By on June 8, 2012

Previous editions of Generation Why have explored one of the last glimmers of automotive affection that the “carless generation” still holds on to- the love of classic cars.

Modern cars are better than they’ve ever been in every qualitative aspect, but they have embraced a stifling homogeneity as a result. Consolidation will only exacerbate that – who would have thought that one day, Mazda would be doing the legwork for the next Alfa Romeo Spider. Personally, I think the marriage of Italian aesthetics with Japanese guts is the perfect union, but it’s also indicative of the epoch we live in; there is little room for sentimentality, romance and narrative if you are a mainstream manufacturer, because it’s very easy for the lights to be turned off and your dinner to be snatched away.

On the fringes, free from pedestrian crash test regulations, expectations of 432 airbags and Facebook integration, creativity and originality still exists. Somewhere in my piles of EVO back issues, there is a quote from an unnamed Honda executive stating “In the end, there will be three car companies. One of them will be Morgan.”

Morgan, as well all know, uses wood as a key construction element for their cars, and recently launched a new 3-Wheeler that uses a motorcycle-style V-Twin engine. Car and Driver’s Justin Berkowitz recently interviewed company head Charles Morgan (yes, it’s a family business), and Morgan’s eloquent dissection of the modern sports car, his realistic outlook on the industry (“…everybody has to have collaboration if they’re going to build a viable car…” and most importantly, his recognition of the desire for as he calls it “quality and individualism”. Morgan’s small size and overflowing order books often translate into wait lists, which helps the brand’s exclusitivity factor. While they do about 750 cars per year, the 3-Wheeler has apparently generated in excess of 1200 orders alone. According to those more familiar with the business than I am, that will take Morgan years to complete.

On our side of the world, ICON announced plans to expand beyond their lineup of Land Cruisers and Broncos with an Aston Martin DB4 Zagato-esque car called the “Reformer“. The Reformer will no doubt be an expensive, exclusive proposition – just like the Morgan cars are (though the 3-wheeler will apparently retail for around $45,000 in the U.S.). But the beauty of aiming for the top of the market is that even in tough times, the really rich people interested in wacky, bespoke 4-wheeled toys tend to hang on to their fortunes and can still afford to buy these kinds of products. No surprise that Lotus is a victim of being stuck in the middle – rotgut and cognac always sell in tough times, to both polar extremes of the market. Everything else suffers.

Are we ever going to see these sorts of boutique companies spring up and offer classic-looking vehicles, modern powertrains and more importantly, a breath of fresh air from the current crop of numbers-obsessed isolation chambers that masquerade as sports cars? Probably not. But the love affair with classic cars, their designs, powertrains and their elemental purity will continue to burn bright as cars march further and further down that path. The motorcycle market in North America has been suffering from a big gap in the marketplace between 250cc and 600cc bikes that are affordable and desirable for new riders. Enter Cleveland CycleWerks, a Cleveland-based motorcycle company that is bringing to market some low-end, affordable bikes that look like they came straight of a Hunter S. Thompson-era desert race. The catch? They’re made in China. That seems to be the only way these things get down nowadays.

Drawing parallels between an upstart motorcycle company and the auto industry as a whole isn’t completely fair. But there’s no denying that there’s something about those older vehicles, whether they’re FJ40s or 427 Cobras, that keeps us longing for them to the point where we insist on restoring them and building replicas of them with new and improved underpinnings. Right now, your choices for an affordable, ICON-esque vehicle seem to be emulating this gentleman’s project of mating a Healey Sprite body to Miata running gear. I still hold out hope that some brave entrepreneur or trust fund recipient will take up something like Cleveland Cyclewerks for automobiles. Or an OEM doing “factory refreshes” of iconic models. If not, I’ll be in the garage…

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26 Comments on “Generation Why: ICONs And Morgans...”


