch. There was no ignition of the surrounding area and the rapid heat conductivity of the magnesium ensured very rapid cooling around the hole.
The company has also undertaken tests to show that the corrosion resistance of its magnesium alloy is superior to steel and at least equivalent to high-strength aluminium provided that the component is designed to prevent galvanic corrosion issues.
Among other things, these developments make it clear that appearances can be deceptive. While Morgan Cars is proud of its history and maintains a number of aspects of design and manufacturing that hark back to an earlier time, any assumption that this means the company is anything less than innovative is seriously misplaced.
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