What. A. Noise. The Morgan Aero GT’s 4.8-litre BMW engine has a note so deep in frequency that if I were to imitate it with my own vocal chords, I’d be coughing and spluttering within seconds attempting to reach those depths. The pulsating rabble ejected from the side-exit exhausts is the kind of sound that seals many a deal: it is reason alone for buying one of these cars, and Morgan knows it. And it’s this visceral experience that lies at the heart of its products – along with a level of personification beyond what the so-called premium brands can offer – which makes the Morgan approach so intriguing.
Yet this is also a poignant cry that echoes across the Malvern Hills, for this is the last Morgan to ever be powered by the naturally aspirated BMW N62 V8, its final demise due to the new WLTP emissions regulations that are having a significant effect on the performance car world in general. And I don’t just mean this is the last Morgan model to have this engine, although as one of eight Aero GTs that’s also true, rather that this is the actual last car to be built. To commemorate the N62 leaving production, Morgan has built 50 Plus 8 50th Anniversary Editions (as driven in evo 253) and eight Aero GTs such as this one, each GT completely unique. With them sold, the firm currently has no V8-powered flagship in its range for the first time in decades.
‘The Aero has come a long way since 2001, as this GT is about to prove’
In fact, the N62 disappeared from the BMW line-up as long ago as 2010, replaced by the 4.4-litre twin-turbo N63, and only Malvern Link’s ‘special relationship’ with BMW has ensured it has remained in small-scale production since. As Morgan MD Steve Morris tells me: ‘It’s no mean feat for a small manufacturer. They set up a bespoke line for us [post-2010], including a hot test bed. The Morgan brand must carry a lot of weight for them to want to do it.’ They can’t have done it for any impact on their bottom line, that much seems obvious.
Overshadowed by BMW M’s outrageous V10s in period, and consigned to a much quieter life in the 650i, X5 and 7-series, this quad-cam, all-alloy V8 never really got to show its true mettle in its own brand’s products, but it did when it acquired a ticket to Worcestershire. For Morgan the BMW link-up has been of vital importance, too: a thoroughly modern engine from a company with highly respected engineering principles was an inspired ‘fit’ for a car that broke with its maker’s formidable tradition, at least under the skin at any rate.
The Aero was first seen at the 2000 Geneva motor show. Morris, a 35-year lifer at the company, remembers working a week of all-nighters on the show car when he headed up the ‘tin shop’ in the factory. The show car and all early Aero 8s were powered by the N62’s forebear, the single-Vanos-equipped M62, the engine placed in a new aluminium chassis that cut straight through the image of the firm’s traditional wooden-based production, ripping the company into the present without worrying about the intervening decades. The styling, still very much Morgan proportionally, was heavily influenced by aerodynamics, the cow-catcher nose channelling plenty of air into a tight engine bay. But that was no surprise given the car’s name, or where it had come from.
The Aero project has its roots in a thug of a Plus 8-based racer, the GTR, which contested the BPR sportscar series – the forerunner to the short-lived FIA GT Championship that spawned cars such as the McLaren F1 GTR Longtail and Porsche GT1. Over the next couple of seasons it was thoroughly developed, gaining the aluminium chassis, and it was also a chance meeting in the paddock at the Nürburgring between BMW directors and the Morgan team that started the relationship between the two. By ’98 the racing effort had been shelved to concentrate on fully developing the P8000 prototype, the car that would go on to become the Series 1 Aero 8, which finally went into full production in late 2001.
Despite all of this, what most people remember about the early Aero 8 is the headlamps – inverted Beetle units, chosen on grounds of cost, and which gave the car a peculiar squint. They’re long gone, replaced during five different evolutions of the Aero that have included the Targa-roofed SuperSports, the Coupe, and of course the limited-run AeroMax with its highly sculptural tail.
I confess, it’s been over a decade since I last drove an Aero. The younger me didn’t think a great deal of that car – I mainly just remember it being a complete handful – but the Aero has come a long way since, as the GT is about to prove. I also can’t help hypothesising that the context might make a difference: back then there were plenty of tactile driver’s cars, with manual gearboxes and naturally aspirated engines. Now, not so many.
