Golden Moments: Driving Morgan’s Final Plus 8

An appropriate swan song for an icon.

It's raining when I arrive at Morgan Motor Company. Today is one of those gray and blustery British days you want to spend indoors, settled beside an open fire. I sprint from the carpark to the main entrance, dodging puddles as best I can. Then I open the wooden doors, and I'm ushered into a whole different universe: It's warm and inviting, there's hot tea and cakes being served in the café, pictures and models of cars liberally dotted around, and people smiling everywhere you turn.

Most are here for a tour of the famous Pickersleigh Road factory, where Morgan started building cars in 1914. Despite two World Wars, countless peaks and troughs in the world economy, and ever greater globalization and more complex legislation, it's been busily producing cars ever since. Morgan's craftsmanship, materials, smells, and sounds really are like nothing else. The place feels like a tiny bubble of joy, the rest of the world firmly shut out.

Yet even here, things have to change, even if slowly. I'm here to collect a glorious, aero-screened Plus 8 50th Anniversary Edition model. It's the culmination of a half century of, ahem, development but also the very last of the breed. The booming, naturally aspirated V-8 is disappearing. In its place will be the recently unveiled Plus 6—built on the brand-new CX bonded-aluminum chassis and powered by BMW's 335-hp B58 turbocharged inline-six. Morgan's bubble is resolute, but it's not impenetrable to the tentacles of downsizing and the pressure to reduce emissions.

Inside the final-inspection building, the last of a charming production line, the 50th Anniversary car stops me in my tracks. It's a million miles away from one of the "classic" cars, which still retain their steel chassis and ash-wood frames. The shape is similar, but its dimensions are teased outward while the height barely changes. The result seems impossibly wide, low, and stunningly exotic for a car with such classical styling cues. The new Plus 6 has a longer wheelbase and is more accommodating, the chassis is stiffer and more sophisticated, but the aesthetic is similarly evocative.

Managing director Steve Morris is used to the preconceptions and revels in blowing them away. "As a company, we've really grown up a lot over the past five or six years," he says. "We've invested heavily in building teams, in processes and structures. We've got all of the latest tech, and that allows us to dovetail with our suppliers." It seems pretty wild to be talking about computer modeling and streamlined work practices in the context of our surroundings, but Morgan is full of surprises—many of which are encapsulated in the blue Speedster-spec 50th Anniversary glimmering nearby.

Morgan will build just 50 of these Anniversary cars in exactly this livery or a traditional dark green finish with full weather gear and a windshield. They cost around $169,000; sadly, it's impossible to buy one in the U.S. Morgan has always struggled to cope with the expense of emissions, airbag, and crash testing for our market. However, things are changing. The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, passed in 2015, should eventually deliver turnkey solutions for all Morgans. You can already buy the gorgeous little V-Twin 3 wheeler in the U.S., as well as the classic ash-framed Ford-powered model in 2.0-liter four-cylinder Plus 4 or 3.7-liter Roadster guises, priced from $69,995 and $79,995, respectively.

It's tragic that the big-hitting Plus 8 is out of reach. Imagine how cool this blue hot rod would look spearing down the Pacific Coast Highway or countless other American roads. The Plus 8 promises to more than deliver on the remixed old-school race-car aesthetic, too. Beneath those cleanly surfaced but exaggerated aluminum panels is a lightweight, rigid bonded and riveted aluminum chassis, AP Racing brakes, a limited-slip differential, double wishbones all around, and sticky Yokohama R-compound tires. Back in '68, Morgan launched the Plus 8 with a 3.5-liter V-8; this new car is powered by a thumping 4.8-liter V-8 supplied by BMW and hooked up to a six-speed manual gearbox.

Morgan has worked with BMW since its first all-aluminum chassis car, the controversial and weirdly cross-eyed Aero 8, launched in 2000. The Plus 8 continued alongside it for a while before adopting the new platform in 2012. Think of this car as an Aero model with classic styling cues rather than an evolved version of the iconic original. A purist would bristle and argue that the real Plus 8 died in 2004, when the last ash-framed Rover V-8 car was produced.

But we're happy to count this wide-bodied aluminum monster as the real deal. It feels authentically wild and charmingly unique. Certainly, the N62 engine's roots in luxury cars and SUVs doesn't bode well, but here it thuds and thunders its way to 367 horsepower and 361 lb-ft—more than enough given that the Plus 8 weighs just 2,425 pounds. Morgan has some catching up to do when it comes to downsizing, but it's already on the money with lightweighting.

The barrel-chested V-8 makes the biggest impression. The noise pouring out of the white powder-coated exhausts is part hot rod, part vintage aero engine: so low it rattles your ribcage. It's still raining, of course, and what light there was is rapidly fading. The little semicircle of "windshield" does nothing to stop the wind slapping my chest and head but manages to distort the forward view as raindrops cling to it doggedly.

