The great VW mystery
Sir, With reference to the VW advert "The One that Got Away," I think your…
It is not exactly breaking the official Secrets Act to remind readers that the name “Marcos” is a combination of the surnames of Jem Marsh and Frank Costin. In the September edition of Motor Sport, we published Frank Costin’s account of how he came to design the original Marcos, a very effective but extremely ugly little one-litre sports car constructed from plywood.
Costin’s association with the company was short-lived, Jem Marsh was looking for a car with a wider customer appeal, Frank Costin was interested only in pure engineering and blow the styling. It was a partnership which could not last. In 1963, Dennis Adams redesigned the car, .giving it a stunning fibreglass body which has become a true classic shape (Costin’s retort is that it increased weight and lessened the performance). After a slow start; these cars began selling well with a variety of engine options. By the late sixties a workforce of over 100 was producing seven cars a week which were exported to 16 countries. Cars on the home market tended to have 1600 or 3-litre Ford engines while export models to countries where there were tight emission laws, usually had two- or three-litre Volvo engines.
Order books were full, the company was buoyant and so a decision was made to move in 1969 from the converted mill in Bradford upon Avon (the old Royal Enfield works) to a purpose-built factory in nearby Westbury where it would have the potential to build 30 cars a week. As part of the expansion, a new four-seater sports saloon, the Mantis, was introduced. The combined expense of the two projects helped cause the collapse of the company. Jem Marsh admits to some mis-management, both by himself and other people he had to bring in as the company grew. At the time, it was generally thought that the Mantis had caused the company’s liquidation, it had been expensive to develop and nobody wanted it. Marsh denies this emphatically, saying that they fulfilled their projected Mantis production of a car a week and every single one of the 33 produced was sold.
There is no percentage in wondering how or why the company collapsed after having produced over 1,500 Marcos and Mini-Marcos cars. The company folded, but it was not the end of the story merely the end of Act One. Act Two began three years or so ago when Marcos cars again appeared on the market, a return by popular demand. Now production is back to 75 a year with most components being built in-house. The customer can buy his car either as a kit (in one of three stages of completion) or as a virtually complete car requiring only a few hours work to finish. Four power units are available, the 4-cylinder 2-litre Ford Pinto, the V6 Ford 2.8, and the Rover V8 in either carburettered or injected form. Road impressions of the carburettered Rover-engined Mantual were published in the November issue of Motor Sport.
Linking the two acts was an interval of about ten years during which Jem built up garage businesses (since sold) and made a speciality of buying, servicing and selling Marcos cars. All components were available to customers after the company went into liquidation and a file on every car produced is retained at the factory.
The Marcos operation is currently a modest affair operating from a couple of large Nissen sheds on an industrial estate in Westbury. Marsh wishes to keep the operation within tight bounds and not over-extend himself. He sees the cars as being as timeless as the Morgan, and would like to continue in the Morgan tradition, constantly improving but not radically changing a vehicle which deservedly has a loyal following. He does not rule out other projects in the future, but the Marcos will remain the backbone of his business.
There .is a problem when writing about Marcos and it is that “Marcos” refers to any of the cars built to designs between 1959 and 1970, from the original Cosworth-Ford J05E-engined “Ugly Duckling” (Marcos may have been Cosworth’s first customer) to the svelte 3-litre road cars. There were no model names until the Mantis. Now we have the Marcos Mantula, with its restyled front, and this covers the Rover-powered cars. The Ford cars are simply “Marcos”.
Jem Marsh was born in 1932 and, aged 16; went to sea to be a sailor in the Royal Navy. In 1952, he bought a partly completed Austin Seven Special and spent his three months shore leave finishing it. The car itself was distinguished only by the fact that its front suspension was by elastic operating through pulleys. Not infrequently, the elastic broke.
The bug had bitten, however, and Petty Officer Marsh realised that his future lay on dry land. He left the Navy in 1955 and engaged in a number of activities, from stunt driving to selling agricultural machinery, together with a valuable spell at Firestone. In 1957, he began trading under the name, “Speedex”, operating out of Luton and manufacturing and selling parts for Austin Sevens and their many derivatives. He may have been the first man to offer alloy wheels to the general public. True, they fitted only Austin Sevens, but handsome little things they were.
