MINI MARCOS PROGRESS
Progress is painfully slow. One of my favourite annual events is the Spring Thaw, a rally/tour organised by Classic Car Adventures.com in British Columbia for pre-1978 cars. My Mini Marcos was supposed to have been finished in time for the previous year’s event, but missed that deadline by about ten months. It has now missed this year’s deadline as well.
As well as the Mini Marcos, I have also got myself involved with a 1958 Chevy Delray (like the white coupe in American Graffiti), a MkVI Bentley project, a Rolls Wraith special project, a deteriorating Mini, an MGB, a propane-fuelled turbo Cobra project, and I recently made a well cheeky lowball offer on a 1938 MG TA which was, astonishingly, accepted. It’s delightful, but I really didn’t need another project. There is now a long queue in the Ayrspeed Carrosserie. I have no modern car at all, the newest being a 20-year-old Jeep, and I have to spend a lot of potential Marcos-building time keeping the functioning members of the elderly fleet tottering on. The TA just needs new front springs and some minor tweaks, so that’s first in the queue. The Classic Car Adventure boys demanded the presence of the Mini Marcos this year, so it went back on the front burner until the deadline became obviously impractical. The Marcos was imported in 1974 but never assembled, so it has no registration. This isn’t going to be a major problem, as the BC penpushers will give it a new VIN but allow it to be registered as a 1974 car. However, it’s got to be assembled, drivable and capable of going through a tech inspection somewhat easier than an MOT, before the bumf process starts.
The Thaw requires pre-1978 cars, but that’s no problem for me. The Delray was built in 1958, the MG TA in 1938, and the MGB in 1974, and all of them move under their own power and could be fettled into surviving the Thaw. In the event, I used the MGB, which behaved well: the story will be in MG Enthusiast magazine.
BACKGROUND The Mini Marcos is an early ’60s kit/racing car based on the mechanicals of a Mini. As with most small British manufacturers of high-performance sports cars, Marcos have gone bust many times, but Mini Marcoses have been sporadically available for fifty years, and are currently in production. They are very fast, agile and amusing, and enjoyed significant success at Le Mans. My own example is a barn-find unbuilt kit from 1974, now being assembled for the first time. The Mini Marcos was conceived by Jem Marsh of Marcos in 1965, and was designed by Brian Moulton. It’s around 30% lighter than a Mini, more stable with its longer wheelbase, much faster with its completely different aerodynamics, and has a much lower centre of gravity because the glasshouse is smaller and mounted significantly lower. There’s no chassis, as the car is a lightweight GRP monococque. A Mini Marcos makes a standard steel Mini feel like driving a bus full of fat people. A Mini Marcos was entered in the 24-hour Le Mans race in1966, and finished in 15th place, competing against Porsche, Ford and Ferrari, and it was the only British car to qualify as a finisher that year. The Marcos was fitted with a standard Rally Tune A-series engine in Group II configuration, with a straight-cut close-ratio box and a limited slip diff. The engine had never even been started before the race, and was run in during the first laps: apparently it ran much cooler and smoother towards the end of the race. The Mini Marcos returned to the Sarthe circuit the following year with more streamlined bodywork and was clocked at 146 mph on the Mulsanne straight. Non-racers were beginning to buy Mini Marcoses to use as road cars. 1967 saw some improvements and the launch of the Mk II, and the Mk III was pretty well the same car but came with a hatchback. Hard times brought a bankruptcy for Marcos in 1971: it’s been said that you can make a small fortune out of making sports-racing cars, but only if you start off with a large fortune. Making exotic hand-built sports cars has resulted in a number of bankruptcies for Marcos, but that hasn’t usually stopped them for long. In between bankruptcies, the Mini Marcos was updated in 1991 as the Mk IV. This had larger wheel arches to suit the larger and later 12” Mini wheels, and for the first time sported luxurious wind-up windows. The loyal guardian of the Marcos name is Rory McMath, who was the factory manager way back. Rory’s Marcos Heritage company started making Mini Marcoses again in 2005, and the Mk VI and the GT factory racer can now be ordered brand new. It was one of these new-generation MkVI cars that sucked me into the Marcos vortex. I used the company’s demonstrator for a European driving trip, and loved it. The Marcos was quieter than a Mini, felt more solid and was much more comfortable. If it achieved 146mph with a 1275cc engine designed sixty years ago, it has to have a very efficient aero profile, so you could be looking at 50+mpg with a smaller 1000cc Mini engine. All-up weight is a remarkably low 1050lbs, as against 1400lbs for a classic Mini. The power-to-weight ratio is the important number: a 120bhp Mini-Marcos is as fast as a 500bhp Mustang. As a touring car for two people, the Marcos is unexpectedly excellent. The driving position derives from racing cars rather than Minis, and the wheelbase in later Mini Marcoses is of Minivan length rather than Mini, promoting stability and providing catherdral-like space in the cabin, which contains nothing but two seats, a folding 2+2 rear seat and empty space. Structurally, the Mini Marcos is a GRP monocoque using Mini subframes, both of which bolt up to the Marcos shell in the same places as the Mini shell. Both subframes can be assembled off the car and rolled into place for fitting. Any A-series engine will do, and if you don’t have enough fear in your life, there’s also the Honda Vtec option, as there’s plenty of room in the engine bay. In any case, GRP car bodywork is infinitely adaptable. The Type R Honda engine gets you 225bhp and five gears, and in a Mini Marcos, the power to weight ratio would be in excess of 500bhp per ton. That’s much faster than a Ferrari Enzo at 6000cc, 650bhp, 3000lbs (430bhp/ton) and $650,000. A bike-engined Marcos with a 14,000rpm redline and even lower weight is a yet scarier option. As luck would have it, a remarkable Marcos project more or less landed in my lap. In 1974 a now-elderly friend from the local Rolls and Bentley club in Vancouver, Canada, ordered a new Mini Marcos complete kit. Marcos took their time making it, and he eventually lost his temper and got nasty. They finished the kit immediately and then airfreighted it to him from Bristol in England to Vancouver at massive cost. Soured, he never built it. Neither did anybody else. In 2010 I literally pulled it out of a barn on Vancouver Island. Other than superficial scratches, the car was still brand new, with the interior in perfect condition. It’s now on its way to completion, with a frisky 1100 in it. The design of the engine will be featured in the Performance Engines chapter of the book. Ayrspeed(.com) in Vancouver is the North American contact for Marcos.