Back in 1963, Marcos, a limited volume sports car manufacturer founded four years previously by Jem Marsh (a sprightly sixty-something, and still at the helm today) and Frank Costin, introduced a Volvo-engined 1800 coupé. It marked something of a radical departure. The earliest bearers of the Marcos name were easily identifiable by their somewhat idiosyncratic profile; the 1800 was altogether different, a svelte, alluring fastback whose looks have withstood the test of time.
Today, 30 years on, the same basic shape lurks beneath the Mantara. Sure, the lines are less clean than those of the original. The Mantara is festooned with flares, bulges and pimples to accommodate the fat tyres and muscular engine expected of a modern sports car. The effect is squat, aggressive and purposeful. Certain aspects of the design, notably the rear end, are showing their age, but the overall package has a durable appeal in much the same way as a Caterham, a Mini or, indeed, a Mini Marcos, which continues in production alongside the Mantara at Marcos’s rambling collection of workshop units on an industrial estate at Westbury, Wiltshire.
The 24-strong workforce is expected to assemble around two Mantaras per week this year. You can choose from the hard-top Coupé £24,904), which will form the basis of an ambitious GT racing programme (Le Mans is scheduled for 1994) or the £25,526 400 Spyder tested here. The 400 series is powered by Rover’s familiar ‘stretched’ 3.9 V8, yielding 190 bhp. The performance, as you will read, is more than adequate (Marcos claims a top speed of 140 mph, and credible 0-60 mph acceleration in 5.4s), but if you’re really hard to please an extra £7349 will buy you the 450 Sport engine, with 302 bhp and a thundering 320 lb ft of torque at 4000 rpm. That is said to be a genuine 150 mph-plus performer, with standing start acceleration that would impress NASA.
The passage of three decades has brought about some significant changes, the old wooden chassis being replaced by a steel spaceframe as long ago as 1969. As a result, the Mantara 400 certainly doesn’t offer any clues to its antique origins. Although light (at just 1020 kg, its power to weight ratio is advantageous), it feels stiff and sure-footed. The new, wider front track (Sierra-based) and 205/55 Yokohamas certainly enhance grip levels, but the Mantara sits quite beautifully on the road in any situation It will be mildly unsettled by the ridges and bumps of a typical B-road, but it never does anything alarming. On a dry road, you can apply full throttle out of a slow corner and it obediently digs in. With the V8 at full chat, it all sounds brutally dramatic from the outside; ensconced within the comfortable, leather-trimmed cabin (a £934 option), it all feels quite sane. The Mantara is remarkably neutral. Of course, if you really want to unstick the rear tyres (225/50), you can do so by employing gorilla tactics, but it’s rather pointless, and the sudden need for opposite lock isn’t encouraged by rather ponderous steering, which is acceptably direct once you’re up and running, but would tax Lennox Lewis around town. At least Marcos had the foresight to include power assistance on its options list.
The ride is extraordinarily compliant at speed, even when, as in this case, the adjustable damping had been stiffened virtually to the point of rigor mortis. The predictable penalty is a series of crashing jolts through the backside when dawdling, but it’s a small price to pay for the fun you can have at the other end of the scale.
The Mantara’s inherent user-friendliness is fortified by the flexibility of the torquey Rover, which delivers 227 lb ft at 3600 rpm, but performs lustily at any point between 1000 and 5800 rpm, at which point a limiter cuts in rather abruptly, even though it sounds as though the engine has plenty more to offer.
Look a tight. Welsh right-hander in the eye. Your brain tells you it’s a second-gear corner; the Mantara’s urgent, powerful responses tell you that third will suffice. Indeed, you could tackle most of the Principality’s frequently tortuous contours in just third and fourth without putting undue stress on the drivetrain. If you want to make more noise, the clutch action is surprisingly light, the gearchange firm and positive, but there’s generally little need to grab lower gears. It’s up to your mood, really. The Mantara can be as restful or as frantic as you wish. Either way, it’s never frightening. This is the first Marcos to have been subjected to Type Approval, which means that there is a new, ferocious attention to detail of a kind not always associated with specialist sports car manufacturers. There are those who will argue that, for £25,000, you should bloody well expect everything to be correctly and reliably assembled. Fair point, but anyone who understands the difference between drivingand merely using a car as a soulless form of conveyance will tell you that the manner of performance of a machine such as this is of far greater import than, say, whether or not the oil pressure gauge has been countersunk into the facia…
Many of the compromises previously associated with sports car ownership no longer apply. The Mantara’s hood, for instance, scores highly for its simplicity of operation and quality of fit, as does the tonneau cover beneath which it snuggles when retracted. Even better news for potential customers is that Marcos has developed a more efficient system still since the demonstrator was put together, which allows the top to be raised and lowered from within the cockpit at the flick of an elbow. Anyone who has driven an MX-5 will appreciate the benefits.
Hood up, all-round visibility remains good, though having the top in place does not do much to diminish wind noise. Hardly a big deal. In alfresco mode, the wind- and sidescreens provide excellent protection against the elements. Either way, the radio/cassette is superfluous to requirements, unless you happen to be parked.
Certain idiosyncrasies remain. Marcos seats are permanent fixtures, for example, though the cockpit can be tailored to suit all shapes and sizes; a dial by the ignition moves the pedals to and fro, as required. It may be unusual, but it’s effective.
Build quality appears to be good. the demonstrator devoid of irritating shakes and rattles, but there remain a few imperfections. The speedometer and tachometer are both slightly obscured by column stalks, though the most important segments of the former are visible. By far the greatest problem, however, is the heat generated in the footwell. After several hours at the wheel, even with the hood down for all but 15 minutes or so, it becomes very uncomfortable. If you ever wondered how most turkeys must feel on December 25…
Marcos is aware of the problem, and is currently investigating how best to provide more effective insulation.
Measured against the Mantara’s ability to please, such quirks pale into insignificance. Ask yourself if you can put up with roasted kneecaps in exchange for an intoxicating blend of sound. speed and dynamic integrity, and the answer has to be a resounding ‘Yes’. S A