Sports star rises from the dead

Marcos Cars died in 1998, but a Canadian telecoms tycoon has since breathed life into the corpse. Richard Lofthouse reports on the second coming of this legendary marque

Specifications

Model: Marcos TSO
Price: £44,950
Engine: 5,666cc, 16v V8, 400bhp at 5,800rpm, 393lb ft at 4,700rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 0 to 60mph in 4 seconds, 185mph (estimate)
On sale: now - waiting list of six months

Quirky British sports car maker Marcos is being revitalised by a wealthy Silicon Valley whizz kid, Tony Stelliga. As a result, the company is properly capitalised for the first time in its 46-year life, has a dedicated team working to a sensible business plan, and is hawking a seductive new V8 roadster called the TSO.

Not only that, Stelliga whispers that a fixed-head coupe version can be expected at the Canary Wharf Motorexpo this summer, different to the one aired in Australia in March. I've seen the body shell for the final version and it's stunning: the closest thing to a Ferrari 250 GTO that the UK has ever produced, for a fraction of the price and with a whopping 5.7-litre V8 producing 400 horses.

It's a far cry from the Marcos that quietly went out of business in 1998. In those days, it comprised a series of half-collapsed sheds in the wilds of Wiltshire. Today, Marcos is based in at Prodrive in Warwickshire, the motorsport consultancy founded by Dave Richards, the man who guided Colin McRae and Jenson Button to glory.

Upon arrival, visitors register at the gate and proceed up a tranquil driveway along which security guards patrol with terrifying German Shepherd dogs. On the far side of the wood is a private test track and a series of offices. Numbers six and seven are leased to Marcos Engineering.

Marcos's Canadian MD, Tony Stelliga, is equally impressive. Soon after meeting him he launches immediately into a PowerPoint presentation crammed full of engineering data. The company's chief engineer is Chris Meakin, who developed the Aston Martin DBR9 at Prodrive, while the design boss is Damian McTaggart, who designed the TVR Tuscan, the Cerbera and now the TSO.

Marcos's customers told the company that they wanted a reliable British roadster with V8 grunt and artillery-barrage sound, not a highly strung sophisticate. Yet half the market for such a vehicle, which costs £45,000, is in North America, Australia and New Zealand, where "there are more chequebooks on the table and fewer questions asked". And, as Lotus and TVR have found to their cost, entering those markets requires a lot of money. To even get a place at the table Marcos had to be drastically overhauled, a conclusion reached by Stelliga early in 2003.

Stelliga's involvement began in 2001, when he heard about Marcos's demise and came running to the rescue. It took a real effort to track down the dust-coated assets of what remained of the company, but having done so he made an offer to former owner Jem Marsh. What followed was painfully unsustainable, however. "We spent the next two years trying to carry the past forward with the TS250 and TS500, good cars but a bit dated technologically - so I decided to make a break and start with a clean sheet of paper."

The resulting TSO possesses design cues drawn from the Marcos past, such as a pretty ellipse drawn into the boot, but in all other respects it is different. The Marcos most familiar to the public, the Mantis, had truly dreadful road clearance. The TSO, meanwhile, packs the underbelly above the front anti-roll bar and will happily handle the worst road calming effort when the first UK customers take delivery later this summer.

Meanwhile the TSO bonnet, instead of sporting a lump designed to accommodate the cams on a venerable Rover V8, is smooth and pretty owing to the installation of the small-block General Motors LS1/LS6 5.7-litre V8. This is the drive train in the current Corvette and Vauxhall Monaro, and with Marcos's own modifications it produces 400 bhp and quite astonishing torque even at low revs - a deliberate attempt to achieve a classic GT effect.

The glass-fibre bodied car weighs 1,070kg and has a Prodrive-honed chassis, a carry-over from the older Marcos but stiffened by 52 per cent despite a weight gain of just 8kg. Completed by enormous AP racing brakes, Macpherson strut front/wishbone rear suspension and a Tremec six-speed manual box, but without electronic stability or traction control, the TSO is unquestionably a modern take on the 1960s.

Stelliga, a former TVR Tuscan owner, is in no doubt about the niche he hopes to fill with the TSO. "TVR has moved on from V8 cars to highly-strung sixes developed in-house, increasingly styling platforms. A Noble or a Lotus is too hardcore for many, yet the TSO is neither. It's a driftable GT, compliant in ride yet offering enormous acceleration and cutting-edge handling when you mash it."

As a brand, meanwhile, Stelliga emphasizes distinctive Marcos traits, noting for instance that one of his first deposits came from a magistrate and mother of three. "She would never have bought a TVR. Most TVR owners are men who buy first and ask forgiveness from their wives later. TVRs are flashy. Marcos is not flashy, it returns to the pure lines of the English roadster tradition - you could drive this car to church if you wanted to."

Having talked through the vehicle in all its detail, drivetrain chief Shaun Kettlety hopped into a black TSO prototype and drove me onto the Prodrive test track. With spotting rain and thunderous sky, it looked as though we were in for a drenching, so there was no time to lose. Just as well that the car is so blisteringly quick, then: 400bhp in a shell just wide of a ton equates 0-60 in 4 seconds; 0-100 in 9 and a 50-70mph sprint time of 2.2.

The more subtle aspects of the overall package leave behind a more enduring impression. The Prodrive test track is bumpy enough to approximate an English lane, but when my turn came to drive I fluffed the first corner and ran wide across a hole separating two sections of track, the sort of upset that might have wreaked havoc in a TVR. Instead, the suspension swallowed rather than wallowed, and the estimated 100 per cent increase in road-holding came to bear.

A direct result of using softer springs with stiffer dampers, plus Meakins' late decision to relocate the front anti-roll bar, the chassis is unquestionably progressive but never loose. In other words it remains a car for both lanes and longer journeys, only don't expect massive range, a large boot or a watertight roof.

Although the car can be made to drift, spin or slide, it grips superbly. In a corner, each tyre buckles down to work, chirruping under pressure. The desire to try a drift can take over, but it is easily controlled.

Does the car match its undoubted abilities with passion and British eccentricity? From the trackside, the answer is unquestionably "yes". At idle, the large, oval stainless steel exhausts pop and stutter, but once underway they amply transmit the deep, resonant roar that all V8 fanciers live for. High speed fly-bys are reminiscent of Merlin-engined Spitfires, except that the TSO emits another bank of noise as the cams open at 3,500rpm. Inside there may be some details to sort out about the range of driver-seat adjustment, but one settles into leather sports seats behind a small-diameter wheel, with four beautifully simple aluminium dials placed strategically in the middle of the dash.

The interior is deprived of veneer, parchment dials and banked switchgear, the most obvious departure from the Bentley/Morgan/TVR approach. A subjective matter this, but the result is strangely clinical, and the TSO lacks the sense of occasion you get when climbing into something truly eccentric.

If history is any guide, the resulting TSO - functional, minimalist, pretty, reliable - will re-establish Marcos and turn a buck, the two objectives Stelliga is determined to achieve. For the business plan to work, he estimates needing to produce 65 cars a year and has already taken deposits for half that number. For a man who has founded and floated much larger companies making high-risk computer chips, there is no reason to doubt him. "We're good to go," he notes calmly.

As for the longer term, it is surely noteworthy that he has met and talked to Horacio Pagani of Zonda fame. Like him, Stelliga is very keen to expand the Marcos product range, envisaging the TSO as an anchor in the middle of a three-car set. Naturally he's not giving much away, but over lunch he repeatedly referred to the Mini Marcos of 1966 as reference point for another model. At the other end of the spectrum, he likes the 1968 Marcos XP race car, a car so extreme in its day that it rivalled Lamborghini's output.

What is Marcos?

"Marcos" was a conflation of the surnames of its two founders, Jem Marsh and Frank Costin. The firm produced and raced a string of Le Mans cars and several road cars based on similar designs, all beginning with "M", such as the Mantis, Mantara and Mantaray. Marcos under Marsh was purely a means to an end, namely racing, and because the cars were designed for the track they weren't always pretty. As a result, Marcos went bust many times. It is Stelliga's hope that this will not happen again: he has deep pockets and can draw on Prodrive for world-class engineering support.

Who is Tony Stelliga?

Stelliga grew up just outside Toronto. 'I was fanatical about cars, but motorbikes were more accessible because I was too young to get my driving license, so I focused on them, racing them, tinkering with them and building them.'After getting a degree in computer science, he entered telecoms at a time when it was converging with computers, designing processors and chips and founding a company that was bought by Intel in 1999. He still holds 16 patents in broadband networking and processing architectures, but anticipates a full-time move to the UK soon to focus on Marcos. Cars he's owned include a TVR Tuscan and a Marcos Mantis.

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