Marcos - Bygone Brands

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Mark Bean

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The nearly 50-year rollercoaster ride for this niche British sports car maker came to an abrupt end late in 2007

From Unique Cars #285, Apr/May 2008 

Marcos

Few automotive brands have fought more doggedly for survival than Marcos, only to then fail within sight of their 50th anniversary. The announcement in October 2007 that Marcos Engineering would close was probably inevitable. Nonetheless, it marked a further diminution of the once-vibrant British sports car industry.

Marcos was created in 1959; swinging from the coat-tails of Lotus and perfectly positioned to exploit an era that spawned dozens of ‘build-it-yourself’ kit cars.

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Marcos built some quirky-looking models but its GT is amongst the automotive world’s genuine beauties (above)

The brand was established by racer and engineer Jeremy ‘Jem’ Marsh in partnership with aeronautical engineer Frank Costin, brother to the founder of the Cosworth engine-building empire.

The first ‘Mar-Cos’ was based around Ford components and carried odd-looking fibreglass bodywork plus a feature that set it apart from any other DIY sports car.

Costin during WWII had worked on development of the famous Mosquito fighter-bomber – nicknamed the ‘Wooden Wonder’ – and built the car around plywood framework which remained a Marcos design feature for almost a decade.

Just 39 of the original Xylon design were sold and only part of the blame for slow sales could be levelled at its timber construction. With a distended cabin designed to accommodate Marsh’s lanky frame, the car’s oddball looks were a more likely culprit than fear of termite infestation.

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Any thoughts that Marcos was destined to epitomise ugliness were dispelled at the 1963 London Racing Car Show, where Marcos displayed its visually captivating 1800GT. From the Jaguar E-Type-inspired bonnet to a ‘Kamm’-style aerodynamic tail, the Dennis Adams-designed GT offered good looks allied to kit-build simplicity.

While a variety of British engines could have powered the GT, the task was initially given to Volvo’s 1.8-litre. However, within 18 months it, and the de Dion rear suspension used by early GTs had been replaced by a lighter and less expensive 1.5-litre Ford motor and coil-sprung live axle.

The quest for volume sales led Marcos into partnership with designer Malcolm Newell. His Mini Marcos body weighed less than 200kg and could be attached to the remains of a wrecked Mini in less than 20 hours. The kit sold initially for £199 and around 1250 MMs were made during a production life that continued until 1995. Several of the MkV version made after 1991 were sold to Japan and included air-conditioning.

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Ford V6 engine upped top speed to 200km/h-plus

After three years of building 1.5-litre GTs, Marcos adapted its design to accommodate Ford’s 3.0-litre V6 and replaced the timber frame with a more durable, all-steel chassis.

Now Marcos had performance to match its startling appearance: 0-100km/h times dropped to less than 8.0secs and top speed now topped 200km/h. The V6-powered GT should have been a sales winner but was built for less than a year before a financial crisis forced Marcos into bankruptcy.

The cause of the collapse was not the ‘traditional’ GT cars but a strange device by the name of Mantis. Based on the shape of a one-off racer that had been designed around a mid-mounted Repco-Brabham V8, this 2+2 coupe used a Triumph 2.5PI engine and was uglier than Aunty Jack. Just 39 of the four-seat model were sold before receivership slammed the factory doors on its abbreviated backside.

The business was then bought by Formula One entrepreneur Rob Walker who funded development of an improved Mini Marcos, based on the longer Mini Traveller floorpan. After 1976, when rights to the Marcos name returned to Jem Marsh, MMs were sold under the Midas brand.

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Cramped cabin belies hand-made origins

A decade after the original company’s liquidation, Marsh revived the GT. Initial products of the renewed regime continued to use V6 Ford engines, but 1984 brought a restyled Mantula coupe and the move to Rover’s 3.5-litre V8.

For fuel-conscious owners a four-cylinder Martina with the engine and suspension from Ford’s superseded 2.0-litre Cortina was later added to the range, followed during 1986 by a convertible version of the V8 Mantura.

When Rover upped the capacity of its V8 to 3.9 litres, Marcos pounced on the enlarged engine to power an upgraded Mantara that was built until 1992. When new regulations for Limited Production vehicles relaxed compliance requirements, Marcos elected to build all of its products in-house, bringing to an end more than 30 years of kit-car sales.

Despite building fewer than 50 cars annually, Marcos still found the resources to develop a series of distinctive and viable competition cars.

Its LM500 was a variation on the Mantara platform, using a 235kW Ford V8 and intended as a Le Mans competitor but more successful in British Racing Drivers Club events.

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After finishing third in class at its first BRDC GT Challenge attempt, Marcos switched to Chevrolet power for its LM600 and was rewarded with the 1995 Challenge Championship against rivals that included Porsche Carreras and the TVR Cerbera.

Marcos again collapsed in 2001 but was rekindled under new owner Tony Stelliga who contracted British race and rally maestros Prodrive to develop the chassis for a new, Chevrolet-powered model.

In mid-2006, Marcos announced a car that was destined to be the last of a troubled but memorable line. With 6.0 litres and 310kW, the Chevrolet-powered TSO would reach 160km/h in 8.5secs and continue to a top speed of 290km/h.

OWNER: CHRIS BECKWITH

For Chris Beckwith, the combination of 110kW and an 850kg, waist-height sports car is a recipe for "pure fun".

This 1969-model GT with its Ford V6 engine and four-speed overdrive gearbox is the second Marcos that Beckwith has owned and tribute to a dedication that spans more than 30 years.

"I first rode in a Marcos during the 1970s and owned my first one during the 1980s," Beckwith said. "I always regretted selling it and was lucky enough to find this one a couple of years ago."

Like his original Marcos, Beckwith’s current car is one of the last to be built with a wooden chassis.

"I’d like to race it but the prospect of damaging a frame that’s made from 275 individual pieces and needs to be repaired by a boat-builder is a bit scary," he said. "However, I am preparing it to compete in Regularity events where the other drivers are more ‘gentlemanly’ and give you a bit more space."

 

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