What the 1980s needed was a new Mini-Marcos, and Harold Dermott was determined to make that happen.
The car he produced, the Midas, was a sensation, and Andrew Elphick tells its story.
SOMEHOW every last success or failure in the British motor industry seems to be linked with British Leyland – and it’s no less true with Harold Dermott. As an ambitious 22-year old with a BSc in Mechanical Engineering from Southampton University, Harold joined the company as a graduate engineer. However, belonging to a conglomerate never ties well with ambition, so after a few years in Jaguar’s research & design facility, Harold parted company with BL.
However, inspiration arrived from the most unlikely source – the property section of Exchange & Mart. Strangely tucked in the housing section was an advert for the entire Mini Marcos project. Quite why Jem Marsh (or a confused typesetter) had placed the advert there is irrelevant; it was enough for Harold and co-conspirator Maurice Holt to purchase the project in July 1975, and form D & H Fibreglass Techniques six weeks later.
With a leased workshop in Greenfield, Oldham, (and a friendly bank manager authorising a £1000 overdraft) the pair were in the motor manufacturing business. Though skilled neither had any laminating experience to the tackle the upwards learning curve. After three body shells had been constructed, changes were made that would be instrumental to all future D & H products – strength and colour impregnation. By introducing a roll-cage of glass reinforcement, and using a gel-coat to impregnate a colour into the Mini Marcos’ monocoque a further 30 kits were sold within a year.
Harold now had the desire for his own car – all he needed was a hotshoe designer.
Between Nova and Rover
British designer Richard Oakes is quite possibly the only student to have submitted a complete car as an end of year project; that he did owes some credit to journalist called Peter Filby. Filby, champion of the component car, had arranged to interview Harold and invited Oakes along for the ride.
Oakes was a kitcar veteran; having previously styled, designed and moulded the VW based Tramp roadster and carrozzeria homage Nova. To quote Oakes, “I worked at the time for Tony Kitchener at Stamford Brook Arches, where we were straightening out a smashed up Muira. At lunch times, I used to eat my fish and chips sitting in the driver’s seat of this thing, knowing that it felt so right. I had to capture that.”
So, when Harold met Oakes and mentioned his plans, a deal was struck – Harold would supply Oakes with a bodyshell to facelift in the spare seven weeks before Oakes enrolled at the Royal College of Art. Seven weeks, as it transpired, would not be enough. The Mini Marcos was out of true completely, so Oakes informed Harold they would need to start from scratch. Harold agreed and rented a lockup in Islington where Oakes spent his evenings after lectures sculpting the exterior and interior of the Midas.
Come January 1978, a final pattern had been made, the body mould created using ten 8’x4′ sheets of marine ply and a ton of glassfibre filler! The first body was released from the mould in February and, by July, a partially completed Midas was presented as part of Oakes’ coursework. Whether this impressed his course sponsors, Rover, one can only speculate – with Ford in Dunton picking up the university fees for the final year.
When you can’t afford MIRA…
By December 1978, with 27 months’ of development completed, it was time for a public unveiling. The venue chose itself – the Performance Car Show at Alexandra Palace. Given the logistical constraints, this was a Herculean effort, considering the Mini Marcos was in continual production alongside sub-contracted work for ERF trucks.
Its debut led Motor magazine to remark, “Neatly styled, thoroughly practical and beautifully finished both inside and out…” During the show over 150 test drives were booked.
Even with five firm orders on the books, Harold still believed that further development testing was required, and that the last person carrying it out should be the customer. Over the following nine months, a rigorous test programme was planned, encompassing much of Europe. Harold’s brother, who was working in Belgium at the time, ably assisted.
For two weeks, lap after lap of Flemish granite pavé was endured by the first Midas prototype, a red example. And although the dampers boiled themselves the glassfibre monocoque took everything in its stride. For its next round of punishment, Harold took to the track; with his wife and children in tow.
A quick sprint to Spa Francorchamps was all the more pleasurable for finding the famous road circuit complete, having been used for a major national meet just two days previously. After more than enough clipped apices on the legendary road racing circuit, the next stop was the Eifel mountains. What follows is an extract from what must be the greatest press release of all time: “While the family played I-Spy, Harold Dermot was able to hold a highly illegal speed, hitting each apex just right, balancing the car perfectly on the throttle and gearbox – sheer bliss – and all at better than 40 mpg.” And this was en route to the Nurburgring!
