Frank Costin and his Amigo
The latest in a line of cars with wooden chassis
Frank Costin's name has been connected with a good number of racing and road-car projects over the past 15 years or so. Some of these have been very successful like the Vanwall, others less so, while a number have failed to see the light of day. Some of Costin's business relationships have soured on him and he has turned out the loser yet, in this latest project, the Costin Amigo road car, he seems happier and more enthusiastic than ever, particularly now that everything is really getting under way.
Before we go any further it should be explained that the subject of this article contributed the Cos to Marcos and it is his younger brother, Mike, who is the Cos in Cosworth Engineering, a fact that continues to fox a good number of people.
The Costin Amigo is not a brand new project for Frank Costin has spent the last three years solidly working on the car, first in Wales and for the past six months at the Little Staughton Aerodrome near St. Neots, Hunts. Now things are really starting to happen for half a dozen prototypes are on the road and, after various delays, production will commence in the new year. This has been facilitated by the fact that, by the time you read this article, Costin Automotive Racing Products Ltd. will have moved from the dusty, damp and cold premises they presently occupy to a light and modern building which is only a couple of hundred yards away and still on the aerodrome. From here the facilities to build about two cars a week are available and more labour will be taken on in the near future.
Frank Costin was brought up in the aeronautical industry and after working for several firms finally settled down with De Havilland. By this time he was a competent aerodynamicist and engineer and thus his knowledge was brought into play by Colin Chapman and his then partner Mike Costin. Thus Frank designed the bodies for some of the earlier Lotus racing cars like the Mk. 8. This led to him designing the body for the Vanwalls and he remembers Mr. Tony Vandervell with a great degree of affection and regard.
Some time and several more racing car bodies after this he finally left De Havilland to start up his own design consultancy business and became involved with Jem Marsh, then of Speedex, in the formation of Marcos Cars Ltd. The first gull-wing door Marcos was actually Costin's Auto Project 1 and, as is well known, Frank drew from his aircraft experience and designed the car with a plywood chassis. On the track, with Bill Moss at the wheel, the prototype was a great success and soon orders started to flow in and road versions were also built. Unfortunately Marsh and Costin fell out and Frank left the firm, although Marcos continued to build cars to the wooden monocoque chassis concept until two years ago. The present-day Costin Amigo features a plywood chassis, just as the Marcos did, and this unusual construction is undoubtedly exceptionally strong and rigid. These days Frank Costin pretends not to hear asides about woodworm!
After leaving Marcos, Costin was somewhat out on a limb and he busied himself with various engineering projects. His next car was actually Auto Project 5, which was a sleek teardrop-shaped sports coupé powered by a DKW engine. Only one was built and Costin still owns it and would still like to put the vehicle into production as a cheap sports car for the enthusiast. Undoubtedly it is still years ahead of the Sprite or Spitfire which is the market for which it was aimed.
Another car which hardly saw the light of day was Auto Project 9, which was a sleek Lotus twin-cam-powered sports racer built in association with Jim Diggory and sold to the States. The Lumsden/Sargeant Ulster Jaguar for Le Mans followed and then there was a little cross-country vehicle for JCB (the excavator people), a rather ugly little town car, and a test monocoque chassis for BRM. These various projects span a considerable number of years and during this time Costin also used his fertile mind to design printing and earth-moving equipment.
But it was around the mid-sixties that his name started to become generally well known again in the racing circuits for Auto Project 14 was a sports-racing car, again with plywood chassis. This was financed by a young London racing driver by the name of Roger Nathan and his father who runs a successful second-hand car business. In Nathan's hands the first car won a good number of races and a GT version followed which clinched the Motoring News GT Championship. Quite a number of these Costin-Nathan machines were produced, particularly in GT form, and were successful in various customers' hands. The lines of the Amigo undoubtedly bear a family relationship to the Costin-Nathan. But again Costin split with his partners who continued to produce the cars under the name Astra for a short time before the project died completely due to lack of funds.
Immediately after leaving the Nathan outfit Frank Costin was contacted by Ron Harris, who had been running the works Formula Two Lotus team, to design a new Formula Two car for the 1967 season. This was the first time Costin actually designed a wooden single-seater racing car and the Protos, as it was called, really was a sensation with its way-out bodywork. Amongst those who drove in the three-car Protos team were Pedro Rodriguez and he completely destroyed one at Enna and, thanks only to the wooden construction, was able to step out alive. A French driver called Eric Offenstadt also had his fair share of accidents in the cars and Harris called a halt to the project at the end of the year. This was a great shame for with a little more money and development time the car could have become a winner, and even so it was undoubtedly the fastest Formula Two car in a straight line, as Brian Hart showed at Hockenheim with a long-standing lap record. The Protos shape more or less reappeared on the March 711 and 721, for which Robin Herd commissioned Frank Costin as a consultant.
After the Ron Harris episode, which left Frank Costin a little downhearted, came a brief association with Johnny Walker, a West Countryman, who built Formula Four racing cars as one of several interests. By now Costin was a little more wary and, though he designed a Formula Four, again in wood, for Walker, he was by this time (1968) formulating the idea of the Amigo which he was determined to get off the ground with an adequate and straightforward backer.
