Last blast: a fiery farewell to the Morgan Plus 8

Morgan Plus 8

Every one of the 800-or-so Morgans built annually is covetable and collectable: a classic in waiting. The Plus 8 you see here, however, is particularly special. Soon, it will become a permanent exhibit at the factory museum. But first, I’ve been granted one exclusive last blast.

When the Plus 8 was launched in 1968, Stanley Kubrick was busy wowing cinema-goers with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Few could have guessed that Morgan’s retro roadster, its design already harking back to the 1955 4/4, would live beyond the movie’s sci-fi future.

This car is the last Plus 8: the final page in a story that spans 51 years (excluding an eight-year hiatus when Morgan switched from Rover to BMW engines). It’s also likely to be the last V8-powered Morgan. Clearly, it deserves a suitable send-off.

Wood you believe it?

Morgan Plus 8

Before that, I’m treated to the famous Morgan Motor Company factory tour. PR man James Gilbert’s abundant enthusiasm is infectious, and he’s evidently on first-name terms with everyone who works here. We start in the chassis section, moving literally downhill to the bodywork, then paint, then trim and final assembly.

The wood shop – where frames are painstakingly hand-cut, shaped and assembled – is where most Morgans really take shape. “We only use English ash,” explains James, “we tried French and Belgian wood, but fragments of First World War shrapnel kept damaging our tools.”

At one end of the room, the huge rear wheelarch press resembles something from the industrial revolution, its iron clamps bending planks of wood into a perfect curve. At the other, what first appears to be a coffee machine is actually a 3D printer, used for making prototype parts. The stark juxtaposition of old and new is fascinating.

Adjacent to the final assembly area, I spot Morgan’s one-off SP1 – a ‘Special Projects’ hot rod created for a wealthy African customer. It’s a reminder that every car here is built-to-order and bespoke, with almost unlimited options available (if your pockets are deep enough).

Tangled up in blue

Morgan Plus 8

The final Plus 8 isn’t for sale, but rest assured it wouldn’t be cheap either. Reckon on roughly £126,000 after VAT, says James.

I find the car parked beside the factory entrance, where another tour group has already stopped to admire its low-slung lines. That eye-popping paint colour is BMW Azul Blue, a shade usually seen on the M3 and M4. Together with matte-black alloys, which look like they belong on a salt-flats racer, it’s about as far from the traditional ‘BRG and wires’ look as possible.

There is a nod to heritage in the ‘MMC II’ number plate, though. The Malvern equivalent of Porsche’s ‘911 HUL’, it’s been worn by many significant Morgans over the years, including the car Peter Morgan himself drives in a photo that hangs in reception.

Ready to rumble

Morgan Plus 8

Twisting open the Land Rover Defender door lock, I fold my frame carefully through the shallow door aperture. Once inside, the Morgan feels snug rather than spacious, and there’s virtually no room for luggage. However, it doesn’t lack creature comforts, including heated seats – a real boon on a frosty January afternoon.

You sit low, with legs outstretched and the airbagged wheel pulled unusually close. It’s the opposite of the stereotypical ‘long arms, short legs’ driving position found in Italian cars, and takes some getting used to.

Quality is impressive, with none of the rough edges you might expect from a low-volume marque. Only the parts-bin plastic column stalks jar a little.

Looking out through the letterbox-shaped windscreen with its three tiny wipers, I drink in the view along that long, louvred bonnet. And things only get better when I press the start button and the 4.8-litre BMW V8 coughs into life. Its rambunctious rumble stops the tour party in their tracks.

Heading for the hills

Morgan Plus 8

Moseying through town, the Plus 8 wins an appreciative nod from an elderly gent at the bus stop, then a van driver gives a thumbs-up. I already feel like something of a local hero.

This car has a six-speed manual transmission, rather than the popular six-speed auto, but the engine’s brawny 370lb ft of torque means you can cruise almost everywhere in fourth gear. Stick it in sixth at 20mph and it’ll pull cleanly – all the way to its 155mph maximum.

Climbing into the snow-capped hills, the road finally clears and I flatten my right foot. With 367hp and a kerb weight of just 1,220kg, the Plus 8 feels indecently quick. Nigh-on supercar-quick. The challenge, as I’ll discover, is keeping it in a straight line.

Thunderstruck

Morgan Plus 8

Morgan quotes a 0-62mph time of just 4.5 seconds. And on a dry summer day, I’ve no doubt the Plus 8 could achieve that.

However, ‘my’ car is fitted with track-focused Yokohama AD08R tyres, which look like cut slicks and severely dislike damp, freezing roads. Act the yob and it’ll spin its rear wheels in first, second and third gears. A degree of delicacy is therefore required, particularly in a car with zero electronic safety aids.

Thankfully, there’s nothing delicate about that noise. It swells from a low, resonating thud to a full-blooded howl. The V8 sucks in fuel like a giant gargling with gravel, its four exhausts popping on the over-run like artillery fire. No BMW ever sounded like this.

Picture perfect

Morgan Plus 8

No BMW looks like this either, at least not since the days of the classic 328. WIth its voluptuous curves and delicate chrome details, the Plus 8 looks perfectly at home in the English countryside.

Nonetheless, snapper Bradley isn’t convinced and demands I brave the elements by lowering the roof. This requires unfastening several catches on each side, and needs to be done from outside the car.

For the full wind-in-the-face effect, I also use an allen key to detach the flimsy side screens, storing them in the boot of Bradley’s Corsa.

Clambering in and out for photo duties feels an effort, but I’m thankful the Morgan has power steering – unlike the workout-weighted AR Plus 4 I drove a couple of years ago.

Baby’s got the bends

Morgan Plus 8

With the winter sun beginning its slow descent, there’s time for a brief blat around the Malvern Hills before I point the Plus 8’s prow towards home.

The lack of grip on near-freezing roads is front-and-centre in my mind, but swift, communicative steering and a balanced, relatively benign chassis mean there are no sudden surprises. Grab the Morgan by the lapels and it rewards with a drive that’s both physical and pulse-spikingly visceral.

The downside, though, is ‘retro’ ride quality. The Plus 8’s suspension bucks and bounces over ridges and is easily unsettled by mid-corner bumps. It’s nowhere near as sophisticated as modern sports cars.

Highway to home

Morgan Plus 8

Pulling over to raise the roof, my head is spinning with an odd mix of brain-freeze and giddy euphoria. An altogether different drive is ahead, however: back to Surrey via the M4 and M25. How will the Morgan cope in the ‘real world’?

Not brilliantly, as it happens. The sliding plastic windows are draughty, the wide tyres roar, the blare of the V8 becomes tiresome over time and the 90s-spec Alpine CD player is almost inaudible over the din. To top it all, it’s started to snow steadily.

Fortunately, other drivers keep my spirits up by waving and honking their horns. Following a tunnel of tail lights through the darkness, I’m reminded of something James said earlier: “The least suitable cars are the most fun for road trips”. He has a point. A long haul in a Nissan Micra feels inconsequential. This is an adventure.

Slip-sliding away

Morgan Plus 8

The final part of my drive is on rural roads dusted by snow. I’m driving on tip-toes: slightly scared, sensing every shimmy and squirm, determined to keep this unique piece of British motoring heritage intact. By the time I arrive home, I’m utterly exhausted.

The Plus 8 closes a long chapter in Morgan history. All eyes are now on the 2019 Geneva Motor Show, where it’s rumoured the car’s ‘wide body’ successor will be revealed. Hell, we’ve only waited 51 years.

Until then, I’ll imagine the Plus 8 roaring into a sepia-tinged sunset: gone, but not forgotten. Certainly not by me.

In pictures:

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