The old British groaner gets a stunning makeover.
Before we delve into the new Morgan Aero 8 roadster, let’s get something, uh, prominent out of the way first. The nose. It’s a unique-looking snout with a deeply recessed grille and a pair of pontoon fenders that are capped with flush-mounted, offset headlights. To some, “unique” doesn’t do it justice-it’s been likened to a cross-eyed Pekinese, or a frog drawn by the Merry Pranksters.
However you see it, the Aero 8 is the first entirely new car the little company in England has introduced in 50 years. Its previous model, the Plus 8, appeared in 1968, and it was little more than a lengthened version of the Plus 4, which had its debut in 1950. Although the Plus 8 has been regularly updated, it has remained about as modern as a VW Beetle, but customers nonetheless endured six-month waiting lists and a $65,000 price to snag one of the 200 Plus 8s produced each year, of which maybe 50 trickled into the U.S.
If there were no crash or emissions regulations, Morgan probably would have continued on with the Plus 8 for eternity. But these regulations got tougher with each passing decade, and the grim reaper finally had his eyes firmly locked on the Plus 8.
Imagine the dilemma at Morgan’s Malvern Link headquarters: Precisely how do you make a new car without turning off the loyal cadre of customers who are attracted to the classic, creaky British roadster that is the Plus 8?
So you try designing a new, modern car that retains the old, classic look of the Morgan. The task fell to Charles Morgan, grandson of the company’s founder, H.M.S. Morgan. The chassis emerged from a Plus 8 race car that Charles had built in the mid-1990s. In 1995, Christopher Lawrence (“The Mad Monk of Malvern Link,” June 1999), a 61-year-old race engineer, vehicle designer, and fabricator, joined Morgan to help turn that chassis-and body-into the Aero 8.
In 2000, a completed Aero 8 made its debut at the Geneva auto show and soon after went on sale in Europe. Since then, the company has reportedly invested $1 million to certify the car for the U.S. Interestingly, the company’s chairman, Peter Morgan, was once quoted as saying the firm could “lose [the U.S. market] tomorrow and never notice.” Obviously, that statement is no longer operative, and Morgan would indeed be grateful for U.S. buyers, whose purchases could recoup the cost of developing the new car.
The first Aero 8s should arrive next spring at a price of about $95,000. We got an early drive and test courtesy of Morgan’s East Coast agent, Cantab Motors. The blue car you see here is the sixth Aero 8 built and served as a prototype and test mule. Although its interior and trim bits are crude and unfinished, mechanically, it’s the real deal.
Morgan has never built its own powertrains. The 4.4-liter V-8 and six-speed manual transmission are from BMW. Plucked from the 540i. the DOHC aluminum V-8 produces 282 horsepower at 5400 rpm and 324 pound-feet at 3600 rpm.
The engine is mounted well behind the front axle for good weight distribution, and from the appearance of the tightly fitted frame rails, it looks as though the car were designed around the motor. The frame is an interesting combination of rectangular aluminum tubes that are reinforced with bonded and riveted aluminum panels. The skin is also made from aluminum.
The Aero 8 is a small car. It’s only 6.5 inches longer than a Mazda Miata. Its wheelbase, however, is 10.4 inches longer, so the Morgan doesn’t have that little-roadster look to it. Say what you will about the nose, but the guy’s got the eye. The Aero is without a doubt a Morgan, and although it appears to have the aerodynamics of a barn door, the drag coefficient is a poor but not horrendous 0.39 (the slippery Corvette has a much better figure of 0.29).
We’ve seen other aluminum cars with only small weight savings, but the Aero 8 is decidedly a featherweight. With a full tank of fuel, it weighs only 2476 pounds, which is about 50 pounds more than the four-cylinder Miata and 700 pounds less than the 405-hp, $52,000 Corvette Z06 (not to mention about 1300 pounds less than the 540i sedan the engine was designed for).
The Z06 has the power-to-weight advantage (7.8 pounds per horsepower versus 8.8 for the Morgan) and is quicker, but not by much. The Morgan scampered to 60 mph in only 4.2 seconds and through the quarter in 12.7 seconds at 110 mph. The Vette can hit 60 in 4.0 seconds and does the quarter in 12.4 seconds at 116 mph.
There are plenty of high-dollar sports cars the Morgan can dust off, including the Porsche 911 and Mercedes-Benz SL500. and some-such as the $119,000 Porsche 911 Turbo-that would direct the Morgan to the weeds. But the main point is the Morgan can suck you into the seat in any gear. It’s a pleasure to row through the six-speed box, the shift lever is well placed, and the clutch takeup is smooth.
Like a Dodge Viper, which rockets forward regardless of the gear it’s in, the Aero is joyously responsive. Left in sixth gear, this Morgan needs 5.4 seconds to go from 30 to 50 mph and 5.7 seconds to leap from 50 to 70 mph. Those are extremely good times, better than the Corvette’s at 9.5 and 9.4 seconds, respectively.
Part of the credit goes to the low-geared rear end (3.08:1) and a sixth gear that isn’t as tall as the Vette’s, but the big reason is that the engine doesn’t have much mass to pull around. We did our testing at Summit Point Raceway in Summit Point, West Virginia, and after using the straightaway for our acceleration testing, we did some hot laps to see just how sporting this Englishman with the German heart is.