Frank Costin reckoned that there was a market for a car which would conjure the same esprit de corps as that of the Bentley in the 1930s. Obviously the specification had to be quite different to that of the Bentleys and Costin laid down a basic formula of how the car should perform. This included the ability to cruise at 100 m.p.h. comfortably with the engine revving at less than 5,000 r.p.m. and have a range of 250 miles, preferably with a fuel consumption of at least 30 m.p.g. The car must have the greatest possible reliability and, wherever possible, parts must be used which have already been proven. Other requirements Costin set himself were that passenger comfort should be such that at least 250 miles could be covered at a single stretch without fatigue, that considerable luggage space should be provided and that the amenities (heating, ventilation, etc.) should be adequate.
The net result was the Amigo, so named because it is a friendly car, according to Costin, and this fulfilled the above specification. His first major move was to decide on the use of a Vauxhall Victor 2-litre overhead camshaft engine which led to various other Vauxhall parts, including the Victor gearbox, back axle (but fitted with a limited slip differential), front suspension parts and brakes to be utilised. Since then the project has received considerable assistance from Luton, and Costin is really happy in the way the engine fulfils the original requirement.
Costin has not strayed from his original gaboon-bonded plywood chassis, although in the Amigo this is covered with fibre-glass on the outer surfaces to give a better finish, and there is also glass-fibre rear section which forms the rear mudguards and roof and a separate bonnet of the same material. Built into the monocoque construction is a crash pylon behind both the driver and passenger and the seat belts and Costin believes the car to be one of the safest in the world.
The front suspension utilises Vauxhall front wishbones but these are modified considerably and Koni dampers and stiffer springs are used. At the rear the suspension is most interesting for the rigid axle is controlled by very long leading radius rods and a Panhard rod. The rear suspension media is also Koni but are self-levelling oleopneumatic units which are made exclusively for the Amigo and "a little firm down in Maranello". Naturally Costin has remained faithful to his own conceived ideas about aerodynamic shape and says he has "no time for fancy styling—aerodynamics is a style in itself". But surely, we questioned, beautiful yet efficient styling like that of the Dino Ferrari, for instance, sells motor cars. Costin counters by saying that he wants people to buy his motor cars because they appreciate good engineering and if that isn't still the strongest selling point for a motor car then he isn't really interested in carrying on.
Personally, I find the styling of the car attractive in a peculiar kind of way and from the back it definitely looks like the latest Corvette and, for that matter, almost has Dino looks. Perhaps the removal of those bulging top-door-hinge-cum-air intakes would smooth the lines. Continuing on the theme of his potential customer Costin likes to think that as well as appreciating good engineering and wanting to be a member of an élite club he or she will also understand his own attitude of mind towards building the cars which he says is not completely profit orientated. As long as he can build cars which give the owners total satisfaction, have enough money to live on and provide a modest profit for his company then he will be more than happy. Incidentally, it should be pointed out that Costin's fellow-director in this venture is a motor sporting enthusiast and land owner from Anglesea by the name of Paul Pycroft, who has given Costin a great deal of moral as well as financial encouragement in the project. The car is not cheap by any manner of means and the retail price will be £3,326 78p complete with purchase tax. Lightweight and tuned versions are available and this year Costin has fielded a racing version occasionally with considerable success and plans a bigger programme next year, including Le Mans, if a sponsor can be found.
On the road
I was able to drive the latest pre-production car some considerable distance with Frank Costin as a passenger and then later drive an older prototype which had a tuned engine in it. Undoubtedly the new car is the one by which the Amigo should be judged. It was sprayed in an eye-catching colour of green and was undoubtedly better finished both inside and out than the older cars and this is the standard Costin will maintain for production cars. The first major problem, however, is getting into the car, for the available opening is rather small, and squeezing in the machine without injuring oneself is undoubtedly an art which has to he mastered. Getting out is even worse!
However, once in place one immediately feels at home and everything comes to hand easily and one sits very comfortably, although personally I would like to have sat a little higher in the car. Rearward vision through the mirror is surprisingly good. On the road the car is a delight to drive for it handles beautifully, having neutral characteristics, and one is immediately impressed by the very smooth ride occasioned by the special Koni rear suspension. Undoubtedly there are plenty of disadvantages in using a car as low as this on the road, at night one is constantly dazzled, and visibility over hedges when rounding corners can lead to some difficult situations. Those readers who have owned Lotus Europas will know if it is really worth it.
The braking, and particularly the steering of the Amigo, are superb, while the acceleration and performance is really vivid. Unfortunately in our run we were not able to record any figures but Costin quotes 0-60 m.p.h.. in 7.2 sec. with a top speed in overdrive top of 127 m.p.h. A 0-100 m.p.h. figure of 21.2 sec. has also been recorded, which is certainly impressive for a 13.1 cwt. car. However, it should be said that the engine does still sound like a Vauxhall, although noise level is good, and personally one feels that one should really be hearing a more refined noise. This being the case one might then, of course, lose the reliability and low engine revs 100 m.p.h. cruising. Because of the sleekness and lack of wind noise one does not get a great impression of speed in the car until one glances at the speedometer.
A Costin Amigo will be on show to the public for the first time at the Motor Racing Showboat moored in the Pool of London from January 1st and this really starts the emergence of the Amigo from the prototype to the production stage. Initially Costin hopes to be able to produce two cars a week, but never intends the figure to go over three, even if there are more than enough orders to cover. Four distributors have been appointed and Vauxhall agents should be able to cope with any normal servicing of the cars.
It will be interesting to see how many customers there are with over £3,000 who fulfil Frank Costin's ideal purchaser. Certainly they will become the owners of a fine-handling, safe and very distinctive motor car produced by an enthusiast for enthusiasts—A. R. M.