Frank Costin: reluctant hero behind the greatest sports cars

An aerodynamics genius whose lack of interest in the automotive world didn’t stop him from producing ground-breaking designs for Marcos, Lotus and more

All great car designers have their foibles. Frank Costin’s was unique, in that he had no interest in motoring, let alone motor sport. This defiantly self-directed boffin may have had a bugling resume, and been responsible for as many ill-starred duds as he was landmark classics, but he was an aircraft man through and through.

He became ensnared in the automotive world thanks to his younger brother Mike (the ‘Cos’ of Cosworth), and even then, reluctantly. Ever the realist, Frank couldn’t have cared less about aesthetic integrity or what naysayers reckoned to some of his more leftfield ideas. For him, a car’s aerodynamic efficiency was paramount. Nothing else mattered.

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Frank Costin was born on June 8, 1920 to an Irish/Italian mother and an English father. A precocious child, he developed an interest in aircraft as a pre-teen, and read anything and everything he could find that dealt with aeronautics and engineering.

He was also a highly successful swimmer and diver, not to mention a gifted musician. During World War Two, he worked on aircraft design at Airspeed, Supermarine and Percival Aircraft, and in 1951 he became the aerodynamic flight test engineer in charge of the experimental department at De Havilland.

His life changed, however, after his brother took him to his first-ever motor race in 1953. Mike Costin was a gifted driver and an early ally of Lotus founder Colin Chapman. Unimpressed by the Lotus MkVI, with its stubby body and cycle wings, the elder Costin grudgingly agreed to help devise something more streamlined; the Lotus MkVIII emerged in 1954, and was instantly quick. It, in turn, led to a raft of new Lotus models, culminating in the time-defying Eleven.

‘Frank and I were very different,’ his sibling recalled in 2011. ‘I’m a solid, feet-on-the-ground, miserable bugger, whereas Frank was a total enthusiast. His feet were never on the ground. Anyway, Frank couldn’t understand why I was messing about with cars. “We’re aircraft people,” he’d insist.

‘I got him involved with Colin when he was trying to do an aerodynamic car. I had a look at a model Colin had done for what was going to be the MkVIII, and he wasn’t impressed. I got it over to Frank for his thoughts. He ended up designing the bodywork, which led to him doing more cars with Colin, shaping Vanwalls and so on. He was a wonderful character, but totally devoid of business sense.’

Nevertheless, our hero decided to leave the aircraft industry shortly thereafter for a life as a jobbing freelance car designer. Work came in thick and fast. He created new outlines for the Lister-Jaguar/Chevy sports-racers, including a one-off coupé variant for Le Mans. Then there was a new body for the Maserati 450S, which Costin subsequently disowned after subcontractor Zagato changed his design.

He designed a series of go-faster nose-cones for Austin-Healey Sprites, his work for the Speedwell concern also stretching to a one-off record challenger with fully enclosed wheels and a bubble-top roof. Running on a blend of methanol and nitromethane, this tiny A-series-engined device was driven by future Formula 1 superstar Graham Hill to a new Belgian Class C record of 110.9mph on the Antwerp-Liège-AutoRoute in 1960. George Hulbert then drove the car to set a new record with an average speed of 132.2mph over the flying mile. Not bad for something packing all of 92bhp.

Not that Costin was on hand to bask in the reflective glow of Speedwell’s success, as he had since joined in Jem Marsh’s bid to create a new breed of ‘Clubmans’ racer. This followed a chance meeting with him in London’s Steering Wheel Club – the first Marcos (the tag being a contraction of the two principals’ surnames) being constructed in 1959/60.

The plan called for an ultra-lightweight road-going racer; one that would employ a plywood monocoque. Costin waxed lyrically about the virtues of timber construction, pointing out that if it worked for aeroplanes such as the Mosquito, it was good enough for something as mundane as a racing car.

The resultant device wasn’t pretty – not even close – but it could hit 110mph with only a mildly tuned 1172cc Ford sidevalve ‘four’. In May 1960 the first car was sold, with a new, fully enveloping front end becoming standard. Customer Bill Moss was immediately successful, the former ERA pilot winning nine races from ten starts.