It was at the Nordschlieffe that the so-far invincible Midas showed its first weakness – due to ambient temperatures on track rising to over 26 degrees C. A little hot under its collar, Harold modified the Midas adding scoops and ducting before hitting the track once more – to success and a stable temperature gauge. After a long and sodden run home on the German Autobahn, Harold was confident his prototype was ready for the public.
On the 25th of August 1979, Mr Smith of Hendon took delivery of the first production Midas, three years after its inception.
A positive reaction
To begin with, the Midas was supplied as very comprehensive kit of parts – even instructions on a cassette tape to listen along too while you thumbed the build manual! Ultimately, this included everything bar the customer’s choice of engine and gearbox. The reasons for the Midas being presented as a kit car were twofold – to remain exempt from the high cost of Type Approval, and to give the customer a choice of tune from his A-Series powerplant.
Whatever specification the engine, transmission-wise the four gears in the sump was all you could choose. Unusually for a small scale manufacturer, very few off-the-shelf parts were used; obvious to parts-bin spotters would be the Triumph TR7 tail lamps and filler cap, the svelte Renault 14 rear view mirrors (chosen after Dermott and Oakes went driving round London to spot a mirror design true to the original model). But only a FIAT 126 enthusiast would have picked out the 126’s windscreen and wiper linkage.
All the remaining glass (including the Talbot Sunbeam-esque hatch) was bespoke and the glassfibre monocoque unique inside and out. There was a not so obvious raiding of the British Leyland range for switches and instruments. Ironically in view of today’s current models, CAR magazine’s Gavin Green remarked, “Also annoying is that there is no exterior door lock on the passenger side.”
Responsibilities for mould manufacture, laminating and general glass fibre production fell to John Ingram. A specialist in the field (having worked with Oakes on the Nova), his knowledge helped create a hugely stiff monocoque. At 650kg, the Midas was 25kg lighter than the Mini 1275 GT, but with a torsional rigidity that was 17 times greater than that of the Mini. Remarkably, 115 man-hours and two and a half litres of colour pigment were used in each bodyshell.
The mechanical components were fairly familiar having underpinned the Mini for twenty years. The front subframe was pure Longbridge; the rear had a little more pedigree – a fabricated beam bearing mini trailing arms (based on modsports racing technology). All fabricated by a Norfolk based sub-contractor – who’s other line of work involved the manufacture of Team Lotus’ suspension for its Formula 1 effort. All metal components (down to every last nut, bolt and washer) were supplied zinc coated to resist corrosion.
To assist in further development work ex-Lotus and Clan employee Arthur Birchall was employed as a development engineer. Arthur had built grand prix chassis for Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Mario Andretti along with developing much of the Clan coupe. Customers could proudly say an ex-Lotus Formula 1 mechanic had hand built their car. Indeed Harold played heavily on this in his sales literature.
The Brabham connection
As expected, the specialist press was favourable in its praise, the old stumbling block of money however just wouldn’t go away. Priced at £3250 for the Superkit (requiring engine and gearbox), it was a bespoke coupe to rival the Alfasud 1.5 Ti at £4025. However compared to a Mini 1275GT at £3191, it seemed over-priced. But despite that, 57 were built in less than two years – a very healthy figure. For the upcoming Mark 2 Midas, Harold’s marketing played heavily on the input of (then) Brabham formula one chief designer Gordon Murray.
In reality, the connection came about in quite an unusual way. Murray had been toying with creating a small efficient coupe, potentially powered by a motorcycle engine. To quote Murray, “From a size, weight and external shape point of view, it was virtually what I was going to build anyway.”
With no technical blueprints to work from, Murray borrowed a monocoque from Harold which he then measured up, for development to a mid engined configuration utilising an Alfa-Romeo flat-four engine (Alfa-Romeo was the engine supplier to the Brabham Formula 1 team at the time). Sadly, however, the mid-mounted boxer-engined Midas remained a unique flight of fancy.
