A while back, I shared my thoughts on these pages about the differences in motorsport history, and how some forms of motorsport weighs in heavier than others. Even that some motorsport history barely counts at all. But what then when it comes to a Le Mans racer? Surely, they must all have heaps of motorsport history. Well, yes. But only if they have actually raced.
It was after publishing the article Single-Model Series do not Count Towards Motorsport History (which led to an interesting debate), that I started considering the opposite situation. That article was of course focused around motorsport with cars based on road cars, but what if we’re looking at pure thoroughbred all-out race cars? Surely, they will always be overflowing with authentic motorsport history?
The surprising answer is “No”. And the Marcos Mantis XP from 1968 is a perfect example of this. The tiny British car manufacturer had already produced road cars, which had participated in various forms of motorsport – both national amateur racing and on the grand international scene. The marque hardly lacked motorsport history. Or self-confidence for that matter. So for the 1968 version of the legendary French long-distance race, Jem Marsh decided to participate with a purpose built Le Mans race car. A true thoroughbred.
As Marcos had previously participated in Le Mans with their road cars, they knew exactly what was required on the old sans-chicane Le Mans: Topspeed! Thus, their new racing car was developed for the lowest drag coefficient and thereby hopefully the highest topspeed down the Mulsanne straight. This was essential as outright engine power wasn’t their strongest side – like so many other small British manufacturers, Marcos had significantly larger ambitions than they had budgets. Ideally, they wanted a 3-litre V12 BRM engine, but it was well out of budget, so instead they purchased a Repco Formula 1 engine from Jack Brabham and installed it in their Mantis. It developed approximately 300 horsepower which was of course significantly less than Ford’s GT40 which had already won twice. It was equally less than the other competitors in the 3-litre class.
So it was all about aerodynamics and Marcos had taken it to extremes. They had focused on making the frontal area as small as possible – primarily by making it low. Very low!The driver was reclined to the point of practically lying down. Furthermore, the Mantis was a bizarre and distinctive combination of sharp angles, straight lines and huge glass surfaces. Jem Marsh’s brothers were responsible for the design, and there’s no denying that the overall effect was both spectacular and beautiful in a very unconventional manner.
And I haven’t even mentioned the wooden chassis yet! I’m sure some of you would have already guessed this, as Marcos had of course used this method of construction with quite some success on some of their other creations. But others might have questioned the sanity of this when combined with what was claimed to be a 200 mph (320 km/h), Formula 1 engined, thoroughbred Le Mans racer. Nonetheless, it proved to work perfectly well. Probably in part because Jem Marsh had also managed to purchase a complete Formula 1 suspension from Coopers 1967 contender. It was also claimed that the Mantis XP weighed in at a mere 650 kilos, which honestly sounds somewhat optimistic. But on paper – if nothing else – the Mantis XP had a lot to offer.
As with so many other great British automotive ideas, it was the execution which suffered. Such as the rather essential detail of finishing the car too late, and thereby missing out on spring practice prior to the actual Le Mans race. In an attempt to make up for this, they entered the Mantis XP in the 1968 running of the Spa 1000 Kilometres – which turned out to be a very wet affair. Rather rapidly, the cabin of the Marcos filled up with water, which didn’t exit again until a few holes were hastily drilled in the floor of the cabin during a pitstop. After this, the Marcos started fighting its way back up through the field, then spun without making contact with anything – only to leave the race with electrical issues after only 13 laps.
And then came Le Mans. Or at least it should have. But in 1968 the race was postponed due to turmoil and unrest in France, which Jem Marsh clearly wasn’t prepared to wait around for. So instead, he replaced the Formula 1 engine with an ordinary Rover V8 and proceeded to drive the Mantis XP on public roads. I’m sure this would have been highly entertaining – at least up until the point where the authorities noticed and required an obscene amount of money from Marcos for the privilege. As Marcos still didn’t have any money, the car was sold – to America, as Jem Marsh could thereby avoid the UK authorities. Once in the USA, the Mantis XP changed owners a couple of times until ending up with the Morris family in 1970. They used the car regularly on the road, restored it at some point after the millennium, and as far as I know still own it to this day.
The most weird and unusual part of this story is that since those 13 laps of Spa in 1968, the Marcos Mantis XP has never raced again. Not ever! I suppose it is stretching the truth a little when I claim that it has zero race history. But it certainly never raced at Le Mans as it was designed and developed to do, and even outside of Le Mans it only holds very minimal race history.
But in some peculiar way, I suppose its lack of race history has now somehow become a fundamental part of its modern day legend. But what do our readers think? Can the Marcos Mantis XP claim to have motorsport history? Can it even claim to be a true race car? And what do you think would have happened if the 1968 Le Mans had been held as planned and on schedule?