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Monday 15th November 2004


MARCOS TSO

Graham Bell visits Marcos’ new base to try out its latest model on road and track.

The future would appear to be looking rather bright for Marcos at the moment.

With the marque now owned by wealthy Canadian entrepreneur and car fanatic Tony Stelliga (hence all the TS model designations) it’s more financially secure than at any time in its 45-year history. And with the company’s new tie-in with renowned performance gurus Prodrive, Marcos’ longstanding reputation for making cars with impressive handling can only be enhanced.

Then there’s the impending production of ‘the sports car that sports car drivers asked for’ – the Marcos TSO. Unveiled to the world at the NEC Motor Show back in May, the TSO is the direct result of two things.

The first is feedback gathered from Marcos customers and potential Marcos customers, including comments posted on Gassing Station (ah - the power of PH!) which basically revealed that Marcos’ target market wanted a highly reliable open top sports car that’s fun to drive and has that classic V8 growl.

The second was that while Tony is a confirmed Marcos fan (he owns a ’97 Mantis) he wanted to give the company a new approach - hence the appointment of ex-TVR stylist Damian McTaggart, the Prodrive tie-in and the recent relocation to Warwickshire.

Relocating to Prodrive’s Warwickshire facility should definitely help to improve the company’s image, partly because of the Prodrive connection but mainly because of the modern facilities – and anyone who’s ever experienced the legendary Westbury huts and the infamous toilet will know exactly what I mean…

Although Marcos still hasn’t entirely abandoned the Westbury huts, their days are numbered, and probably not before time as the new facilities are far more in keeping with what people expect for a company selling £30,000+ sports cars. They also have the added bonus of having Prodrive’s test track on the doorstep, which is obviously pretty handy for chassis development work as well as customer test drives.

Another aspect of Tony Stelliga’s new approach is that the TSO is the first Marcos model since the Mantis 2+2 of 1969 to let its designers start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper. In the event though, not everything was started from scratch.

When it came to the TSO’s chassis and suspension, Prodrive started by taking a close look (including computer analysis) at what Marcos were already using and concluded that it was pretty damn good.

So rather than totally ditch the established square section steel spaceframe chassis with its McPherson strut front/wishbone rear suspension, Prodrive used it as the starting point to develop an evolution chassis that’s over 50 per cent stiffer while only being a piddling 15kg heavier.

And of course a stiff chassis is very useful in a car with massive V8 power, which in the TSO’s case comes from a special 5.7 litre Marcos spec. unit derived from General Motors’ LS1/LS6 series as used in the Corvette and Monaro.

Not only does this provide the required power, torque, reliability and sound, its relatively shallow design offers packaging benefits too, enabling Marcos to have clearance above it to aid under bonnet air flow while at the same time setting it high enough to give two inches more ground clearance than previous models. Bad news for Marcos exhaust stockists…

Power on offer is either 350bhp or 400bhp depending on model. The standard £39,950 TSO comes with 350bhp, five-speed gearbox and 17-inch wheels all round, while the £44,950 R/T version tested has 400bhp, six-speed gearbox, 18-inch rear wheels and Hydratrak LSD.

In each case Marcos used re-profiled camshafts and bespoke engine management to produce more torque in the low to mid range, with engine power benefiting from improved exhaust flow and a special intake system feeding cold air from the front of the car.

As you’ve no doubt guessed from the paint job, the car featured here is the one shown at the NEC, though being the development prototype it’s changed a bit since then, most noticeably with regards to the interior.

Gone is the traditional Marcos fixed seat/moving pedal arrangement originally fitted, this being replaced by a conventional set-up with fixed pedals and new Marcos designed lightweight seats – with runners. 

The reason for the change is that it not only makes it easier to fit a servo (which the TS 250 & 500 don’t have) but also left hand drive.

Easy provision of left hand drive was also a big consideration when it came to designing the new dashboard which, as part of the new approach, was done entirely using CAD. It uses a system that enables production tooling to be generated directly from the computer generated data, providing both high speed and high precision production.

Development work was still ongoing at the time of my drive, including feedback from Marcos owners and selected media types, and just the day before they’d remapped the engine management. One result of this continuous tinkering was that the speedo wasn’t working, so unfortunately I didn’t know exactly how fast the car was going.

Also, time constraints meant that driving was sadly limited to around four miles on the road and four laps of the track, which is too little to get to know a car properly but enough to get a fair idea of how well it performs.

Out on the road, the TSO indicated that it should perform the luxury tourer side of its role well enough.

At normal motorway speeds the TSO's powerplant rumbles at around a lazy 1,800rpm, thanks to the combination of a Dodge Viper gearset and Marcos’ 3.49 final drive ratio, so long distance travel should be both relaxed and economical. Well, about as economical as a 400bhp sports car can be…

The power steering is very light at low speed – probably too light – and Prodrive isn’t happy about the lack of feel around the straight ahead position, so expect some changes to the weighting on production versions. Don’t expect any changes to the gearing though as just 2.5 turns of that small wheel gets you from lock to lock, making it plenty quick enough to cope with tight turns or power oversteer.

That 50 per cent increase in chassis stiffness has enabled Prodrive to use the ‘softer springs, stiffer dampers’ approach championed by Colin Chapman to achieve a nice balance between ride comfort and body control. Yes, it’s still sportingly firm but not rock hard like certain performance saloons; not once was there any untoward crashing or jarring over road bumps.

As for handling, it was possible to drive the TSO through the tight, twisty section at the far end of Prodrive’s ‘short’ track fast enough to get the tyres squealing with no trace of sliding at either end – though if you like to punctuate your neat high speed cornering with some sideways fun then the TSO will readily oblige.

In fact the rationale behind modifying the engines to produce more low/mid range torque was precisely so that the back end could be made to break away in a nice progressive manner, as ably demonstrated by Marcos’ chief engineer Shaun Kettlety casually exiting corners sideways with just one hand on the steering wheel.

Even so, with no traction control or other electronic gizmos to keep you out of the scenery if you overdo things, getting too greedy with all that grunt can still quickly result in you facing the direction you’ve just come from. Ask me how I know…

However, the TSO feels so well balanced and exhibits such high levels of roadholding that in normal use this shouldn’t be a problem even on wet roads.

As you’d expect with 400bhp in a one ton car, the TSO R/T offers straight-line performance few cars can match. Marcos estimate 0 – 60 in around four seconds and 0- 100 in under 10, though with no speedo to go on, all I can tell you for sure is that it’s very quick, especially at over 4,000rpm.

Reining in all this speed are drilled and vented AP Racing discs measuring 340mm front and 320mm rear. As previously mentioned these are servo assisted, though not overly so and I only had wheels lock up twice. First time was on the road when hitting a patch of damp leaves when braking for a tight bend. The second was when stamping on the middle pedal at the top end of Prodrive’s straight. In each case the TSO remained perfectly composed with no snatching on the steering, no juddering and no twitching of the tail, even with smoke pouring off the front tyres at what must have been over 100mph.

Although the TSO as tested is virtually to production specification, several final changes are in the pipeline prior to development being frozen in December ready for build on the first customer cars to begin early next year.

These include the removal of the upper window guides from the doors and the replacement of the flat door trim panels with some new curvaceous ones, which should have been done by the time the TSO appears at the MPH show (with new paint job).

After that it’s booked in for three weeks of exhaustive testing at MIRA, which is a further indication of just how committed Tony Stelliga is to ensuring that Marcos not only continues to build muscular V8 sports cars, but also builds them better than ever.


© Copyright Graham Bell 2004

Author: Graham Bell