A few weeks ago I visited Morgan Motor Company in the UK. The highlight of the visit for me was getting the chance to sit down with Jon Wells, Morgan’s Head of Design, to talk about the company and their use of Autodesk software. I’m a huge fan of this company and the way they meld the traditional – cars are built in much the same way as they have been for 100 years – with the modern – aside from their advanced use of software they’re also pushing boundaries in terms of materials science in the automotive industry.
The interview is being published in two parts. This first part focuses on the company and their cars (with a particular focus on the Morgan 3 Wheeler) while the second will talk a bit more about Morgan’s use of Autodesk software. But this is a somewhat loose distinction – the line gets a little blurred, at times.
Onwards with the interview. My words are in bold, while Jon’s are in normal text.
How did the decision come around to revive the 3 Wheeler brand?
There were all sorts of reasons, actually, from nostalgic reasons through to business-oriented reasons. The company started with three wheelers in 1909. So when it got to 2009, as a centenary vehicle it was up there with the obvious choices to redo the three wheeler. We didn’t do it in 2009, we started the project in 2009 and launched it in 2011. So that was one reason, nostalgic, 100 years of Morgan, re-launch how we started with the company.
But the 3 Wheeler also meets some other quite important criteria. It’s classed as a motorbike – officially a motor-tricycle – so that essentially means it follows the homologation and approval rules a bike follows. Which means expensive car crash-tests and approvals tests become less of a constraint. This all means we are now able to build a truly international vehicle. I should add that a focus on safe motoring is always a priority for Morgan.
Until maybe four years ago, we used to be able to get vehicles into America, and then they changed certain laws about rear-impact testing. When you’ve got a very lightweight British sports car, it’s very difficult and expensive to get them past these tests. So we lost a potentially very big market for us.
It was also a question of perception. For a company like Morgan, who do what we do, we turn a lot of heads. Many of our cars have long production lifespans. To help make a big splash, to make people go “hang on a minute, maybe this company is worth getting into”, we wanted to do something that was a complete game-changer. So to suddenly launch a vehicle that only had three wheels, was dynamically very impressive, with great performance figures and was great fun to drive, with all that vintage styling that’s very apparent at the moment – you’re on to a winner! You’ve got bike companies like Norton and Triumph re-inventing classic-style bikes, you’ve got the new Mini launching, Fiat 500s, all of this kind of theme is very in-vogue at the moment – so to do a vehicle that has got all of those inspirations, but is also completely radical, was a good move for us in terms of brand perception. And we had a lot of people looking at Morgan, all of a sudden, and saying “oh wow, they’re doing some really fun stuff, there.”
Did the decision come from any one person, or was it made by a group of people?
I think it was a group thing. I’d been drawing three wheelers since I’d heard of Morgan, because it’s obvious to do a modern three wheeler, again. Charles Morgan is obviously very passionate about the design and direction of the company, as all of our directors are. Steve Morris, the current MD [Managing Director], was also massively excited about this; he saw it as a great idea for all the reasons I just covered. It was a fairly uniform decision to make. We did have to make sure the car was going to be safe – you’re obviously taking away a strong balance point – and we had to make sure we could do it, make sure we could fund the project, but as soon as we realized that we could, that it was a viable option, then we ran ahead.
I remember reading in the Telegraph that Charles Morgan said he didn’t initiate the idea, but was sold on it once he took a prototype home for the weekend.
I think that’s fair to say. Charles is very forward-thinking; he gets very excited about the direction of Morgan and where the company’s going. He was very passionate about projects such as the EVA GT and the future of Morgan – which we all are – and he spends a lot of time down in the office talking about those things. Which is cool, which is really important, obviously.
You mentioned in your AU speech that small Automotive companies are typically not able to innovate in the same way as large ones. In the software field, we’re used to the idea of a lot of innovation happening in startups and smaller companies. Perhaps being in a smaller company makes you more agile, in many ways.
I think so. That’s the nice thing. I think our working environment encourages innovation and creativity that succeeds. As I was showing you around the [design] office, you see that every member of the team has a completely different background, a completely different skillset, and every part of the process is sat within 30 square foot. So every time I do something that isn’t going to work, I know about it in real-time. I’m able to change that and evolve it straightaway. There are no stages to go through, nothing goes up and comes back down again, it all happens at once and goes out the door.