However, Murray came up with the Midas Mk 2. Changes above the original car included a lipped front edge of the (broadened) air intake and a matching undertray to smooth airflow under the car. This aerodynamic appendage was developed by Murray in the Brabham wind tunnel during his time as Technical Director – so, the Formula 1 connection was much more than mere marketing spiel that scanned well in the brochure.
A new moulded dashboard (to compliment the existing moulded trim) featured the Metro’s instrument cluster, along with its heating and ventilation improvements. Many detail changes (such as a bonnet bulge) were implemented into the Mark 2’s design – and Dermott wasted no time in heavily marketing the Murray connection. Brochures trumpeted Murray saying, “I couldn’t do better than a Midas”
The press loved it, too. Cars & Car Conversions magazine compared it with the Honda CRX and Corolla GT AE86 in a 1984 group test, and it held its own. On the test track it was marginally the fastest, even though it was 25bhp down on the CRX and a whopping 49bhp in arrears to the Toyota. Summing up, the magazine decided, “The Honda is the more competitive hot hatch; the Midas the better sports car. The Toyota comes an honourable third in such company.”
The final incarnation of the Mk 2 Midas was the Bronze. It featured restyled front and rear panels designed by Steve Pearce. Pearce had come to Harold’s attention through a magazine competition. In the May 1986 edition of Kitcar & Specials magazine, a reader competition was set to design a convertible or four seater version of the Midas. From more than 1200 entries, Steve’s design for a targa-topped convertible was the overall winner, beating designs by second placed Tadeusz Jelec (now a Jaguar stylist) and joint third place men Haith and Sampson. Though Steve’s design never made production, by 1988 another from his portfolio would…
Stuttgart, Maranello or Corby?
A brave strap line indeed – but it was proudly printed on Midas brochure. Indeed, to quote, “An imaginative concept for imaginative people. You can get something like it from Stuttgart, or Maranello, or even Newport Pagnell. But the best concepts come from Corby.”
Launched at the 1985 Earls Court Motorfair, the new Midas Gold won many plaudits and admiration. Touted as all new (bar the original Midas’ doors) and featuring Metro running gear, the new Gold had a purposeful stance reminiscent of the Audi Sport quattro. Once again, Oakes penned the design at his Anglo Automotive Design London premises. Responsibility for visual design was Oakes’ remit; all mechanical and underbody design came from Corby (including the removable under trays). Even with this time-saving outsourcing, it took £60,000 and three years’ development to get the new Midas into production.
Apart from the obvious styling changes, and the increase track gained by using the Metro subframe and running gear, there was a raft of smaller modifications that went unnoticed. For instance, by utilising a broader B-pillar on the monocoque, the seat belts could be mounted in a more user friendly position. The scuttle became structurally stiffer, and hidden behind the front bumper was energy absorbing foam.
Servo assisted brakes and Metro four-pot callipers, made it stop as well as it went – and the ride was surprisingly supple thanks to a Hydragas set-up. The bespoke rear suspension was carried over from the original Midas. Squat 13-inch alloys from the Metro Turbo, wrapped in Goodyear NCT 165/60 tyres gave the new car a purposeful stance – but it was for go as well as show.
Use of the Metro’s instrument cluster, ventilation equipment and switchgear along with soft-feel interior panels enhanced the production car feel of the Midas. Added to that were leather seats, and a matching of natural and synthetic materials inside – making this a convincing effort. Just like the Rover SD1, the facia could be utilised in right- or left-hand drive by swapping the instrument cluster between the two moulded recesses. It’s no surprise that Harold frequently thanked Austin-Rover (“At all levels from the Directors downwards the company is interested and couldn’t do more to help us”), for being extremely co-operative with technical assistance and parts supply to Midas.
In the early 1980s, it was de-rigueur for a sporting model to have aggressive scoops, skirts, spoilers – it’s what defined the breed. The Midas Gold on the other hand was far more subtle than that – it was smooth and sculptured above and below its bodyshell. Harold’s theory was that as it was impossible to isolate under body airflow, why not create a non-turbulent air stream by using a smooth uncluttered flat floor, and assist it further with matching under trays front and rear.
