Of all the brands that have been restarted in the ongoing EV revolution, Morris isn't an obvious one to have chosen. That hasn't stopped exactly this from happening, with the classic British brand getting the defibrillator treatment and being zapped back to life with a pure-electric homage to the classic Morris J-Type van.
If you were going to relaunch Morris, the most obvious vehicle to go for would surely be the Minor – perhaps a Traveller with a PHEV powertrain and retro styling. Even a new take on the Morris Marina might go down well as a C-segment family car, and failing that Jeremy Clarkson could just drop a piano on the roof...
But relaunching Morris with a small, lightweight commercial vehicle actually makes a lot of business sense. The rigours of passenger car type approval aren't required and they are therefore much cheaper to develop and build. Reducing the creature comforts also lowers the cost, and more to the point, there's a burgeoning market for small pure-electric vans across the globe as cities aim to clean up their air. Even larger vans are increasingly going PHEV and electric.
Behind the JE is a UK-based team that has secured the right to use the 'Morris Commercial' name and is hoping to “revive the iconic and much-loved British brand with a series of all-electric vehicles, leading with the introduction of the new Morris JE”.
The JE itself takes its inspiration from the classic Morris J-Type van which was introduced all the way back in 1948 and is considered by many to be the first 'little big van'. In fact, its capacity-to-footprint ratio is apparently still unsurpassed by modern commercial vehicles – partly thanks to its semi outrigger wheels.
The J-Type also had distinctive styling which became a backdrop to post-war Britain throughout the 1950s and into 'Cool Britannia' in the 1960s. Everything from local shops to the Royal Mail adorned J-Types with iconic liveries that still form the backdrop of films and throw-back TV series' such as Call the Midwife and Father Brown. The old van was even exported to 22 different countries, and it is this status as a mid-century legend with loveable retro styling that Morris Commercial is hoping to capitalise on.
The JE project has, apparently, been undertaken under tight wraps by a team consisting of experienced designers and engineers based in Worcestershire. It uses a modular chassis – which supports the brand's desire to introduce further models in the future – and a “state-of-the-art, lithium-ion battery powertrain”, although we have no specifics at the moment. It's lightweight, too, utilising carbon fibre in the design to make it one of the lightest LCVs on the market (when it goes on sale), which has the added bonus of increasing the energy efficiency on offer.
As you'd expect, Morris is promising “funky and contemporary” design with the JE, bringing the original J-Type into the 21st century. It's more than skin deep though, with engineering integrity built into the van. Thanks to all of this, Morris Commercial reckons it's onto a winner by opening up its own little niche in the market – and it could well be right given the propensity for genuine retro vans to be turned into hipster coffee dispensaries/street food restaurants/mobile gin houses these days.
According to Dr Qu Li, CEO and Founder of Morris Commercial, the prototype has, and continues to undertake extensive road testing with a bit more work to go before it is production ready. With a launch 'proper' imminent, we'll be able to report the finer detail soon.
What was previously a teaser is now a reality with the official unveiling of the JE happening at London's Design Museum on November 13. And what a thing it is!
We've been um-ing and ah-ing as to whether we like the cutesy-yet-functional appearance or whether it's a clumsy pastiche of the original J-type – akin to one of those Micra-based VW Camper kit vans, which are dreadful. We're airing towards liking it, but choosing the right colour is going to be key in making it work.
Anyway, down to the details; the JE is based on a modular chassis, with the lithium-ion batteries and electric drive being UK-sourced, albeit we don't know who from. The benefit of this modularity is that in time, the JE can be adapted into a minibus, camper, flat-bed or any other derivative. Carbon fibre bodywork in the box van as-is makes it one of the lightest LCVs on the market, with it slotting into the 2.5 tonne LCV segment.
Despite this lightweight construction, it's rated to carry up to 1000kg in its 5.5 cubic metre load bay – big enough for two standard Euro-spec palettes. Full width rear doors and a nearside sliding door provide access to the load space, albeit that siding door doesn't look especially wide...
We haven't been given any specifics in terms of motor power, but the battery is a 60kWh affair which should make the JE capable of around 200 miles on a full charge. Zero to 80 per cent charge can be achieved in around 30 minutes.
Visual divisiveness aside, the biggest problem with the JE is the price; when it goes on sale in 2021 it'll be £60,000 – which is an awful lot of money. A Nissan E-NV200 is just over £20k and a Renault Master ZE, which is bigger, is still cheaper at around £47k. However, the JE is the same price as an LDV EV80 yet has a significant range advantage and certainly looks a whole lot more interesting. The modularity factor certainly adds potential to its success, too.
Retro is in, and as a van the JE certainly ticks that box. We reckon that its real calling in life, however, might just end up being as a camper. Go on Morris, get it made!