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Wednesday, 16 February 2022 15:44

Marcos - The Wooden Wonder - Origins and Early Years

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Towards the end of 1959 a chance meeting between Jem Marsh and Frank Costin resulted in the formation of the Monocoque Body and Chassis Company Limited which subsequently became Marcos Cars.   The name Marcos was an amalgamation of Marsh and Costin and has no connection with the deposed dictator of the same name or his wife Emelda of the shoes.
  • Jem who until recently was still involved with Marcos Cars, is best described as colourful. His early career was in the Navy with Austin 7 special building as a shore leave hobby. On leaving the Navy he became a stunt driver and put his Austin 7 through fiery hoops at a rodeo. I first met him in the early 1950’s when on holiday near Plymouth when he was living in a caravan. He moved to Luton via Chiswick and his Speedex Austin 7 specials were developed into successful racers in one of which he won the Goodacre Trophy. So the participants in Marcos were in their different ways both innovators. The idea of building a strong and rigid structure with plywood and spruce was not new as it had been employed by de Haviland for the Mosquito fighter bomber and by Howard Hughes in the 10 engined  “Spruce Goose” which was the largest aeroplane built. What was new was the application to a motorcar and in particular to a GT sports car. A picture shows a young Denis Adams working on an early unit. Denis styled the later Marcos and is justly famous for it. The prototype was probably the ugliest car ever built but it demonstrated the effectiveness of the design. I remember attending a talk given by Jem at a 750 Motor Club meeting in Hitchin when he announced this bold new project.  Having trained as an aeronautical engineer I immediately saw the potential and arranged a test drive the following week-end. The new M1 motorway between Hemel Hempstead and Toddington had just been opened and I can still remember the awe of driving at such speed and in such a rigid and quiet sports car.I placed an order the same day to be the first customer. There were snags.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
  • First, I had to build the car myself as it was only sold in “kit” form.  Second, Jem was very keen to prove the Marcos on the racetrack and so the second prototype for Bill Moss took priority over mine as he had a proven track record.  Third, I had to sell my road car and buy a van in order to finance the basic components.  Fourth, the production cars were to be fitted with the Ford 105E engine in place of the old 93A side valve engine of the prototype. At the time I worked at Simms Motor Units on fuel injection systems at East Finchley and would drive to Luton after work where Jem allowed me to work most of the night in the Speedex factory.  At least he trusted me to do that!   It was a hard slog to have the car raceworthy by the last Oulton Park meeting in 1960.  In those days a young engineer named Keith Duckworth was tuning Ford 105E engines in a back yard in Friern Barnet which was near the Simms factory and so it was decided to go with Cosworth (this “Cos” was Mike Costin, Frank’s Brother). These engines were being developed for the recently introduced Formula Junior and were already winning races in the Lotus 18’s.                                                                                                                                                                                    
  • In order to get some experience of driving the newly built Marcos I drove it to Oulton Park staying overnight at the Vine Hotel in Stafford on the way.  One forgets how long it used to take to get anywhere before the motorway system was built.  In the race for GT cars I was doing very well until, on about the 4th lap, there was a massive crash from the rear of the car as it entered Lodge corner.  It swerved all over the track and I was lucky not to hit any other cars or the bank.  Back in the paddock I was about to have words with Frank Costin, who had come to spectate, about the failure of the wood to anchor the Panhard Rod which had broken loose.   Before I could say anything he sad “It won’t be the wood that’s broken”.  I did not believe him until further inspection revealed the metal rod in two pieces!   Surprisingly this gave me added confidence in the cars wooden construction, but I was much more wary of the metal components.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
  • During the winter of 1960 the car was stripped down and thoroughly checked for possible weak points.  I was ably assisted by two good friends, Robert Cook and John Fuller.  All three of us had served our apprenticeships at Vickers Armstrong at Brooklands and I knew I could rely on their engineering expertise.  Their help covered race entries and pit crew and there is also Video of some of our exploits.   In those days there was very little sponsorship available and so as a “private entrant” I had to finance the whole project although John and Robert paid their own travelling expenses.                                                                                                                                                                    