By the end of the year, Marcos had orders for six more cars, one of which was destined for wealthy enthusiast Barry Filer. He subsequently installed an unknown driver to pedal it – future triple F1 World Champion, Jackie Stewart.

Costin vacated the scene in early 1961, having been at odds with Marsh over the marque’s future direction. The rest of the decade and into the 1970s followed a familiar pattern; he would be employed by an underfunded business, his designs would often be successful trackside, and he would be left out of pocket.

Sports car star Roger Nathan collaborated with him on what became the Costin-Nathan sports-racer. Nathan recalls: ‘The problem with Frank was that he would lose interest in things. He was a boffin, and always had a slide-rule on him. We had a wonderful product in our little car, but we had no blueprints with which to reproduce them in volume.

‘It was all in Frank’s head. He then got wrapped up in doing a Formula Two car [the wooden-hulled Protos] with Brian Hart, and left us in the lurch. That was him all over. He was a very clever man, but you couldn’t rely on him to be somewhere on a certain day at a certain time. He was always looking to the next thing; the next great idea.’

One such ‘next great idea’ was the DKW-engined Ultra Low Drag Vehicle, which almost became a TVR. Then there was his unnamed three-wheeler, single-seat microcar that similarly remained unique. In 1970, however, he made the leap to becoming a motor manufacturer rather than a mere designer or subcontractor – sort of.

The Costin Amigo was onto a loser from the start, despite being fiendishly clever in parts. Any car that features a chassis comprising bonded ply and glue is going to come up against a degree of customer resistance. Throw in little in the way of creature comforts, price it on a par with a Jaguar E-type V12, and you have to wonder what sort of business model Costin was working to.

What’s more, its shape was typically idiosyncratic; the Amigo wasn’t a looker, that’s for sure. There was no half measure, largely because the car’s outline was worked out mathematically, which would explain the car’s incredibly low drag coefficient of just 0.29Cd.

The then-50-year-old mapped out his concept of a proper GT that was ‘…neither a gin palace nor a 150mph leaky rattle trap or worse, a stylish hoax,’ only to then come up against the nettlesome issue of raising funds to realise his vision.

As was so often the way in this extraordinary man’s career he soon found a sugar daddy, with the initial prototype being financed by television industry executive Jack Wiggins. If the styling was considered controversial, the choice of Vauxhall Victor-derived running gear raised only further question marks. The car lacked sporting kudos but this was of no consequence to Costin, whose logic was simple; the Luton widgetry was available, it was inexpensive and it was reliable. Just eight cars were made before the scheme tanked.

Following the demise of the Amigo Frank Costin all but walked away from cars, save for a freelance consulting gig with Dealer Team Vauxhall. From the mid-1970s until the early ’80s he was content building a new house, working on assorted aviation projects, designing high-speed airport fire tenders and teaching. And, in a roundabout way, it was via a training programme funded by the Irish government that he came into contact with brothers Val, Sean, Peter and Anthony Thompson, who bankrolled his next car design.

The agreement called for Costin to design, build and troubleshoot the prototype of a ‘Clubmans-style’ sport car initially dubbed ‘Rushabout’, and then develop tooling and jigs for volume manufacture. This would be done at the Thompsons’ factory in Castlebridge, County Wexford, with its creator receiving a ten percent royalty on each car sold.

Costin tapped GM for engines, specifying the 1256cc Chevette four-banger – although a 1599cc unit was ultimately used in the production car. Launched at the Mondello Park circuit in September 1983, sales of the redubbed TMC Costin commenced the following year.

Predictably there were problems. Thanks to 23 percent VAT and 54 percent duty, a fully built car cost £13,000. A kit version was also offered, but the firm tanked in 1987 after only 39 cars had been made, a planned restyle by Richard Oakes amounting to nothing. Rights to the spaceframe chassis were sold to American Don Panoz, and the design formed the basis for his eponymous Roadster.

Costin’s next project was a Cosworth V8-powered supercar – but promised finance evaporated, so it remained just a model. He died in February 1995, although Costin the marque has since been reanimated with an MGF-based kit car. He may not have been the most commercially minded of designers, but the British racing car industry would have been a considerably duller place without him.

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