Although an instant success on the track, the Marcos had a far from trouble-free upbringing
By Richard Heseltine / Photography by Howard Simmons
As bad an idea as it so often is to judge a book by its cover, with the Marcos coupé, it’s hard to resist the temptation. That long, priapic nose, improbably low roofline and super-swoopy hind treatment coalesce into one of the most dramatic outlines ever to emerge from Britain’s cottage industry of specialist sports car manufacturers. A shape that for more than 40 years would be pushed, pulled, tweaked and generally hacked about with haphazard élan. As the owner of this unmolested 1969 example, marque authority Richard Falconer, gleefully admits: “It’s teetering on the edge of vulgarity.”
And that has long been part of the appeal: you have to really want a Marcos. With news that the latest incarnation of this calamity-prone GT has just turned turtle, and that Marcos Engineering is no more, it would seem those days have passed. Except history teaches you otherwise. Having used up its nine lives and more, Marcos has a habit of returning from the grave.
Much of this resilience was for so long down to the fortitude and pugilistic savvy of marque instigator, and former stuntman, Jem Marsh. Yet another product of the 750MC finishing school, the West Countryman in 1955 joined Dante Engineering, a Cambridgeshire firm producing tuning equipment for Austin Seven engines with a tidy sideline in kit car bodies. Concluding that he could do better, Marsh left to form Speedex Castings & Accessories two years later, offering a similar service from premises in Luton, Bedfordshire. Within two years he had established himself as the UK’s foremost supplier of Seven go-faster parts along with a range of ally and glassfibre ’shells.
A fearless driver himself, Marsh wanted more. A chance meeting with Frank Costin in a pub in Hitchin led to what became the first Marcos (the tag being a contraction of the two principals’ surnames). In early 1959 the pair hatched a plan to build an ultra-lightweight clubmans car, but one unusually comprising a monocoque fabricated of plywood. The aerodynamicist waxed lyrical about the virtues of timber construction, pointing out that if it worked for aeroplanes such as the De Havilland Mosquito, it would be good enough for something as prosaic as a racing car.
The resultant device wasn’t pretty – not even close – but with only a mildly tuned 1172cc Ford sidevalve unit it could top 110mph. In May 1960 the first car was sold, a new fully enveloping front end becoming standard. Customer Bill Moss was immediately successful, the former ERA pilot winning nine races from 10 starts.
By the end of the year, Marcos had orders for six more cars, one destined for wealthy enthusiast Barry Filer who then installed an unknown driver: Jackie Stewart.
Costin left the firm in early 1961, having found himself at odds with Marsh over the marque’s future direction. Production was relocated from Wales to Luton, with former Lister man Dennis Adams giving the car a minor makeover as brother Peter (a man latterly airbrushed out of Marcos lore) set about simplifying chassis construction for what became the production ‘gullwing’ Marcos. The first (of 18) went to future Le Mans winner Jackie Oliver who promptly crashed it, the second being entered in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours where John Hine and Richard Prior retired with engine problems. Then the money ran out.
The Adams brothers returned to their home village of Great Shelford, near Cambridge, to concentrate on their extraordinary Chevy Corvair-powered XP prototype with its central driver position and three abreast seating. Marsh meanwhile roped in the first of umpteen backers to get Marcos back on track, retired naval officer Greville Cavendish who also had a stake in ‘specials’ giant, Falcon Shells. From the new premises in Bradford-on-Avon, the newly formed Marcos Cars Ltd resumed production in late 1962 but a new model was needed. A Spyder variant was displayed at the following January’s Racing Car Show at Olympia, but against expectations it didn’t prove popular. A slab of polystyrene was then placed on top and whittled until it looked right, forming a mould for what became unofficially known as the ‘fastback’.
With the Adams brothers back on board, the XP briefly seemed like becoming a production reality as a Marcos, but was still some way off. With sales of racing cars being largely seasonal, Marsh initiated a stopgap; something that would bring in much needed revenue – the same basic outline which would remain familiar for the next 40 years. Retaining the Costinian approach of a wooden hull, but one that was mainly the work of Peter Adams, and the unlikely Volvo B18 straight-four (having toyed with an in-house unit), the temporary fix was designed as a pure road car; one that could house Marsh’s lanky 6ft 4in frame in comfort.
