Morgan is moving on. 2019, its 110th anniversary, saw the Malvern-based firm introduce its first turbocharged engine (in the new Plus Four) and receive significant investment to develop itself as a more futureproof business. It also announced that the steel chassis that underpinned its venerable Plus 4 and Roadster was going out of production, taking the cars with it, in favour of up-to-the-minute aluminium architecture.
The Plus 4 model that we took for this swansong drive has been around in one form or another since 1950, offering four-cylinder, open-top thrills with a frozen-in-time classic look. It was Morgan’s most popular model, shifting roughly 9,300 over its life. Understandably so, thanks to its distinctive aesthetic, hand-built charm, and “specialness”.
To see why the Plus 4 was so popular, a big drive was in order. Not around the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, as that’s where it was developed, but somewhere far more grand: California’s Route One.
California State Route One, or the Pacific Coast Highway, is one of the world’s most iconic drives and is only 16 years older than the original Plus 4. Snaking its way down the America’s west coast, mostly hugging the sea, along its 650 miles it offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean and inland to remote mountain ranges, and a driving experience that most people can only dream of. It’s the right place to give the Plus 4 a decent send-off.
Packing a 154bhp, Ford-sourced 2.0-litre engine and weighing in at 927kg, the little car from Malvern may not have oodles of power but it’s perky enough for most. 0-62mph takes 7.5 seconds, and it’ll top out just shy of 120mph. Being light also means an average of 40mpg, so you don’t spend too much time and money at the pumps.
Being a Morgan, it comes with a hand-built feel – the interior is gloriously, if not perfectly, stitched together, and there are some odd panel gaps here and there. Depending on your outlook it’s either charming or… not.
After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco and stopping in Pacifica for lunch, the Morgan’s presence was noticed by more people than you’d expect. “That, sir, is supremely cool,” said a man in a knackered BMW 3-Series full of dogs. A child tugged at his mother’s arm to alert her to the car’s existence. Lots of people smiled, took pictures, and waved.
Stopping just south of the scenic “must-see” of Big Sur for a gander at the Pacific Ocean, a man stepped out of his Honda to ask if it was a Jaguar, while another exclaimed “THAT’S A MORGAN!” as he strode towards it to ask questions that proved he knew all about cars.
Everywhere it went, the Morgan drew attention, and that’s part of its charm. It makes people happy, even though most thought it was built several decades ago.
Driving it makes you crack a smile, forget about the world, and simply enjoy the act of being. A hard thing to pull off these days, but that’s where the “specialness” comes in.
There are few distractions – no glaring infotainment screen flashing at you, few dials and buttons to faff with – just a big steering wheel and the road ahead. Its naturally-aspirated engine sounds glorious and responds instantly to the throttle, though you do need to rev it a bit to get it up to speed.
The five-speed Mazda gearbox is slick and easy to use, even if the clutch is on the heavy side for the dense traffic of Los Angeles. It brakes straight and true, though you may need to plan ahead if you’re giving it some stick. However, despite being a brand new car it does feel as though it was designed 70 year ago, despite incremental updates.
The steering is heavy, making low-speed manoeuvres difficult. The suspension appears to be made from some sort of rock, so anything bar the smoothest of smooth roads can feel as rough as they come. Luggage space is at a premium, so you need to pack light.
With the roof up (something you’ll need to do if you have bags in the back, so they don’t get pinched) getting in and out is a faff because of its tiny doors. Putting the roof down (or up, for that matter) requires origami skills that may frustrate those used to modern fare. At low speed it gets a bit creaky.
After 1,200 miles cruising around bits of America the Plus 4 had held its own admirably, but it showed its age. The joy:discomfort ratio remained pretty much 50:50, although it’s a close-run thing.
This Plus 4 is a thing of the past now. Morgan’s all-new Plus Four, with a turbocharged BMW engine, sits on a modern platform, comes with more pliant suspension, more (and more useable) power, and more space.
There will be those sad to see the old car go, but the truth is it needs to – it’s cool, fun and special, but very much of a bygone era. It’s time for something fresh to keep the Morgan magic going forward, and excite people for another century.