The last dance. TVR takes on Marcos All-Brit 900bhp shootout. Malcolm Thorne laments the demise of Marcos and TVR, but says they went out in a blaze of glory with the brutal but brilliant TSO and Sagaris. Photography Tony Baker.
Last of the line: Marcos TSO GT2 and TVR Sagaris go head to head. Rear-drive rocketships TVR Sagaris locks horns with Marcos TSO GT2 in our 900bhp battle of the 185mph British supercoupés.
A dozen years ago, the future was looking bright for fans of bonkers British sports coupés. Established speed-chasing champion TVR was riding the crest of a wave with the wild Sagaris, a spectacular development of the Blackpool firm’s fire-breathing formula of huge power and outrageous style. Over at a new factory in Kenilworth, meanwhile, a revived Marcos had unveiled the sleek and sexy TSO, a clean-sheet design that took the spirit of the firm’s previous V8 models and re-engineered it to become a sensational-looking GT that promised to be as seductive as it was fast.
TVR Sagaris vs. Marcos TSO GT2 All-Brit 900bhp shootout
Both cars offered a heady cocktail of tyreshredding acceleration, a top speed nudging 190mph, plus well-sorted – albeit old-school – handling. The recipe was completed with styling that was guaranteed to stand out from the 911-driving crowd, the TSO going for understated elegance while the Sagaris embraced wilful weirdness with a vengeance. As the zenith of the high-adrenalin, front-engined sports car dream, these were the antithesis of anodyne mass-market transport. And yet, rosy though the future might have seemed, the Sagaris and TSO would be a last hurrah – the final incarnation of these much-loved marques. Within a couple of years both went the way of so many other British manufacturers before them. A resuscitated TVR may yet breathe again, but for now these cars represent the end of their respective lines.
Better known of our duo is, of course, the TVR. Conceived under Peter Wheeler as a successor to the Tuscan racer, it was turned into a road car at the behest of the firm’s new owner, Russian millionaire Nikolai Smolenski, and hit the streets in 2005. The Sagaris followed the tried and tested Blackpool formula: tubular steel backbone chassis, double-wishbone suspension, stonking power from the company’s homegrown 406bhp 3996cc twin-cam straight-six, a five-speed manual transmission and none of the namby-pamby driver aids that mainstream manufacturers had so actively pursued. This hugely charismatic package was wrapped up in a glassfibre bodyshell that was clearly inspired by alien technology. Forget Area 51: if the Sagaris is anything to judge by, the Lancashire coast must have been a hotspot for secret UFO landings.
Designed by Graham Browne and Lee Hodgetts, the new model was a natural successor to the increasingly wild and offbeat concepts that had emanated from the Bristol Avenue factory during the post-wedge era. Closely related to the aggressive T350 penned by Damian McTaggart, the Sagaris was forcefully radical and fiercely proud to be an aesthetic anomaly. If there’s a single conventional feature on this car, I failed to find it. The asymmetric body is a cornucopia of aggressive slashes, flashes and outrageous vents and ducts, all topped off with a shimmering coat of peacock paint and exquisite detailing that can only be described as pitlane baroque.
It’s a design that continually throws up visual surprises – from the beautiful alloy supports for the transparent rear wing to the humped roof over the driver’s head, which frees up space for a crash helmet. As our shoot turns into the wettest day of the year, photographer Tony Baker asks which close-ups we’ll need. It’s a routine question that usually has a routine answer, but not so with the Sagaris. Never before or since has a car body been so extravagantly contorted and then peppered with such exceptional jewellery.
“Just shoot everything,” is my response. Alongside the Sagaris, the Marcos is discreetly and deliberately conservative. In a curious twist, it was predominantly the work of former TVR man McTaggart, who was lured to the firm by its Canadian owner, Tony Stelliga, after a conversation with Surrey dealer Mole Valley Motors.
Later tweaks were done by his protegé Alex Towne. It is elegantly simple, a cleaned-up culmination of the marque’s previous styling cues that fuses traditional GT with 21st-century purpose. “The shape was heavily influenced by ’60s supercars,” recalls McTaggart. “The proportions were inspired by models such as the 1963 Osca, which has the same kick over the rear haunch, while the back end evolved from the Mantula.”
It’s a visually harmonious design that’s far less in yer face than its Blackpool rival, although the gills that punctuate the flanks add a flourish of subaquatic danger. “I wish they were there for a reason,” says McTaggart, “but they are purely aesthetic, which I’m really not keen on.” If the TVR belongs on the set of a sci-fi movie, the silver Marcos – especially in profile – has the look of a fast and powerful deep-sea predator that’s about to strike an unsuspecting meal. The longish tail adds visual weight to the back of the TSO, emphasising the rear-drive chassis while providing a counterpoint to the shrinkwrapped overhangs of the TVR. It is finished off with four circular lights that reinforce the idea of a ’60s great enhanced for the modern era. Yet unlike today’s shameless pastiches, the dimensions of this pleasingly retro design haven’t mysteriously swollen by at least 30% in every direction. Park the Marcos alongside the TVR – which itself is hardly large – and you are immediately struck by just how diminutive the TSO looks, yet it’s only a couple of inches shorter.
