Shed a tear for the Morgan Plus 8, which ends its half-century run this year
Hairstyles have certainly evolved in 50 years, but the starry appeal of the Morgan Plus 8—and the people who created the legend—has remained a constant. What a shame, then, that it all ends this year.
“Don’t get me started,” growls Bill Fink, legendary San Francisco Morgan importer, when asked about the production end of the Plus 8 after half a century. “There was legislation passed in 2015 to allow cars resembling those built more than 25 years ago to be imported with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliant engine. They gave the EPA and the Department of Transportation (DoT) 12 months to come up with a plan, but they’ve done virtually nothing since then and these days Washington’s in chaos…”
Fifty years. It all seems so long ago, but out of those old faded prints shines the bewitching charm of the cast of characters. Peter Morgan, scion of the quintessential English sports car maker’s founder, looking as though he just stepped off the bridge of a Royal Navy destroyer. Maurice Owen, the Plus 8’s talented development engineer standing outside the factory sporting chief stoker’s grubby white overalls and a schoolboy grin. Fink, Yale student, Oxford rowing blue and impossibly good-looking American importer, who battled to get the cars accepted by the U.S. authorities and in doing so allowed the legend of these vintage giant killers to flourish. Oh and look, there’s Mick Jagger, with Marianne Faithfull on their way to court in a primrose yellow Morgan, brimming with chutzpah in front of the press, helping to cement Morgan’s reputation.
In the early-to-mid ‘60s, the old four-cylinder Triumph engine was antediluvian and the Triumph was planning to replace it with a straight-six unit which wouldn’t fit under the Morgan’s bonnet. An informal meeting between Rover director Peter Wilks and Peter Morgan—the two were old school friends—provided a solution.
Wilks was proposing a complete Rover takeover of Morgan and in trying to convince his old chum, he revealed the existence of a Rover version of the all-aluminium-alloy 3.5-liter Buick V-8. Peter rejected the takeover but asked Wilks if it might be possible for Morgan to use the engine. The answer was yes.
With the tricky engine installation work in the capable hands of Maurice Owen, Peter set about the trickier task of getting permission to use the V-8. Eventually in 1967, Harry Webster, Standard Triumph’s chief engineer, and George Turnball, managing director of Austin Morris, went down to Malvern to drive the Plus 8 prototype and gave their blessing.
The Plus 8 debuted at the 1968 London Motor Show along with Jaguar’s XJ6. With its 3.5-liter Rover-Buick V-8 producing a ludicrously modest 151 hp in a 1900-pound car, it had 55 percent more power and 60 percent more torque than the Triumph-engined Morgan Plus 4 it sort-of replaced, despite weighing just 5 percent more. This was the nearest thing the automotive industry has ever produced to a medieval siege engine towed by a couple of dragons. Man, did that car go.
That September, Autocar road tester Michael ‘Scarletti‘ Scarlett wrung a 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds out of MMC II (the production prototype) at Millbrook proving ground, which meant the Plus 8 was the UK’s quickest-accelerating car. Faster than a Jaguar E-type, but priced at £1,478 ($3,522), it was £640 ($1,525) cheaper.
In the late ‘90s your own correspondent performance tested a 188-hp, fuel-injected 3.9-liter Plus 8 for Fast Lane magazine. Side stepping the clutch at 3500 rpm, the rear springs squirmed like boa constrictors and the axle tramp rattled my eyeballs in their sockets, but the resulting 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds meant that, in a straight line at least, this antique roadshow was faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo.
Impervious to change, and all for the better
Traditionally styled with a long, piano-hinged bonnet that is more louvre than metal, an ash-framed body with separate fenders and an enormous wood-rimmed steering wheel, the Plus 8 was an anachronism 50 years ago, let alone today. Owners tended to be committed people, with flies in their teeth and scoffs at the cold, but a Plus 8 was fun with a capital F. It also came with the added bonus of U.S. federal emissions compliance, which allowed Morgan to officially export cars to the States, where the car was an immediate hit.
Everyone was charmed. Order books were full and there was a two-month waiting list. Even a young His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales asked if a Plus 8 could be demonstrated at Windsor Castle, which it duly was. A keen driver, Prince Charles liked it very much, but unfortunately his security detail didn’t, strongly advising that he could not drive that sort of machine.
Back then, as today, Morgan a tiny 109-year-old, family-owned and run automaker, produced a handful of cars a week out of its red-brick factory at Pickersleigh Road in Malvern, nestled in the folds of the Malvern Hills. These days, production is up to a couple of handfuls.