In fact, the flat floor gave an additional 2-inch drop internally, but without any ground clearance issues. This coupled to a narrow central tunnel for the exhaust down pipe. The transversely rear mounted exhaust silencer was then cooled by ducting in the rear under tray with hot air expelled through vents in the rear bumper. Towards the front another similar under tray (punctured only by the sump) was fitted, skilfully angled so as to avoid causing lift.
Curved sills vice flat sided ones aided the reduction in turbulence too. By building on Murray’s input a very sophisticated sports car emerged. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that… however for those unfamiliar with the Midas Gold, check out 1992’s Porsche 968 for a very similar interpretation indeed…
Enthusiasts were not the only ones impressed by the Gold. So were Detroit’s big three. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors each purchased a Gold – intrigued and somewhat baffled by the monocoque’s strength. At MIRA the Gold had passed the stringent ECE 12 30mph solid barrier test (costing £6000), its key requirement being displacement of the steering wheel should not exceed 127mm upon contact with a hundred tonne block of concrete. The Midas displacement was 15mm at its peak.
One of the big three American manufacturers also subjected the Gold to offset and roof crush tests. These results were never disclosed for liability reasons, but it is believed the Gold performed quite well. Enough for Harold to mention it…
As part of acceptance to the SMMT’s specialist car manufacturer’s group, a two-day 91-point test was carried out by the German TUV national testing authority resulting in the Gold (002/85/1175) and its seatbelt mountings (GB12AJJ/1P) receiving a certificate of conformity. Total bare weight for the monocoque was 100kg, assembled from two main moulds and forty seven smaller ones. All taking 120 hours of assembly labour time with an additional 10 hours of polishing time for the impregnated colour gel-coat.
Despite having approval for turn-key sales in both Germany and Japan, the one stumbling block Harold could not overcome was gaining UK Type Approval. In 1985 low volume Type Approval (which would be used to good effect by Chris Smith of Westfield fame) or the single vehicle approval (SVA) testing were merely in embryonic status. If you wanted to sell a turn key car in the UK, legislation forced you to undertake full Type Approval – at an estimated cost of £60,000. Something Harold could neither justify nor afford. With the DeLorean scandal (then) current news, private investors shied away.
In comparison, German type approval cost £5000.
“But what’s the Midas like to drive, you ask? Great fun, is the answer”. So said Autocar magazine in 1987. In fact, most of the mainstream car magazines piled on the praise with articles fondly written, championing British ingenuity. Motor magazine reported that: “This car is far from photogenic, but in the flesh, it looks hewn from a solid block of material. Shutlines are crisp, each body component fits perfectly. The design is integrated, the result assertive.” The Midas was appraised to same parameters that road testers would judge a new Mercedes-Benz.
Kit-car magazine’s Pen Roberts summed up: “My overall impression of the car is excellence.”
If you made the cover of CAR magazine during the 1980s, one two things had happened – your car was a scandalous disaster, or something quite special. So, when the Midas roadster became February 1989’s cover star, and for the latter reason, Harold Dermott was sincerely flattered.
Launched at the 1988 British motorshow, the new model came from development work carried out Steve Pearce. Two years prior Pearce’s design for a targa topped Midas had been the overall winner in a magazine competition. However the production version of the open-topped Midas featured a flat rear deck, a stout steel roll-over bar; and fashioned (it’s rumoured) by taking a chainsaw to a coupe Midas!
Oakes, too, tendered designs for the new roadster. The sketches were very similar, but had a more pronounced raised rear deck (similar in looks to a Walter Treser Audi quattro roadster). A new facia was also introduced, featuring the Rover 200’s instruments, a glovebox, and air vents from the Ford Escort. The entourage combined to aspire to a BMW-esqe angled command centre.
CAR magazine’s road test of the prototype roadster likened it as a spiritual successor to the Austin-Healey Frogeye Sprite. Apart from the obvious circular headlamps, the lack of hood and A-Series power plant were common to both. Ex-British Leyland employee and CAR staffer Richard Bremner summed-up: “No, you couldn’t call it a pretty car. But the proportions are about right, and the detailing is good. Most of all, it looks cheeky, appealing and fun. Indeed, it has ample reserves of all three qualities, and others besides.”