Below the glassfibre skin, the updated take on the olde-worlde theme continues. The engine may have been flown in from across the pond, but it’s no cast-iron boat anchor. Initially fitted with an all-alloy 422bhp 5.7-litre Chevrolet LS6 V8, ‘our’ car (which was the factory development vehicle) has been uprated to 5967cc LS2 spec. In the best Detroit tradition, far from being a prima donna, the motor puts out a lazy 80bhp per litre – but with six litres under the bonnet, that’s nighon 500bhp. Power is fed to the rear wheels via a Tremec six-speed gearbox, while the suspension is by double wishbones. The design and set-up of the chassis were honed by the wizards at Prodrive and, although the frame weighs in at just 8kg more than its predecessor, it is a massive 50% stiffer. “Under hard acceleration, you could feel the chassis of the earlier TS500 flexing,” remembers former Marcos chief engineer Ben Thompson. “The TSO was a huge improvement.”
The vast brakes – vented discs all round, as on the TVR – are courtesy of AP Racing. On the face of it, then, what you were getting for the £50k asking price was a tantalising combination of qualities that should have been enough to cause a few furrowed brows in Blackpool. Thumb the rubber pushbutton that hides in the scallop behind the door and the Marcos will obligingly drop the window an inch or two before allowing you to get in – the frameless glass nestles up inside the seals when closed, making it impossible to open the door with the window raised. It’s a theatrical touch that prepares you for an equally theatrical cockpit. It’s a long way down and a bit of a squeeze to get yourself in, though. “We sorted that with the later cars,” remembers Towne today, but what a gorgeous place to be. Swathes of tan leather clothe the soft furnishings, while the various fixtures and fittings have a pleasingly bespoke feel to them. From the chunky, alloy-topped gearlever to the switches and column stalks, it’s all very pleasant.
There’s plenty of legroom and, for my jockeylike frame, there’s adequate headroom, but the enormously bulky transmission tunnel steals a lot of space – although it acts as a comfy armrest for dawdlers. It’s not roomy by any means, and the sensation is heightened by the letterbox windscreen with its comical little wipers that look to have been borrowed from a Spridget. “If we’d put the A-pillars any further outboard,” says McTaggart, “we would have lost the haunches, so it was a bit of a compromise.” Behind the seats the carpeted loadspace is hindered by the vast fuel tank that lurks beneath. It’s an evocative environment, though, and feels every inch the Le Mans racer, but it wasn’t conceived for trips to Ikea. Not a problem: life’s too short to worry about flat-pack furniture. Just crank the Chevy V8 into life and you’ll forget about wardrobes.
It’s a wonderfully sonorous rumble, a deep bellow that leaves you in no doubt that you’re aboard something wickedly powerful. Slot the stubby, short-throw lever into gear – which ratio you choose is almost irrelevant, there’s so much torque – and ease the clutch out with a tickle of throttle. Torrential rain has been lashing the Essex countryside all day, and the roads are saturated, but I’m utterly sold within a few hundred yards. The Marcos has a warm, docile character that does nothing to intimidate the uninitiated. “The great thing about the TSO was that even if you were an average driver, or even a rubbish one, it would make you look brilliant,” recalls Thompson. “It was so controllable, even a novice could look like a hero in it.”
In spite of the wheel seeming little bigger than a shirt button, the steering is light to the touch and wonderfully communicative, while the huge AP brakes offer massive, instant and easily modulated retardation through a perfectly weighted and ideally placed pedal. So far, so good. In spite of the treacherous conditions, this mighty Marcos doesn’t seem to have any nasty surprises up its sleeve – so when the twisting country lane opens up a bit, you prod the throttle a bit harder. With the deep, blue-collar growl rising in pitch – the prototype has always been known as ‘The Screamer’ – this pert coupé squats and lunges forward with astonishing thrust. Common sense dictates that you don’t approach the limit on such unforgiving, slippery roads in somebody else’s precious car, but the Marcos inspires huge confidence. According to those who have taken the TSO to the limit, it’s a delightfully manageable piece of kit that’s as safe as it is playful.
Climb into the TVR after the Marcos, and the differences are quite striking. Not only is access simpler – it’s just as low slung, yet somehow it doesn’t feel such a long way down – the cabin also feels roomier and airier. There is more glass, the ’screen offering a deeper, more panoramic view. The scuttle also seems further away, with more space to twirl your hands. In the Marcos, the wheel nestles up close against the fascia, while the indicator stalk is tucked inside the dash, where the gauges would normally be.