This Aero GT is based on the race-winning 2009 SuperSports GT3 car, its GT styling flourishes mainly those that were left on the sketch pad after the open Aero was reintroduced in 2015. It’s an Aero in beast mode, essentially, striking a curious but instantly loveable balance between the vintage and a copiously vented, hardcore track car. From this starting point, the car’s owner, Jon Hildred, worked closely with Morgan head of design Jonathan Wells on every detail – the result is unique, not necessarily to all tastes, but beautifully created, from the zebrano wood on the dash to the bonnet pinstriping. Hildred also has a range of modern supercars in his garage, but is clearly besotted with this car and, even more so, the Morgan marque – to the point of helping to build his car on the factory floor. This is his third Aero and he couldn’t be happier. It’s a car he describes as being ‘just fun to drive’.
‘Inevitably, it’s the sound that has me hooked’
I’m a little more self-aware than usual as I clamber behind the wheel of the GT, the fact that it’s completely unique, a piece of Morgan history and a privately owned car combining to sound a cautionary warning klaxon in my brain. But straight away there’s the strange but intriguing paradox of this car: slender carbonfibre bucket seats, but with sections trimmed in diamond-stitched caramel-hued leather. It’s cosy rather than cramped, and ahead the large-diameter wheel, with its squidgy rim and glinting spokes, turns the nose of the car extremely quickly with just the lightest amount of pressure exerted, a sensation exaggerated by sitting virtually on top of the rear axle. That feeling, coupled with the angry V8 soundtrack, makes me instantly recall driving a Mercedes-AMG GT R, and like the German machine it takes a few miles to calm down the steering inputs and work out how the Aero GT likes to tackle a corner. In fact, once you’re past the initial turn-in phase the steering seems to slow in its response, and so you learn to be measured but not wary, relying on the front-end grip and getting a feel for the overall balance of the car. The six-speed ZF manual ’box has a very light but accurate shift quality, and coupled with a structure and chassis that doesn’t feel anything like the antiquated set-up the looks might suggest, means that progress in the Aero GT is already pretty rapid.
Yet, inevitably, it’s the sound of the car that has me hooked. Blipping every downchange is a must, and the reverberations of the V8 are something you feel as much as hear, as they send shockwaves through your body. The bassy beat creates an odd phenomenon, because the needle on the rev counter seems much closer to the red line than sounds probable from what my ears are telling me, and it also makes the speed of the car slightly deceptive. With 367bhp propelling 1180kg (dry), 60mph is over in 4.5sec and the Aero hammers along with persuasive conviction and instant reactions, but it’s tricky to place that acceleration in context with rivals given how unique the overall experience is. It’s also obvious how much this car has improved since 2005. While that earlier Aero traded heavily on being ‘an event’, the GT is both that and also something you feel fairly comfortable driving close to its limits.
Back at the factory there’s the gentle hum of a busy workplace, with cars in various states of build everywhere you look, moving from building to building, the aroma of wood being worked and metal being bent adding to the general air of industry. There are groups of onlookers too, because 30,000 people a year are now coming here just to walk around, learn how the cars are made and immerse themselves in everything that is Morgan. The firm recently bought back its factory, having sold it and then leased it back to raise finance a few years ago, and the pride is evident in the newly surfaced roads and freshly painted buildings.
It’s a pivotal moment. Talk to anyone here at the factory and they’ll say the AeroMax changed everything, showing that great design could be part of Morgan’s DNA, that the product could evolve, attract a younger buyer – and command more money, too. And so we await the next chapter in the firm’s history with genuine excitement, because the snippets we’re hearing are fascinating. With that aforementioned context of cars that really connect with the driver being more relevant than ever for our enthusiast outpost where driving is seen as an activity to actually enjoy, what’s currently lurking in prototype form behind those shed doors could be very interesting indeed. We’ll keep you posted.