Voices

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.

WE ALL HAVE something we spend more money on than is really necessary. For many, a car is necessary, but a grudge purchase for mere transportation. Yet others consider the car to be an object of enjoyment in its own right.
 
My view is that because cars are so expensive and we spend so much time in them, then you should enjoy the car as more than just transport. And that is why marques such as Caterham and Morgan exist… at least for the moment.
 
I speak of them in the same sentence, yet the two manufacturers are not related. But they are similar.
 
Britain has lost all its mass-market manufacturers to foreign ownership – Land Rover, Jaguar, Mini – or killed them via incompetence, such as the sad case of Rover. Yet in the realm of small-volume specialist cars Britain reigns supreme, with names such as Rolls-Royce, Lotus, Aston Martin and the like. Evocative marques, all of British origin, all now foreign owned. And in motor racing Britain leads the way too; with most Formula 1 outfits based in the UK, many successful teams and drivers in every category you can think of, and a deep well of motoring expertise, enthusiasm and skill.
 
Today, Britain’s native-owned and operated car industry is a small, but proud group of manufacturers producing niche vehicles. There’s TVR (resurrected again), McLaren and of course Morgan and Caterham.  But ‘tiny’ only means volume of production, not degree of respect, depth of passion or richness of history – by those standards, the British manufacturers stand comparison with any marque you care to name. 
 
To find out more, Practical Motoring visited the Australian importer, Chris van Wyk, to discover exactly what these interesting vehicles are about and who is buying them.
 
RMP_9182  

Morgan 

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. 

RMP_9188

So why buy a Morgan?  Well, just look at it. The car is a rolling work of art, and all the more special because you know it’s an individual labour of love by people who are in the business for the cars, not the bottom line.  Chris told us that Morgans are about “the joy of motion”, and the “spirit of motoring as it used to be.”   There is, for many people, an intrinsic and almost primeval joy – no, perhaps satisfaction is the better term – to be found when operating simple, direct and beautiful machinery of this nature, and that is what Morgan offers, the “man-machine philosophy”.
 
The owners, by and large, are older couples who “all seem to enjoy wine” and are very social.   They understand the car is more about the journey than the destination, all can afford more conventional cars (and probably own at least one), but they choose the Morgan lifestyle.  Perhaps one reason is the reaction of other road users. Chris is experienced with many exotic cars, and he says that driving hyper-expensive cars can elicit a certain kind of negative reaction from many road users.  Not letting him in traffic, jealous looks, snarky remarks.  But drive a Morgan, and the traffic parts. People smile, wave, let you in, usher you through.  Why is that? 
 
One may suppose that hypercars are brash money, a status symbol that says “I love myself”, whereas a Morgan says “I love my car”.   I don’t really know, I’m yet to do a back-to-back test of the two.  And it should be said that many hypercars are lovely machines, and many owners buy them for the engineering…but sadly the general perception remains that the cars are only status symbols.
 
So what sort of a Morgan you get for your money?  Here’s the current spec and price list:
 
Status as at 1 August 2015 (subject to change without notice)Morgan
4/4
Morgan
Plus 4
Morgan
Roadster
Morgan
Plus 8
     
Engine make and sizeFord 1.6Ford 2.0Ford 3.7BMW 4.8
Engine type – all water-cooled 4-valve DOHC alloyIn-line 4In-line 4V6V8
Power output82 kW115 kW209 kW270 kW
Torque131 Nm201 Nm352 Nm490 Nm
Gearbox manual5-speed5-speed6-speed6-speed
Automatic transmissionN/AN/AN/A6-speed
Zero to 100 km/h acceleration8.0 sec7.3 sec5.5 sec4.5 sec
Maximum speed185 km/h189 km/hOver 225 km/hOver 250 km/h
Combined cycle fuel consumption litres/100 km6.47.09.810.8
Limited slip differentialN/AN/AStandardStandard
Weight, tare mass less fuel approximate795 kg877 kg950 kg1100 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.

IMG_0918

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:

RMP_9184

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 capacity1983cc
Engine type – spark ignition, 4 stokeV Twin
Power output60 kW @ 5,250 r/min
Torque140Nm @ 3,250 r/min
Vehicle mass550 kg
Power to Weight Ratio0.11 kW/kg
GearboxMazda 5-speed manual
Maximum speed185 km/h
0-100 km/h6.0 sec
Fuel consumption – combined9.3 litre/100 km
Length3260mm
Width1738mm
Height1012mm
  
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.
 
IMG_0917

Caterham

So if a Morgan is about cruising in a work of art with a sporting mindset, what would you say a Caterham is about?
 
RMP_9183
 
Well, it’s low, very light, has wide tyres with racing tread and not much in the way of frills.  So yes, it’s about speed.  Or more specifically, the essential, distilled essence of handling and driving enjoyment.  Chris says Caterhams are “pure sportscars”, and typically bought by males who use them for motorsports.
 