As you might expect, the TVR’s cockpit is as mad as they come and, without a handbook, the purpose of most of the unmarked switchgear remains a mystery. The overall effect, though, is of a well-finished and effective cabin that’s awash with jewel-like details. What’s more, there’s not a whiff of resin or glue, and nothing rattles or falls off. It feels like a quality product, and you are left thinking that, thanks to the extra space, the TVR would make a better long-distance machine than its rival – there’s certainly more space for passengers and luggage. Fire up the big ‘six’, however, and any notions of relaxed touring immediately go out of the window (assuming that you can find the correct switch). This Blackpool motor emits a ferociously menacing growl even at tickover, an audible warning that you’re in the bad boy of the British motor industry and that you’d better be on your best behaviour.
Slot the longer-throw lever into gear – there are only five ratios here, but the shift is lighter and slicker than the TSO’s – and, as you manoeuvre out onto the road, your first discovery is the fairly dismal steering lock. Tight junctions can become three-point turns, although the powerassisted rack is pleasantly weighted so at least you don’t have to build up a sweat. If you’re a hooligan, of course, getting it sideways would be an alternative way of negotiating hairpin turns, because you have the power on tap.
After the stonking 6-litre V8 in the Marcos, at a mere 4 litres and 406bhp, the TVR’s twin-cam ‘six’ could be forgiven for feeling a little weedy. It may give something away on paper, but this revhappy beast feels every inch as quick. Acceleration is instant and addictive, the thunder from those massive side-pointing exhausts goading you into treading ever harder on the carpet.
As a sliproad leads us onto a dual carriageway, the temptation of that mighty performance becomes too much to resist. So you mash the pedal, and the TVR emits a fearsome bark as it launches forward with a frenzied fishtail – warning you that such savage power brings with it responsibility. I spend the next few miles pottering along like a granny going shopping, humbled by its phenomenal pace on the streaming surface.
Sometimes prudence is your greatest ally, and gentle driving affords the opportunity to take in the more mundane differences between the two. The Sagaris has a firmer ride, exacerbated by the uprated dampers plus bigger wheels (19in instead of 18) on this car, and it’s never quiet. It’s a more hard-core proposition, more focused – not surprising, given that Marcos had been chasing the old V8 TVRs, whereas Blackpool had been eyeing up circuits. The Sagaris feels more immediate, but also less reassuring. I love its character and it’s far less intimidating than you might expect, but in the wet it still sends a prickle of trepidation down your spine. It’s stunning. Despite rain blowing in through the open window, I avoid the compulsion to raise it at 60mph – lest I prod the door release by mistake.
A cluster of buttons on the fascia controls windows and doors (a feature shared with the Marcos) and to press the wrong one at speed could prove hugely embarrassing. Instead, I ignore the soggy breeze and ponder the facts. Both cars are an emphatic hit and a credit to their makers, which raises the question – what went wrong? “The writing was already on the wall when I joined TVR in mid 2004,” recalls Thompson. “There were about 400 employees at the time, and at first there had been a lot of excitement when the new owner bought the firm. It looked as if there was going to be more investment, but he didn’t have the experience to run a business. I handed in my notice on the first day back after Christmas and, within a week about 40 more people had done the same thing. I couldn’t bear to see the company being torn apart from within – it was soul-destroying.
“I started at Marcos that February, and it was so much better – optimistic and exciting. There must have been six or seven people from TVR, and it felt as if we would finally be able to do things properly. It was tough, though. Tony was trying to promote things, striving to get the car out there even though we weren’t ready.” The result was that, just as the project was starting to come good, critical mass was never achieved.
An appearance on Top Gear boosted the TSO’s profile, but money was being lost on each one – exacerbated by the poor exchange rate shaking Stelliga’s Stateside finances: “In the end, it was just like TVR. I couldn’t bear to see the company disintegrating so I left before the TSO was finished and joined Aston Martin. I told Tony that if we tried to get the car out too soon, Marcos would be dead within 18 months and that’s what happened. We were working 12 hours a day, six days a week but it wasn’t sustainable, something had to give.” Production ceased after just eight cars had been built. “It was such a shame,” says Towne. “We were so proud of it, especially when one ended up at a showroom in Mayfair. We would have done anything for it to succeed.”
That two such fantastic vehicles – and two such maverick companies – should have met such an ignominious end is a cruel twist of fate. It’s all too easy to mourn their loss, but let’s not dwell on failure. Instead, let us rejoice the last hurrah: it was brilliant while it lasted.
Thanks to Ryan Lugg: supercarsofessex.co.uk; www.marcos-oc.com; www.tvr-car-club.co.uk