Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports-car maker

| 20 Oct 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker

Had this article been written prior to November 1988, a degree of circumspection would have been required.

The irascible Donald Marcus Kelway Marendaz plagued magazine editors and journalists with threats of litigation should they have the temerity to write less than flattering things about his cars.

Born on 17 January 1897 in Margam in the Vale of Glamorgan, this talented but complex engineer and racer began his working life as an apprentice of the Deasy Motor Manufacturing Company, later to become Siddeley-Deasy.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
This rare Marendaz 15/90 was restored in South Africa; the original grille surround was found on the wall of a local chroming firm

By 1916, he’d left the business to join the Royal Flying Corps, training as a pilot and flying with 35 Squadron in an observation role.

He survived numerous missions over the Western Front, including participation in the 1917 Battle of Cambrai.

After little more than 20 hours of flying time, and in poor weather conditions, he sent warning of a damaged bridge, almost certainly saving the lives of cavalry soldiers.

Marendaz was invalided out just a year later, and the controversy that dogged his life was already beginning.

He left the RFC as Lieutenant and there was no evidence of the rank of Captain that he later adopted.

Returning to engineering after the Great War, Marendaz worked at Holley Brothers in Coventry with TG John, who would later start Alvis.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
Owner Peter Spiers could not track down the Marendaz’s original six-cylinder engine, but this Climax unit is identical

Marendaz said that he persuaded John to build the Geoffrey de Freville-designed engines that powered them, thereby staking a (disputed) claim to a part in the Red Triangle story.

Marendaz then landed a contract to make gearboxes for the Emscote Motor Company, to be used in a light car, but the venture soon hit trouble.

A plan to utilise leftover ’boxes led to involvement with Charles Seelhoff and the formation of the Marseel Engineering Company.

Seelhoff had left by 1922 – the firm closed its doors in ’24 – but Marendaz persevered and it would be the beginning of a period in which his skills as a racing driver would emerge as well as him becoming a motor manufacturer.

He competed at Brooklands from 1922, but crashed during practice for that year’s JCC 200 Miles race, and the cars bearing his name would go on to clinch a number of class records at both the Surrey circuit and Montlhéry.

In 1928, in fact, he set a 24-hour record in the 1.5-litre class at Brooklands, which gives some measure both of his abilities and those of his cars, while a 15/90 took a class lap record in the 1935 Ards TT.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
The cockpit is deceptively roomy

And it’s worth mentioning that Alfred and Aileen Moss – parents of Stirling and Pat – would own examples of 17/90 and 13/70 respectively.

With such attention and provenance, it’s puzzling that the Marendaz name garners so little recognition today.

In 1933, he reignited his interest in flying via the formation of International Aircraft and Engineering Ltd – a company believed to have produced only three planes, none of which survive.

Founding the Bedford Flying School at Barton in 1937 was more successful and Marendaz can be credited with a key role in training pilots who would be called upon in WW2.

Controversy still wasn’t far away, though, with Marendaz spending a couple of nights in Brixton prison for ‘security reasons’ in 1940.

Neither could his move to South Africa be deemed a roaring success.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
The Marendaz 15/90 has a handsome body with curvaceous wings

History doesn’t record whether it was an escape from a bleak Britain or the opportunity for a fresh start, but he’d gone there to set up a company producing small diesel engines, reputedly with investment from the government of the time.

Charges of fraud over an allegedly stolen art collection – he may have been abrasive and the bane of journalists and component suppliers alike, but he displayed good taste in art – and a court appearance in Johannesburg would soon follow.

Marendaz was advised to leave; it was advice he took.

He returned to the UK in 1972 to live in Asterby, Lincolnshire, and never lost his tremendous energy.

He certainly put plenty of effort into wrangling with journalists who were impertinent enough to question either his cars or his version of events.

And as for those cars – bearing the badge of the Royal Flying Corps, something he’d earlier adapted without permission, by all accounts – they came about after Marendaz had spent a year working on the London Stock Exchange.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
Donald Marcus Kelway Marendaz (7) racing at Brooklands

He rented the first floor of the London General Cab Company’s garage – located on Brixton Road in south London – and production of the Marendaz Special began in 1926.

