Simple cars for sophisticated minds – Caterham, Morgan and the future of niche cars
For some people it’s a painting. Or maybe clothes, and quite often coffee. And then there are cars… Enter Caterham and Morgan; simple cars for sophisticated minds.
The Morgan Car Company began in 1909 with a three-wheeled model, and in 1936 the company progressed to four wheels. Today, there are six cars on three platforms. All are hand-built by craftsmen, and total production, worldwide, is about 1300 per year.
To put that in perspective, Land Rover consider that selling around 22,000 Defenders per year across the globe is small beer. In Australia each year Porsche sell 330 of their 911s – that’s quarter of Morgan’s global production, and of course Porsche make many more cars than the 911. An Aussie best-seller like the Mazda 3 will top 32,000 cars per annum.
|Status as at 1 August 2015 (subject to change without notice)||Morgan|
|Engine make and size||Ford 1.6||Ford 2.0||Ford 3.7||BMW 4.8|
|Engine type – all water-cooled 4-valve DOHC alloy||In-line 4||In-line 4||V6||V8|
|Power output||82 kW||115 kW||209 kW||270 kW|
|Torque||131 Nm||201 Nm||352 Nm||490 Nm|
|Zero to 100 km/h acceleration||8.0 sec||7.3 sec||5.5 sec||4.5 sec|
|Maximum speed||185 km/h||189 km/h||Over 225 km/h||Over 250 km/h|
|Combined cycle fuel consumption litres/100 km||6.4||7.0||9.8||10.8|
|Limited slip differential||N/A||N/A||Standard||Standard|
|Weight, tare mass less fuel approximate||795 kg||877 kg||950 kg||1100 kg|
|Price, excluding options, dealer delivery & statutory charges||$95,800||$106,500||$143,000||$254,000|
|‘Drive away’ price of car in standard trim in Melbourne||$103,961||$115,223||$153,615||$270,387|
|Interstate prices and registration and stamp duty charges are quoted individually as applicable. Transport costs from Melbourne dealership are extra.|
Now such bald and bare numbers cannot convey what Morgan is all about, but nevertheless we can draw some interesting conclusions. First, there’s next to no modern safety features such as ABS, stability control and even airbags because Morgan doesn’t have the resources to engineer them. Fortunately, European authorities take a relaxed attitude to small-scale manufacturers, not requiring them to go through all the tests the larger makers must pass. That’s in sharp contrast to Australia which is not only painfully over-regulated but inflexible with it, and has different laws from state to state. This doesn’t make for an environment friendly to niche engineering companies, and indeed it appears the authorities wish to discourage such vehicles and in particular kit cars. As Chris puts it, “England ‘gets’ small, light cars but the Australian government does not want builders”.
Nevertheless, Chris was able to argue that his cars should have an exemption for laws such as mandatory stability control, pointing out that the low sales volume of Morgans – some twenty a year – would make next to no difference to the road toll. Furthermore, the average Morgan driver is older, more skilled than the average and a lower crash risk.
The lack of such features goes some way to explaining the unusually light weight – 800kg to a mere 1100kg for the V8. As a comparison, a Toyota 86 is 1250kg. The Lexus RC F V8 is 1860kg. These Morgans are light, and anything light has a huge performance, handling and efficiency advantage over the equivalent heavier vehicle. But not just performance, because these days you can engineer your way to a fast, albeit boring laptime in any sportscar.
In fact, the true beauty of lightness is in the drive not the performance numbers. Many drivers today have grown up on modern, heavy, stodgy cars that insulate, help and flatter the driver. That’s a shame, because they will have never known what it is like to drive a light car – the deeply thrilling sensation of oneness with the vehicle, the responsiveness, the rich immediacy of reward, the sheer flowing joy of speed through all your senses. Consider a large sailing dinghy compared to a windsurfer.
But that sensation comes at a price. Surely, Morgan is gouging? That money for that car? In some ways one is reminded of Mark Twain’s quote – “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one”. Lightweight engineering is difficult, but that’s not the only problem. There’s a far more difficult problem, economies of scale.
The cost to design and manufacture say an airbag system is about the same whether you make 1300 cars a year or 1.3 million. Now you divide the cost over 1300 or even 130,000 and see what the extra price per car is, and you’ll understand why small-scale manufacturers have to charge high prices for their products. And that exclusivity you wanted? Well, you only get that from a small manufacturer, and small manufacturers of cars must charge high prices. Indeed, Ferrari limit their production, keep their prices high, and are picky about who they sell what car to all in the name of making their brand desirable and exclusive, to the point where they do not advertise at all.
Another interesting factor is that small-scale manufacturers cannot benefit from economies of commercial scale, for example they are unable to play games with currencies, build excess stock, shift production from place to place and generally work the world market to their advantage. Instead, Chris says the “impact of currency low volumes is hard and immediate.” That cost has to be passed on too.
So make your choice. Anything special is by definition rather tailored to specific tastes, so the market is limited, and costs are higher per unit, particularly with complex, highly regulated machines such as motorcars.
Conversely, a car that appeals to masses excites nobody but accountants, but you get economies of scale and thus low cost. Remember too each Morgan is hand-built to order so it is unique, and you can customise it as you wish.
