The Morgan Plus E electric sports car - classic on the outside, absolute high tech on the inside
You know the shape immediately - the Morgan's styling comes from a time when sports cars had 50 bhp. All Morgans are deceptively modern under the skin, but the new Morgan Plus E is positively futuristic by comparison to its looks.
Designed by Morgan, Zytek and Radshape, the Plus E is based on Morgan's lightweight aluminium chassis with the revised 'traditional' body from the new BMW V8-powered Plus 8, which also launched at Geneva. So you can have a V8 which rumbles and grunts, or maybe, you can have one with 200 bhp less that is almost as much fun, whisper quiet and doesn't poison the atmosphere.
If enough interest is generated from the first public showing of the new Morgan Plus E concept in Geneva, we will certainly see the 94 bhp five-speed electric sportscar reach market, though with possibly even more advanced technologies and a sequential five speed box.
The Morgan Plus E is an interesting vehicle on many counts, mainly due to the contrasts between what it looks like, and how extraordinarily well it is built. We first looked at the car a few months back and Morgan occasionally updates information about the project on its site.
Zytek - leading edge expertise in controlling electronics
The 70 kW (94 bhp) electric drivetrain is supplied by Zytek - one of the world's leading developers of electric vehicle technology. Zytek built an Elise EV for Lotus in 1997, many years before the very similar Tesla, and the specs still stack up well to this day. The Lotus design led to similar engineering programmes with Chrysler and General Motors, closely followed by a long-term relationship with Daimler.Zytek's best known work usually gets credited to someone else, because its work is incorporated as part of someone else's car. Zytek produced hybrid drivetrains for racing cars before anyone else, being the first to race a hybrid in the Le Mans 24 Hour and it not only builds electric motors, it builds race engines en masse for whole race series.
Another example of Zytek winning the prize but missing the glory was when Lewis Hamilton won the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, and the McLaren MP4/24 went down in history as the first hybrid to win a Formula One race. Zytek designed and manufactured the KERS system on the car.
Zytek was also the company called upon to develop the drive trains for such well-known EVs as the smart ed, Mercedes Vito E Taxi and Professor Gordon Murray's T27 City Car. Indeed, the company has a watercooled electric motor under development which is expected to be both powerful and very robust and will be seen in the next iteration of the T27.
So the first point to make is that if Zytek is in charge of the electrics, they will be designed and manufactured very well indeed. If the above list of luminaries is prepared to entrust the company to design and build the drive trains of such important hero vehicles, this car is likely to be very good.
The second is the future, and Zytek seems destined to play a major role in the electrification of the drive train. Zytek's knowledge of high horsepower electric motors is likely to make it the partner of multiple F1 teams when the regulations of F1 change in 2013 and teams will be able to use 120 kW KERS systems instead of the current 60 kW systems.
The five-speed transmission
The biggest difference between the Morgan and all those other EVs before it is not actually its body, which still looks remarkably similar to the Plus 4 the company sold in 1950.
It is the deployment of the five speed transmission with the electric motor that promises to set the Morgan apart as well as delivering a far more fulfilling driving experience.
All electric cars tend to leave out the gearbox because doing so is cheaper and saves weight. On top of that, electric motors make maximum torque at the bottom of the rev range so pull away cleanly and don't need a clutch. That's why, until now, EV makers have elected to save themselves effort and leave the gearbox out entirely.
With sophisticated engine controllers and a range of ancilliary technologies and massive R&D from many sectors, modern electric motors are now having their power curves "sculpted" just as we do with exhausts, cams, chips etc in gas-powered cars. Hence the use of a five-speed gearbox will ensure that the Plus E can be maintained closer to maximum torque.
"A multi-speed transmission allows the motor to spend more time operating in its sweet spot, where it uses energy more efficiently, particularly at high road speeds," explained Zytek Automotive managing director Neil Heslington. "It also allows us to provide lower gearing for rapid acceleration and will make the car more engaging for keen drivers.
Just how much more endearing the manual gearbox will make the electric motor will be interesting to witness. It might be a conventional gearbox but it isn't a conventional motor - when the clutch pedal is pressed, electronic controls automatically match motor revs to the output shaft speed to ensure a perfect change every time. That might be fun, or it might be less of a challenge or it might just be a damned nuisance.
Only driving will answer that question, though given Zytek's history of extreme performance, plus the partners in the process, we'd suggest it will probably be excellent fun, not to mention increasing efficiency and extending the range.
Which brings us to the third partner: Radshape is one of the UK's leading specialist manufactures of high-precision sheet metal components and assemblies and has worked with Morgan on the design, development and production of aluminium chassis structures for more than 12 years. A pic of their work is probably all that's needed to show the company's expertise.
The next Morgan Plus E
The Plus E is the first of two engineering concept vehicles.
The car as we see it above is to be used for preliminary engineering assessment and the next car will be close to production specification, with the Lithium Ion batteries replaced by "alternative battery technologies" and the likelihood of a sequential gearbox.
"The superb capability of the finished car reflects the passion with which the Zytek team has applied their considerable expertise," adds Morgan operations director Steve Morris.
"The project is a true collaboration aimed at delivering as much driving pleasure as possible in a zero emissions vehicle. It worked really well, with aluminium fabrication specialist Radshape paying particular attention to retaining chassis stiffness and weight distribution to ensure excellent dynamics and ride quality with good steering feel."
Just one final addendum to this article. 94 bhp doesn't seem like much in these days when sports cars routinely clock 1000 bhp, but it's twice what the Morgans had in 1950, and quite comparable to the power of the petrol engines the company sold into the nineties. So have no doubt that you can have fun in this car.
I find it the most appealing electric car I've yet seen.