The restoration of a derelict Marcos GT required a specialist unfazed by a rotten wooden chassis, rust-filled engine and worse
Achap in Devon had this car stored in a barn for some 20 years and it eventually popped up on ebay,’ says Rory Macmath, managing director of Marcos Heritage. ‘The engine looked like it was seized, the upholstery appeared awful and the wooden chassis was pretty nasty. It didn’t fetch the desired money.’
As with many a Marcos, it ended up being offered to Rory, who worked at Marcos from 1968-94, then founded Marcos Heritage to help keep the cars on the road. Rory had also acquired all of Marcos’s assets, tooling, drawings and build history following its liquidation in 2001.
Despite the car’s poor condition, Rory bought it with the intention of restoring it. ‘We tend to salvage them whenever possible,’ he says, ‘because only 4000-odd cars were ever built. We can rebuild them, even if the chassis is in a terrible state.’
To its advantage, the car had a 1.6-litre Ford Crossflow which, besides being eminently tuneable, was also much lighter than the alternative six-cylinder Ford and Volvo options of the same era. ‘The 1600 is a more nimble car,’ notes Rory, ‘and such a joy to drive.’
A potential saviour materialises
Michael Poole, a devout enthusiast of the brand, was in the market for a lightweight Marcos. ‘I met Rory when I had my first Marcos, a big Mantula Spyder with a Rover V8. Then I started looking at the older, more classic examples. I wanted to do the odd track day and hill climb, so I fancied putting a car together that suited my requirements exactly.’
Michael sat down with Rory to discuss the best avenue to explore. ‘We had a long chat and agreed that the 1600 GT would be a good fit, because there was so much you could do with the engine,’ says Michael. Everything was there and that was the main thing. ‘We’d make some changes to meet racing regulations, but everything else needed to be from the correct era.’
Opting for an early Marcos posed its own distinct challenges. ‘These cars leak through the window frames,’ says Rory. ‘They have a very basic rain gutter that doesn’t work particularly well, so water drips onto the floor – which then rots if left unchecked.’
The floor was indeed soft and decaying. Rory knew this meant that the GT’S torsion boxes – the structural sill sections that form a substantial portion of the car’s strength – could also be compromised.
‘You can’t just place the existing body on a new chassis though,’ says Rory. ‘It’s a mammoth operation to detach a body from the chassis entirely, because it’s bonded on in so many areas, and you will damage the chassis in the process. It’s just not viable.’
Turning bad wood into good wood
Rory and son James Macmath, chief mechanic of Marcos Heritage, began by stripping the car to check its condition. The week-long process cut the weight of the Marcos to the point where only four people were needed to lift, invert and place the car onto a pair of trestles. This allowed James and Rory to identify damaged areas such as the rear chassis, driver’s side floor and elements of the torsion boxes – all of which needed unpicking from the glassfibre bodywork.
‘The first thing we did was to assess the strength of the chassis before we cut any of the body away,’ says Rory. ‘More than two-thirds of it was sound so the structure could support itself, meaning we could cut where the body is laminated to the chassis and then trim it back – revealing the wood without the car going banana-shaped.
‘We then detached the wooden floor, exposing the chassis fully and allowing us to measure out replacement pieces,’ says Rory. Working from the outside in, Rory and James cut away the old wood and fabricated replacement parts out of weather- and boil-proof (WBP) plywood which Rory says can last for 50 years if cared for.
The team then used Aerolite, an industrial adhesive developed for aviation applications launched in 1938, to adhere fresh wood to old, with staples holding the parts together during the 24-hour curing process.
‘We had to work systematically and slowly, allowing each section to cure properly,’ notes Rory. ‘Repairing the torsion boxes is the most difficult part of this process, because not only did we have to reconstruct them, but within the elliptical structure there’s an incorporated diagonal section that’s tricky to access.’
Rory and James then replaced the car’s plywood floor, after which they could apply fresh glassfibre matting to re-bond the underside of the chassis to the outer shell. ‘We chamfer the cut edge of the glassfibre, then put a strip of laminate between it and the chassis,’ says Rory. ‘Glassfibre will stick to a good-quality wood and it makes a very good bond.’
