Wednesday, 21 June 2017

A tour of the Morgan Car Factory, Malvern – June 2017

After meeting Bill, retired foreman of 25 years at Morgan Cars, who had rebuilt a 1920’s Morgan three wheeler, Abi bought me a ticket for a guided tour of the factory after she had seen my enthusiasm.

The day was Tuesday 20th June and I, minus Jackie, was booked on the 10:00am tour with about 15 other people. I’m not particularly a Morgan car fan, but I was interested to see a traditional British manufacturer of cars, now the oldest family owned car business in the world, started in 1909.

A finished wooden ash frame for a Classic 4/4
Although embracing some modern technology in engines and engine management systems, the classic Morgan is still the mainstay of their production, the 4/4 being the longest running production vehicle in the world, first produced in 1936 and still built on an English ash wooden frame, steel chassis and aluminium body.

The factory in Pickersleigh Road, Malvern was first opened in 1914 and now produces between 800 and 1000 vehicles per year. It has been extended over the years but still retains that traditional look, inside there are no robots or rolling production lines, it’s all very much as it must have been 50 or 60 years ago, each car hand-made and finished and, being on a sloping site, they use gravity for moving vehicles around.

Fitting a laminated ash wheel arch into the former
A Melbourne sourced rear axle fitted to a classic chassis
It’s true that a lot of parts are now sub contracted, but a lot of it is still UK based. The chassis are made at a company in Ross-On-Wye, the aluminium panels are formed at a company in Wolverhampton and the ash wood is sourced in Lincolnshire. The rear axles, however, are sourced from Dana-Spicer in Melbourne, Australia, which seemed a bit weird, but when you are building so few cars per year you have to get parts from where you can, as no car parts manufacturer would be excited by an order of 800 axles! They don’t make engines or transmissions either, they buy Ford engines for the standard 1600cc and 2000cc cars and use them with a Mazda MX5 gearbox. There’s a bigger 3.7litre engine variant that uses the Ford Mustang engine and the newer Aero 8 car uses a monster 4.8litre BMW engine (in a small car you can imagine how fast that must go!)

Line of chassis being worked on
Trimming the aluminium as it is fitted to the frame
They still make the ash frame in house and fit the aluminium bodies by hand, as each wooden frame is slightly different, so the workshop is a proper woodworking shop with benches, vices, hand tools and wood shavings on the floor (my dad would have loved it!). The door frames are wooden and are held onto the wooden frame with what looked like cabinet hinges, screwed on with wood screws, how fabulous is that! The aluminium bodies have some extra material which is cut off with tin snips and finished off with files by the workers as they are fitted to the wooden frame.

Morgan assembly line, Morgan Aero 8's this side, Classics on the other side
Workers hand making the bonnets
On through the factory we saw the trim department where skilled people fit leather to the interior and five or so female workers operate sewing machines to stitch together the trim. There’s another man cutting out veneer to fit to the beautifully carved dashboards and the final finish bay has a couple of people going over the car with a fine tooth comb looking for any problems. However, the final check is a 20 mile road test round the open countryside of the Malvern Hills where any niggles are noted and put right. Not a bad job eh?
Semi finished car showing the wooden door frame
It’s a proper traditional manufacturer, anyone buying a car can visit the factory anytime and see their car being built and they are given full documentation at the end detailing every worker who worked on it and any comments he made on that particular vehicle. There are, apparently no standard cars, they offer any of the 300 colours their paint supplier offers, several dozen colours of leather and numerous options and combinations. He did tell us about the Chinese lady who ordered a pink car with shocking pink interior!

And they look like cabinet hinges fixed with wood screws
Here's a guy cutting out some veneer for a dashboard
I really enjoyed my tour and I’d really recommend anyone who is interested in cars and particularly hand built cars to take a tour. I can’t afford one, the entry 4/4 Classic with a 1600cc engine goes for £39,000, the 2litre for £43,000, the 3.7litre for £53,000 and the modern looking Aero 8 for £93,000. Even the relaunched three wheeler using a USA motorcycle engine and Mazda MX5 gearbox sells for £33,000. They are lovely cars but really, they are totally impractical, they have only two seats and limited luggage space, the three wheeler doesn’t even come with a hood, it’s completely open. They are really just fun cars and are a lot of money just for that, but I guess if you have the money, why not, it would be great wouldn’t it?
The leather sewing area and final finish department behind
Now here's an interesting story, Morgans had always sourced their wood from the same ash forest in Lincolnshire, but sometime ago they were offered some Belgium ash at a very attractive price. Soon after taking delivery they started to break cutting tools while machining it and, on inspection they found metal particles inside the wood. It turned out that the forests were in the Ardennes area of Belgium, which was the site of the Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive in 1944 and the metal particles were shrapnel that became embedded in the wood during the battle. The trees grew round the particles and they became incorporated within them. In this photo the metal particle is part of a bullet

Car wings being buffed up prior to final fitting
The three wheeler department. They built a couple in about 2014 to take to the Geneva motor show, expecting little interest, but they came away with orders for 200! They have now built about 800 of them
And they do look pretty good, the front mounted engine mimicing the original look
These are the motorcycle engines and MX5 gearboxes they use
This is a very rare car, they only built 26 of them, it's was unpopular
Morgan Classic 4/4 anyone?
Or what about an Aero 8?
It looks really different from the back

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