He employed great care when it came to the design and construction of the cars, priding himself on the manufacture of unique components, and while the latter is undoubtedly true it’s a facet of the story that would lead a number of journalists into legal trouble.

Unshakeable in his beliefs, Marendaz would flatly deny that parts from other manufacturers were used, even when all evidence pointed to the contrary.

Quite why he took this stance no one really knows, but it has a tendency to detract from the depth of engineering that went into these fascinating cars.

Handsome in style and featuring a Bentley-esque radiator design – another contentious issue – early models were powered by a 1.5-litre Anzani sidevalve ‘four’.

Underpinned by a chassis in Sheffield steel, the bodywork utilised aluminium panels over an ash frame, all of which made for a particularly rigid arrangement.

A clever one, too, because the full-width chassis enabled occupants to sit within rather than on it, lowering the centre of gravity.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
A move to Maidenhead brought a name change for Marendaz’s business

Over the next four years, the Brixton Road works would produce two-seater, four-seater and coupé models, the majority of which retained the Anzani engine in normally aspirated or 11/120 supercharged forms.

Towards the close of the decade, the company experimented with development of a 1.5-litre straight-eight, though none are thought to have found their way into production models.

And as London manufacture drew to a close, one of the last variants to appear was the 13/70 tourer.

This was powered by a sidevalve straight-six ‘Continental’ engine modified by Marendaz with, among other things, a cylinder head of his own design; the powerplants most likely originated from the Canadian Studebaker-Erskine.

The factory closed in 1932, and while exact numbers are uncertain it’s reckoned that production amounted to somewhere around 35 cars.

Firm pricing probably accounted for some of that, Marendaz asking £495 for an Anzani-engined 11/55 – a Frazer Nash Sports was £398.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
Aileen Moss (far right) on the RAC Rally in 1936

Yet his involvement in maintaining and tuning other makes, as well as setting up a metal-testing laboratory, likely stretched the fledgling business.

In May 1932, he moved to Maidenhead, with DMK Marendaz Ltd becoming Marendaz Special Cars Ltd.

Production of six-cylinder models recommenced. Available with tourer, saloon or convertible coachwork, the 1896cc engine was offered in 13/70 or supercharged 13/85 and 13/90 variants.

And with a larger 2500cc version of the ‘six’ there were 17/80 and supercharged 17/97 and 17/100 options.

The 15/90 tourer appeared in 1936, still powered by a straight-six but this time a 2-litre Coventry Climax unit with a trio of joined cylinder heads and triple SU carburettors.

The company was liquidated that year, Marendaz already having turned his attention back to aircraft, and Maidenhead production could never be considered as anything more than modest.

Best estimates put the figure at around 50, with Continental-engined models the most numerous and just 15 or so with Climax power.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
Marendaz with one of his products © John Shaw Archive

It makes the fact that cherished survivors – 23 in all – exist today all the more heartening.

The featured 15/90, owned by Peter Spiers, has a special place in this turbulent story because it was owned by Marendaz himself.

“My interest in the marque began with Lord Montagu’s book [Lost Causes of Motoring],” says Spiers, “and as I was living and working in South Africa at the time decided to track down the car.

“I found it in 1988 in a town called Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg and close to where Marendaz had his engine plant.

“It was just sat outside and in a very poor state, with parts missing and clearly having been vandalised.”

Already aware of the man’s reputation, Spiers’ next step was to establish ownership.

He wrote to Marendaz, who insisted that the car had been left in storage by his solicitors – which was clearly not the case – although blessing was given for Spiers to purchase and restore it.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
Owner Peter Spiers with his restored Marendaz 15/90

Those missing parts, which included the engine, gearbox, bonnet (found lying close to the car) and grille were to prove a challenging, though fascinating, part of the restoration.

And Marendaz himself remained true to form, denying that he’d removed any components.

Take the missing radiator surround, for example; Spiers finally tracked it down to a local chroming company, where it had been hanging on the wall for the best part of 20 years.

Whether Marendaz had simply failed to collect it, or it was being held for lack of payment, isn’t clear but it illustrates the task that Spiers faced.

As word of the restoration spread through the local classic-car scene, however, fate was to come to his rescue: “All of a sudden I had people contacting me offering parts for the car.