With the wood restored and secured after some two months’ work, a protective finish had to be applied. ‘We use one coat of blackboard paint,’ says Rory. ‘It allows the wood to breathe. If you seal the underside, a stone chip or similar could let moisture get underneath the finish and then it won’t get out again. Leave it to breathe and when it gets wet it’ll dry out.’
Small car; lots of bodywork problems
‘We had to take the car back to bare glassfibre,’ says Rory. ‘They always have cracks and we need to make absolutely certain repairs are done correctly so no cracks will appear after it’s painted.’
Posing a further challenge was the sheer thickness of the paint in places. ‘It had been painted four or five times,’ says Rory. ‘With these cars, people often just rub them down and put the same colour on top; the paint can be a quarter of an inch thick in places.’
A grinder couldn’t be used to quickly remove the layers of ageing paint though, because of the chance of it altering the curvature of the panels. Neither could chemical strippers be used because they can sink into the glassfibre and cause multiple paint-related tribulations later. ‘We had to do it all with sandpaper, by hand,’ says Rory, somewhat glumly. ‘It’s a horrible 50-hour job for one person, but there’s no other way of going about it.’
Removing the paint revealed small cracks in the glassfibre around the car’s windscreen. ‘The screen aperture is nearly always damaged in the corners,’ says Rory. ‘The shell shakes slightly here and the outer surface of the body is a gel coat, a non-reinforced plastic coating. That’s what cracks and that’s what you see. We grind away this coating until the crack disappears, which takes us just into the matting of the glassfibre itself. We then reinforce the glassfibre with chopped strand mat, then top it with a surface tissue – a very fine cloth-like glassfibre matting. This eliminates air pockets which can blow up in the future and it gives us an impermeable surface to work from.’
Part of the eight-week body restoration was spent strengthening known weak points. ‘We reinforced around the headlamp covers where the bonnet flexes,’ says Rory. ‘People undo the catches and lift one corner, which twists the bonnet and causes a crack. We bolstered the door hinges and the screen corners for similar reasons, because these areas flex.’
As part of his investigations into the car’s origins, Rory had rifled through the company’s original sales files. These revealed that, although the car had arrived at the workshop sporting red paint, it was originally finished in Bahama Yellow. Owner Michael instead decided on a more subtle and elegant Rolls-royce Regal Red – an original Marcos-offered optional finish.
It’s all in the rare, no-longer-available details
The Marcos has anodised aluminium frames for the door glass, paired with aluminium detail strips that sit on the door along the lower edge of the window – but these were missing. ‘The originals are an aluminium U-section which we can’t get any more,’ says James. All we can get is plastic chrome but it looks horrible, so I fabricated new ones out of angled aluminium. They are a nightmare to make; I had to put a curve in them by hand and then bond them in exactly the right place with polyurethane – which takes 24 hours to go off.’
Rory also replaced the Mazak alloy bonnet catches with fresh Mazak reproductions as a preventative measure. ‘The roller inside the catch wears,’ says Rory, ‘and once you’ve got a flat worn into that roller it’s a hell of a job to open the catch.’
Don’t be misled by the embossed ‘M’ on them, though – it doesn’t stand for Marcos. The catches were originally used on the Triumph Herald, designed by Giovanni Michelotti, and the emblem was reportedly cast in as a signature mark from the Italian stylist. ‘Founder Jem Marsh would tell customers we had them manufactured specially for Marcos,’ grins Rory.
Many of the GT’S exterior detail parts proved salvageable, though, including its original bonnet badge and Austin A40-sourced door locks. ‘We try to retain as much of the original car as possible,’ says Rory. ‘A lot of the minor parts we’ve run out of, mind – the cover for the interior light comes from a 1952 Vauxhall Victor. We’ve exhausted worldwide supplies so we’ll have to start remanufacturing them.’
Major mechanical relief
The Marcos weighs in at a claimed 740kg which means it does little to tax its transmission or back axle. The front subframe and suspension components were also found to be in serviceable condition, but to ensure longevity they were sandblasted to remove surface rust and then powder-coated for protection.
Low point ‘Removing the paint was a soul-destroying job. You can’t use paint stripper because it gets into the glassfibre, so we had to hand-sand it’