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Car of the Month - May 2010

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Midas Gold - Mk III coupe body - manufactured in 1987

One of the most colorful aspects of automobile enthusiasm are so-called kit cars. As the name implies these cars were (and are) sold as a collection of parts to be assembled by the owner rather than as a complete car. The main reasons for doing so are to avoid type approval and tax costs and of course giving the owner the satisfaction of having put together his car himself. Because development costs of kit cars are only a fraction of those of regular production cars there has been a multitude of more or less realistic offerings from small manufacturers all around the world since even a very limited production can be profitable. Though kit cars can be found everywhere where donor cars are available it's Great Britain that has spawned most of them.
The Midas, however quite rare, is regarded as one of the most professional kit cars around, having structural qualities that at one time even matched or surpassed that of regular production cars. It's origins are firmly rooted in Britain's cottage industry and a line of Austin Mini based models. Desmond Addicott's Mini DART of 1964 can be regarded as the origin of several Mini based kit cars, one of them ultimately the Midas. His car was inspired by Abarth designs and resulted in a streamlined Mini coupe with a blunt rear end, a Kamm-tail. It was developed into a fibreglass monocoque with the help of Jem Marsh who was also involved with Marcos. Marsh based a new model on the DART monocoque, the Mini Marcos Mk I of 1965. This was quite a capable little racer and quite successful in competition. Most noted was its entry in the 1966 Le Mans 24 hours race, driven by Claude Ballot-Lena and Jean-Louis Marnat and taking 15th place overall as the only British made car to finish the race.
Marcos developed its Mini kit car and it found enough buyers but still the company ran into in financial problems by 1971. The project was put up for sale and bought by Harold Dermott in 1975. Up to then Dermott had been a young engineer with Jaguar's research and design department but this offered the opportunity to fulfill his ambitions to start his own company. Together with Maurice Holt he formed D & H Fibreglass Techniques Ltd to restart the Mini Marcos production complete with an added roll cage of glass reinforcement and a gell-coated monocoque. But Dermott's ambitions did not end there, the next step should be a new kit car by his own company.
By chance he met designer Richard Oakes who had made a name for himself by being responsible for the Tramp and the Nova kit car models. First the intention was for Oakes to restyle the Mini Marcos but soon it was concluded that this was not good enough; Oakes had to start from scratch to create a better car. It took quite a bit longer then any of them had expected but in 1978 the new car could be unveiled at the Performance Show in London. Named the Midas it met a favorable reception for its attractive and practical styling and good workmanship; 5 orders were placed and no less than 150 test drives were booked. Still Dermott felt that the new car needed more testing and it took till August 1979 before the first production Midas was delivered.

The first series of Midas cars used the underpinnings and drivetrain of the Mini (the choice of engine was up to the customer) and was visibly related to the Mini Marcos, tough rather more substantial. The kit itself however used mostly original made parts, only a few items were borrowed from other cars, like the windscreen and wipers from the Fiat 126. What made the Midas truly renowned was its torsional rigidity; a lot of labour went into making the fibreglass monocoque as stiff as possible, resulting into a body shell that was 17 times more rigid than that of the Mini 1275 production car. Clearly, the Midas was a quality kit and its price showed it, the kit was more expensive than a new Mini 1275GT. Still it found 66 customers up to 1981, which made it profitable.
A second series of Midas cars, the Mk II came about in a special way. South African Gordon Murray, then the famous chief designer of Brabham F1 and later the designer of the McLaren F1 supercar, had plans to create a small efficient coupe. Since the Midas came close to his demands he borrowed a Midas monocoque and set out to improve it. Result was a Midas with a mid mounted Alfa Romeo boxer engine, which remained a prototype. But many of the improvements that were suggested by Murray were taken over in an updated Midas design, which also received a restyled exterior and interior by Richard Oakes. The car was dubbed the Midas Mk II and appeared in 1981. Up to then the Mini Marcos was offered alongside the Midas but now D & H Fibreglass Techniques Ltd concentrated fully on the Midas Mk II. The Mini Marcos would return on the market in the early 1990s, brought back by its original creator Jem Marsh and his Marcos outfit.
D & H offered the Midas Mk II kit in three different build standards: Gold, Silver and Bronze, with the Gold version being obviously the most complete and expensive. After a few years the front and rear of the Midas Mk II were revised by Steve Pearce which gave the Midas a more mature appearance and the car continued to be offered only in the affordable Bronze version up to 1989; in total 284 Mk II cars were made. Already in 1985 a completely new incarnation of the Midas was unveiled: the Midas Gold Mk III. It marked the transition of the Midas from a plastic kit car tub to what can be regarded as a serious car. Externally it received a stylish front and rear with round recessed headlights, larger rear side windows and, most striking, widely flared wheel arches that gave it an aggressive broad and muscular stance. Comparisons were made with the Audi Sport Quattro but there were also some hints of the 1983 Zagato Zeta 6 prototype visible. Again the styling was the work of Richard Oakes. Underneath it was based on the Austin/MG Metro platform rather than that of the Mini which meant more modern and competent technology and better roadholding due to the wider track. Also the car's famed rigidity was further improved, as were its aerodynamics and in all it was an impressive package that, at a mere weight of 740 kg, could hold its own against most production cars.
Jubilant reception by the press and good test results lead to world wide interest in the Midas and even some large car manufacturers tested the Midas Gold to find out why it was so good. Still, it was just a kit without type approval in Great Britain. Strange enough the Midas Gold did undergo crash and conformity tests in Germany and Japan and as a result could be had as a complete car in those countries. In 1988 a convertible version of the Midas Gold was presented, designed by Steve Pearce, and all seemed to go uphill for the Midas.
Unfortunately the end for D & H Fibreglass Techniques Ltd came rather suddenly in 1989. A fire demolished the production facility and some other mishaps after that meant that the financial damage was too large to overcome and Harold Dermott had to call it quits just before Christmas that year. In a way that was the end for the Midas but as things go in the world of kit cars the concept survived. Designs and molds changed hands from time to time and though the Midas Gold Mk III coupe never returned Midas kits are still being offered in the form of highly modified shells for the Rover 100 platform.

In all only 171 Midas Gold Mk III kits were made up to the end in 1989. It was of the few kit cars that reached the stage of maturity and acceptance by the general public thanks to excellent engineering and by offering an attractive package. As a rare and individualistic car that is quite typical for the 1980s it enjoys a fan base not only in the UK but also on the European continent and in Japan that is quite active in conserving Midas cars. Most kit cars won't ever be regarded as valuable classics but the exemplary Midas Gold Mk III might just be the exception.

© André Ritzinger, Amsterdam, Holland

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