Sports car lover's pilgrimage to factory Throwback: Britain's Morgan has a small but dedicated following. To visit the factory is to go back in time.

December 15, 1996|By Paul Langner | Paul Langner,BOSTON GLOBE

The little town of Malvern Link, England -- part of the larger town of Great Malvern actually -- just at the foot of the Malvern Hills in west central England, is a place of pilgrimage to members of a peculiar brotherhood.

That is the brotherhood of Morgan drivers, whose devotion to the elegant but uncomfortable British sports car baffles most people, but unites the drivers in a sort of cult with Spartan values.

Others might say they are masochists and should have their heads examined. No matter.

They grimly love the light, bouncy car with the louvered hood that seems a mile long when you sit in the driver's seat, with the stiff brake and clutch pedals that cannot be operated by anyone weighing less than 150 pounds, with the unsynchronized transmission that requires double-clutching to downshift, and with the body support structure made of solid ash.

Hundreds of Morgan drivers make the pilgrimage every year to the set of brick factory buildings just off the main drag of Malvern Link to see how those remarkable throwbacks to a simpler automotive age are made.

My wife and I did so during a driving tour of Britain and Ireland. After all, we do own a 1965 Morgan Plus 4, with a TR3 Engine.

When my wife and I showed up at the little front office one Friday morning, the harassed receptionist summoned a manager from a back room, who supplied us with a glossy brochure, a price list of the three Morgan models and the options, and a plan of the factory.

We were on our own.

The workmen are amiable and will answer any question, gladly if the questions are intelligent and patiently if not. All the workers on the floors are men. No women can be seen putting the cars together.

Peter Morgan, the latest in a line of Morgans that began making cars in the teens of this century, does not make everything in his factory.

Two of the engines he uses are made by Rover and one by Ford. He also buys the fenders, which are called wings in Britain, as well as brake assemblies, rear axles and the idiosyncratic sliding-post front-wheel suspension, not to mention rims and tires.

The 130 employees produce 10 cars a week in the 40-some-odd weeks a year that the factory is open.

There is no assembly line. Trucks deliver components to the various brick halls where workmen carefully assemble them. Some things are made on site.

As the cars are assembled, men push them to the next shed, on dollies at first and then on the cars' own wheels.

Each car, from the time the frame is laid onto blocks, is accompanied by a build ticket. The ticket lists the prospective owner and his or her dealer, the country of destination, whether right- or left-hand drive, what sort of engine, whether roll bars are to be installed, whether the dash is to be walnut, mahogany or cherry, what size steering wheel, and so forth.

When we stood in the so-called dispatch room, where the nearly finished Morgans are stored while a few finishing touches are added, we felt as if we were standing in the Louvre.

Morgans are now comparatively rare in the United States, mostly because the federal regulations keep changing and the exasperated manufacturer seems at wit's end at times trying to make a car safe for grandmother.

Even so, Americans are luckier than prospective Morgan owners elsewhere. The two dealers, one in Virginia and one in California, have a deal so that their waiting list is only 18 months long (it's six years in England). They each get two cars a month. Just as soon as Big Brother approves the air bags and crash tests.

Morgans don't come cheap. The cheapest model, the so-called Four-Four, with a four-cylinder Ford engine, lists at a base price of 15,995 pounds sterling, which is about $25,000. The Plus 8, with a 3.9 liter Rover engine, starts at the equivalent of about $38,000.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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