  • Bill Moss had been very successful with the second works prototype in 1960. It originally had cycle wings at the front as on the first prototype, but it was decided that it would look better and be more aerodynamic if the front wheels were enclosed. So Frank, Gem and I spent a whole evening making up a pattern from welding rod as a buck for the panel beaters to make it up in aluminium. This aluminium bonnet was fitted to the Moss car but beforehand a fibreglass mould was made and my car had the first of these redesigned front panels. Bill Moss had entered the Formula Junior with a new Lotus 18 for the 1961 season.                                                                                                                                                                           The Marcos was sold to Jack Gates a local Ford dealer from Hockliffe. Jem was keen to have the Marcos accepted as a production car and so I agreed to become part of the Marcos Works Team to contest the Autosport Championship. I do not recall there being any financial advantage! To become accepted as a production car there had to be a production line and a certain number of cars had to be produced to the same specification to be “homologated”.  Bureaucracy had crept into motor racing by then.  I believe the production line was created with a series of strategically place mirrors! But homologated we were and accepted, somewhat reluctantly by, Gregor Grant, editor of Autosport for their GT Championship.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
  • The technical details of this early Marcos:                                                                             Monocoque body/chassis unit made from spruce longerons and marine ply panels. (I subsequently found that some panels were made from old tea chest as they had “Chittagong” stamped on them!!). These early units were made by Frank Costin himself at his house in Dolgellau North Wales and delivered on the roof of a tatty old Ford van. The “Gullwing” door layout was distinctive but allowed for a very strong box down each side.   The seats were curved plywood panels between the outer box sections and the prop-shaft tunnel and were part of the structure. The two prototypes had nose cones and cycle wings but the second was converted to “all enveloping” towards the end of 1960 and the aluminium panel was used as a mould for subsequent production panels in fibreglass.  The rear quarter panels, door tops and boot lid were also fibreglass. The cost of having a single laminated glass windscreen dictated the two “V” glasses and Perspex quarter-lights. The rear axle was Austin Nash Metropolitan as it was strong and there were several ratios available. Engine was Ford 105E tuned to Formula Junior specification and using 38DCOE Webber carburettors. These engines gave about 85 bhp from 1000cc which was quite a powerful package in such a light car. Later 40DCOE carbs. were used, but I retained the 38’s as they gave a better torque figure.  The top speed was about 120 mph and on open roads would return about 50 miles per gallon. The gearbox was stock Ford Anglia.  Later I fitted a diaphragm clutch from a Ford Classic which was much more robust for long distance races. Front suspension was Triumph Herald and originally drum braked.  Triumph brought out a disc-brake conversion for the Herald in 1961 and this was fitted (I still have the box it came in!).                                                                                                                                                                                
  • Racing in the UK                                                                                                                                    We were all ready to go by the first Race at Silverstone in 1961 and drove to the meeting from Hertfordshire to make sure everything was working.   Of course we were illegal as there was no speedometer, only a rev. counter and probably other violations of the Road Traffic Act.  Were those the days? I well remember the competition in the shape of Jeremy Delmar Morgan and John Walker (GSM Delta) making fun of my cut down boxing pumps. Racing kit was very basic in those days and overalls were still mostly white cotton dipped in borax and then dried to make them fireproof. I qualified third fastest in practice which put me on the front row of the grid next to the pits. When the flag dropped I was able, with the suitably low gearing, to outdrag the opposition into Copse and maintained the lead from start to finish.  Much excitement and a little “mickey” taking was the result and this was the pattern for the rest of the season.                                                                                                                                                     
