The cars we loved.
What’s the ugliest car in the world? A lot of possible candidates come to mind. A quick search on the internet reveals pictures of Pintos, Gremlins and Reliant Regals among other things. Although these might have been bad cars, they did have some redeeming qualities in the looks department, despite their reputations.
Being ugly did not always mean incapable. Take the 1970 Marcos Mantis for instance. Marcos had been a producer of highly specialized race cars for years. It figured that building a street legal car with the some of the performance of its formidable Mantis XP would be the ticket to profits. Production actually started in 1968 but never picked up to the pace Marcos had planned. The Mantis was designed with the American market in mind. Built-in a Westbury, Wiltshire factory between 1970 and ’71, the Mantis never made it across the pond in full force. There are conflicting reports of just how many were built. Figures ranging from 32 to 43 cars were said to have been made. The Marcos was expensive for its time, making it an even harder pill to swallow, considering that the Triumph TR6 looked better, cost less and had similar performance.
The reason was simple. The Marcos Mantis was plain ugly to most eyes. It’s design looked as if it might have been the product of committees who designed parts of the car without any regard to what the other committees were doing. The resulting car was low, long and sleek due to it being a proper 2+2, however it was no Ferrari or even Rover in the looks department. However, a low center of gravity aided handling dynamics and made the car appear dramatic.
The Mantis could have been inspired by the Art Nouveau movement, with its organic lines and fluidness. That sounds sexy, but the Marcos took that theme and turned it on its head with harsh edges and juxtapositions that are as confused as they are jarring. At some angles it resembles a cockroach, with its big headlights and extended nose. The Mantis made other low volume English sports cars like the Jensen Interceptor look downright conventional.
Speaking of conventional, the interior was perhaps the most attractive aspect of the car. Marcos had used Ford V8 engines for years, so the relationship may have influenced the vaguely Mustang like dashboard design with its twin pods. Dennis Adams, the man often credited with styling the Mantis, was responsible for the interior, but left the company before the exterior was complete. That would explain a lot, but it’s safe to say the inside looks much better than the out. Once you got into the snug cockpit, got up to speed and gone through the gearbox’s four gears, you would soon realize that you were at the helm of a solid performance car. The Marcos is clearly best enjoyed from the inside.
The mechanicals basically were borrowed from the Trimph TR6. Although that ensured a certain degree of exciting performance with it’s 150 hp 2.5 litre inline 6, it did not however guarantee reliability. Marcos cars would later use Ford V8 engines. At just 2300 lb., the light weight of the Mantis made good use of the Triumph chassis and suspension. The Mantis was equipped with a four-speed manual transmission and could reach 60 mph in 9 seconds and go on to a top speed of 120-125 mph. A blurred Mantis at speed was likely the most flattering view since it looked odd at almost any angle. Less than 50 would be trendsetting buyers fell for the Mantis.
More cars sat idle at the factory than in owners driveways by the time the company went into liquidation in 1972. It seemed somehow appropriate that a kit car maker would resurrect the production molds and sell the car again as the Autotune Mirage from 1984 to 86. The resurrected car had more reliable Ford Cortina running gear and had slightly revised styling. Like the Mantis, sales were poor and very few were sold. Even fewer are said to currently exist today.
The brand came back in 1981 and built a string of odd-looking, but progressively more conventional race and street cars. After going bankrupt again in 2000, the company bounced back again with the Marcos TSO, an attractive conventional long hooded sports car in the vein of the AC Cobra or a mini Viper GTS. Prehaps after learning the long lesson about the importance of appearance in a sports car, Marcos cars became more attractive, but fewer models were released.