Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


PLYWOOD IS the world’s first composite material. This sandwiching of wood has been around for more than 200 years. It has numerous domestic uses. Its heritage in aviation is rich; just consider the World War II De Havilland Mosquito, And its automotive applications reached something of a high point in the British Marcos sports car.


Samuel Bentham, 1757 – 1831, English mechanical engineer and naval architect. His brother was philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Employed as the Inspector General of the British Naval Works in 1797, Samuel Bentham applied for patents describing the concept of laminating several layers of wood, glued together with their grain angles arranged to optimize strength. Other engineering achievements attributed to Bentham included an amphibious vessel and articulated barge for Russia’s Catherine the Great.

In fact, he worked in Russia twice, 1780 – 1791, and 1805 – 1807, this second time on British government matters. When he returned to England in 1807, he found that his Inspector General post had been eliminated. What’s more, his trip had been concocted to effect its abolishment.

In 1814, Bentham and his family moved to France. They returned to England in 1826 after French neighbors complained that a novel irrigation system for his estate was stealing their water.

There’s always something, isn’t there?


The Marcos sports car existed, in one form or another, from 1959 to 2007.

The Marcos was the brainchild of Jem Marsh and Frank Costin. The Costin brothers, Frank (1920 – 1995) and Mike, leave a legacy in motorsports: Frank was the cos of Marcos; Mike is the Cos of Cosworth. Jem continues with an active website,

Frank’s earlier experience with the De Havilland Mosquito aircraft taught him about the lightweight strength of a plywood monocoque. He incorporated this feature into the first Marcos, the 1959 GT Xylon race car (Xylon, ξύλων, Greek for wood).


1959 Marcos GT Xylon, also known as the Ugly Ducking. Image from The Encyclopedia of Motor Sport, edited by G.N. Georgano, Rainbird Reference Books, 1971. An link: The Encyclopedia of Motor Sport

Jem raced in British 750 Motor Club events, and a total of nine Xylon cars proved successful in this small-bore series between 1959 and 1961. Rookie driver Jackie Stewart drove a Xylon to four wins in 1961; Bill Moss (no relation to Sir Stirling) had nine victories in ten starts; Marcos took the Autosport Championship team prize that year.


Marcos details. Images from Marcos Heritage Spares Ltd,

The Xylon’s central section, including its roof and gullwing door frames, was a monocoque of mahogany, spruce and birch marine plywood. The car’s nose and rear quarters, of fiberglass, were originally to be plywood as well, but their complex contours proved difficult to laminate. A four-piece windscreen helped generate the car’s Ugly Ducking nickname. A hardly aesthetic roofline is traceable to Jem’s height.


1960 Marcos GT Xylon. Image from

Xylon power came from four-cylinder overhead-valve Ford Kent engines of various displacements. These depended on the intended racing class, anything from 997 cc through 1498 cc.

Marcos history is a tale of recurrent buyouts, bankruptcies and relocations of the works. The Xylon led to the Luton Gullwing and Fastback GT, both variations on the original theme. Later, the 1800GT had Volvo P1800 running gear and eventually gave up a plywood monocoque as too expensive. Subsequent Marcos models were swoopy enough, but rather more conventional than the Xylon.

At one point, in July 1971, Rob Walker Group of Companies acquired everything. (See for a Rob Walker tale.) In 1976, Jem Marsh bought back the rights to the Marcos name. As recently as 2006, Marcos had a spiffy website (, but things went belly-up again in 2007.


1960 Marcos GT Xylon, ex-Jackie Stewart. Image from BBC News Scotland,

A historically significant Xylon, Sir Jackie Stewart’s first proper race car registered G128, resurfaced earlier this year in “barn find” condition, stored since the 1990s. At a recent Silverstone Auctions, G128 fetched £42,000 ($69,600).

Not bad for an Ugly Duckling. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

2 comments on “WOODSMAN, PLY THAT TREE

  1. Mark W
    August 23, 2014

    They weren’t all ugly – I remember a Marcos from the 1969 edition of the “Observers” book of auto (L.A. Mainwaring ed.) That was ok-looking, if still with sliding windows (the Brits were slow to grasp the benefits of roll-up windows!)

    • simanaitissays
      August 23, 2014

      Agreed, Mark. Only the Xylon had that distinction. And even it has a certain purposeful charm (and enough headroom for Jem).

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