Mighty Marcos

As we detailed in Issue 17 of The Mini Experience and Issue 8 of this magazine, both the Mini Jem and the Mini Marcos had their origins in “Dizzy” Addicott’s fibreglass D.A.R.T. project of 1962. Jem Marsh, from Marcos Cars, and Addicott worked together on producing eight prototype cars, but a disagreement over the design saw the partnership dissolve, with each taking four of the cars already produced.

Addicott sold his, and what remained of the project, to Jeremy Delmar-Morgan, from JEM Developments. Up until 1976 around 350 Mini Jems were produced, through three ownerships of the project. There were also about ten Jems produced in Australia under licence; four by John Taylor (the Taylorspeed Jem), then around six from the same moulds by Ziggy Zwaitkowski.

Jem Marsh developed his version, the Mini Marcos, in conjunction with Brian Moulton in 1965. The Mini Marcos was an excellent piece of design work, and was as dramatic a rethink of the Mini concept as the Mini had been a rethink of the motor car.

That might sound like overstatement, but the Mini Marcos is around 30% lighter than a Mini, is more stable with a longer wheelbase, is much faster with its completely different aerodynamics, and has a much lower centre of gravity because the glasshouse is smaller and mounted significantly lower.

Like the Mini, there’s no chassis, as the car is a lightweight GRP monocoque. A Mini handles like a kart anyway, but a Mini Marcos makes a standard steel Mini feel like driving a bus full of fat people. Driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille is on record as saying that the car handled like a Formula Junior single-seater. High praise indeed for a Mini-based kit car.

Success On The Track

The Marcos’s performance and handling were effectively demonstrated during its debut race at Castle Combe in September 1965. The wet track suited front-wheel-drive, and Marcos driver Geoff Mabbs didn’t just win, he lapped every other car on the circuit apart from a Ginetta, and won by a full minute.

The car was officially launched at the Racing Car Show at Earl's Court, London, in January 1966, and was entered in the 24-hour Le Mans race in June that year. With French racing politics in mind, it was entered by a French Austin dealer and garage owner, as successful British entries in French motorsport tended to find themselves disqualified on technicalities: as was evidenced in that year’s Monte Carlo Rally in January.

The result is part of Mini history: the Mini Marcos finished in 15th place, competing against Porsche, Ford and Ferrari, and it was the only British car to qualify as a finisher that year (although the last qualified finisher).

Billy Dulles was the driving force behind the Le Mans entry. He had been exporting dashboards and other Mini accessories since 1963 to Jean-Louis Marnat in France, who owned an Austin dealership and the accessory business Rallye Auto Sport.

In order to obtain an entry to the Le Mans race, the car would be French-built and would have French drivers. Thus a British-built Marcos Mini GT, painted in French Blue with a wide yellow stripe, was driven by Frenchmen Claude Ballot-Lena and Marnat.

A Mini Van’s chassis plate and paperwork kept the car legal for France, and the Marcos shell was flown to Le Touquet on a Silver City Airlines Bristol Freighter, famously delivered to Marnat’s premises on the back of Dulles’ Mini Pick Up.

The shell was fitted with an unofficial Cooper S Gp II spec engine; supplied by the BMC Competitions Department on the proviso that it was not attributed to them, in case the engine blew up and embarrassed BMC.

The wheels on the Le Mans Mini Marcos were second-hand, bought from Chris Lawrence; which he had used on his 1963 Deep Sanderson Le Mans entry.

Billy and Jem Marsh went to Paris to check on the building of the Marcos, and Billy delivered the Special Tuning engine to Paris in the back of his Mini Pickup. It was a standard rally-tune engine in Group II configuration, with straight-cut close-ratio ’box and a limited slip diff. Billy thinks he got a 2.49:1 final drive pinion set from Jack Knight, although it was all a long time ago. It was definitely the highest ratio available at the time.

The engine was brand new and had never even been started, so it was run-in during the first laps of the race: apparently it ran much more smoothly towards the end of the race than it had at the beginning. Early on it was overheating, so they bodged in an additional radiator during the race.

As the only British car to complete the race, Marsh and Dulles were hoping to win the Motor magazine trophy – awarded to the highest-placed British entry. However, that was not to be, as their Marcos had been officially a French entry.

Billy Dulles’ recollections of the car and the race can be found at: www.minimarcos.org/sport/lm66bd

A Mini Marcos returned to the Sarthe circuit the following year, driven by Chris Lawrence/Jem Marsh. It had more streamlined bodywork and was clocked at 146 mph on the Mulsanne straight, but retired after only three hours with oil pump failure.

For The Road

Meanwhile, non-racers were beginning to buy the Mini Marcos to use as road cars. 1967 saw some improvements and the launch of the Mk II/III. The Mk III was pretty well the same car but came with a hatchback.

Despite being on the ball with design, hard times brought a bankruptcy for Marcos in 1971. The Mini Marcos design was bought by Rob Walker, who oversaw the introduction of the Mk IV with a longer floorpan and with a taller body. The project was sold to Harold McDermott in 1975, and Harold continued with it until he bought the Midas design from Richard Oakes.

A factory fire in 1989 resulted in financial disaster, and ownership of the Mini Marcos design reverted to Jem Marsh.

Trying to build specialist sports cars as a commercial business is rather like dancing in a minefield. 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 V. This had larger wheel arches to suit 13” Mini wheels, a front spoiler, improved door locks and, for the first time, sported luxurious wind-up windows.

At one point, new Minis were being bought and stripped for parts, which were fitted to Marcos shells bound for Japan. This was cheaper than buying the components separately, and the new scrapped shells and remaining Mini parts not required were sold on.

However, Marcos made the fatal mistake common to many kit car makers, deciding just to make complete cars, rather than supply the kits for sale. By 1995 the Mini Marcos moulds lay fallow again.

To read the rest of this story, grab your copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, through this website or get the digital issue online.

The BMC Experience Issue 22. Jul-Sep 2017 Magazine


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