This article originally appeared in full on MogMag.co.uk and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
The very nature of the human condition means that some of us can do things that others can’t. some can juggle, some can draw amazing pictures, whilst others can sing. some of us probably lack only but the most bizarre of talents, but that’s okay – it’s all part of being human. however, whilst this exchange of skills and abilities is, on face value, all fine and dandy, there is one ability – or lack thereof – that can seriously hinder those of us of a passionately automotive disposition. We are, of course, talking about the ability to operate a manual transmission.
Within the wider spectrum of all things four wheeled, being unable to seamlessly swap manual cogs isn’t a huge issue. Pretty much every car on the mainstream market today is available with an automatic gearbox, thus ensuring that no matter what your automotive urges, you can fulfil them – unless, of course, those urges are for a Morgan.
Yes, you can buy an automatic Mog, that’s no problem. What is a problem, however, is that said transmission will be bolted to a near-as-dammit five litre V8, within the aluminium chassis of a car that costs nigh on £100k. Now don’t get us wrong, because those V8 cars are a work of art. however, we’re not all after that much power, nor do we all have that kind of money to spend. Plus, the V8 cars are so ‘on’, so powerful, so… ‘much’. What about those of us who just want to enjoy the experience of driving a Morgan without being forced to head-butt the horizon care of 400 angry horses.
That’s where the Plus 4 you can see here comes in. it’s dripping with classic Morgan charm, but for the first time ever, it’s lacking a clutch pedal – for many fans of the brand, this truly is a game-changer. hell, this could well be a dream realised! it’s no quick fix though, this is a project that has been worked on and developed for years with the end goal always being to conclude with a car that offers the accessibility of a Morgan without losing the charm of the way it behaves on the road. Curiously though, it hasn’t been built by Morgan …
To make such a dramatic change to a Morgan is not the work of but a moment, though as fate would have it, there were mechanical similarities that turned out to be of benefit when it came to implementing that conversion, though we’ll get to those later.
The project was born out of the desire for the team at Vitesse to satisfy its own curiosity as to whether or not it could be done and done effectively. The company has a long-standing history with engines and transmissions, and within that, a long history with Morgan. The 3 Wheeler, for example, is no stranger to the Vitesse workshop as the company played a massive part in the development of the V-twin/MX5 gearbox partnership. Basically, these guys know what they’re doing.
On paper, it was a simple conversion. the Ford engine in the modern Plus 4 is mated to a five-speed from a Mazda MX5, so in theory an automatic Mazda transmission, as available on the MX5, should be an easy fit. and, in terms of nuts and bolts at least, it was. yes, some considerations had to be made, such as the size of the transmission tunnel and the length of the prop shaft, but these were easily overcome. the tunnel is from a V6 Morgan, thus creating more space for the slightly more chucky auto ‘box, whilst the prop shaft is a custom item engineered to fit with perfection.
You’d think that’d be it, simple nuts and bolts stuff for what is, at its core, a simple nuts and bolts car. Frustratingly though, that wasn’t the case. getting the stuff to fit was by far the easiest part of the build. telling the gearbox what to do and how to behave, however, was an entirely different story.
First of all, the automatic ‘box has an extra gear – we’re looking at a six speed here. as such, the gearbox had to be tuned to run in harmony with the 2.0 engine. Then it had to be tuned to shift at the right times, to not surge, and to behve in a way in keeping with the car that surrounds it. The Plus 4 is not a brash, aggressive car. it’s a vehicle for comfortably cruising, but one that can be made to be a bit spritelier should the conditions allow. With a manual transmission, this is at the discretion of the driver operating the gears. For the Vitesse car, however, that challenge falls entirely down to the gearbox, so it had to be right.
It was a lot of trial and error, with constant tuning and honing on the gCU (gearbox Control Unit) to ensure the gear changes were happening at the right time and to ensure that those changes felt natural and progressive, rather than harsh and clumsy like some automatic gearboxes. Furthermore, a consideration had to be made to the ‘manual’ function of the ‘box, again to make sure the changes were crisp and direct, not recalcitrant and frustrating.
