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Marcos 1600GT – The Saint’s silver screen star

Words: James Elliott; pictures: Jonathan Fleetwood

As The Saint, Roger Moore made a certain Volvo famous. But this Marcos screamed into shot in 1969, and now it’s back in the limelight

It’s so well-known that it barely counts as trivia. What car did The Saint drive? Roger Moore had a Volvo P1800, of course. Or, if you want to go next-level, then Ian Ogilvy had a Jaguar XJ-S in Return of the Saint. Or, you could say Marcos 1600GT. Hey?

First screened in October 1962 and based on the books by Leslie Charteris, the gloriously kitsch programme starring super-suave Roger Moore and his gleaming Volvo and slick halo gimmick was a massive hit, despite its rickety filming and preposterous plots. It was the ’60s and such things simply didn’t matter as much as style and oozing cool confidence, both of which The Saint had in spades. After six series, though, it was time to bow out and the final episode of the first incarnation aired in February 1969. 

By then, thanks to success in the US boosting its budgets, it was in colour and that last episode was called The World Beater, referring to a brilliant new sports car from father-and-son garagistes Mr (yes, that’s all) and George Hapgood. Simon Templar, aka The Saint – who just happens to be the world’s finest driver in his spare time – is to pilot the car in a 24-hour rally to secure backing from local engineering bigwig Mr Laker, played by the wonderful George A Cooper. 

The episode opens with an extreme close-up of the Marcos’s headlamp as Moore opines in a voiceover that driving a rally car (surely not the best motorsport discipline for such a low-slung beast?) is ‘more than just a test of skill; it’s an experience of high sensuality, a partnership between car and driver of power, speed and satisfaction’. Remember the ’60s, when it was OK to sexualise gymslip automobiles? 

Our hero then dons helmet and goes for a lengthy opening-sequence test drive, giving his feedback over the radio intercom until, high drama, the uninsured wonder car’s steering has been sabotaged by rivals and, with background amateurishly switching between road and dirt-track, drives into a tree. Laker and the Hapgoods pile into the former’s Jensen FF (with factory NEA plate) and go to rescue The Saint, Laker announcing with maximum gravitas that ‘for a moment it certainly looked like curtains for the impetuous Simon Templar’. Cue smouldering gaze, halo above Moore’s head and de-da-der, de-da-da

The Marcos – which is never given a marque or model name in the episode – is later seen briefly, with camera angles amusingly trying to hide the lack of damage and revealing just a slightly bashed bonnet that almost certainly isn’t the one on the car pre-‘crash’. From there the plot descends into the usual enjoyable tosh, of course, but it is readily available should you wish to suffer it in full. All I will say on the rest of the programme is that the producers took another trip to the British low-volume manufacture well by featuring a very obviously debadged TVR Vixen that they call The Sentinel, the creation of George’s cousin Justin Pritchard and the motoring villain of the piece. 

In terms of exposure, that role – driven by Roger Moore in a British show that at the time was second only to The Avengers for global popularity and income – makes that Marcos 1600GT one of the most exciting finds that there is. Even more surprising, then, that it is only now re-emerging. It was never ‘lost’ in the conventional way and there was no Indiana Jones type of operation to retrieve it, but it did fall off the radar, completely.

Central to this story (as he is central to all things Marcos) is Rory McMath. McMath started with Jem Marsh at Marcos in 1968 and has been involved in one capacity or another ever since. He was the last employee to leave when it went into liquidation the first time (1971, when it was picked up by the Rob Walker Group) and again, 30 years later, when Jem Marsh closed the doors for his final time as a full independent. After that, McMath took on all the assets and set up Marcos Heritage to maintain and restore the cars. And to build them, don’t forget – a handful of brand new Mini Marcoses are still sold every year.

He says: ‘The story goes that the studio approached Jem for a Marcos for Roger Moore to drive throughout the series instead of the Volvo. Jem made some ridiculous demands, which he was very good at, and they told him to stick it. So they found a privately owned car nearby in Borehamwood and “damaged” it as a jibe at Jem. He used to really antagonise the media – he used to make the journalists pay for fuel!

‘After filming, the car wasn’t seen for a long time, then about ten years ago we heard that it was being restored. Five years ago we were contacted by a chap whose father had been restoring it but had died, asking if I would take it on. He was aware it might have been the The Saint car, but didn’t realise quite how significant that made it.

‘We do have celebrity owners such as Rod Stewart and Sam Wanamaker – who managed to get either his 3 Litre or 1600 into four of his movies – but if you look at the cars that were on the television or driven by well-known people, then being piloted by a superstar like Roger Moore in one of the world’s most popular programmes makes this the ultimate.’

After acquiring the car, McMath hadn’t even started on it when multiple Marcos owner Michael Poole spotted it and was ‘allowed to buy it’ with the proviso that Marcos Heritage could restore it precisely as it appeared in The Saint. Precisely, that is, except for the cost-cutting formica dashboards Marcos used in the mid-1960s – McMath hated them in period and he hates them now, replacing them with a gorgeous light elm whenever he can to prevent that ‘desktop’ look ‘cheapening’ the cars.

Rory’s son James McMath has been working on Marcoses for 15 years and did much of the work on The Saint car over 18 months. James says: ‘Most of the woodwork was done, but we had to do everything else. The trickiest bits are always the interior and the sunroof.’ There were other challenges, of course. For the interior, the original 407 Ambla had to be dyed the precise hue, while the basket-weave in the middle of the seats is now available only in black, so that needed to be coloured, too. The non-standard wing mirrors are pricey brand new period Les Leston items sourced on eBay, while the black racing stripes were painstakingly recreated to exactly match the car in the TV programme.