  • The Marcos was placed first in every qualifying round of the Autosport Championship.  Other races, and we did a very full season, are another story. The Final of the Championship was a three hour race at Snetterton in September. It differed from the usual “club” races in that it started at about 6 pm and so the last hour and a half were completed in darkness.  As usual my helpers Robert and John had worked out a strategy.   This involved making a number of minor but significant modifications to the car.  The most effective was simply to set the headlights so that dipped beam corresponded with full beam.  This meant that when braking hard for the corners full beam would be used retain vision.  Also a sun visor from an Austin 7 Ruby was fitted as the pit straight would be directly into the setting sun, and it turned out to be invaluable. Other mods were obligatory such as illumination for the racing numbers so that the cars could be identified at night.                                                          
  • This 3 hour race was for all the classes in the Championship and so for the first time that season we would be on the track at the same time as the Aston Martins and other heavy metal.  I was leading the Championship on points and so only needed to finish above fourth in class to win overall.   With this in mind it was decided to limit the engine revs to 7,500 and drive to finish.  Snetterton was my favourite UK circuit and I had a very good feeling about the chance of success.  This was to be my first long distance race and there is no doubt that a different discipline is required.  Concentration is a major factor and so it is essential to be comfortable.   The Marcos had a major advantage over the metal framed cars as it was very much quieter and so much less tiring on long races. I do remember one “moment” of complete terror.  It was pitch dark and I as I entered the long Norwich straight I was, at that moment, the only car before the hairpin bend at the far end.  In the distance I could make out what looked like the sidelights of a car coming towards me at high speed.   I could not work out which side of the track it was using and whether I could avoid hitting it head on.  Involuntarily I slowed down weaving from side to side to try and identify it.  It was only when I approached the hairpin at the end of the straight that I realised that what I had seen was two cars in the car park backing away from one another.  This just illustrates the dangerous hallucinations that can be caused by fatigue in long distance racing. Yes, I did finish third in class and took the Autosport Championship for 1961. With Jack Gates and John Mitchell we took the Team Prize for Marcos.                                                                                                                                                                                
  • World Cup Race at Zandvoort                                                                                                         In September 1961 Gregor Grant of Autosport Magazine became involved in organising a team to compete in the euphemistically named “World Cup” race at Zandvoort (there were only teams from Germany, Holland and England).   The English team was led by Graham Warner in his very rapid Lotus Elite Climax and then there was Pat Ferguson in “Tatty Turner”, Tony Lanfranchi in the Elva Courier with MGB engine, Tommy Entwistle in the TVR, self and John Mitchell in Marcos. The Dutch team was led by an Alfa Romeo Giulia and some rather uninspiring others that I cannot recall.  We were however somewhat aghast when the Germans arrived with a team of works Porsches. We very soon discovered that the Porsches were no match for the Lotus and even the Marcos could give them “a good run for their money”.  Basically they did not handle and on the tricky sand covered track the problem we had was trying to pass them as they swerved all over the track!!  In trying to outpace the Lotus at least one Porsche went end over end at the hairpin. There was some consternation on the morning of the race as it was discovered that Graham’s Lotus had been sabotaged and there was a large piece of aluminium stuck down one of the inlet ports. He was in pole position on the grid and it was essential for our team that he could maintain that position in the race. The race was over 52 laps with a compulsory pit stop to take on fuel with the engine stopped.   There were designated pits and one excitement for us was whether Tony’s Courier engine could be stopped as the MGB unit “runs on when very hot”.  The only way was to jam it in bottom gear with brakes on and even then it hopped down into one of the Porsche pits!  I do not recall much drama in the race which was, as we had hoped won by Graham Warner in the Lotus Elite. I think I finished 10th and very tired. We and the Dutch were thrilled that we won the “World Cup” but the Germans were not pleased to be beaten by these home-made fibreglass and wooden cars and refused to come to the reception. Everywhere we were applauded by the locals and got so drunk we missed the Sunday night boat back to the UK.  This was rather unfortunate as I was due to start a new job with Vauxhall Motors on the Monday morning!  However they were surprisingly understanding. I still have a lovely little silver windmill as a momento of that first, for me, continental excursion.                                                                                                                                                                                     
  • The 1964 Nürburgring 500 Kilometre Race                                                                            After a year racing a Vauxhall PA Velox in the International Saloon Car Championship I rebuilt the Marcos for the 1963 to enter long distance races for which, after the Autosport 3 Hours I had developed a taste.   I and my very keen helpers, Robert Cook and John Fuller, decided to “take the bull by the horns” and go for the big one. The Nurburgring was legendry and the 500 km race was our target. Peparing  a racing car, not to mention the driver, for a 4 hour race on a track with 95 mostly “blind” corners and a lap of about 14 miles required some serious planning and preparation.  The 995cc Ford 105E engine was prepared with the help of Cosworth Engineering to Formula Junior specification.  We retained the earlier camshaft specification and smaller 38 DCOE Weber carburettors as this set up give a better torque figure and only marginally less power 85 bhp at 8000 rpm as against 88 bhp.   The original Ford cast iron crankshaft was retained but with larger big end bolts and a steel centre main bearing cap. I figured there would be about 100 gear changes on each lap and was concerned that the standard Ford 105E clutch would not stand up to this sort of abuse.  We found that the latest Ford Corsair V4 engine was fitted with a diaphragm clutch which, although heavier, looked much more durable. The 4 leading links on the rear suspension were modified to take “Rose” joints at each end with special rubber gaiters to protect them.  This helped to reduce the rear roll stiffness and reduce oversteer.  The rear spring/damper units were converted to the adjustable type.  The Triumph Herald front suspension was retained but with the addition of adjustable spring/damper units.  The disc brake pads were uprated with harder material as we had suffered brake fade in 1961.  Wider wheel rims were fitted and the rear wheels were attached using Duralumin spacers specially designed by my helpers to give clearance from the chassis.  Great care was taken to tighten the wheel nuts up to the designed figure of 25 ft lbs to avoid stretching the studs which is a common cause of failure. Thewhole car felt very taught and safe with the added advantage of being relatively quiet from the drivers seat, a major advantage in a long distance race.  So we set off with great anticipation.                                                                                                           
  •  The longest race in which I had previously driven was the Autosport 3 hours at Snetterton.  This is an airfield circuit with only 7 corners and one with which I had become very familiar.  The Nurburgring, at 14 miles long, was quite another matter with over 90 corners, many of which are blind, and a rise and fall of over 1500 feet on each lap.  Also it can be raining on one side of the circuit and dry on the other so the choice of tyres is critical. As part of the driver preparation I was fortunate to be introduced to Pat Ferguson who lived in the next village of Redbourn and had driven for the Lotus team Elite in the 1000 km race the previous year.  He gave me lots of encouragement and some very useful advice the most important being to learn the downhill sections first because the corners, which are mostly blind, come up very quickly.  He also recommended taking a week prior to the race to learn the circuit using the old Vauxhall Velox which had now become the tow car so as not to wear out the Marcos. In those days very few British drivers were sponsored and I was entirely dependent on my modest salary as a draughtsman at Vauxhall Motors.  It was therefore essential to negotiate “starting money” which was in itself quite an achievement as I spoke no German and the organisers no English.  This was all done over the telephone during work time when private calls were not permitted!  It transpired that there was “start gelt” if one race lap was completed and prize money for the first 5 finishers.  I persuaded John Miles to act as reserve driver and my two stalwart companions Robert and John to join me on this adventure as I felt much more confident knowing that I had the backing of two competent aircraft engineers.  We planned to make the Marcos fly!   
  • We crossed the Channel at Dover with the Marcos on a trailer behind the Vauxhall and drove for what seemed ages through France and Luxembourg to avoid Belgium which had imposed a swingeing tax on trailers.  We ran out of steam in Luxembourg and found a campsite somewhere in the middle of town and I remember trying to erect a borrowed tent in complete darkness when utterly exhausted.  After the best part of to days driving we arrived at the circuit and discovered a quadrangle of spacious garages below the level of the track.  These were of generous proportions and the tent was very small so we decided to sleep with the car which we did for most of the first day.  There was no prospect of more salubrious accommodation as were almost broke by then. 
  • There were several British drivers entered and we teamed up with Peter Jackson who had raced all over the world as the Jamaican Racing Team and knew the Nurburgring well.  He offered to give some of us a few instructive laps in his Jaguar Mark IX tow car.  After that experience I never again been frightened as a passenger.  But I did learn some useful tips and ones which would have taken many laps to develop.  One was how to take the Carousel, which is like a “wall of death” at a fairground, by dropping into it as late as possible and remembering that the car comes out sliding sideways.  Entering it too early results in the car being thrown out about threequarters of the way round.  The other was how to take the blind kink towards the end of the 3 mile long main straight flat out.  This also required some nerve as the trick is give the steering wheel a slight twitch to the left just as the bridge passes overhead.  With practice this is just enough to line the car up for the final run into the pits whilst keeping the car on full throttle.  This was a very fast part of the circuit and it has since had a chicane installed before the pits.                                                                                                                                                  
  • It was possible to purchase a carnet for 10 laps of un-official practice, but one had to stop at the pits after each lap to have the laps ticked off.  No flying laps allowed here.We therefore spent hours out on the track with the tow car and only ventured out with the Marcos on the last day.  It was essential to be vigilant on these un-official laps as all manner of strange vehicles were allowed on the track and it was quite common to round a bend and be confronted with the back of a coach full of sightseers.  One of the Mini Cooper drivers ran into the back of an Army truck and ended up in hospital.                                                                                                                                                        
  • On about the Thursday before the race several red race car transporters arrived with teams of mechanics.  This was the full might of the Abarth team and supported privateers.  At this point it became clear that this was a serious business we had got ourselves into.  There were dozens of small Fiats up to 1000cc with their boot lids propped open with space frames exposing huge Weber carburettors.   The Abarth Coupes were our main competition but, as private entrants, we were also up against the works Marcos team of Tim Lalonde, Peter Jackson and Tommy Webber. 
  • Halfway through official practice Jem Marsh, who was supporting the Marcos team, noticed that Carlo Abarth was taking very careful note of the lap times being signalled to the Marcos drivers by their pit crew.  Jem came up with a fiendish plan where the pit crew held out fictitious times a few seconds faster than the Abarths whose times he had been noting also.  The result of this was the spectacle of Carlo Abarth calling all his drivers into the pits and giving them a full “dressing down” about their performance.  In their subsequent efforts to improve on these times a number of expensive engines were “blown up”.  As the Abarth team had arrived at the circuit with three double deck transporters and a dozen mechanics we felt justified in letting them work all night.                                                                                                                                                                           
  • Scrutineering is always a harrowing time especially when it is pointed out that the rear wheel arches do not cover the wheels to the official’s satisfaction.  These were not easy to extend without the benefit of a workshop; however after a search we located some discarded zinc roofing material which was finally grafted in place.  It was not very elegant but accepted and passed. 