We can also work directly with the shop floor, too. There’s so much inherent knowledge within the craftsmen and women. Because of the way we build our cars on the shop floor, if we don’t know the answer to something, we can ask them. And if we know that they’re happy with it straightaway then we know there are not going to be any issues when we sign the design off and go into production. We also know it’s going to get produced relatively easily.
I think that’s the beauty of it. The difficulty comes when you consider that we’re trying to develop three different platforms – the Aeros, the Classics and the 3 Wheeler – we’re also looking towards the future, we’re also improving quality, we’re also responsible for all the testing and approvals, and all the stuff that takes a great deal of time…. Managing all the parts, doing the entire brand and marketing. So if you’re doing that much, you need to make sure you’re doing it very quickly and very efficiently, and that’s where the software comes into play. We have to be able to model something with accuracy, visualize it, say “yes, that’s going to work, I’m going to commit to spending my money on that”, and then be able to demonstrate that idea to the shop floor, to the other members of the team so that they understand it.
You mentioned the homologation issues, for example with the US. Where else has that come up as being a big issue? I’ve heard something about Canada…
Yes (laughing), Canada’s really difficult. That’s always been really difficult, actually. We have to think logically about the markets that are there, but also our dealer network. We’ve got dealers all over the world and in every corner of the world, but not a great deal of them. Even in America we’ve only got a handful. So we’ve got to make sure it’s worthwhile doing. And with Canada, some of the taxes and import laws over there are just so expensive, it doesn’t make it worthwhile.
I remember hearing there was some kind of 400 kg limit on motorized tricycles.
There are all sorts of really difficult ones. For example, recently we’ve had to start exploring the possibility that we may have to put a single headlamp in the center of our car, because a motorbike only has a single headlamp and that’s how they’re tested. So despite the fact that having headlights either side is probably safer, we’re going to have to put one in the middle, just to comply. It just seems ridiculous, but it’s those kinds of loopholes that can just savage us, sometimes.
Even in the UK, it’s now being classified as a motorbike in terms of the driving license you need, which also strikes me as ridiculous.
Anyone passing their [driving] test now, despite the fact you’ve got a steering wheel and a reverse gear and a gearstick and a seatbelt and you’re sat down and you have three pedals under your feet… you still need to have a bike license now but only if you haven’t passed your test yet. Luckily at the moment there aren’t a great deal of 17 year olds buying Morgans!
And of course you can’t take your bike test in a Morgan.
That’s right – you can’t take in a 3 Wheeler, you have to take it on a 500cc motorbike!
So it’s a completely redundant skill. And someone who’s come from a motorcycling background may not have the skills they need to drive a 3 Wheeler.
Yes (laughing), they’re completely different. It’s quite funny, here at the factory we’re actually all sweating about that one, a little bit. I have a full bike license and one other chap in my office does, and there’s probably a guy in Sales, but there’s not many of us. So it’s going to get quite interesting when we have to do all the [road] testing between three of us!
Do you have some sort of lobbying group?
We can appeal… the problem with appeals… somebody told me a story, just the other day: last week we got an appeal request returned that we filed in 2009. By which point we’d been doing it for four years! So it can be quite a slow process. We have to brace ourselves for it.
And of course managing that per market, with the local laws and everything, is very complicated, I guess.
Oh, completely. Somewhere like Canada, where we don’t yet have a dealer network established, it would cost so much to do it, so much time, it just doesn’t make it really worthwhile.
I just had a blog comment expressing an interest in your cars from Australia. Are Morgans currently available in Australia?
Yes, we’re getting into Australia as we speak. The 3 Wheelers have had to have head restraints put on the back of them, some lights in different positions, a few little upgrades, tweaks and changes. But yes, potentially we can get into Australia. We’ve sent cars there before on a “show & display” term, so somebody says “I really need to have this car, I’m going to stick it in my museum.”
How does it feel to have been part of the design/re-design of something so iconic in terms of British motoring history?
