Car Industry

Classic of classics: How Morgan still makes its wooden wonders

The tiny British automaker Morgan still makes cars by hand using a combination of woodworking skill and modern technology. Here’s how.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

For nearly 120 years Morgan Motor Company has been building three- and four-wheeled vehicles in a tiny factory in western England. The company's iconic design is instantly recognizable, largely for how little it has changed since its introduction 83 years ago.

Today, Morgan makes three vehicles, with five different engines. Soon, a fully electric car will join its fleet. Fewer than 200 employees build around 800 vehicles a year. The cars are still largely made by hand, though modern manufacturing methods are employed where necessary.

The factory is open for tours, and it's a fascinating look at the coach-building processes common to the early 20th century, and some of the techniques of modern mass production. Here's a look inside.

Nestled in Malvern Link

Morgan is, and has been for over a century, in the little town of Malvern Link, southwest of Birmingham, on the west side of England. Go a touch farther, and you're in Wales. The roads in the area weave their way across farmland and around rolling hills; it's easy to see why H.F.S. Morgan wanted something sporty to drive when he built his first three-wheeler in 1909. You can also get to the factory on foot -- the Malvern Link train station isn't far and is a pleasant walk, as long as the weather's nice.

The factory itself is pretty unassuming, just a series of low red brick buildings. It could be any of the countless industrial areas in England, though notably older than most. Out front a panoply of Morgans greet visitors, part of the company's rental fleet. Fancy a drive in a Morgan, but don't need another car? You can rent one for around £220 ($288 US or roughly AU$380) a day. Inside there's a cafe for snacks while you wait for your tour.

The cars parked out front don't belong to customers -- they're rentals, available to anyone who fancies a drive in a Morgan.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The tour itself gets you access to all areas of the factory, from the woodworking shops where they form the structure of the car, to the metal shops where they craft the flowing exterior curves. It's alternately a step back in time, and one with an occasional glimpse at auto manufacturing of the modern day.

Roadsters and trikes

Morgan has three models: the classic roadster, a modern two-seater and three-wheeler. The classic roadster comes in four flavors, each visually similar but sporting a different engine. The 4/4 has a Ford Sigma 1.6L I4 engine, with 110 horsepower pushing a car that only weighs 1,753 pounds. The Plus 4 has a Ford 2.0-liter mill, with 154 horsepower driving 2,044 pounds. The Roadster 3.7 has Ford's 282-horsepower, 3.7-liter Cyclone/Duratec V6, recently used in the base Mustang (though that car now has a 2.3-liter EcoBoost I4). In a car that weighs 2,094 pounds, this engine is good for a 0-62 mile-per-hour time of 5.5 seconds. At the top end of the range is the Plus 8, which has a BMW-sourced 4.8-liter V8 good for 367 horsepower and a 4.5-second 0-62 time.

The aerodynamic Aero 8 was Morgan's update of its design for the new century. It's distinctly a Morgan, but with a few modern flourishes. It uses the same running gear as the Plus 8. And while it's commonly believed the car's chassis is entirely wood, it's not and never has been. Steel was the original material, though now the cars are mostly aluminum. Parts of the sub-frames are still wood, however. Ash is used for its strength and flexibility. The hood and fenders are rolled by hand on traditional machines, which you'll see in the photo tour embedded above.

Building fewer than 1,000 cars per year means Morgan doesn't have to adhere to the same regulations as larger car companies, but those exemptions don't always work. In the US, for example, there has been over a decade of no new Morgan cars, but the Plus 4 and Roadster will soon be available. There is also a vibrant used market, and given how little the cars have changed over the years, and how slowly (if at all) they depreciate, "used" is pretty similar to "like new" in this case.

What you can get just about everywhere is the tiny 3 Wheeler, as it's imported under motorcycle regulations. The two-seater trike looks straight out of the beginning of the last century. Built by S&S, the 3 Wheeler's 2.0-liter engine its good for 68 horsepower and drives the single rear wheel through a Mazda MX-5 Miata's gearbox. Only weighing 1,290 pounds, the 3 Wheeler gets to 62 mph in 6 seconds. An all-electric version has been in the works for some time, and is due later this year.

All Morgan interiors have a decidedly old-world look and feel.

Geoffrey Morrison/cNET

What's old is new

The Morgan factory tour takes just a few hours. The £22.50 ($29.50 US or roughly AU$40) tours run throughout the normal business day, though stopping mid-afternoon on Fridays.

If Worcestershire, England, isn't in your travel plans, check out the gallery above. It's a glimpse at what building a car looked like several generations ago, just using some modern tools and a few pieces of modern equipment. And the cars sure are gorgeous.


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmedieval castlesiconic music studios and more. 

You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel