Marcos Mantara 400 Spider | The Brave Pill

It doesn't get more British than V8 and glassfibre…

By Mike Duff / Saturday, 1 April 2023 / Loading comments

Wikipedia has long been the lazy journalist’s best friend, but sometimes – despite the gaps and the errors – it just can’t be beaten. The history of the Marcos car company through its various iterations, collapses and semi-miraculous rebirths is one such example. Ordinarily, I’d try to drop a couple of gags into a distilled precis, but the story has absolutely defeated my attempts to condense it thanks to more twists and turns than the Monte Carlo rally. If you want to learn about the ups and (rather more frequent) downs, just head straight for the original source.

The big takeaway from a casual reading is how much Marcos resembled other companies at various points in its long existence. Early on it was very Lotus-ish, building innovative, lightweight race cars under the leadership of a pair of smart engineers – Jem Marsh and Frank Costin smooshing their surnames to baptize it. But by the early 90s, after one bankruptcy and several management divorces, it had turned into a parallel universe TVR, one intent on combining big engines with sleek bodywork.

Well, sleek-ish. Early Marcos road cars had, for the most part, possessed an elegant simplicity, one doubtless born in large part from the need for shapes that could easily be formed in fibreglass. But by the time the Mantara was launched in 1992, the minimalism had been replaced by the more-is-more ethos common to the makers of long-lived sports cars trying to distinguish their products from earlier versions. Arches had grown wider, the grille had gained a Corvette-ish wedge profile and the need to squeeze quad headlamps into the relatively narrow front end had created a definite proportional oddness; from head on it looks like there are a couple of inches missing from the middle of the Mantara.

Marcos had started out making kit cars, but the Mantara was only ever offered fully built. It also benefited from numerous technical upgrades over its earlier siblings, with the most significant being the abandonment of the archaic Triumph-sourced front suspension for a MacPherson strut system using what were then modern Ford parts. It was also the first Marcos to get the option of power steering. Power itself came from the choice of two Rover V8s, an entry-level 3.9-litre version understudying a fuller fat 4.6. In truth, neither of these understressed motors was particularly muscular – even the bigger motor only made 230hp. But as the 4.6 only tipped the scales at 1075kg it was still respectably brisk, knocking off the 0-60mph dash in just six seconds. (And a punchier 5.0-litre version followed later.)

Looking at the pictures of our Pill, a 1994 Mantara Spider, it’s clear that a significant effort was put into fit and finish. Okay, so there is definitely too much gap between wheel and wheelarch (they all do that, sir), but the colour is crisp and panel gaps look entirely respectable by the standards of something British and handbuilt. Inside the cabin’s combination of baby blue leather and thick navy carpets look to have been trimmed by experienced hands, even if the colour is a bit keen.

Yet it’s also hard not to see what’s missing, especially when compared to the similarly muscular TVR Griffith that buyers could also pick at the time. The Mantara looks like an old car from a different era, one where sports car buyers didn’t expect any ergonomic finesse. That’s evident in the linear row of dials across the dashboard, and the equally straight line of ‘seventies BL switchgear sitting below. Another obvious usability issue is outside, with the need to unpopper the Mantara’s fabric roof before collapsing it. Even a keen Marcos fan can see plenty of reasons why TVR outsold the brand by a substantial margin during this period.

That point is reinforced by the fact our Pill is the only Marcos currently being offered in the classifieds. To save internet sleuths the effort of retyping its registration, the same car was sold at auction in 2012, being knocked down for £10,528 before fees. But although the specialist dealer selling it now is asking for nearly double, £19,950 looks reasonable in this pricier era considering Mantara’s rarity – even if it is wearing a set of silver-on-black plates it has no right to. (And the gold wheels are a change since 2012, too.)

The MOT history proves a gentle rate of mileage acquisition, but also plenty of drama over the years, with several flunked tests. Back in 2010 there was a long list of fails including excessive corrosion to both suspension and seatbelt mounting areas. Three years later there was another for underpowered brakes and an unopenable driver’s door, then another corrosion fail in 2018.

Testers have also seemed to be unable to agree on whether this Mantara needs to be wearing the catalytic converter it seems to be lacking. Emissions weren’t tested in 2010, with an advisory the following year that “vehicle was produced in limited number and without a catalyst from the factory.” But then in 2015 it failed with the warning “exhaust catalytic converter missing where one was fitted as standard.” The fact the car recorded a clean pass later the same day, and two miles later, suggests this may have been cleared up with a reading of the rule book. Or possibly a generous dose of fiscal lubrication. Yet even as recently as January this year there was another fail for excess carbon monoxide.

The roseate MOT history and those mentions of rust bring an element of risk to what is otherwise a fairly simple machine, although you’ll have to decide whether or not they bring enough peril to justify making it a Brave Pill. But if you’ve got a tame MOT inspector and know an experienced TIG artist then it could make a perverse amount of sense. Or alternatively, zap the chassis yourself to be able to claim, punily that “I weld a Marcos” while joking about the size of your shoe collection. I’ll get my coat.

Any Marcos will always have differentness on its side. The world would be a much more boring place without cars like this in it.

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