Very rewarding. And it’s not just to be a part of it, it’s actually to take a great deal of pride in doing it from start to finish. I’ve worked in some amazing studios before, some fantastic facilities, I’ve worked on components of cars and taken a great deal of pride in my work, but at Morgan you get to start right from the sketch phase right through to seeing a car on the road. But then you go to the shows, and you design show stands and the way in which it’s displayed, you speak to the customers and you see the reactions on people’s faces. You go out driving with a customer, on a demo, for example, and you see the thrill they’re getting. And that’s… you can’t really put words to it, almost, it’s really, really exciting to do that. And when it’s a car that’s got so much history, is built the way it’s built, drives like it does and just oozes ‘story’ and excitement it’s even better. Especially for a guy my age!
Whose idea was it to team up with Superdry on that particular special edition?
The Superdry collaboration was really exciting, actually. The guys at Superdry are actually based only 20 minutes down the road from here, they’re in Cheltenham. I believe they approached us, but it was reciprocated instantly. Because we could see the value in attaching ourselves to such a young brand and a very large young audience, basically. Their marketing and social power is immense, their following is huge. And to be able to associate ourselves with them shows the world that actually, you know, this is a fashionable, young, desirable vehicle. I mean, for the price of a Ford Focus that’s going to lose £10,000 straightaway you can jump in this car that won’t lose money, you’re going to look a great deal cooler, and you can tailor it exactly to how you want it and how you want to portray yourself. And that’s exactly what Superdry do. So it’s nice to be able to associate with them. Their creative team worked really closely with our creative team, we talked about what we could and couldn’t do. They proposed things, we proposed things. And we came up with a style that we were really, really happy with, actually. And I think that, perhaps even for some of our demographic that have maybe not heard of Superdry, the car still appeals to them aesthetically. And that was the cool thing about that project. It’s been really successful – we’ve sold a lot of cars through them… and it’s probably one of the most common specs that we build.
In terms of the Morgan 3 Wheeler’s popularity: it seems to have exceeded your expectations.
It certainly has, yes. When we launched the car, we were prepared and geared up – and thinking in the back of our heads – that maybe we’d sell 300-400 of these per year, if we were fortunate. And when we took that many deposits in the first couple of months...
What are the numbers looking like now?
In total, now, I think we’ve taken around 1,700 orders. There was an initial boom where we’d taken over a 1,000 in the first year, easily. So immediately very popular. It now represents 50% of our production. We build 750 3 Wheelers a year, and the same number of all of our four wheelers combined: so Aeros, Classics and everything. It’s been really, really popular for us straightaway.
I think we knew it would be popular: we thought it would turn some heads, and it’s a pretty exciting vehicle, but we didn’t expect it to outsell all of our other cars, completely hands-down. So yes, certainly a pleasant surprise. A lot had to be done to make sure the quality stayed within the vehicle as well as producing that many, and it was such a fast project, too. The danger was always that some development was going to occur whilst the cars were out in production. That was always the danger. Thankfully they’re very honest cars, they’re very mechanically simple, and they’re quite easy to address if there are issues.
I imagine that as you go to scale you might be sourcing different components…
Exactly. A lot of our suppliers are geared up for certain quantities and certain volumes. Then you ask them for a thousand in a year, all of a sudden, and they just can’t do it. That’s when things get a bit difficult, you have to start changing suppliers at the last minute, whilst we’re in production and you have to keep up with demand. That does encourage margin for errors and mistakes within the mechanical design, which has been unfortunate but has been addressed as fast as possible. I think people respect that we’re trying to be a bit punchy with that one, and that there are going to be a few hiccups on the way.
I’ve been checking the forums, and I’ve seen people raising concerns about “bump steer” due to the vehicle’s suspension, perhaps as one example…
Whilst we’ve put all our attention on making sure the vehicle is safe, and performs nicely – they are our most primary concerns – but as with any vehicle, any platform, any car in the world, there are constant improvements. This is new for us and the cars will improve. There are big, notable improvements that will be announced and released in the not too distant future, because we’ll evolve like any car does. And so those issues will be addressed.
