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Michael Stahl: Morgan's next chapter

By Michael Stahl, 13 Jul 2019 Opinion

Michael Stahl: Morgan's next chapter

“Along with its money, Morgan’s new venture-capital owner also has a heart, and it seems to be in the right place”

Some news that came out of the recent Geneva Motor Show had a surprising effect on me, as it just might on you too. There’s plenty to think about in the sale of a majority stake in the Morgan Motor Company to an Italian venture capital firm.

Yeah – Morgan, the 110-year-old British company that still builds cars with wooden floorboards, wooden body frames, some kind of weird dunny-plunger front suspension … and that’s their newer models. They also still build a three-wheeler, and another model, the 4/4, that’s the longest-running production car in the world, little changed from its 1936 launch version.

For context, in 1936 a prototype known as the Kraft durch Freude wagen was still two years away from its intended launch date. The ubiquitous Volkswagen ceased production more than 15 years ago, but the Morgan 4/4 is still plodding on at its elf-inhabited workshop in Bonking-Upon-Ethel, Chundershire.

Okay, I made up some of that last part.

But plodding is about right. The factory (actually in Malvern, Worcestershire) builds up to 850 cars per year, its 170-or-so workers still doing nearly everything by hand. A Morgan is basically a steel ladder-type chassis, on top of which is mounted a laboriously crafted skeleton of ash timber, skinned in hand-formed aluminium panels. There’s no assembly line; the cars are built on wooden trestles, then on their wheels.

A mate once told me about a British television series in the early-1990s, a sort of Shark Tank thing wherein some genius entrepreneur told various ma-and-pa Pommy businesses how to shape up. Morgan – then still literally a family business, with Charles Morgan, the grandson’s founder, as managing director – had a nine-year waiting list at the time. The entrepreneur shouted at them to ramp up production, adopt just-in-time technology. Morgan shrugged and went back to its tea and Malvern pudding.

Of course, a few years later the Global Financial Crisis struck. Car makers’ order banks were slashed. Which, at Morgan, meant maybe only a three-year waiting list. They just kept on building cars. So what’s this got to do with me, or you? Maybe very little. And a lot.

I can’t recall ever having driven a Morgan. I’ve certainly never imagined myself owning one. But I would really like to – in the same way I’d like to own an Eames chair, a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and plenty of other things that I don’t really have any use for and in some cases don’t even like very much, but that are so iconic, I just revel in the fact of their ongoing existence.

The Morgan family hasn’t directly run the business since Charles was punted by the company’s board in 2013, but he and other family members have maintained shareholdings. And so they will under the new owner.

Investindustrial is a venture capital group headed by the Benetton and Bonomi families, names that roll like Agnelli and Pirelli when talking about Italian industrial dynasties. Benetton you’d know via its ownership of the F1 team that brought Michael Schumacher the first two of his seven world championships, in 1994 and 1995, or perhaps through its global fashion brand. It’s also the biggest operator of Italy’s autostrade tollways.

Working in partnership with Alessandro Benetton is Andrea Bonomi, a former offshore powerboat racing champion. In 2006, Investindustrial bought motorcycle maker Ducati and further perpetuated a turnaround already well under way by its previous venture capital owner. When, in 2012, Ducati was sold on to Audi/Volkswagen (at a reported $1.58bn), its market share had doubled and profit margins increased by 40 percent. Investindustrial then turned its attentions to Aston Martin, taking 37.5 percent of the company in 2013.

So along with its money, Morgan’s new owner also has a heart, and it seems to be in the right place to preserve this living link to motoring’s early history.