No wonder that Bill Fink, an Anglophile to his toes, fell in love with Morgan. He initially set up a lucrative if slightly hand-to-mouth business buying second-hand cars, converting them to left-hand drive and shipping them to the States for sale to a growing band of enthusiasts. But his partners cheated him and he was forced to return home and set up in San Francisco as a bona fide used-car business dealing principally in Morgans from premises in the heart of the city’s red light area. He named it Isis Imports, after the stretch of the River Thames that runs near Oxford where he rowed as part of a victorious Boat Race crew.
Weathering a changing world
But by 1971 Morgan’s exemptions were running out. Fink then commenced a heroic campaign to get the Plus 8 re-accepted, besieging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transport (DoT) and, with his chief mechanic Steve Miller, converted the big V-8 engine to run on propane. Careful study of the safety regulations involved fitting the Plus 8 with a tow bar for rear impact protection and Morris Marina rubber bumper inserts. The public still beat a path to his doors for this idiosyncratic sports car.
That lasted until 1992 when the exemptions expired, but fortunately Land Rover had worked on EPA compliance for the Discovery and Range Rover, which still used a version of the same engine. More power (but the same sliding pillar front suspension) meant the Plus 8 was definitely an enthusiasts’ drive, fine on smooth asphalt, lively over bumps. In 2004 emissions legislation put paid to the old Rover/Buick V-8 (by then displacing 4.6 liters) and in its place came two cars: a traditional V-6 Roadster powered by a cast-iron, 3.0-liter, 24-valve Ford V-6, which gave similar performance at higher revolutions, and the Aero 8.
A flash of modern
Despite its name reaching back to the old pre-war three-wheeler Morgan, the Aero 8 was an entirely modern car, sporting a 282-hp, 317 lb-ft, 4.4-liter V-8 from BMW. The most radical part of the car was its bonded Alcan aluminium-alloy honeycomb chassis, combining incredible lightness with strength in depth. It was based on the 1997 GT2 Le Mans car (though to be fair, Charles Morgan had been experimenting with aluminium in his own race car since 1994) and was worked on by Jim Randle, formerly Jaguar’s chief engineer, and consequently developed by a team headed up by Chris Lawrence, a talented race and road-car engineer, with styling from Matt Humphries.
The Aero 8 was launched at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show, where its engineering drew copious praise, but its cross-eyed headlamps (borrowed from the Volkswagen New Beetle) caused negative comments. The front end styling was revised in 2007 (with headlamps now cribbed from the Mini) along with an increase in engine size to 4.8 liters. Both versions of this brutish car were highly likeable and with 367 hp in the later model it offers faster acceleration than not just the Porsche 911, but also a Jaguar F-Type.
It went through several improved series including the limited-edition Aeromax, and an engine capacity increase to 4.8 liters. In 2012, a version of the same bonded and riveted chassis was restyled as a traditional roadster and badged as the Plus 8, which has been fairly successful. But now, with supplies of the M60 BMW engine ceasing, that car, too is headed for the history books with just 50 anniversary specials marking the end of an era.
In the U.S., Morgan business has always been a bit hand to mouth. “The Aeros finished in 2010,” says Fink. “We’ve had nothing [in the States] since except the Three Wheeler.” Fink agrees that there must be something to do to bring back this famous name plate. He’s converted modern Plus 8s with Corvette 7.0-liter V-8 engines which when tested have done 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
“The beautiful advantage of a Morgan in its light weight,” he says. “I’m confident that if Morgan were to think about this thoroughly for a week or two, we could have a car that was fully [U.S.] compliant,” he says, pointing out some forthcoming potential legislation in California that would allow people to build their own cars.”
Morgan is a tiny company and investment cash is scarce, but it seems hard to believe there aren’t at least nascent plans to reintroduce this iconic car to the U.S. Steve Morris, Morgan’s managing director says that while a replacement Plus 8 isn’t at the top of his in tray, “I’d not rule it out in future.”
Fink certainly thinks it should be so. “Plus 8s were all we were selling in the way of four-wheelers,” he said. “This decision seems difficult to understand.” Fink is coming back to the UK this August to celebrate 50 years of the Plus 8 at the two-day Thrill on the Hill event, part sponsored by the factory. He’s even bringing his original prototype Plus 8 ‘OUY 200E’ (‘MMC II’, which is owned by Morgan, is the production prototype).
After half a century of almost continuous production, this really seems like the end of the road for the iconic Plus 8. Unless the factory is keeping something up its sleeve, it’s going to be a bittersweet moment when glasses are raised this August.