RMP_9207 
 
Caterham, like most British niche manufacturers, has quite a history.  The original car was the Seven, designed by Colin Chapman as a Lotus and launched way back 1957.   Colin was known for valuing lightness and simplicity above all else, engineering principles that served him well and saw him become one of history’s most famous and respected racing car designers.  The Seven was pretty much the epitome of the “simplify, add lightness” philosophy – it weighed a mere 500kg, and that meant the start of a virtuous circle.  Such a light car needed no power steering, which saved weight.  The brakes could be smaller and lighter, as could the engine because what’s important is power to weight ratio, not power – the original Seven had only 30kW engine and was intended for short-track club racing.   It was an instant hit, with owners delighting in the combination of telepathic handling and low running costs.  The chance to build the car from a kit was another attraction for many.
 
IMG_0952
 
In 1973 Lotus decided to shift away from basic kit cars and sold the rights to the Seven to Caterham Cars, based in the town of the name in southern England.   On a personal note, the author used to fly gliders close to Caterham and it was not unusual to see the tiny cars being driven at immoderate speeds around the sweeping bends that encircled the airfield.
 
Today, the original concept of a very small, light and basic front-engined, rear-drive two seater sportscar of this nature is called a Clubman.  There are now many variants and manufacturers which produce “Clubman” vehicles, and if you turn up to any grassroots motorsport event you will see several.  But the original is the Caterham, and in Australia there’s three models available:
 
 Seven 275Seven CSRSeven 485
 Entry level“Comfort”Ultra performance
Power100kW / 6800rpm127kW / 7300rpm177kW / 8500rpm
Torque160Nm / 4100rpm177Nm / 6000rpm206Nm / 6300rpm
Weight675700675
Power/weight6.85.53.8
Transmission5 speed manual5 speed manual6 speed manual
Limited-slip differentialWith R-PackOptionStandard
Top speed190km/h208km/h240km/h
0-100km/h5.55.53.9
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?  

Links

 
RMP_9200   IMG_0919   IMG_0948        RMP_9213 RMP_9215
 
 
RMP_9218

 


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
7 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
gyrator53
gyrator53
4 years ago

People have been predicting the demise of the Caterham 7 for as long as I can remember. I first knew I had to have one back in about 1960 (when it was a Lotus 7 of course) but it took me 45 years to get around to buying one – finished in bare ali and in kit form just as I had originally wanted it all those years before. It’s one of the very few things I have bought that completely lived up to my expectations and continues to do so.

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  gyrator53

Do you disagree with the hypothesis?

gyrator53
gyrator53
4 years ago
Reply to  Robert Pepper

I can’t speak for Morgan (though I would have one like a shot if I had somewhere to keep it free of woodworm and death-watch beetle) I think there are several factors you need to consider as far as Caterham or at least the “7” type car is concerned. As far as the home market is concerned there are a lot of petrol-heads about – not all of them old £@rt$ like me! – Jenson B and Lewis H have seen to that. There are a surprising number of people here that keep a 7 purely as a track-day weapon and that part of the market is not likely to fall apart any time soon as it’s substantially immune to the pressures of safety and emissions requirements for road cars. Yes, some day an owner of the Caterham brand may sell out to a main-stream manufacturer and the brand become used as a badge on some euro-box of no interest to a petrol-head but there have been so many rip-offs of the “7” concept, of which Westfield is the most successful example, that I think something very similar to the Caterham 7 will continue to exist even if that happened.

And while British governments, regardless of flavour are keen to show green credentials they are also very keen to keep harvesting the tax from the not inconsiderable motor-sport industry so they are unlikely to take any drastic action that will kill off the lower end of motor sport that is the feeder for the industry.

And then there is the Japanese effect. The new Caterham 160 is selling like hot-cakes in Japan – a country which is just as pertol-headed as the UK. I think this has meant Caterham are selling more cars in recent years than at any time in their history.

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  gyrator53

Interesting points, ’53. Yes, Caterhams will be kept as track-day cars (but not Morgans). But I’m not sure the volume of track-day only cars is going to be sufficient for the manufacturer to remain viable. Good to hear Caterham is doing well with the 160, and that the British government is far-sighted.

gyrator53
gyrator53
4 years ago
Reply to  Robert Pepper

I’d never call a British government far-sighted but you can rely on their self-interest. The interesting factor in the market is that the relative newcomers such as Radical and Ariel have made a success out of going for more extreme machines which are less roadable and even more geared to the track-day than the Caterham. My bet is Morgan will survive as their waiting list remains long despite their prices so the market would probably stand a substantial further hike. The hedge-fund managers have to get rid of their money somehow!

WiillW
WiillW
4 years ago

Why has the importer got pictures of Ferrari’s on the walls of his “Head Office”?? Weird way to promote your own product…..imagine Ferrari Having pictures of Bugatti Veyron pasted on their walls!

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  WiillW

Shares showroom space with Ferrari and others.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper