A Rare Bird Indeed
It's not easy getting your hands on a Morgan Aero 8. But if you're one of the lucky few, you'll be flying through the streets in a roadster unlike any other.
(Business 2.0) – When one is seated in the open-air berth of the 2006 Morgan Aero 8, one's face is at precisely the same height as the sharpened beak and beady eyes of the Pavo cristatus, a.k.a. the Indian peafowl. Of course, knowing such a detail is useful only if you actually happen to be behind the wheel of one of the hard-to-get Aeros, and then only if confronted by a vividly livid peacock, intent on removing your eyes. Which I recently was.
The fowl was patrolling the dirt lane descending from the garage of Isis Imports, one of the few firms importing the British-made car. Thus to test-drive an Aero 8 requires traveling to Isis's headquarters in rural Bodega, Calif., nipping into the car's slender cockpit, firing the 325-horsepower engine, and cautiously steering said Aero down the bumpy road. Whereupon you will be attacked by peacocks, which serve as Isis's sentries. When the flock's alpha male saw me escaping in a glittering silver Aero 8, he rushed to block my exit, angrily displaying his fan of blue-green feathers.
Now, as luck would have it, the Aero 8 is Morgan's first vehicle tweaked for the American market. Long a legend in England and Europe, Morgan has been rolling out hand-built vehicles for 95 years and is still owned by the family that founded the firm. Famous for its fussy British roadsters, the company essentially abandoned the U.S. market in the 1970s when emissions and safety regulations complicated importation. Six years ago, however, the grandson of the company's founder decided to create a more modern Morgan: cleaner, safer, and blazingly fast. The result is the Aero 8, a flamboyantly styled, aluminum-framed $120,000 supercar capable of getting from zero to 60 faster than a Porsche 911 and able to hit 160 miles per hour. If you get past the peacocks, that is.
And here is where westernization comes in handy. To meet Stateside tastes, the Aero 8 gained a few fillips over the typical Morgan fare: dual airbags, power steering, cruise control, ABS brakes, a slightly wider cabin (Brits think Americans are beefy--go figure), and power windows. Intending to slake the hp lust of the contemporary market, Morgan also flirted with the far limits of power-to-weight ratios, dropping BMW's storied 4.4-liter V-8 into the Aero. This is a wickedly oversize power plant for such a featherweight (2,500 pounds) car, but one for which all power-mad Americans will be eternally thankful. Me among them. Here's why: At low revs the engine is reserved, but around 2,500 rpm it lets forth a deep-timbered yowl, which soon expands into a satisfying, peacock-scattering shriek. My path now unblocked, I rumbled the Aero onto the winding roads heading toward Bodega Bay. Where, I soon recalled, Alfred Hitchcock had filmed The Birds. Starring Tippi Hedren. Who drove a British roadster. Until birds attacked her bloody in it.
Um, where was I? Oh, yes. At first glance the Aero 8 appears to have been designed by Batman, but after a moment of study you see that its lines--though exotic--echo those of its forebears. Perhaps the most famous Morgan was the Plus 8, a neat-nosed, deep-fendered roadster that evoked Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the car that the Aero 8 has superseded. Over the years the Plus 8 and its brethren gained an obsessive international fandom, which came to include a graduate of Oxford, Yale, and Stanford named Bill Fink. In the 1960s, Fink began to import used Morgans, convert them to left-side drive, and resell them. When smog-control regulations later barred the belchy Morgans from the States, Fink made a living retrofitting the vehicles to run on propane. Then last May, the feds designated the new Morgan as street legal, and a short time ago Fink's Isis Imports received the first Aero 8 to land on U.S. soil. On a cloudless Northern California afternoon, he gave the keys to me. "Mind the peacocks," Fink said.
To date, most of the chatter surrounding the car has concerned its showy styling, and it is indeed a unique-looking car. Once behind the wheel, however, you learn what a rara avis the Aero 8 is. The six-speed transmission has impressively short throws, the clutch is taut but forgiving, and the by-wire throttle is instantly responsive--a twitch of the right foot plunges the Aero ever forward, as if acceleration will endlessly unspool. Though the bulbous shoulders and massive fenders make the car loom large, it is barely bigger than a Miata or a BMW Z4. And like those well-balanced pocketcars, the Aero can leap around corners and lock in on straights. Unlike most such cars, however, the Morgan has huge wheels, giant brakes, variable-ratio steering, and an enormous engine. I soon found myself driving dangerously fast. Roaring out of a turn, I zoomed into the recent aftermath of a trailer mishap--someone's flatbed had leapt its hitch and plowed through a ditch, a fence, and multiple mailboxes. Luckily the Morgan's Bosch brakes bit hard, and with a flick of the wheel I wove the Aero through a debris field of steel and splintered wood, while the trailer's owner, unhurt, replayed his disaster for the police.
A few facts revealed by such evasive driving: The Aero's suspension is nicely stiff, its body rigid, and its weight distribution an exact 50-50 split, which explains its agility. Although the cabin is not extravagant, leather, ash, aluminum, and stainless-steel appointments combine well, and the seats are supportive enough. You'll feel more bumps than you would driving a Mercedes SL, but the sensation adds to the Aero's Old World appeal. (Few people buy Morgans as everyday commuters anyway.)
So, you want one. But how to get one? First send in a $10,000 deposit, which buys you a slot on the production line. Next, customize your Aero, choosing leather styles, natural-ash or raven-ash or brown-velvet-ash trim, and one of more than 34,000 tones of body paint. Then wait about eight weeks, head to Bodega, shake hands with Fink, and claim your prize. And one last tip: Bring birdseed.