A quick overtake blasts the drops away, but they whip up onto my visor. A full-face helmet isn't mandatory, but it makes sense on a cold evening and with other traffic flicking up grit, mud, and stones. None of this dampens my spirits. The view out over the wide hood and sweeping fenders and the way the engine tests the rear tires every time I even brush the throttle are addictive. Tomorrow should be dry and cool. Dry for Wales, anyway. The roads draped haphazardly over the Elan Valley are narrow and bumpy, dissected by streams that run off the surrounding Cambrian Mountains—and they're wickedly varied, too. Even better is that, save for the occasional farmer's truck, they're all ours for the day.

With no windshield or side screens, the car's sheer width isn't an issue, even on these tight lanes. You can place the tires perfectly. You do feel exposed, though. The seat is set too high, and it offers little side support. An odd mistake for such a focused car. It's a shame as everything else is so well judged: The steering wheel is close to your chest, yet you sit with outstretched legs, and the pedals are positioned nicely for heel-and-toe shifting. The brake pedal has a little dead spot of travel, which is frustrating, but the brakes have great feel and bite once you pass through it.

The noise pouring out is part hot rod,
part vintage aero engine:
so low it rattles your ribcage.

Confidence up, you start to extend the engine. The V-8 hits so hard, so early; the top end can't quite deliver on the promise of the low and midrange. Even so, the Plus 8 feels endlessly muscular. The rippling torque is so easy to measure out thanks to long throttle travel and natural aspiration. Combined with the light, agile chassis, this gives the Morgan an immediacy few cars match. The steering is light and quite low-geared—exaggerated as you sit so far back from the front axle—but once you get used to making big steering inputs, the Plus 8's appetite for turns reveals itself.

In cold, greasy conditions, the Plus 8 rarely understeers, and you can feel the benefits of the engine sitting far back in the chassis. With so much torque available, you tend to adopt a slow-in, fast-out approach. It's not a wild oversteerer, either. There's enough power available to spin up the rear tires, but it requires quite a lot of commitment and brutality to do so. Better to drive it quick and neat, front tires on course and rears pouring all that grunt to the surface.

Classic Morgans with their harsh sliding-pillar suspension famously beat you up and can easily be knocked off course by a craggy road. This Plus 8 is much better, though there's enough of the old traits for it to call to mind Morgans of old. Depending on your point of view, the Plus 8's inability to soak up the worst lumps and bumps, the odd jolt of kickback through the steering, and the sense that the chassis struggles to maintain its integrity are either glaring faults or simply grit-in-the-eye character. One thing's for sure: You never forget you're in something different. Driving the Morgan Plus 8, all your senses are suddenly alive and hyperalert.

There are niggles, however. The seats are unforgivably bad. That dead spot in the braking system undermines confidence and makes the car hard to drive smoothly. The steering feels slightly too relaxed considering it's directing a stiff, nimble chassis setup that corners flat and hard. The interior is a disappointment, too, considering so much thought was applied to the car's exterior look and feel. Every panel is crisp and perfectly finished, and the wheels are works of art. The racing towing eye, the jutting powder-coated exhausts, and the "8" subtly picked out in the wire mesh behind the grille are worthy of the bespoke, handcrafted myth of Morgan. By contrast, the interior feels homemade and slightly cheap.

The sum total of all these little annoyances would grate after a while, especially considering the price of entry. Yet when I finally have to say goodbye to the Victorian dams and ribbons of road that crisscross the Elan Valley, I've grown incredibly fond of this 50th Anniversary model. There's something heroic about the way it forces you to read the road, finesse the controls, and battle the elements. It overflows with character, noise, and energy, and it's a brilliant antidote to the modern performance car in so many ways: No driving modes, no moveable aerodynamics, no downforce, and not much in the way of driver assistance. Some might call that recipe archaic and out of step. Morgan would call it timeless, and it might be onto something. In fact, it has been for 110 years.

When Morgan unveiled the Plus 6 in Geneva in March, it also revealed it had new owners: For the first time in its history, Morgan is no longer family owned. InvestIndustrial, an Italian company that also owns Aston Martin, now holds majority control. It would do well to drive the 50th Anniversary Plus 8 and take notes. It's not perfect, but it encapsulates the magic of Morgan that's enthralled and charmed for more than a century. The Plus 6 and the company's new owners have much to live up to.

Morgan Plus 8 50th Anniversary Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $169,000 (base, est; not available in U.S. )
ENGINE 4.8L DOHC 32-valve V-8; 367 hp @ 6,300 rpm, 361 lb-ft @ 3,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 157.9 x 68.9 x 48.0 in
WHEELBASE 98.0 in
WEIGHT 2,425 lb
0-60 MPH 4.3 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 155 mph
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