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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

  • Jay Leno April 2010 - 0
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Jay Leno on Morgan

As a kid, the big magazine in America was called Road and Track. Everything’s done on the Internet now, but 25 or 30 years ago the classifieds of Road and Track always had the coolest cars. Most newspapers just had the usual Fords and Chevys, but Road and Track had Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Duesenbergs... and it was always my dream to one day buy a vehicle out of the back of that publication.

So in the mid-1980s when I started to get successful, I saw a three-wheel Morgan in those pages and I bought it. It was exactly as I hoped it would be: a wonderful, wonderful car. So, when I heard Charles Morgan was coming to California to show the new AeroMax, I invited him to come by the garage. I called him Sir – I have no idea whether he is or not. Any time Americans meet people from England, they just assume they’re a Sir. So he brought the AeroMax to my place.

Now I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the great-grandson of Henry Ford, but I never got to see William Lyons or WO Bentley. So to meet Charles Morgan, and shake the hand that goes all the way back to the very beginning, was a thrill. He was very down to earth and told me the firm was premiering the AeroMax in LA. He gave me the address.

Now here’s what made me laugh. The Maybach, and a number of other cars like that, have been premiered in Los Angeles, and it’s usually at downtown’s Staples Centre arena, with photographers and people all about. Charles said the AeroMax would be premiering in Hollywood, and the address he gave was a house high up in the hills. And in the Charles Morgan typical small-town way, there were 14 people there.

The 14 people could not have been bigger enthusiasts. They’d come from all over the mid-west and from San Francisco to see this car, and I love that. The actor Malcolm McDowell was there. It just sort of made me laugh, because it was as if you were going to a family gathering. By comparison, I hosted Jaguar’s XJ launch in London last summer. It was a huge, worldwide event. And here was Morgan premiering the AeroMax in a Hollywood Hills home. The car was in the driveway. It was hilarious.

I actually really liked it because you could talk to everyone there, including the guy who owns the factory. He gives you his card, and you can call him up. The days of a customer ringing up Enzo Ferrari on the phone are gone. To actually talk to someone who has anything more than a tenuous connection with the factory is almost impossible.

The sense of the DNA of the firm comes when you say to Charles: ‘Boy, the aluminium on the fender is nicely done,’ and he says: ‘Oh yeah, Graham did that.’ He’ll tell you the name of the guy! It’s done in a much more modern way, but the cars are still put together by hand. The other endearing part is that so many factory staff are the children of previous workers. Now you think of Morgan as an old company, but the average age there is 34. In America, if every year your firm doesn’t get bigger, then it is somehow failing. Morgan makes one less than people want and so keep things at a manageable level. It does exactly what it can do. That’s it. Thank you. Nobody is working triple shifts to get the cars out. They come out when they come out. You don’t really see that anymore.

I think Morgan is very smart, in that as much as I admired TVR for building its own engine, it was such a huge undertaking that anything less than 100% success would mean total failure. So Morgan very wisely searched the world to find the best unit… in this case, a BMW.

The AeroMax is a very lightweight car, about 2800lb, and about 37bhp. It’s fast and very Morgan-like. I’m the opposite of claustrophobic: I enjoy English roadsters that are snug and you feel like you’re in this little leather cabin. It has the old-school leather that I like.

The thing that’s unique about this car is that it’s not done by committee. In some ways it’s a bit like the Dodge Viper: this is what it looks like – you either like it or you don’t. The look, for a lot of people, is polarising. They either can’t stand it or they love it. The Morgan strikes you emotionally, which is OK because if everybody loved it the factory could not make enough. So it is built only for those whose fancy it strikes.

Morgan is able to survive because it never puts more food on the plate than it can eat. When times were good it didn’t expand the factory, and when times were bad it wasn’t closed down. WO Bentley was always reaching for the next big market – ‘We’ve got to compete with Rolls’ – but Morgan is just Morgan. I’m not sure who its rivals are, and I’m not sure it knows. It’s a bit like Harley: no matter what year Morgan you have, it’ll never be old-fashioned because the new ones are old-fashioned.

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