When we think of brands of cars, there is typically a mental image that pops into our minds - a visual embodiment that defines the brand in our minds. When thinking of the embodiment of Morgan, most would probably envision the lengthy clamshell front fenders, the horseshoe shaped grille, and the superficial headlight buckets. Its a pretty classic shape, for the 40s and 50s, and Morgan has kept it alive for those that find that look to be the pinnacle of automotive design. But for many people, things got even better after that. There were some outrageously sexy cars coming out in the 1960s. And quite unexpectedly, one of those came from Morgan.
Despite it’s very conservative ‘tweed-cap-and-a-scarf’ image, Morgan has a pretty substantial motorsports history. Chris Lawrence, key to Morgan’s motorsports legacy, once developed a Morgan that won it’s class at the LeMans 24 Hour in 1962. That success compelled Lawrence to work on a very little-known program called the Plus 4 SLR. The basis of the program was to improve upon the production Morgan’s very 'Mulsanne Straight-unfriendly’ aerodynamic shape.
For a larger company, rebodying a car is not an insurmountable financial task, but for Chris Lawrence, who was modifying the body of Morgans without their outright support, it was a large financial outlay. To help fund the effort, Lawrence asked for the help of some friends and benefactors. One of the friends that agreed to help with funding, offered to do so under the condition that his Triumph TR4 be bodied in a similar fashion. The TR4 was similar in size and used the same four-cylinder engine as the Morgan Plus 4, so the request was manageable. So as it happens, the very first SLR model was actually not a Morgan at all, but a Triumph. So when the car was shown publicly, it was marketed as a Triumph or Morgan SLR. Capability notwithstanding, no requests came through to skin the TR4 chassis with the gorgeous aluminum body.
The SLR name was derived as an abbreviation for Sprinzel LawrenceTune Racing. Lawrence collaborated with John Sprinzel, who is best known for creating and racing the Speedwell Sprites. The lightweight elegant new appearance was penned by Chris Spender. His design was refined by Charlie Williams of the coach building house of Williams and Pritchard. The new appearance haas hints of several other much better known classic sorts and racing cars. Some see a Shelby Daytona Cobra, sans the Kamm back. Others see a strong influence of the 1963 Corvette in the front fenders and rear glass treatment. Regardless of what it may look like, it is a very well-proportioned car that clearly has the appearance of a much racier looking car of the 60s. One thing was certain - it looked nothing like any Morgan that came before it.
The chassis and running gear for the Plus 4 SLR were based on a standard production model, modified to 'Super Sport' specification by LawrenceTune, similarly to the 1962 Le Mans winning Morgan Plus 4, . The straightforward ladder frame chassis was essentially unaltered, and featured Morgan's typical sliding-pillar front suspension. But the Triumph-sourced engine was thoroughly re-worked, with the addition of twin Weber carburetors, a bespoke exhaust header and a modified cylinder head. This raised the power of the 2.1 liter engine to 156 hp.
Like most Morgans, the SLR was intended for small production volumes. It was officially introduced at the 1964 Racing Car Show as a 'Morgan and Triumph SLR.’ Despite it’s relatively dramatic appearance, only three additional cars were ever produced by the small outfit - two for customers, and the third Morgan Plus 4 SLR was earmarked for Lawrence himself. All three cars were raced extensively. Lawrence, was considered quite the driver in his own right. Behind the wheel of the SLR, he managed to keep pace with more well-known cars like the factory Porsche 904s.
Morgan themselves ultimately attempted to produce a Plus 4 with a more aero-friendly body, known as the Plus 4 Plus, intended for road use. Not surprisingly, their in-house version attempted - maybe too hard - to maintain some of the more traditional Morgan styling cues. Just like the SLR, the Plus 4 Plus also failed to garner any significant interest among the conservative Morgan customers. Not surprising in hindsight when you consider Morgan is still producing cars with essentially their original aesthetic they’ve been building for over 50 years.
The three Morgan Plus 4 SLRs built have all survived, and have been regularly raced in historic events for years. And furthermore, actually fare quite well results-wise when they compete.
While there is something to be said for maintaining integrity around the core of a brand, it’s interesting to consider what the implications for Morgan might have been had they more strongly embraced the SLR, and let a new audience discover their brand with new eyes.