The mechanicals were also upgraded, as Rory explains: ‘We know so much more now than we did in 1969 and we incorporate that knowledge. The dampers are made to the original specification, but the valving is better so we can fine-tune the suspension. We also fit slightly stiffer rear springs and we’ve uprated the engine [fed by twin Weber 40s] to 1700cc and put vented brakes on the front.’

Other than that it is standard, except for the exhaust, which blares like a Can-Am car’s. Enter Marcos aficionado Michael Poole, who co-owns the 1600 with Ian Gorham and previously had a Mantula Spyder and 1800GT and is currently hillclimbing another 1600 that was nut-and-bolt restored at Marcos Heritage. ‘We decided that if we were going to do it then we had to do it properly,’ he says. ‘In the TV programme it was supposed to be a high-performance road-rally car so it should sound like one! That was our starting point.’ Sadly, even when he bought it, Poole knew that he would not be able to keep this Marcos: ‘I have three other classic cars so there was no way I was going to be allowed to keep this one. I got involved because I am a big fan of Marcos and British engineering – knocking out wooden-chassised cars masterminded by Frank Costin, the man behind the de Havilland Mosquito, I love all that. I was aware that this car needed to be put back on the road and done properly so I was very happy to play my part and fund it. Now someone else can appreciate it as it should be.’

As a result, the Marcos will be sold at the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed sale on 24 June, but long before that Octane is given the opportunity to take the car out on its (almost) maiden voyage. With unseasonably fine weather, it is great to drink in that voluptuous swooping shape with its baroque-looking rear end, and those wonderfully slender quarter-bumpers that act like accents at the rear and eyeliner at the front. The huge faired-in lights and widening front make the Marcos look like it is leaping even when stationary and (I speak as a former Lotus Elan owner) it is always nice to see another application of the rear lights from the Vauxhall FB Victor estate. 

The finish is spectacular, the stripes actually helping define the lines of the Polar White bodywork, and the bigger wire wheels (14in instead of 13in) shod with 185/65 tyres fill those ’arches nicely. 

Drop into the deep, cossetting seats and, inside, the trimming is superb; far better than new, you suspect. The driving position is pure divine sports car, resting an elbow on the high tunnel to operate the stubby gearlever, arms fully stretched to the tiny kart-like dished and drilled Astrali steering wheel. Once you are strapped in and need to operate anything, the reason for the extensions on the toggle switches becomes clear. Similarly, the small wheel that sprouts intrusively from the dash behind the steering wheel is to adjust the pedal box (the seats are fixed), but even set to maximum short-arse they remain a stretch for me. It is a truism that the similarly sized Colin ‘Chunky’ Chapman made cars to fit the likes of me, while Jem Marsh made them for drivers who approached his 6ft 4in height.

Both made cars for enthusiastic drivers, however. Having started building cars with Marsh at the death of the 1950s, Costin used his aeronautical experience to create a layered marine plywood chassis clothed in glassfibre. After some competition-focused cars – throughout, and even after, its existence Marcos had one eye on motorsport – and the Adams brothers stepping in on the design front, Marcos hit its sweetspot with 1964’s Volvo B18-powered 1800GT with de Dion rear. That template continued, eventually with a steel chassis (from 1969) and with myriad engine variations – from 2.5-litre Triumph to Essex V6 – though the mainstays were Ford four-pots ranging from 1500 to 1650cc, mated with a coil-sprung live rear axle. Just like this car.

It always amazes me what works of wonder engineers of the 1950s and ’60s conjured up from such basic ingredients of a 1.5-ish-litre lump and a four-speed all-synchro box, but then we largely have Ford to thank for making that possible by engineering such user-friendly excellence into even its most basic products. The box is as slick and fun to use as any exotic item, the embodiment of the benefits of keeping things simple. The engine is incredibly flexible, while you can really feel the extra performance of the uprated brakes going into corners and the extra oomph from the now-1700cc engine when powering out of them.

Ah, corners – it is almost as if the Marcos doesn’t acknowledge them as a road feature, so wonderful is the chassis as you chuck it in and it just sticks to the road, no doubt aided by such a low centre of gravity. And all the time the light pedals are a joy; they might otherwise feel everyday, but this car so engages and involves the driver that everything feels dynamic and racy and it is incredibly easy to feel at one with it, just guiding it via the super-direct steering while changing gear more than is strictly necessary for the joy of it.

The steering drowns you with feedback yet only the most serious road imperfections kickback or unsettle the car, while you lie so prone that you start to wonder whether this really is a sports car or a superlight GT. Or, rarest of motoring creations, both equally in one car. It is scintillating on the road, or, to put it another way: ‘Holds the road like a leech, no tail-wag, 65 miles an hour… great, steady as a rock [under braking], you’ve got a winner here, it really is a beauty.’ Not my words, but those of Roger Moore, The Saint himself. And who am I to disagree with a screen icon?  

Factfile –1967 Marcos 1600GT (this uprated car)

Engine 1700cc OHV four-cylinder, twin Weber carburettors Power 135bhp @ 5500rpm Torque 133lb ft @ 4500rpm Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive  Steering Rack and pinion  Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs. telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, radius arms, transverse Panhard rod, coil springs, telescopic dampers Brakes Discs front, drums rear  Weight 750kg Top speed 125mph  0-60mph 7.0sec

This article was originally published in Octane 228, June 2022

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