  • avatar
    Will

    1972 Plymouth Valiant, Isuzu diesel engine.

  • avatar
    Ubermensch

    I watched the Top Gear episode with my wife recently where Hammond drove a Morgan identical to the one pictured and she was in love with the way it looks. I have to agree with her that the WWII aircraft paint scheme is pretty bad ass. $45k is way to steep for what is basically a toy, but I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to buy one for themselves.

  • avatar
    MattMan

    “In the end, there will be three car companies. One of them will be Morgan.” Nice.

    Not to be a grammeration nazi, but shouldn’t “qualitative measure” be “quantitative measure”? By definition, what makes something “qualitative” is that it can’t be measured.

    • 0 avatar
      photog02

      Legions of qualitative researchers would disagree with your last sentence. But, yes, in this case I do believe he means quantitative.

      • 0 avatar
        NMGOM

        Hi MattMan,

        Ordinarily, and perhaps 50 years ago, what you said is quite right. But conversely, “photog02″ does have a point. The “science” of modern statistics, applied to once qualitative “sampling”, seems to allow a quantitative “measure” of things like opinions, preferences, values, and so on, …especially in the social sciences. And, horror of horrors, some very new statistical theories even allow for causality, something that everyone heretofore has shied away from.** The distinction between purely quantitative and purely qualitative has certainly gotten blurred.

        ** People have got to be vey careful here. Just because the phases of the moon did at one time correlate with the performance of the stock market, does not necessarily mean now that the moon CAUSED the stock market’s highs and lows! This whole topic can get luny in a hurry (^_^)…

        ———

  • avatar
    mealsonwheels

    Don’t forget about Singer and their retro-fab 911s. Gorgeous cars, with a commensurate price tag. Glad to hear the Morgan will be a somewhat reasonably priced piece of unobtanium.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes! I forgot; the 3-Wheeler is a licensed design from an American company. That saves Morgan a bunch of money on R&D.

      • 0 avatar
        wmba

        “Healy Sprite body”.

        HEALEY. Donald Healey.

        I find that only Baruth and McAleer seem to be able to spell and not leave words in the middle of sentences.(missing word: out) This apropos the previous post on how to become an automotive journalist.

        If you need a copy editor after September this year, I’m available!

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        Ace’s cyclecar needs an alternate universe to exist in where Jim Feuling hasn’t died and the W3 is available in quantity.

  • avatar
    david42

    My wife and I just bought a nice little yuppiemobile for ourselves. But if GM were to offer a retro-fabulous B-body, you can bet they would’ve won our business.

    I have fond memories of my dad’s diesel Delta 88 (even if he doesn’t!). It’s no Morgan… or FJ40… or DB4…. but that’s the stuff nostalgia is made of.

  • avatar

    I think people are too afraid of old cars. They’re an order of magnitude less complex the anything made in the past 30 to 40 years. I have a 1960 Big Healey and find it not just a ton of fun to drive (and listen to, the sounds that thing makes) but pleasing to work on. There’s just not a lot of car there, that’s a good thing.

    Cool old cars are out there waiting for you to buy them, drive them, and wrench on them. There is nothing like an Austin Healey 3000 to bring a smile to a traffic jam.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      The Healy 3K was always my favorite, obtainable British roadster (the XK-E being “unobtainable.” The advantage all of these pre-smog cars have for the backyard tinkerer is the lack of electronic anything or smog controls. Although getting a pair of SU or Stromberg side draft carbs to work in harmony is no small thing!

    • 0 avatar
      NMGOM

      Bret,

      I could not agree with you more. Especially the “listen to”. That is what makes a car alive. It’s noises, throbs, and songs provide the car with a voice, and allow it to speak, to communicate with us, like a living being. And it’s absence is what makes an electric car the senseless deaf-mute of the automobile world, a clinically anesthetized robot. Where is the life in that?

      Thank you for your comment.

      —–

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Old cars are GREAT, as long as you are using them sparingly. They need a LOT of love and attention if you put a lot of miles on them though. Lots of things to tune and grease and tweak and such. I put about 1000 fun-filled miles a year on my Spitfire and it is bulletproof with one afternoon a year of maintenance, but I am under no illusions of how will it would take to doing 1000+ miles a month like my BMW.

