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BBC Autos

Other Side of the Road

In China, a deep bow to Morgan

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Morgan Motor Company’s recipe has worked for a century: lightweight, hand-built cars with a surfeit of power, rakishly abbreviated bodywork and charisma by the bucket-load.

But Morgan is now looking beyond its biggest markets in the UK and Germany, toward China. Can this most niche of manufacturers translate its appeal for a new audience?

Driving a Morgan is not quite as molecularly British as piloting a Spitfire down Bond Street dressed as the Queen while listening to the cricket scores, but it is not far off. Founded in 1910, the company made its name with quirky, motorbike-engined three-wheelers, before graduating to four-wheeled sports cars.

Morgan continues to make those two products at its base in Malvern. The prosaically named 3-Wheeler was re-launched in 2011 and now features a V-twin engine from Wisconsin-based S&S Cycle, a supplier to Harley-Davidson. Morgans with four wheels reach their zenith with the Aero Supersports, a striking, V8-powered two-seater.

Crackling down country lanes in rural England, Morgans seem part of the genetic fabric of the country, but they are making themselves heard five thousand miles away.

Wu Du Ming is a successful tailor in central China. His new Morgan Plus 8 will soon be rumbling around Hunan Province. The very Britishness of the car seems to have drawn him to the brand.

“I had in mind an image of the Morgan man – sophisticated, sporty and British,” he said. “I wanted to buy the Plus 8 because it is an automatic transmission, it is a V8 and it matches my image of the Morgan Man.”

Charles Morgan, managing director of the company that bears his family’s name, sees a niche to be filled. “Morgans tend to be bought by people who want to have fun in a car, who like tradition and for whom the human content in something hand-made is important,” he said.  “People in China do appreciate 100 years of corporate history.”

Eight cars have already been sold, including Wu’s; the remainders are waiting in customs at Tianjin, the northern Chinese metropolis. Jim James, managing director of Morgan’s Beijing dealership, says the appeal in the People’s Republic is strong.

“The desire for the aesthetic is amazing here,” James explained. “On one hand, part of the attraction is how the cars look.  But we’ve also found huge respect for the British automotive industry in China. Sometimes the UK underestimates the strength of its own brand.”

For 2013 there are dealerships in Beijing and Shanghai, with prices starting at RMB 777,000 (roughly $125,000) for the Morgan 4/4 and rising to RMB 4 million ($645,000) for the Supersports. The plan, Charles Morgan says, is to sell around 50 cars there this year.

The forecast partly justifies a rise in total vehicle production from 700 cars in 2011 to 1,500 for 2013, and would make China the company’s largest Asian market, supplanting Japan, which has averaged 30 cars a year for some time. However, Morgan says that approaches from South Korea to market the cars have also been received, so he expects the figures to grow.

Away from public roads, the Anglo-Chinese link is growing, too. This year marks the first time that a Chinese team, KCMG, has secured entry to the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, held in France in June. The car they will be campaigning? A Morgan.

A win for a British sports car in a French race by a Chinese team – now that would be a cultural exchange worthy of celebration in Malvern, Beijing and perhaps the United Nations.

Sometimes the UK underestimates the strength of its own brand. — Jim James

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