Morgan Plus 8 50th Anniversary Edition Quick Spin Review

A popular model is being phased out as new ones come in

Morgan Plus 8 50th Anniversary Edition  – Today, Honda’s founder seems prescient, as venerable brands disappear or are purchased by foreign companies, and somehow tiny Morgan enters its 109th year of independent continuous production. These quaint cars inspire such loyalty in their owners that in the 1970s, U.S. customers were prepared to have their Plus 8 models converted to run on propane to get around the strict emissions and safety legislation. Morgan owners have often raised a glass to the perseverance and grit of legendary Californian Morgan importer and dealer Bill Fink, who kept Morgan in business in the States.

The original Plus 8 was designed in the 1960s as a replacement for the Triumph four-cylinder-engined Morgans. Despite its engine upgrade, its anachronistic construction—with a Z-section steel ladder frame, solid rear axle, sliding pillar front axles and ash-framed hand-beaten coachwork – didn’t change.

Morgan Plus 8 50th Anniversary Edition

Launched at the 1968 Geneva motor show, it was a sensation, with acceleration (if not handling) to match that of the Jaguar E-Type, a bargain-basement price and fantastic looks. It also had a virtual royal endorsement as the queen’s heir apparent, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, asked for one to be demonstrated for him at Windsor Castle. It was only his Grinch-like security detail that prevented him having one as his daily driver.

U.S. safety authorities nixed on the original Plus 8 in 2005 around the same time that its replacement, the strangely retro-styled Aero 8, received a three-year exemption from U.S. rear-impact rules and became available stateside. The Aero 8 was launched in 2000 and with its race-car aluminum-honeycomb chassis and weird cross-eyed headlamps, it tended to divide opinion.

Its BMW M60 naturally aspirated V8 engine certainly gave it the right-stuff performance of the original Plus 8, and in a straight line at least the Aero 8 was more than a match for the Porsche 911. In 2012, Morgan bowed to popular demand and produced an even more retro-styled version of the Aero 8, badged it the Plus 8, and the legend was reborn. Except in the U.S., where this new Plus 8 has only been available as an unofficial import.

But time and emissions standards have caught up with the big BMW V8, too, and this year, after half a century, the Plus 8 will be no more. To commemorate the occasion, Morgan has produced a 50th Anniversary Edition Plus 8, limited to just 50 models available in French blue as a roadster, or in British racing green as a fully trimmed road car. The roadster, driven here, is much the better-looking car, with its aero screens and stripped-down looks. It’s a big car, though—157.9 inches long and 68.9 inches wide, but being roofless, it’s only 37.4 inches tall.

Morgan says the cars are sold out, but that’s not quite true. Dealers buy their own stock, so there are several still being offered for sale in right- and left-hand drive. The ex-factory gate price is £129,000 ($171,392) including taxes and a limited-edition Christopher Ward wristwatch, but not including extras. That seems a bit of a mouthful when you consider that the 2014 special-edition Plus 8 roadsters were a whisker less than £70,000 ($93,000) and the last production Plus 8 models sold at just £85,461 ($113,548).

Details are so important on a car such as this, and Morgan’s design seems to have fixed some wayward errors of the past. That’s not to say it’s all brilliant, however, with the visible builder’s screws at each end of the dashboard a fright to the eyes.

The rest of the cabin is well finished and attractive, but the seats—while lovely to look at—have narrow backs with harsh lumber support for the spine. The driving position is good, though, and it’s hard not to grin when you look over the little glass windshield and down the endless hood, adorned with louvers and a fur-lined leather hood strap. It’s cliché, of course, but Morgans evoke such a spirit. The Plus 8’s is a wide cockpit, but there’s not a lot of spare space in it, and there seem to be lots of traps where wallets and phones could disappear forever.

The 4.8-liter BMW mill makes 367 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque and starts with a boom before settling into a clanking idle. It gains revs quickly, however, and for those used to turbochargers, the throttle response is revelatory. The six-speed manual has a heavy shift action, but it slots cleanly and it suits the car.

You really don’t need to change gears much, though, as there’s so much torque and the car weighs just more than a ton, so it will pull from a walking pace in top gear. Performance is immediate and electrifying; come off the clutch fast and those 10-inch-wide Yokohama tires, on specially cast wheels, will fry. Extend the free-revving engine up toward its 6,200-rpm redline and it gulps blacktop and gas like a starving man. Top speed is limited to 155 mph, with 0 to 62 mph coming in 4.5 seconds.

While the aluminum honeycomb chassis is fundamentally sound and stiff, the ride quality isn’t great. It is certainly better than that on the MMC II, the 1968 prototype Plus 8 that joined our photo shoot, but there’s a lot of bouncing over big bumps and shuddering over small ones. Expansion joints set up a big racket, and LA freeways might require earplugs.

The steering is better than on any previous Plus 8, but that’s not huge praise. It turns into the corners with a consistent weight, but there isn’t a great deal of feedback. At most speeds it feels positive and gives you confidence, but add in a bumpy road and it starts to feel darty and a bit scary. Nose-wide understeer is the main trait, but oversteer is always just a squeeze of the throttle away.

With limited ground clearance and suspension movement, a Plus 8 is never going to be on terms with a modern sports saloon on switchback roads. For its type, the chassis is dependable and grippy, but if you overdrive the Plus 8, that flies-in-your-teeth, pioneer-motorist delight can rapidly morph into a feeling that you’re a passenger in a runaway caboose.

But that’s part of the appeal of the Morgan. You need to know what you are doing, and what the car does well and poorly, and just hope it doesn’t rain. But every time you park it, you’ll admire its looks. And being so rare, the high price of entry is offset by the certainty that it’ll hold its value.

With Morgan on the cusp of gaining permission to import cars to the U.S. again (the legislation is in Congress), it seems crazy that Morgan is about to phase out one of its most popular American models. Steve Morris, Morgan’s managing director, says a replacement isn’t at the top of his to-do list, but I can’t help thinking it isn’t at the bottom, either.

After half a century this car seems a fitting tribute to the legendary Plus 8 badge, but I can’t help wondering whether it’s “see you later” rather than goodbye.

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Maggie S. Vanwinkle

A dream without ambition is like a car without gas… you're not going anywhere. The way I drive, the way I handle a car, is an expression of my inner feelings. You're safer in the race car than you are in cars going to and from the track.

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