The development took over two years, with lots of interaction from Morgan to ensure this new car was a suitable and befitting representation of the brand. it took many, many man-hours, head scratching and tinkering, but the car is here now. The only question is, how does it drive? is it a worthwhile conversion or is it a pointless endeavour? only one way to find out …
Getting into a Plus 4 is, if you’re of the longer-legged persuasion, something of an art form. What we tend to do is clumsily pivot around, sliding our left leg in as we do. This mean we depress the clutch in the process – however, its absence on this particular Plus 4 threw us somewhat. so did the simple act of starting it up. Nothing untoward for those who regularly drive autos – make sure it’s in park, foot on the brake, turn the key. still, in the Morgan it felt odd, we’re not used to it!
It was slightly narrow-minded of us to get distracted by these points, we should have been more conscious of the fact that we get to drive more Morgans than most, so this was always going to be an odd sensation. as such, we focused on the task at hand, chucked the gear lever in d and hit the road.
In full automatic mode it’s a very generic experience. We don’t mean that in a negative way though, far from it in fact. The car just ambles along happily. it still feels 100% Morgan and you don’t ever get the sensation that it’s suffering in any way. it all feels very solid and very ‘right’.
The changes, again, in full auto mode, aren’t going to win awards for speed – this isn’t a rapid-fire shifter. however, the power is well balanced, the shifting is smooth and the power is still very much there, it in no way feels strangled or hindered by the auto ‘box. admittedly the shifting can get a bit confused at lower speeds, but it’s nothing too detrimental. The gearbox quickly figures out it’s gone for the wrong gear and sorts itself out, doing so smoothly and quickly so you can focus on the task of being the star of the high street!
Out on the open road, the automatic Plus 4 is a joy. Nothing has been taken from the driving experience; in fact, we found it to be a sublime machine for just cruising along. Point it where you want to go, stomp on the gas and that’s it. you trundle along in this and actually feel more involved in the experience, despite having to do less. your mind is free to immerse itself in the moment, to simply enjoy being in a Morgan. it’s actually delightful.
It’s possibly more frugal, too. on the motorway we found ourselves doing 70mph at around 2,000rpm. it just ticks along without fuss or drama, and care of that sixth gear, it potentially does that in a manner that’s kinder to the wallet than the manual – now there’s a rare thing.
Still, this is a driver’s car at heart. so what can you do if you want to be a more integral part? Well, you simply knock the shifter over to the right and work the gearbox up and down as you see fit, and trust us, you’ll love it. The changes are sharp and snappy – despite a degree of hesitance in full auto mode, the ‘manual’ option is actually very quick – Vitesse has done wonders here and really worked hard to make sure the Plus 4 can still be a huge amount of fun despite the absence of a clutch.
The only gripe we had was the fact there was no display to tell us what gear we were in, which often led to us knocking up or down a gear when we didn’t need to. We did mention this though, and it’s a consideration that’s being looked into.
So, what do we make of it then? honestly, we weren’t too sure when we were first told about it, but after spending a day driving in all kinds of conditions, we have to say that we’re very impressed. it’s clear that a lot of work has gone into making this a proper conversion, not some quick afterthought to make a few quid. Whilst the car itself is a product of Vitesse rather than Morgan, it still embodies the emotions and fun that come from being behind the wheel of one of these iconic cars.
Furthermore, this car opens doors for so many for whom the thought of owning a Morgan has always been nothing more than a dream, owing to the manual transmission. Basically, this car will allow those who have been so far denied the chance to own a Plus 4 a means to do so, and do so properly. That in itself is an amazing attribute.
If you want one you’ll be buying the car from Vitesse. There is obviously a cost involved and we’ll warn you now that this is no £500 option, but that’s something to be discussed when you make the order. When you do, Vitesse will commission the car’s build, but instead of you taking delivery, Vitesse will. it’s at this point that they will carry out the conversion and deliver to you an automatic Plus 4.