Unveiled at the 1964 Racing Car Show, the Marcos 1800 caused a sensation. Dennis Adams’ outline was exuberant but not extravagant, appearing to have stepped out of some Latin carrozzeria. The beautiful people clamoured to land one. Prince Albrecht of Liechtenstein placed an order, as did Lord Lilford and Lord Cross. Yet for all the media hype and product placement (one car featuring in an episode of the hugely popular TV series The Saint), the £1500 asking price was so steep only the rich could apply, yet it cost more than that to build. In a bid to make it more affordable, the de Dion rear suspension was gradually phased out in place of a live axle (some 52 IRS cars were made), but the corresponding drop in price to £1340 brought no increase in sales. When matters reached a crisis in 1966, the Swedish unit was replaced by the much cheaper 1.5-litre ‘pre-crossflow’ Ford item. A tweaked 120bhp (up from 85bhp) LawrenceTune version was available as an option until 1967, when the Blue Oval’s new 1599cc ‘Kent’ engine became standard.
Two years later, Marcos underwent a change of ethos: the wooden chassis made way for a Dennis Adams-conceived steel item partially owing to customer resistance to timber but mainly because the steel chassis was much quicker to build. Simultaneously, the arrival of a three-litre Ford V6 edition caused a marketable turnaround of fortunes: Rod Stewart bought one, as did TV presenter John Noakes and movie auteur Sam Wanamaker. One even went to president of the Ford Motor Company, Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen.
Such prosperity couldn’t last. As the 1970s dawned, a projected US sales drive was hampered by new emission regulations: the Ford unit flunked the tests, prompting the insertion of the heavier Volvo straight-six. These developments coincided with a move to a new, larger facility in Westbury. Further experiments with Ford’s unlovely V4 unit and Triumph’s 2.5-litre straight-six – along with the arrival of the new Mantis four-seater – were ill-timed. Disruptions with relocating were worsened when 27 cars were impounded by US customs in the belief that they didn’t meet emission standards (they did). With no money coming in, Marsh was forced to sell out to Hebron & Medlock Bath Engineering. Six months later, the receivers were called in: the Rob Walker Group subsequently brought the factory only to hold a closing-down sale. By 1972 Marcos was effectively dead.
Marsh revived the marque in 1981, the first of many reincarnations under different ownerships, leading to an array of alliterated names – Marcoses called Mantula, Marcasite and Martina (but tragically no Marmoset) – and even a return to Le Mans but once again its future hung in the balance. Even if there isn’t another renaissance, you can’t argue that it has had a good innings.
What really appeals about this Marcos – any Marcos – is the sense of individuality. You might not like the styling, or the image of later variations on the theme (and some were ghastly) but it’s a proper car and far removed from a great many period rivals.
That said, there is no graceful means of entering one: the roof is at waist level and the door aperture is narrow. Once you’re in, though, you’ll be amazed at just how comfortable and cosseting it is. Typical of the ‘going our way’ mentality is the driving position. The seats are fixed at a semi-reclined position but there’s a cushion to bolster your back should you need one. The neat bit is the moveable pedal assembly, operated to and fro by turning a knob. This neat system, latterly seen on the Chrysler Viper and select Lamborghinis, makes absolute sense when in situ.
Armed with just about the longest bonnet in Christendom, you do feel vulnerable pulling out of junctions, and there’s always a slight twinge of claustrophobia, but in general there’s so much to like here. In 1969, Motor described the handling of the three-litre Marcos as being ‘fantastic… probably the best of any production car we have driven.’ Which, as praise goes, is pretty emphatic. And it’s the way this car tackles testing switchbacks that still impresses most. With the fruity backbeat goading you on, hold the stubby gearlever and drop down a cog; the nose dips ever so slightly but there’s never any sense of edginess. The steering loads up better than you can reasonably expect and it just tucks in with just a whisker of stabilising understeer.
More impressive still is that it doesn’t leave you in need of an osteopath. Sure, there’s the occasional clonk but overall the properly located suspension – Triumph-derived coils and wishbones up front, a five-link live axle out back – works remarkably well over rutted blacktop.
Looks-wise, the Marcos will always polarise opinion, and unfortunately many owners feel compelled to add spoilers and comedy wheelarch extensions; but in untainted original form, it’s certainly compelling. Add in strong straight-line performance – around 125mph and 0-60mph in eight seconds – along with tenacious handling and you can see why owners tend to hold on to them. Get the impression that we liked it You’re not wrong.