Morgan Plus E electric car: boxing clever?

Five-speed manual roadster could be available in road and hill climb specs

By Will Dron on July 23, 2012 3:59 PM

More than a century old, the Morgan Motor Company is a small operation that survives today arguably through not trying to over-stretch itself.
Production numbers at its Malvern factory are low: between 2008 and March 2011, start-up (and up-start) Tesla Motors had sold nearly 1,700 Roadster supercars; approximately twice Morgan’s total vehicle production in the same period.

Morgan is also a firm with a reputation for traditional values; its hand-built vehicles currently available to buy include the quite mad but incredibly fun 3 Wheeler, which harks back to its original three-wheeled road cars of the early 20th century. The signature 4-4, meanwhile, has hardly changed in its styling since the first one rolled off the production line in 1936.

So what, we wondered, is the pure-electric Plus E all about? It looks like a Plus 8, the 4-4’s big brother, which marries a BMW-supplied 4.8-litre V8 to a lightweight aluminium chassis – but its electric powertrain reminds us that Morgan isn’t afraid to look forward, as well as back.

“Actually, we started the electric car project in 2009 with the LIFEcar (Lightweight Fuel Efficient Car), which was a hydrogen fuel cell project,” Morgan’s Business Process Development Engineer Robert Gibson reminds us. “But that was a showcase of technology that was never meant to go into production. The whole point was to show what Morgan could do as part of a collaborative project; it was just there for the sake of being there, really. Plus E will be production-intent.”

At present, Morgan is still demonstrating the 2012 Geneva Motor Show car – stage 2 in the car’s evolution, Gibson tells us. Part-funded by the UK Government’s Niche Vehicle Network programme, this doesn’t just look like a Plus 8, it uses many of the same underpinnings including the aluminium body and chassis, suspension and axle. It also keeps the traditional Morgan wooden body frame.

However, the Zytek-manufactured drivetrain incorporates a 70kW (95hp) electric motor (ex-Modec) producing 300Nm of torque – that’s 20Nm more than the 2.7-litre flat six drivetrain found in the Porsche Boxster. The production Plus E will use a new motor, also from Zytek, which Gibson indicates will offer a 30 per cent further improvement in both power and torque. Removing the BMW-engined drivetrain means a dry weight saving of 400kg, plus 100kg of fluids, meaning the Morgan Plus E weighs the same as a Plus 8 (1,100kg) yet still holds enough lithium ion phosphate batteries for around 80-90 miles of driving range.

The main talking point for the Morgan Plus E, however, is its five-speed manual gearbox. Those familiar with electric vehicles know that their phenomenal torque, and the ability to spin the motor at high revs, mean that gearing isn’t strictly necessary. Drive most electric cars available today, which have one button to go forwards and one to reverse, and suddenly even a simple automatic shift starts to look overly complex.

“It’s about driver involvement,” says Gibson. “We wanted to take a step back from it and ask ‘what’s wrong with just using a normal manual gearbox?’. We have looked at using a sequential gearbox, but the problem is that you don’t get the correct driving characteristics that would suit a road car.”

The Plus E’s transmission is exactly the same as a five-speed manual found in a petrol or diesel; the motor is connected to a flywheel then the gearbox via a clutch, and you need to press the clutch pedal to change gear.

“When the motor’s spinning you need to be able to separate the drive from the gearbox,” explains Gibson. “The motor has quite high inertia so once you back off, it continues to spin for quite some time. I’ve driven the first car and it’s kind of strange, but also really intuitive at the same time, so it’s quite good fun.”

Quite good fun is probably an understatement. The huge torque, combined with low gearing and a lack of any kind of electronic traction control, mean it can be quite a handful – something to which anyone who caught the Plus E show car getting sideways off the start line at the 2012 Goodwood Festival of Speed hill climb can attest.

Morgan has a long history in hill climbing, a type of motorsport involving timed sprints over a fixed distance up – no prizes for guessing – a hill. Gearing is of huge importance for such events, and a hill climb special is a likely addition to the Plus E variants.

“The company that supplies the batteries have done a few trials of their own hill climb version,” reveals Gibson. “It’s got an 80-mile range; they did a weekend of hill climbing and only used 20 per cent of the battery, so they were carrying around a lot of excess weight. So the potential is we could have an extremely lightweight version for motorsport.”

For those wanting the road version but worried about facing the wrong way every time they put their foot down, Gibson tells us the Plus E can be driven perfectly comfortably when locked in third gear. Probably just as well.

The Morgan Plus E is set for customer deliveries in 2015 and is targeted to cost no more than a 10 per cent premium over the Plus 8, which puts it at approximately £90,000.