You’ve talked about this as being the entry level Morgan. We talk a lot at Autodesk about democratizing use of design software and bringing down the price point, making technology more accessible. In a sense you’re democratizing Morgan as a brand. It’s kind of the gateway vehicle into Morgan.
Very much so, yes. We’re marketing the car in such a way – not that we target a specific audience because that’s dangerous for Morgan. A Morgan is so flexible… you could be a very young guy dressing the car in a modern manner and have a very cool vintage vehicle, or you could be perhaps an older gentleman that’s saved all his life and wanting a very traditional colour that’s nostalgic to your childhood… we’ve got make sure we advertise the cars as being that flexible by not pigeon-holing it in the marketing. But at the same time, it is a much cheaper vehicle, it is a true Morgan, it’s built in the same way and it is dressed to attract the young professional with that sort of money to spend.
But it also works two ways, it doesn’t just go up. We don’t just have guys buying the entry-level cars and working up to an Aero, we’ll have Aero customers that only drive supercars, that’s what they’re into, they’ll come along and want a £100,000 supercar with a BMW 4.8 -litre engine, all the performance, the aluminium, the technology, they’ll go “what’s the rest of this brand about?”, they’ll jump in a 3 Wheeler and they’ll say “you know what, I’m having one of those, as well”. It’s so different and so much fun. So it kind of works both ways. The cars are all so different that even our higher-end customers might just go “you know what, the 3 Wheelers are actually one of the most exciting cars you do!”, and they’ll jump into that. So it works two ways, it’s also a new discovery for an existing Morgan owner.
How did the decision to use S&S’s X-Wedge come about?
Hmm. Well, it had to be a twin, on the front of this car. It had to be a V-twin for aesthetic reasons as much as anything, but also the experience of driving the car. S&S are based next door to Harley Davidson, they share a lot of the same engineering know-how, a lot of the guys that work at S&S are Harley guys… and S&S is the choice engine for Harley customization. If you’re going to take a Harley and customize it, you’re going to put an S&S in it, probably. It’s a much more flexible engine, it’s very well-built, it’s very easy to adjust and tune, which is also very important for us to get it ready for the car. And the guys at S&S were so willing and so keen to work with us. They were just fantastic. One of their engineers lived over here for four months while the project was kick-starting, and they were really invested in the whole idea of it. And they’re just very good engines, they’re very workable. So it was a no-brainer for us, really. They can keep up with our warranty expectations and our supply-and-demand expectations. We’re actually very pleased that we’re with S&S, we don’t regret that decision at all.
I’m sure S&S are delighted, as well. You’re probably one of their single biggest customers.
And S&S are delighted, too. Funnily enough, JAP – who made one of the original three wheeler engines – are still in existence and they do build engines but not to the levels that we need them to, they’re not geared up to build thousands a year. And provide the warranty standards we would expect. So we did have to go look in America. Although it would have been nice to have had a British engine. The options just weren’t there, really.
Each car is unique, individually made… I’ve seen some very small details, that are different from one to the other. Such as the throttle cable being exposed, whereas with others it’s tucked away. Is that left down to the individual craftsman on the shop floor?
Sometimes it is left down to the craftsmen: every craftsman does their job in a different way, however they see best, and we make sure the general quality is ensured, but the craftsman does have his mark on the car, and a Morgan is built by hand by an individual. So there are always going to be discrepancies between the cars.
In terms of an improvements point-of-view, everything on the shop floor that gets suggested to us that would be a viable improvement we take very seriously. So they’ll come into the office, and if we do believe it is a viable improvement we’ll make an engineering change and the car an hour later will be built in a different way. And there are constant updates that just improve the general quality based on the decisions of these craftsmen that are building them every day. So that does mean that often you’ll see a car built a certain way and then a month later there’ll be quite a few different parts about that car that have been improved. Albeit very subtle: we’ve never unearthed a major problem that’s meant we’ve had to consider recalls or anything like that, but there are just subtle improvements all the time, really. That and the craftsman just getting his tin-snips on it in a slightly different position (laughs). Which is nice, actually, because every car is completely unique, every one is completely individual.
If you wanted something that was coming off a production line…
… you’d buy a Volvo (laughs).