  • On the second and last practice day we hit trouble!   One of the brackets attaching the rear axle to it’s radius arm broke.  Unfortunately this happened about 7 kilometers from the pits.  The Nurburgring was, by 1963, surrounded by dense woods and there was no Armco barrier to prevent cars from leaving the circuit if anything went wrong.  Some of the corners on the steep descent to the Adenau Bridge were only bordered by a low hedge where there were skid marks and a gap.  Looking over the edge the tops of pine trees could be seen 100 feet below!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  • It was quite possible to drive a whole lap without seeing another car and the apparent absence of marshals made one feel quite isolated.  So have brought the Marcos safely to a stop at the edge of this lonely part of the circuit I was afraid I might be there all day before anyone worked out where I was.  Amazingly as I got out of the car the bushes parted and three marshals miraculously appeared and pushed the disabled Marcos into a narrow gateway to a little used unmade track.  Somehow Robert and John managed to find this track from the road having driven all round the outside of the circuit with the towcar and trailer.  The Marcos was loaded and back in the paddock for urgent repairs. Fortunately one of the other teams had brought welding equipment and made a very sound repair job for us.  Removing and replacing the axle on a Marcos is not easy but we managed to have it all together again for one final practice lap.   Better it happened in practice than in the race even if it made for a poor starting position!                                                                                                                        
  • Race day was overcast which was a good thing as it would have been very hard and tiring to race in a closed car if the weather had been hot.  The preparations were very Germanic with police and officials strutting about everywhere and this all added to the air of excitement.  Due to the axle repair and loss of practice we were starting in 10th position.  It was a LeMans start which involved lining all the cars up in echelon in front of the pits whilst the drivers line up on the other side of the track opposite their cars.  When the flag drops the drivers sprint across the track, open the car door, jump in, start the engine and race off into the traffic jam. I was very slow off the mark as the “gullwing” door of the Marcos is quite a challenge and I stalled the engine too. These starts are no longer allowed for safety reasons but, looking back, it was an amazing experience.                                                                                                      
  • Well I had 500 km and about 4 hours in which to catch the other cars!  Robert and John had dictated that I restrict the engine revs to 7,500 leaving a safety margin of 500.  They had also calculated that having started on a full tank I would need to come into the pits to refuel and check the water and oil levels after 7 laps.  We figured this would allow us to have just enough fuel for the final laps and the lighter load would permit reduced lap times if the opposition was within striking distance.  The car was running like clockwork and used no oil or water.  Also our decision to fit an up-rated clutch had already paid off as the works Marcos team were all stationary in the pits with burned out clutches.  It is no good being in the fastest car on the track if it does not complete the course!                                                                                                                                 
  • The biggest problem I encountered was concentration.  Even on such a demanding circuit it is possible to lose full concentration after two or three hours racing.  I well remember thinking “why are you doing this and taking these risks” and then immediately saying to myself “concentrate or you will kill yourself”.  Following that it is essential to have learnt the course and I can quit understand how drivers such as John Surtees and Nino Vaccarella excelled at this circuit having been used to the Isle of Man and Targa Florio courses.  There were so many “blind” corners and some where the car became airborne on the approach.  It is amazing how little effect the steering wheel has when the car is “flying”.                                                                                                                
  • There were few incidents to recall but having made such a poor start I had lots of cars to pass before the race was over.  On one lap I was following a pair of evenly matched Fiat 500’s, the ones with the boot propped open, who were having a race all of their own.  After the long downhill section towards the Adenau Bridge there is a highly cambered 90 degree left hander, which can be taken very fast, followed by a straight section with a ditch on either side.  As I entered this straight at speed I was confronted by the two Fiats.  As I was trying to decide how to pass them they touched, spinning in front of me; as they parted I drove between them.  As I looked back I could see in my mirror two angry Italians emerge from each ditch about to engage in a fist fight in the middle of the track!                                                                                                     
  • After 4 hours racing I was very tired and thirsty, but I can still remember the elation of finishing, and second overall too, in my first major international race.  British cars were still a novelty in Germany and wooden ones were extraordinary.  People kept coming up to the car and tapping it and shaking their heads in disbelief. The prize money and “start gelt” were paid out the same evening so we rushed down to the hotel Zur Burg and slept in a bed for the first time in a week.  Fortunately the money was enough for the hotel and the trip home otherwise I might still be there!           
  Bibliography: Marcos The Story of a Great British Sportscar by David M. Barber (Cedar Publishing Limited)     -Still available from Amazon or Ebay-         

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