In the days before Clarkson-style prose became commonplace, Bremner’s descriptive slant on the way the roadster sliced across the barren Northumberland A-roads was simply: “The Midas hangs on like a gibbon in a hurricane”. Quite. Complimenting the fact that neither the current Escort nor Astra convertibles felt quite as stiff, and arguing that the roadster had a superior damping control and ride to a Honda CRX was quite an achievement, even if realistically it was no MR2 beater.
Concluding, he added: “Kit-car origins or not, this car competes.”
The reverse Midas touch
In March 1989, 14-years of determination took a hefty blow. A fire raged through the main production building of D&H Fiberglass Techniques, Parent company of Midas cars. During the blaze Harold’s office was destroyed as well. Throughout the fire Harold was kept back by the fire guards, but he squeezed in the building via the back door and was able to save only one thing from the fire: a cherished photo album. Harold is a fanatical non-smoker. No Midas has ever had an ashtray for that reason.
At least £150,000 worth of damage was caused, and production was halted due to the stores being engulfed in the blaze too. Struggling to recover, in an interview with Autocar magazine, Harold confided: ‘The next thing was a break-in at the factory and then our convertible demonstrator was written off in an accident, we were running faster and faster to stand still, so just before Christmas I pulled the plug. We had reached the point where it was the only honourable thing.’ The official receivers were called in to liquidate the company.
Tellingly, the article teased Midas fans – the company had undertaken development work on a Metro K-Series powered version that used the five-speed PSA R65 gearbox. The addition of a fifth ratio, and the 16v lightweight all-alloy engine (with 108bhp out of the box) would have given the Mideas giant-killing potential.
In early 1990, Pastiche cars of Rotherham bought the rights to the Midas coupe and roadster. Although orders were taken, it’s believed that one coupe kit was produced. In early 1991, history repeated itself – the Midas project was in the hands of the receivers again.
Third time lucky
(Photos: Adam Wilkins, Complete Kit Car magazine)
Paddy Fitch and Peter Beck, proprietors of GTM cars were the third owners of the Midas. No stranger to kitcars, their own coupe and Rossa were established rivals for the Midas; prior to 1989’s unfortunate events, the two manufacturers were seen as the pinnacle of the kitcar industry. Keeping the roadster moulds, the coupe was sold to the East German development agency. German press cuttings from 1994 stated the car would be constructed as part of Berlin’s Youth Project, with an estimated cost of 30,000DM (about €15,000). What happened to the project nearly remained a mystery…
In April 1995, GTM cars announced the debut of the all new Midas 2+2. This time however it really was new – an angular interpretation of the original Midas, designed with assistance from Oakes once again. However the aim for a more production orientated coupe, meant it became less technically orientated than its predecessor. Using the running gear from the facelifted Rover Metro/100, the 2+2 was a pretty body mounted on the existing floorpan. However, a longer wheelbase and the option of the VVC MGF engine were positive steps.
Surprisingly, a custom laminated windscreen was developed for the booted coupe.
Like the Olympic torch, six years later, Mark Bailey, from Redditich, took on the reigns of the Midas project. He purchased the production rights from GTM. As a standalone company once more, the 2+2 and a new convertible were launched as near turn-key cars. The convertible featured concealed weather equipment beneath a flush moulded cover, as per current production convertibles. The coupe later became renamed the Cortez, the convertible the Excelsior, until a little over two years later, in May 2003, when the inevitable happened once more.
Current custodians of Midas, Alternative Cars Ltd, came into the fray in early 2004. The new-era Midas was unveiled in May 2004 at National Kit Car show, restarting production of the Cortez and Excelsior. Late in 2006, the A-Series based roadster was re-launched once more, and one year later an interesting development in the Midas saga occurred…
…after thirteen years the (presumed lost) Midas coupe moulds reappeared! Hiding in deepest Germany, the Midas club (in conjunction with Alternative cars) secured both the moulds and a bare left hand drive bodyshell. As yet, production of the 23-year old coupe is uncertain, but spare parts are available…
Thanks to Hans Efde, www.midascars.net
Now he’s busy working towards retirement. Hmm.