If you have access to copies of Motor Sport of the time, you will find advertisements for dozens of firms offering bodies and parts for the “impecunious enthusiast” to create the car of his dreams from Austin Seven or flathead Ford components. Most folded their tents and stole away into the night but “Speedex” prospered and recently the name was revived to describe another Marsh company which specialises in providing components for the burgeoning kit car market.
In 1959, Jem and his Speedex Special were the outstanding combination in the F750 Championship which then enjoyed a prestige with no direct parallel today. After all, a few years before, Colin Chapman had established his early reputation in the category. The interesting thing about the Speedex car was that all the modifications were available to the customer, from the independent front suspension unit, via the six-spoke alloy wheels, the alloy cylinder head etc, to the aluminium body, which cost all of £49.
During that year, the partnership with Costin was formed and the first all-timber car was produced. Press releases claimed that the car was built from Marine Laminated Ply, but it was really only ordinary plywood. The car was ugly, definitely not the sort for the then-equivalent of the dark glasses and gold medallion brigade to cut a dash in, but on the tracks, in its class, it was supreme. Bill Moss took nine wins from nine starts in 1960.
The Marsh / Costin relationship lasted only until car number six had been built, but eleven of the original were built and they were used by the likes of Derek Bell, Jackie Oliver and Jackie Stewart. They were a serious proposition on the circuits but shunned by road users. Jem now has the Stewart car and has been very successful in various Historic categories over the past few years, winning three championships. Taking everything into account, this is not a bad record for a car which was bought in 1964, as a pile of bits, for just £250.
Dennis Adams, who had met Costin while working at Lister and then gone with him to Wales to build the first Marcos, begins to come more and more into the picture. Now a successful design consultant, he is one of those rare individuals’ who can style cars by instinct. Despite what Frank Costin says from the point of view of pure engineering, it was Dennis Adams’ flair for styling which made the Marcos a success.
There was one other individual, not generally acknowledged, who helped the company, Commander Greville Cavendish. Despite early Adams’ modifications, which included gullwing doors, the little company was in the doldrums in 1962, Jem himself making ends meet by working for L. M. Bellamy. On, the grapevine, Jem heard that Cavendish, who was not without a bob or two, was interested in building his own cars. A meeting led to Cavendish putting a financial injection into the company.
By the time the Racing Car Show of 1963 came around, Marcos had built about 70 cars, in four distinct body shapes. The prototype, originally fitted with a Ford 100E engine, quickly discarded, began with cycle mudguards. Then came the model with a full fibreglass nose section. The first Adams cars had gullwing doors (23 were sold) and their successors had a fast back, of which around 20 were built. At the 1963 Racing Car Show, the “classic” Marcos shape was unveiled with an 1,800 cc Volvo engine. This was the first Marcos designed specifically for the road.
At the same show, Paul Emery (shortly to be featured in Motor Sport) revealed a Mini-variant with a fibreglass body set on a Mini floorpan and subframe. The thought was prompted, why not make a glassfibre monocoque. Addicott commissioned Marsh to build such a car, in conjunction with Falcon Shells, a company which, made bodies for specials and in which Greville Cavendish had an interest, and the result was a car called the “Dart”. When this did not go into production, Marsh whose idea it had been, designed a car on similar lines but retaining the standard radiator set-up, and this became the Mini-Marcos which remained in continuous production until 1983.
The “Dart'” project was put into production by Jeremy Delmar-Morgan as the “Mini-Jem”. The project since passed through at least five different owners but fewer than 50 examples ever appear to have been completed.
In contrast, the marginally uglier Mini-Marcos has been the most successful of the Mini-based kit cars and even had its moment of glory in international racing. In 1966 a version, built by two French amateurs, finished at Le Mans in 15th, and last, position. But it was the first British car home!
Jem recalls: “I arrived at the circuit and saw what a mess they’d made of it. I helped them over some of the obvious mistakes in the little time we had but they didn’t want to know. Nobody wanted to know until it was the only British car left in the race and looked like finishing. Then everyone wanted to know.” Of nearly 1,000 Mini-Marcos built, the 1966 Le Mans car is the one to have achieved a single moment of fame. Unfortunately it was stolen from its owner and so will either disappear altogether or else sire a progeny of “genuine Le Mans” cars.
