The Story of ... The Mini Marcos & Mini Jem
by Richard Heseltine
The Mini Marcos and the Mini Jem shared ancestry. Richard Heseltine
It might have been on the small side, but it cast a long shadow. The Mini DART languishes in a netherworld between obscurity and vague recognition, but it spawned more than one kit car icon. Without it, there would have been no Mini Marcos or Mini Jem, all of which was a world away when it broke cover at the 1964 Racing Car Show at Olympia.
The car was the brainchild of test pilot and club racer Desmond Dizzy Addicott who had enjoyed track success in a raft of unusual machines, not least a Buick V8-engined Lotus 15. The DART (Dizzy Addicott Racing Team) was something entirely, though. It was to act as his entrée into the specialist sports car industry, with arch-car builder/racer Paul Emery assisting in its construction. Based on a damaged Mini Van, the prototype featured an all-steel hull, complete with cropped Kamm tail, although production cars were to have boasted glassfibre shells. Powering this brave new world was a 1071cc Cooper-spec A-series ‘four’.
Following the big reveal, agreement was reached with Jem Marsh of Marcos Cars to produce a batch of bodyshells. However, Addicott was unhappy with their quality (they were actually moulded by Falcon Shells with which Marcos Cars shared a director). This led to an acrimonious split, with Addicott ultimately losing interest. The DART remained unique, but Marsh deciding to create his own take on the theme based on one of the rejected bodies. Reworked by Brian Moulton, the resultant Mini Marcos was not remotely attractive — or even close. It wasn‘t even symmetrical, but it was cheap to make, instantly endearing and it worked brilliantly. It still does.
One of the first cars to emerge from Marcos’s Bradford-on-Avon factory was prepared for racing by Jan O’dor‘s Janspeed tuning concern. It was fielded for sometime works BMC driver Geoff Mabbs in a race at Castle Combe in September 1965 where it caused a minor sensation. The Bristolian emerged victorious in sodden conditions. It wouldn‘t be the last time that a Mini Marcos triumphed against more powerful opposition, even if the Janspeed racer was written off a year later, more‘s the pity.
The Mini Marcos GT Mk1 made its formal public bow at the January ’66 Racing Car Show where it was offered at the incredibly low asking price of £199 for a basic shell. The manufacturer claimed that it could be constructed in 20 hours, which was a mite optimistic. Nevertheless, it was an instant hit. Not only that, it received welcome publicity after deep sea diver and future car designer Jean-Claude Hrubron entered his Cooper S-engined car in that year‘s Le Mans 24 Hour race. He teamed-up with Claude Ballot-Léna and, much to everyone’s surprise, the duo came home in fifteenth place overall. Not only that, theirs was the first British-built car home (as distinct from UK-made but American-financed and powered Ford GT40s).
Marsh was particularly surprised, having done his best to distance himself from the car for much of the race in the belief that it would prove an embarrassing failure. He later recalled being appalled by its “slap-dash preparation”. That, and being within earshot of Mini designer Alec Issigonis who was reputedly disgusted by ”—this funny-looking egg-shaped thing&rrdquo;. Believing that he could do better, Marsh entered a works car in the following year‘s event, with Marsh driving alongside Deep Sanderson man, Chris Lawrence. Sadly, despite showing a remarkable turn of speed (141mph down the Mulsanne Straight with a Downton-tuned A-series four-banger), the car didn‘t last the distance.
By this time, a lightly-revised Mk2 version had gone on sale (changes amounted to a different floor, restyled wheel-arches, slide-up windows etc), while the Mk3 version — complete with an opening rear hatch — was introduced in 1971. Intriguingly, Marsh was concurrently involved in building a batch of Mini-based prototypes for Autocars of Haifa, Israel which were developed and crash-tested in 1969-70 in readiness for volume production. However, for a variety of reasons unrelated to Marsh or Marcos, this project came to naught.
The dawn of the 1970s saw Marcos mired in a world of pain. Disruptions with the relocation to a new and much bigger factory were compounded when 27 big Marcos GTs were seized by US customs in the belief that they didn’t meet emission standards (they did). With no money coming in, Marsh was forced to sell out to Hebron & Medlock Bath Engineering. Six months later, the receivers were called in: the Rob Walker Group subsequently acquired the factory only to hold a closing down sale. By 1972 Marcos was effectively dead — for the first time.
Meanwhile— After Addicott canned his plans to build the DART, he sold the rights to Lotus and Brabham racer, Jeremy Delmar-Morgan, for £750. It had morphed into the Mini Jem by the summer of 1966, although the model wasn‘t officially launched until the January ’67 Racing Car Show. The styling had been tweaked (for the better), while the name Jem was derived from Delmar-Morgan‘s nickname (it was nothing to do with Jem Marsh‘s nomenclature, contrary to popular belief).
