The 1978 Midas and its talented creator appear largely forgotten. Neither really ought to be.
Even amongst those who breathe petrol vapour for pleasure, Harold Dermott is not a household name. And this is a pity, for he is intrinsically linked to two of Britain’s cleverest and most dynamically accomplished enthusiast cars. That they represent polar opposites upon the affordability spectrum is largely irrelevant – both are equally rare sights today.
But while one is rightly celebrated as arguably the pinnacle of road-car development, the 1978 Midas remains a neglected automotive footnote – a matter which not only belies the craft and ingenuity of its design and construction, but also speaks volumes as to how the automotive world values its innovators and outliers.
Having graduated with a BSc in mechanical engineering, Harold Dermott joined BL in the early ’70s, working on engine development for Jaguar. However, following the notorious Ryder Report, prospects looked bleak for a young, ambitious engineer, and having departed the embattled carmaker, he obtained the rights to the discontinued Mini-Marcos from co-founder, Jem Marsh. With business partner, Maurice Holt, Dermott formed D & H Fibreglass Techniques in Oldham.
However, it was clear to Dermott that the Mini-Marcos was a dated (and awkward-looking) design but a meeting with designer, Richard Oakes saw him provided with a bodyshell and the agreement to redesign it along more modern lines. It quickly became apparent however that an entirely new design was required, so Oakes, alongside his RCA coursework, completed the first Midas bodyshell to Dermott’s exacting brief.
Resembling to some extent, an Alpine A310 in miniature, the Midas, while no ravishing beauty was a compact, neatly styled and purposeful-looking machine. Notable too was its absence of extraneous go faster addenda or obvious parts-bin raiding.
Like the Marcos with which it shared some DNA traces, the Midas employed a strong and stiff composite unitary bodyshell, a Mini front subframe (wax injected in this case) and an A-Series engine and gearbox. Rear suspension was of bespoke design, using a galvanised crossbeam, linked to Mini-sourced trailing arms and coil springs. All Midas sourced metal parts were zinc-coated, the bodyshell, while weighing a mere 650 kg, was made to impressive standards of strength, finish and fit – Dermott being determined to produce a quality product.
First shown at the 1978 Performance Car Show in London, the Midas went on a protracted development and proving regime, with the first car being delivered some 18-months later and some three years after its initiation. There was one major bugbear however. UK Type approval, which entailed massive costs and the submission of vehicles for barrier crash testing. While Dermott was confident of the Midas’ integrity, the fees were prohibitive, so cars were sold in partly constructed form, with the customer completing the assembly at home.
Midas went to enormous trouble to ensure this was as painless a procedure as possible, providing a comprehensive build manual and ensuring the DIY work was simple and uncomplicated. However, this did lump the carmaker with the aftermarket fraternity and the Kit-Car pejorative was one they never quite escaped. However, what Midas was doing was really no different to what Lotus did during the Elite and Elan era. It was expedient, but it would come with an indelible stigma.
Nevertheless, the motoring press raved about the little sportster and it soon came to the notice of Formula One designer, Gordon Murray, who became involved in improving the car’s airflow, alongside using a Midas body as the basis for a stillborn mid-engined project of his own. Dermott made much of the Murray connection – one which would have unforeseen repercussions later – the second-series car (1981) bearing the bulk of his alterations.
In 1983, as Motor’s Formula One correspondent, Russell Bulgin first assembled and then ran a Mark 2 Midas over 10 months as a long-term test car. The reluctant tool-wielder informed readers, “Midas-building is in truth, nothing more than a big Meccano set to be spannered together. The instructions tell you exactly how to get it together, even including an idiot-list at the end… There’s even a Midas hot-line – a spannerman’s Samaritans, should you get really stuck.”
The little coupe quickly endeared itself to Bulgin, who wrote, “…the adjectives with which you recall the Midas all seem to sum-up its dynamic characteristics: deft, accurate, crisp, predictable, considered.” Over a hard-driven 22,000 miles he observed, “…not once did it break down, not in Britain or in any of the five European countries it passed through in a blue plastic blur.”
Motor Sport also conducted a thorough test the following year, also lauding the car’s construction. “ It is a pity one has to mention it at all”, they commented, “but there is still a resistance to kit cars so, for the record, everything fitted perfectly, there was no rattles and the doors closed solidly.” The car’s dynamics also came in for warm praise, the writer stating, “When the time approached to hand back the car, I began to feel very sorry, it had grown on me so much. I can think of few cars which most of us could afford which offers such sheer, undiluted fun” – the enthusiast publication describing it as “a hand built sports car of some quality.”
1985 saw the most significant change to the Midas, with a heavily restyled bodyshell, once again by Richard Oakes, with some ground effects aero beneath, courtesy of Mr. G Murray. Employing a more contemporary, softer form language, it made for a more muscular, more purposeful machine. The Midas had come of age. The car’s interior also received considerable enhancement, with additional space liberated for occasional rear seats.
Now on Metro-based mechanicals, the older car was also retained as an entry-level model. But while Midas jumped some regulatory hurdles within the EU, passing all of its crash-tests with aplomb, and with several mainstream manufacturers allegedly obtaining examples to study its construction, UK type approval remained an insurmountable financial hurdle.
Meanwhile, a neat roadster version was prepared for the 1988 motor show, featuring on the front cover of Car magazine the following February. Correspondent, Richard Bremner, lauding it as a latter-day Frogeye Sprite, concluded, “This is a fun car that deserves to be taken seriously”.
While volumes remained too small for much of what they hoped to achieve, plans were to double output on the back of the appealing roadster model. However, following a devastating fire at the Corby factory, and ongoing financial difficulties, Midas entered receivership. Despite several subsequent attempts to restart production under an array of owners, (and a highly questionable restyle) it all fizzled out.
The Midas was a car of tremendous promise, but like so many specialist carmakers, the UK environment simply wasn’t conducive and the car suffered from twin stigmas of ‘component-cars’ and what the more unenlightened deride as ‘wrong-wheel-drive’. It deserved better.
However, the story didn’t end there. Gathering a small corps of talented engineers and designers for his much-heralded McLaren road-car project in the early ’90s, Gordon Murray asked Dermott to join his select five-man core-team, also consisting of Barry Lett, Steve Randle and Peter Stevens. Dermott went on to play a vital role in shepherding the F1 hypercar through development and into production.
Furthermore, the work he subsequently carried out establishing and running the F1 customer support organisation was pivotal to the profitability of the programme, to securing its legacy, but also in laying the groundwork for today’s highly successful McLaren Automotive business.
“Stuttgart, Maranello or Corby?”, the Midas brochure stated. However his stint at Woking might suggest that Harold Dermott may have possessed the gift of alchemy after all.
Motor Sport Online
The Very Best of Russell Bulgin
Special thanks to SR.