But if a normal Morgan isn’t enough, then:
That’s a three wheeler! How much more distinctive and interesting can you get? Possibly – and I use this word knowing what it means – unique?
|Morgan 3 Wheeler|
Australian Price and Specification
|Engine type – spark ignition, 4 stoke||V Twin|
|Power output||60 kW @ 5,250 r/min|
|Torque||140Nm @ 3,250 r/min|
|Vehicle mass||550 kg|
|Power to Weight Ratio||0.11 kW/kg|
|Gearbox||Mazda 5-speed manual|
|Maximum speed||185 km/h|
|0-100 km/h||6.0 sec|
|Fuel consumption – combined||9.3 litre/100 km|
|Price, excluding options, dealer delivery & statutory charges||$97,500|
|‘Drive away’ price of car in standard trim in Melbourne||$105,755|
|Interstate prices and registration and stamp duty charges are quoted individually as applicable.|
|Transport costs from Melbourne dealership are extra.|
|Seven 275||Seven CSR||Seven 485|
|Entry level||“Comfort”||Ultra performance|
|Power||100kW / 6800rpm||127kW / 7300rpm||177kW / 8500rpm|
|Torque||160Nm / 4100rpm||177Nm / 6000rpm||206Nm / 6300rpm|
|Transmission||5 speed manual||5 speed manual||6 speed manual|
|Limited-slip differential||With R-Pack||Option||Standard|
|Drive away (Melbourne)||$75,242||$99,953||$126,253|
Here again the statistics are interesting. The acceleration on all three models is impressive, but not so the top speed. This is normal for light, low powered cars – what gets you from 0-100 quickly is a good power to weight ratio, but top speed has very little to do with weight and much more to do with sheer power to overcome drag which builds up very quickly as speed increases.
I think it fair to say that every driving enthusiast would love a Caterham. But then reality intrudes. It is a lot of money for a very impractical car. At the low end, there’s the Toyota 86 and MX-5. Higher up there’s the Porsche Boxster. These cars offer great driving thrills, yet considerably more daily practicality. This leaves the Caterham as a Sunday toy, and not many can afford to buy new cars only for recreation.
What of the future?
I fear that cars like Caterham and Morgan will not be around much longer, as they face multiple threats. There is the decreasing interest in cars from young people, a problem carmakers around the world are struggling with as the status symbol becomes a smartphone, not a car, and the need to travel for social interaction decreases every day with better technology.
Simply, cars like these do not sell to young people who mostly aren’t interested and do not have the money. They sell to people who want to realise their dreams, and often those dreams are rooted in early childhood experiences, so today’s buyers who are aged 40 plus have mostly been thinking about such cars for at least the last two decades. I see this with Defender owners all the time – owners that have always wanted one, and have changed from the likes of Range Rovers back to Defenders. Porsche and Harley Davidson play on this too, with slogans like “If not now, when?”
Another problem is those early experiences that sow the seed of mid-life desire are becoming rarer and rarer, a vicious circle. This is because younger people are less interested in cars, and there’s less cars to enjoy. No young child will get a thrill from a Prius idling by, but how many readers remember as a kid the spectacle of a thunderous V8 ripping away from the traffic lights?
Then there is the cost of manufacture. Building cars has become more and more complex and expensive over the years, and the future holds yet more expense. This will force prices higher, demand will drop, and there we have a vicious circle for the niche manufacturers.
Gloomy words. But I do see some hope, albeit short term. Cars these days are electronic, aiding and helping the driver. This makes them safer and more capable, but also more pointless. The man-machine interface, the joy of motion, the satisfaction of control…these simple pleasures are denied or diluted in modern cars which are easy and fast, but not rewarding. Hence the pure simplicity of a Morgan or Caterham, the difference between a sailing boat and a motorboat.
It is a fact that the last of the sportscars such as the 911 variants without electronics are fetching higher prices than the newer models, and we see the same in the 4WD world with premium prices paid for the likes of the 4.2L GU Patrol and the last of the diesel LC100s. But the laws of emissions and safety are like an incoming tide on a sandcastle, not to be denied their goal.
I think I know the answer – it will be a for a large-scale manufacturer to buy the brand, and create some anodyne pseudo-sportscar that shares a platform with a shopping trolley, slap a badge on it, add some offhand styling to “pay homage” to the history, a few tweaks here and there and call it good. Then market the hell out of it, squeeze the brand’s goodwill and reputation dry to the point where everyone has forgotten what the original was about. Mini and Cooper, anyone?
Harsh? Possibly. An alternative scenario is the above, but the manufacturer takes the brand seriously, invests in the product and while the base is mass-produced there’s enough engineering to continue the vehicles as modern interpretations of the original philosophy.
I don’t know which scenario will play out. However, there’s no doubt cars such as Morgans and Caterhams have significant and increasing headwinds. and if you’ve always wanted one I think it wise not to wait too long.
Niche cars like these are paintings in an era of digital photography, individually unique, impractical as beauty and art often is. But even better, these cars are products you physically enjoy with all your senses, not merely visually or aurally. I’d even hang one on the wall as art.
But you know what’s special about paintings? They are admired through the ages. Out of all the cars sold this month in Australia, how many are going to exist in forty years time, and how many will be admired?
- Morgan Cars Australia – morgancars.com.au
- Morgan Motor Company – www.morgan-motor.co.uk
- Morgan Owners Club Australia – www.morganownersclub.com.au
- Caterham Cars Australia – www.caterhamcars.com.au
- Caterham Cars www.caterhamcars.com
- Caterham Cars on Facebook – www.facebook.com/CaterhamCars