Like the Mini Marcos, the Jem was offered as a glassfibre body/monocoque to accommodate Mini running gear. It was offered at £189 — a full £10 less than its rival, with Delmar-Morgan proving the car in competition after finishing second in the one-litre prototype class in the ’66 Nürburgring 500km race. Around 20 kits (along with a few fully-built cars at around £500 a pop) emerged from his west London workshop prior to a move to High Wycombe where space was rented within Robin Statham‘s Penn Garage premises. This was intended to be a temporary staging post prior to the move to a new dedicated site near the Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire, except Delmar-Morgan decided to sell the Mini Jem project to Statham instead.
Early Jems had been somewhat built down to a price, and Statham set about improving quality with the Mk2 version which was launched at the ’69 Racing Car Show. It was more than a mere makeover, with Statham reengineering the car, the most obvious visual signifiers being the raked-back A-pillars and higher roofline. Cars were sold under the Fellpoint Ltd banner for £350 with doors already hung, windows installed and the shell painted and trimmed. One early adopter was Noel Edmonds—
But, just as night follows day, there were problems. Despite the Jem selling in reasonable numbers, Statham overextended while developing a sister model, the wild VW-based Futura. The firm lurched into receivership in July 1971 by which time Statham had made as many as 160 Jems (to go with around 30-40 kits sold by Delmar-Morgan). The rights passed to High Performance Mouldings of Cricklade in Wiltshire which launched the Mk3 version — complete with a rear hatch à la Mini Marcos — in 1973 before selling the project a year later. Production never recommenced. Intriguingly, Fellpoint also built an estate car version, but it remained unique.
This being the kit car industry, you cannot keep a good product down, and the Mini Marcos never really went away. Following the painful crash of the marque he co-founded (alongside Frank Costin), Marsh established a new firm next to the old factory where he offered spares for the glamorous GTs while also offering a new Mini Marcos — the Mk4 — from mid-1972. This latest offering was some four inches longer than its predecessor and slightly taller. These changes, along with a new floor layout, freed up enough space for a rear seat. Three years later, the model was adopted by Harold Dermott’s D&H Fibreglass Techniques Ltd, the future McLaren man offering the car until 1981 by which time his Midas Bronze had already established itself as a world class kit car.
It’s also worth remembering that the Mini Marcos was still a phenomenal competition tool, with Steve Roberts enjoying tremendous success aboard his ultra-lightweight, 1480cc TransXL ModSports Mk4 in the late ’70s. He claimed an astonishing 36 victories and 74 podium placings from 98 starts, while also accruing four land speed records while he was at it.
As for the regular product, interest from Japan in all things Mini-related spurred Jem Marsh into reacquiring the manufacturing rights and launching the Mk5 version in 1991. The new car came complete with 12in wheels, a front air dam and — brace yourself — wind-up windows. The overwhelming majority of those made headed east in turn-key form before the model was dropped in 1995, only for ex-Marcos man Rory McMath to revive production with the Mk6 edition in 2005 via Marcos Heritage Spares. What’s more, it‘s still available.
And while the Jem never returned, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. In the early ’80s, craft teacher Roger King gave up his post in Luton and relocated to Northumberland for a new life running a garage. He acquired a Jem Mk2 shortly thereafter which he set about improving. This ultimately led to him becoming a car manufacturer via the Jem-based Kingfisher Sprint from 1981. This new stain was a significantly reworked iteration to the point that it was some six inches longer and two inches taller than the car that bore it. The Sprint went on sale at a cost of £1144, options stretching to a turbocharged, 1480cc fully-built car at a whopping £7665. The promotional literature also talked up estate and convertible versions, none of which materialised. Ultimately, the scheme tanked, with Kingfisher Motors sinking into receivership in 1984. Plans to reanimate the Sprint a year later via Vortex Cars remained just that. There would be no further attempts at a comeback.
Ultimately, while the Mini Marcos and the Mini Jem are closely-related by dint of a shared lineage, they have their look and appeal. The Marcos is, save for the Lotus/Caterham Seven and Ginetta/DARE G4, the longest-serving kit car we can think of, while the Jem is perhaps more of a curio. Early examples of both models are now making their presence felt in historic racing, with apearances at the Goodwood Revival and elsewhere. This will only serve to heighten awareness. That, and values. And they say kit cars cannot be classics—
Thanks to: Richard Porter (www.minimarcos.org.uk)
Last updated 3rd April, 2022