Marsh made over 500 Mini-Marcos more or less as a side-line and could claim to produce both the most handsome and repellant looking cars on the market. In the 70s, he sold the project to Harold Dermott who made a further 380. Completely re-engineered and re-styled, it lives on as the fabulous little Midas, but the Mini-Marcos was the inspiration for the Midas rather than its natural parent.
Despite its looks, its racing pedigree and a price tag of just £1,500 for the 1800 version, sales of the Marcos were slow to move at first. By late 1964, the car was being built at a rate of just one a week but, in 1965, a switch to Ford power proved to be more popular with the buying public and with the introduction of the crossflow 1,600 cc and the V6 3-litre models, production began to rise. The 3-litre car, with its top speed of 130 mph and 0-60 mph acceleration in under seven seconds, helped to ensure that, after 1968, production grew to seven cars a week.
Also in 1968, Marcos produced a Gp6 car powered by an ex-Brabham F1 3-litre Repco engine. Suspension was 1967 Cooper F1 and Dennis Adams designed the wooden monocoque and startling body. After testing at Castle Combe and Goodwood, the car was shipped to Spa where it was to have been driven by Robin Widdows and Eddie Nelson. Widdows withdrew and Jem found himself as co-driver. “The car was built for racing drivers, who tend not to be tall, not for 6 ft 4 in constructors. The race was one of Spa’s special wet days and I was glad when water got into the alternator and we had to call it a day. The engine, though, was very nice, we drove the car on the road and it was very flexible.”
After that sole appearance, there was some dispute with the tax man, over purchase tax, and so the car was sold to the States. It has never since raced, but it is still there, though a Buick engine replaced the Repco before shipping.
By 1970, Marcos was established as a serious specialist sports car company which looked set for a fair future. The Triumph TR6-based Mantis did not, however, capture the imagination.
Just as the standard Marcos had been startling for its time and, therefore, slow to sell initially, so the Mantis too possibly pre-empted public taste. Aesthetics are a personal consideration but I have to say that the Mantis disappointed when first I saw one but has steadily grown on me since.
The car had ceased to be known as the “Wooden Wonder” for, in 1969, commercial sense dictated that the wooden monocoque, constructed from around 350 different pieces be replaced by a steel chassis which was much cheaper and quicker to produce. Nobody has ever claimed that the steel version is better than the wooden one or that the discerning buyer was put off a Marcos because it was made of wood. Steel happens to be cheaper and more readily produced in unit numbers.
The crash came in 1971 and the assets were bought by Rob Walker’s group, though Jem looked after them. Three years later he was able to buy back the assets and these form the basis of the revitalised company. After pressure to restart production, he sent out a single press release three years ago and the response from this was enough to start the orders flowing again.
At first, the new generation Marcos were assembled by two men from components built by sub-contractors, but now everything which is Marcos is built in-house except for the chassis (the people making it are doing such a good job, there’s no reason to change) and the bodies which are the work of Fibreglass Applications, a firm run by ex-Marcos employee Pat Cuss. The standard of the fibreglass work is second to none. The beautifully finished body, the optional leather trim, etc are all constructed in the sheds in Westbury. In fact, the only non-British parts on a Marcos are the electric window winding units and, on some cars, the specified paint finish.
Jem’s hope that the Marcos will continue as a sort of latter-day Morgan is not a vain one. People often describe the Morgan as having “traditional” styling but it is nothing of the sort. Show a Mogan to someone living in 1908 and he’d think it science fiction time. Morgan styling is not traditional in an absolute sense, but the current Morgan derives from a company’s traditions based around a pleasing style which has a defined beginning. In a similar way, Marcos is establishing its own tradition but based around a style first conceived in 1963.
Marcos and Morgan can be bracketed, however, in that they both maintain a tradition of soundly engineered cars and motoring enjoyment. Neither are cars for Everyman but, for the lucky few, they are everything. – M.L.
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