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Morgan: designing the Super 3

21 April, 2023

We take a deep dive into the striking design of Morgan’s latest three-wheeler, the Super 3, with help from chief design officer Jonathan Wells.

How exactly are you supposed to develop the design of a machine whose visual identity was firmly rooted in times gone by? This was a question that the design team at Morgan Motor Company had to answer when the time came to create a successor to its reborn 3-Wheeler, which was released in 2012 and went out of production in 2021.

While not a direct continuation of any of Morgan’s early three-wheelers that the Malvern, Worcestershire company produced between 1911 and 1952, it carried over plenty of design elements that were firmly rooted in the twentieth century – look at the spindly wireframe wheels, and the big, thumping V-twin engine externally mounted ahead of an upright horseshoe grille. It was more an evolution of the design themes of the three-wheelers of old than an outright reinvention.

Chief Design Officer at Morgan, Jonathan Wells, freely admits that the old model’s popularity came as something of a surprise to the company. “It’s something that Morgan designers and engineers have imagined for a long time, because Morgan was founded with a three-wheeler,” says Jonathan. “We’d just come out of the States [at the time], and a three-wheeler is approved slightly differently there – it’s actually classed as a motorcycle in America, so it would give us an entry-level, fully global product again.

“But we didn’t anticipate it becoming a volume product. We thought we’d build a few, but having launched it, we had huge success, and it ended up becoming a core part of our production – I think we built something like 3,500.”

With the 3-Wheeler such a surprise smash hit, it became clear that three-wheeled cars should be a core part of Morgan’s range once again. The 3-Wheeler’s 2.0-litre V-twin engine, built by US-based motorcycle engine builders S&S, was soon to fall foul of emissions regulations, however.

With a replacement in mind, Morgan began its search for a new engine. They reached out to a number of British motorcycle manufacturers, running into the same problem each time: bike engines tend to have integrated sequential gearboxes with no reverse gear, a situation that’s not ideal for car applications and difficult and expensive rectify for a car that’s supposed to remain relatively affordable.

That replacement was the Super 3, a reimagining of the three-wheeled formula that maintains an obvious lineage with its predecessors, but with an added retrofuturist sheen.

The decision was taken to go for a car engine, with Morgan settling on a 1.5-litre Ford three-cylinder – effectively a non-turbocharged version of the engine in the soon-to-be-departed Fiesta ST. This engine is the thrummy, fizzy little heart of the Super 3, a reimagining of the three-wheeled formula that maintains an obvious link its predecessors, but with an added retrofuturist sheen.

“[Car] engines are not typically designed to be seen, so we knew we weren’t going to be having an outboard engine as the main aesthetic of the car anymore,” continues Jonathan. “We started looking at where that engine needed to be positioned from a dynamics point of view, which put it directly behind the front axle line.”

The engineering dictates the design to some extent in all cars – it’s why production versions of concept cars never look quite as dramatic as their motor-show-stand-crowning counterparts. With the Super 3, though, this was seen as an opportunity rather than a compromise. “We decided to just show off the way we held that engine. The castings on the front of the car are the engine mounts. They hold the engine in place, as well as the corner package for the suspension. They’re tucked in towards the nose to duct as much air into the radiator [as possible].”

One of the visual pleasures of small, open-wheel cars like this is the way that utlitarian elements can become part of the design, the engineering proudly on show rather than hidden away as if ashamed of its raw functionality as in most mainstream cars. “Every single component on the front of [the Super 3] is a structural part of the car, and is doing many jobs. The honesty of the mechanics is the aesthetic of the front of the car, and whether you’re technically minded or not you can visually read what’s going on.”

The ‘Super’ part of the car’s name is important, marking it out as a member of a distinct family of models separate from Morgan’s ‘Plus’ cars, the Plus Four and Plus Six, whose core designs haven’t radically changed in decades. “What we’ve done with the Super 3 is define what a ‘Super’ Morgan means. Plus cars have their design rooted in tradition – there’s an elegance, a romance and a celebration of craftsmanship. With a Super car, we still look backwards for our inspirations, but we don’t anchor all of them in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s like we do with the Plus cars.

“This kind of gives you that retrofuturism angle. Famous retrofuturist artists would sort of imagine what the future looks like, but inevitably have to base their imaginations in what was reality [at the time], and that’s where you get that blend of old and new. We will see other vehicles carry the Super name… there’ll be two distinct product families.”

It’s not unfair to suggest that Morgan face something of an uphill struggle in shaking off an image that conjures up stringback driving gloves, brown ale and big, bristly beards. The brand, however, is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, cherry-picking the best parts of its more traditional aspects and blending it with an injection of youthfulness and modernity.

It’s visible in the new Morgan Experience Centre, next door to the factory in Malvern, in whose showroom we’re sat chatting to Jonathan. It’s architecturally striking and contemporary, but still uses wood for much of its construction, a nod to Morgan’s heritage, not to mention sustainability. Later, we look around their factory, and here too is evidence of this renaissance. There’s certain tools and jigs that have been in use for longer than anyone working at Morgan can remember, and there’s some craftspeople who’ve spent their entire careers there.

But wander round, and there’s a hugely diverse range of people involved in production, for whom the joy of handcrafting something beautiful is a common draw, regardless of age and background. “We like to say we’re a twenty-first century coachbuilder,” says Jonathan. “Where [in the past] Pininfarina would do the body and Ferrari would do the platform, Morgan’s doing both elements. We build a structural platform that carries the gearbox, the engine… on top of that, we handcraft a coachbuilt body. The tradition of coachbuilding and the way it’s done, with a hammer over a wooden frame, is something we still practice today. We don’t blend that with modernity, we intentionally clash it, celebrating the new for the new and the old for the old.”

What does the future look like for pared-back, low-volume sports cars like this, with safety regulations getting tighter and internal combustion gradually being squeezed out around the world? Despite what it might look like, there appears to be industry-wide optimism and growth.

“The exemptions for small-series manufacturers are getting fewer and farther between… but we put a lot of energy into bolstering our specialists in the areas of electrification, homologation and legislation. Those people are the first people that we in design speak to, and those things, if considered right from the start, don’t have to constrain a design.

“We have a very long view down the road. I’ve only ever really been aware historically of the next two or three years at Morgan, and we’d typically only work on one project at a time, but nowadays we have a much bigger team, we run projects simultaneously, and our roadmap isn’t two or three years – we have the next eight years sketched out, and the next five years are pretty much concrete.”

This growth, this optimism, and this blending of old and new is arguably nowhere better represented than in the Super 3. It simultaneously celebrates the marque’s past with its handcrafted construction and tried-and-tested layout, and where the brand’s going with its distinctive design and compact, efficient engine. Taken as a microcosm of Morgan’s current state, it paints a very healthy picture indeed.

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