“The mesh grille and badge were being used as decoration on the wall of a bar, and an advert for headlamps in a local magazine turned out to be my ones – the seller let me have them for free.

“The original instruments turned up as well.”

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
With plenty of torque, the Marendaz 15/90 has a good turn of speed

The restoration remained a challenge, though, taking almost four years.

The rotten ash frame was repaired and all except one panel was saved.

The bent chassis proved hard to straighten due to the steel used; a repairer of heavy trucks came to the rescue using a large jig.

Despite Marendaz’s protestations about removal, the original engine was never found although the car now sports an identical Coventry Climax straight-six that was supplied by marque expert Graham Skillen.

The car remained in South Africa for 15 years following the restoration, returning to the UK with Spiers in 1997.

While he admits that further work is on the cards, the car is still delightfully appealing.

It retains its original registration number and the flowing steel wings give real presence, while the three flexible exhaust sections that emerge from the engine cover add purpose.

The leather-trimmed 2+2 cockpit is simple but roomier than expected, while performance feels strong with the torquey straight-six enabling Sussex hills to be dispatched in top gear with ease.

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
The low ’screen, swooping arches and V-shaped grille add to the Marendaz 15/90’s sporty look

According to Spiers, the car is a capable 70mph cruiser, in part thanks to the long-legged ratios of the ENV gearbox.

Semi-elliptic springs up front and cantilever items aft provide a firm but well-controlled ride over typical B-roads, while braking is courtesy of Lockheed hydraulics all round.

The latter is unusual for the period, and Marendaz is said to have claimed they were a first on a British car, something that others would refute.

It’s a fascinating machine to spend time with, and it’s hard not to reflect on what might have been.

The roll-call of British manufacturers that have disappeared without trace is a long one, but such depth of engineering and quality means that this one shouldn’t really have been among them.

And yet without Donald Marcus Kelway Marendaz, we wouldn’t have had such an intriguing story to reflect upon.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to: Graham Skillen from the Register of Marendaz Special Cars, plus owners Peter Spiers, Dick Hodges and Peter Arney

This was first in our January 2017 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

Marendaz mavens

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
Dedicated specialists help to keep the Marendaz story alive

Dick Hodges: 17/90

Hodges has owned his 1932 Marendaz since 2005, and it all came about by accident.

“A friend sent me an email that was intended for someone else,” he remembers, “and it showed pictures of a car that I had never seen before.

“After carrying out a bit of research about Marendaz, the idea of owning it appealed but the car went to auction in Yorkshire.

“I managed to secure it with one final bid. It was a bit of a wreck, but it was towed straight to Hightone Restorations in Oxfordshire.”

It was a major undertaking, with YY 8383 requiring fresh aluminium panels, a new ash frame and a rebuild of the Continental engine.

The throttle was moved to the right, the seat mountings were extended for more legroom, and a secondary electric fan was fitted.

“It took a lot of research to source original components,” says Hodges, “but the various modifications make the car much more usable.

“I enjoy owning something so unusual and the Marendaz story itself is fascinating.”

Classic & Sports Car – Marendaz: Britain’s forgotten sports car maker
The Marendaz 13/70 is fitted with a sidevalve straight-six ‘Continental’ engine © T Arney/OneSum

Peter Arney: 13/70

“The fact that it’s very pretty, underrated, and interestingly rare is what attracted me to the Marendaz,” says Arney.

“It’s nice to have a four-seater so I can cram the children in, and the big, torquey engine makes it very usable.”

He’s owned his 13/70 for 15 years, and it’s an example that has required plenty of work to bring it up to scratch: “It looked good when I bought it, but lack of use meant various aspects needed attention.

“It had been fitted with a Vauxhall engine at one point, but the correct Erskine Continental unit was present.

“It benefited from the addition of the revised cylinder head developed by marque specialist John Shaw.

“That cured the overheating, but sorting the seized brakes, overhauling the suspension, and having new halfshafts made added to the work.

“It’s taken time to get it right – as with many old cars, as you do one job another repair is needed – but having Riley specialist Keith Pointing looking after it has helped me keep on top of any problems.”

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