Morgan’s Year of Investment

Has Investindustrial’s investment in the family-owned British carmaker worked out?

Go on, admit it. You had The Fear, didn’t you – the Low Volume Car Manufacturer Fear – whenever you saw Morgan’s announcements over the past couple of years.

Millions invested in R&D. A new all-aluminum platform/chassis. New turbocharged engines. And a new majority shareholder to the company that had been family owned since it began in 1909. And now?

Now, if you join one of the 30,000 (and rising) visitors a year to the historic Morgan Motor Company factory in Malvern, Worcestershire, UK, you’ll enter via a fully remodeled Visitor Centre, incorporating the extended showroom and the museum as well as an all-new café to replace the old school-dinners-style canteen. Then you’ll head into the factory to see the Plus Six and new BMW turbo-engined Plus Four being built on the CX aluminum platform, rather than the outgoing eighty-four-year-old steel chassis, although otherwise the shop floor looks little different. The bodywork continues to be formed in the traditional way, over the same English Ash frame, and there’s still that chirpy family-firm atmosphere that comes of having just 250 employees, many of them with decades of history at the company. If you really know your stuff, you might spot that the design department is no longer squeezed into a poky area at the back of the factory. Instead, it’s now rapidly expanding in size to fill the all-new, restricted-access MDEC (Morgan Design and Engineering Centre, a third of the size of the factory itself, on a nearby industrial estate.

So, how is it going? And what difference has the investment made?

Managing Director Steve Morris, who joined Morgan at age sixteen as a sheet-metal apprentice, is in a buoyant mood. “We’re now a year into our investment from Investindustrial, and it’s been great,” he says. “We said a year ago that it’s going to give us the springboard to do things that ordinarily we wouldn’t have done in our previous 110-year history, and it’s done just that. What it’s allowing us to do is to look to the future – as we all know, it’s getting incredibly complex and expensive to develop a car. We now have what I call a full backroom office of investing with Investindustrial’s knowledge, its history, its expertise, to be able to tap into. They’re all incredibly respectful of the Morgan brand and what we’re trying to do, ensuring we keep our unique DNA. We had a strong year last year, and this year we have got a budget of 907 cars [against 700 in 2019]. We are not trying to double production overnight, we’re looking at a nice, organic, controlled growth of the company.”

Investindustrial, led by chairman and founder Andrea Bonomi, is the European investment company that bought into, among many others, Aston Martin and Ducati. Bonomi himself is a car enthusiast who, Steve says, was prompted to look at the Morgan Motor Company by a mutual friend. This at a time when the firm was still dealing with the fall-out from removing Charles Morgan as managing director in 2013, although other members of the Morgan family remained and still retain a minority shareholding.

“What happened was, with everything going on at Morgan with the family, there was a lot of talk of what the future looks like,” says Steve. “Then, completely out of the blue, Andrea approached us. From the very first moment I met him and his team at Investindustrial, they were so respectful and wed to us being Morgan, and to the classic car shape, the way we do things, Malvern and the fact that we’ve been building cars here forever. It was very much: ‘We’ve studied what you do, we think we can help you do it better.’ I’ve always been in the family business, so private equity was new territory for me. The help and mentoring we’ve had throughout the journey, and the support they have given us, have helped us do our work. We’ve bolstered the management team in key places, because they’ve said: ‘Look, let’s get some help in here.’ That’s worked really well for us. There’s no cast-in-stone timescale to this. We’ve run our budgets by them, but one of the beautiful things for me was that they said: ‘OK, what is the art of the possible, what can we achieve, what does that look like?’”

And speaking about timescales, Investindustrial bought into Ducati in 2006 and turned the Italian bike brand around to the point that it was sold to the VW Group in 2012. Investindustrial invested in Aston Martin in 2013, and the company was listed on the UK stock exchange in 2018.

Is that the plan for Morgan? And how does Steve feel about the marque’s long-term future?