      My ’86 Alfa Spider is somewhere in-between, I put 4-5K a year on it and it is also completely reliable, and I could see it being a decent daily driver if it weren’t for that fact that in that case on a quiet night you would be able to hear the tinworm chomping on it.

      I do agree that the soul has been taken right out of most modern cars, especially the bland top-sellers. Thankfully we still have Fiat 500s, Minis, 3-series, FR-S and such to carry the torch.

  • avatar
    azmtbkr81

    I’d buy an Icon Bronco in a second…if my bank would approve the mortgage.

    Any idea how do these new/old vehicles bypass safety regulations?

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      Most of the time you’ll pass as long as the rust isn’t too bad, your lights and wipers work, your brakes work, the car runs, the glass isn’t shattered too badly, and if you have good front seatbelts.

      Basically, your car just has to be drivable.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      The 3-wheel Morgan is considered a motorcycle, not a car, so it is exempt from nearly everything.

      The other stuff is based on the chassis of a used car so is not “new” in the eyes of the government – no different than a fully restored whatever.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    “Any idea how do these new/old vehicles bypass safety regulations?”
    That was my thought also. My guess is they use some small part of an old vehicle and then claim it’s a rebuild… I could be wrong. But I believe it is safety regulations which is stopping people from importing ultra cheap, newly built, Lotus 7 knock offs from China. New motorcycles are much easier to get through all the safety BS and onto the road.

  • avatar

    There’s also that company that puts modern M-B drivetrains in classic models. Pardon the self-promotion:
    http://hooniverse.com/2012/04/25/mechatronik-classic-mercedes-looks-with-modern-power/

    The flipside is the tirade I’ve been wanting to write for some time…so many armchair enthusiasts seem to pine endlessly for the equivalent of a ’74 Dart or mid-90s Civic.

    You know what? ’74 Darts and mid-90s Civics are cheap. Go buy one. Pay a good shop to fix everything and maintain it and it’ll still be cheaper than a new car, even with gas factored in.

  • avatar
    daveainchina

    Why do we keep focusing on them? I’d call it the analog experience, today the experience is just too digital, from the way we communicate to how we do our work to how we do most of our leisure time. It’s all digital.

    I expect that analog experiences in another 20 years are going to be only for the rich. And heavily sought after by them.

    • 0 avatar
      NMGOM

      daveainchina,

      Absolutely. You hit it right on the button. At our macroscopic level, the entire world and the things in our lives are all analog, not digital. Digital is foreign to our psyche. That’s why old cars where you have to adjust the points, gap the plugs, fiddle with the carburetor(s), set the clutch engagement position, etc, etc…all give us such a feeling of satisfaction. It’s as though we are communing with a living relative who speaks the same language,…and in a way we are. All this says nothing about our ability to help ourselves if things get goofy, without the whole “system” shutting down.

      Yes, it provides “Joy in Driving”, but how much “Joy in Owning” do I get out of reading OBD II codes in my 2007 BMW? ANS: zero.

      ————-

  • avatar
    Glen.H

    I sometimes think the modern powertrain, old body,interior can be a bit misguided. Sure a good, reliable powertrain is great,but the little details that every carmaker gets right now are the killer for old cars for me. It’s the stuff like defogging the screens,wipers that work properly, handbrakes that hold properly that wear down the old car ownship experience for me. Maybe I’m just spoiled but I kind of prefer the old style driving experience, but without those little annoyances….

  • avatar
    NMGOM

    Derek….

    Great article. Very well written.

    There is yet one other little car company that evokes memories of things past and keeps life simple and unique, like Morgan. Yes, it too is current and active. It is Allard Motor Cars. Please see link:

    http://www.allardj2x.com/

    ——–

  • avatar
    fredtal

    Putting classic car shapes over modern mechanicals appeals little to me. You are missing out on the heart of what old car motoring is about. Sure it maybe unreliable and Camry’s can out accelerate you, but it’s just not as much fun.


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