“What we’ve said internally is that you don’t invest in a business not to want to grow it and get it to a position where it’s attractive to someone in the future,” he says. “To me, if we get the business to that position, and it’s attractive to other people [investors] then we’ll be in a good place – you’re not going to exit a business unless it’s in a good place. In the past five or six years we have had some difficult things happen in the business, but we’ve come through it. In the past two or three years, we’ve had our best-ever results. It certainly wasn’t all around making the biggest volume of cars – it was about making the right cars, making things that sell, that are attractive to people. We’ve had a good run of it when it’s been tough for everyone. The bigger investment picture is around our global dealer network and partners. The U.S. has got a really good opportunity this year; the replica car bill is gaining a bit of momentum, so we’ll extend our footprint there. But we have opportunities in Europe as well.”

What’s known as the replica car bill is officially the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015, which allows companies to build up to 325 cars a year that resemble models made twenty-five years ago, makes a big difference in the U.S. for a manufacturer like Morgan.

“We’ve just opened a dealer in Munich,” adds Steve. “And we’ve got a number of countries that are single-dealer territories right now. We have got some opportunities in Switzerland, and others to work more closely with the dealers in the markets we’re already in.”

Steve also points out the cost advantages European customers gain due to the much lower CO2 outputs of the new Plus Six and Plus Four engines. The best example is that the Plus Six is around £12,000 cheaper than the outgoing Roadster V6 in The Netherlands. “We’re into the next phase of future development work now,” he continues. “As a car company in a niche sector, it’s still important that we’re looking at future technology. I can go back to 2009 when we did the hydrogen fuel cell project, which was so ahead of its time. We’ve made electric four-wheel versions and EV3 [Electric 3 Wheeler] demonstrators, but electric tech is still embryonic at niche-vehicle level. Because of Tesla, because of Nissan, people think EV is all done – but you try packaging a 3 Wheeler or Plus Four. The first thing is everyone says ‘yeah, we can do that’ – and the next thing you know it’s grown 100 percent in size! We have obviously got projects on the go all the time; we’ve just launched two new models, but we’ve just finished a car that was eighty-four years in production… so we’re early on the curve by Morgan standards. We’ve got to cement our position there. The Aero has gone, so that leaves a gap, but the Plus Six is phenomenal and the Plus Four is really lovely to drive – we’ve got stuff going on!”

Steve points out that a normally off-limits tour of MDEC will show the firm’s ambition, so marketing director Toby Blythe drives me there in a new Plus Four (press drives have been delayed by COVID-19). Even in the one-mile journey it’s clear that the new platform and twin-wishbone and coil-spring suspension, in place of the old sliding pillars and leaf-spring rear, has transformed the ride, although it still feels every inch a Morgan. The stiffer chassis has allowed the doors to be beefed up, which in turn allows central locking, side-impact protection, and an escape from squeaks and rattles. As for MDEC, it couldn’t be more anonymous from the outside, but in the foyer sits the EV3 prototype. Inside, the 25,000m2 unit is divided into three sections: a bonded stores area so parts no longer have to sit on the factory shop floor; an R&D workshop where prototypes can be built out of sight; and the wood-beamed design office, which houses technical illustrators, creative agency and CAD teams, production-process analysts and designers. Thirty-four staff in all, and still growing. Already the MDEC investment has allowed long-term planning – something Morgan was rarely able to do in the past. Steve, Toby, and head of design Jonathan Wells aren’t willing to say much more of what’s coming, but as Jonathan points out: “The CX platform is designed with future models in mind; it’s a chassis we own, so we’re looking at what could live on top of it. There’s a long future for the classic shape, there’s no impending time limit for that, but we have to start thinking about future bodystyles. We rarely look at what’s out there [other makers’ cars] but think of what designers in the 1950s were thinking and wash that against modern references.”

As we head back out into the entrance foyer, Jonathan points out a tiny example of what he means – the use of old-tech brass on the electric-motor cooling fins. Morgan is changing… but not too much.