The 1960 Formula Junior season was the most significant season in the history of post-War motor racing, indeed, perhaps the most significant season ever. Previously, the small specialist makers in each country had rarely competed directly against each other. The number of times when, say. works Lotus Elevens had met works Stanguellini 1100s were remarkably few. Formula Junior provided the opportunity for all the small companies which had catered for national racing, to compete against each other internationally.
Always one to spot a trend, it was in mid-1959 that Nichols had Elva build an FJ car before any of his rivals though Elva was not the first British maker of an FJ car. It was a simple, slim, front engined car with Lockheed drum brakes (outboard at the front, inboard at the rear), coil spring and wishbone front suspension and independent rear suspension with lower single arms, fixed-length driveshafts and trailing radius arms. Initially a tuned BMC Series “A” engine was fitted (though Chris Threlfall’s works car once had a linered-down Hillman Minx unit – just once) and the engine drove through a four-speed BMC gearbox via a propshaft articulated to pass downwards between the driver’s legs (there was a sturdy guard!) and so through a transfer box to a centrally mounted differential.
On September 6th 1959, at Cadours, France, against the best Continental opposition, Bill de Selincourt scored a memorable victory. Then at Brands Hatch on October 4th, Mike McKee, De Selincourt, Chris Lawrence and Peter Jopp took the top four places in the first British race to be organised specifically for FJ cars.
The big event of the year, though, was the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting with new cars from Lotus, Cooper, Lola and Gemini (driven by Jim Clark in his first single-seater race). Peter Arundell and Chris Threlfall in the works cars both had Mitter-tuned three-cylinder two-stroke DKW units which were powerful but temperamental. The new cars from Lotus, Lola and Cooper all had teething troubles and Arundell won easily with Threlfall in third place.
The most important race to win is always the last one of a season and Elva received an astonishing number of orders. Some have written that as many as 150 FJ-1s were produced but the Elva Owner’s Club believes that 69 is the more likely figure with an additional 15 Scorpions. Within four months, however, the Cooper and the Lotus 18 had established themselves as the cars to beat in Europe with the Lola Mk II emerging as perhaps the best of the front-engined cars.
When Elva later ran into financial difficulties, 15 Scorpions were built by one of Frank’s companies Ryetune. These were re-bodied frontengined FJ cars but the change of name and body was necessitated by the delicate financial situation. Most had DKW engines.
In looking for a power advantage, Nichols had passed over the Ford 105E engine which had just been announced with the Anglia and went instead for DKW. Chapman had meantime commissioned Cosworth to develop the Ford unit and when Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin produced a winner, Chapman insisted on exclusivity for Lotus buyers. The engine perhaps flattered the Lotus 18.
Across the Pond, though, Charlie Kolb’s Elva-BMC swept all before it and became perhaps the most successfully Elva built. Jim Hall and Hap Sharp scored many wins in their DKW-powered cars and Pedro Rodriguez drove a Scorpion.
Although it was clear that the rear-engined revolution had arrived, Elva was so busy fulfilling its orders that it was quite late in the year before the second generation Elva FJ car made its debut. This was in the British Empire Trophy at Silverstone on October 1st. In appalling conditions, Chuck Dietrich, on his first visit to the circuit, brought his BMC-powered car home behind the Lotus-Fords of Henry Taylor and Peter Arundell, beating the likes of Trevor Taylor and Denny Hulme.
While the first FJ car was helped by being the first series-produced British car on the scene, the new car had to fight for a place in the sun against a new establishment in the formula. It still sold but not at the heady rate of the original car. By the end of 1960, though, Elva was producing an average of four to five cars a week with Couriers accounting for around three quarters of the sales, with the rest being divided between the FJ car and the MkV sports-racer. Most were going to the States and Frank was a regular trans-Atlantic commuter.
In January, 1961, Autosport carried the news that Elva was to go into production with a run of F1 cars, lobe powered initially by the Coventry Climax FPF engine. There were to be two works cars and four on sale to customers. Frank today wonders where the story came from, Formula One had no part in his scheme of things for he could not see how it could possibly pay. Leaving aside the crash which was shortly to befall Elva, it’s an interesting decision when compared with the courses which Lola and Lotus were to follow.
Shortly after that “news” item in Autosport came a blow which shattered the smooth development and expansion of the company. Walter R. Dickson ran into severe financial problems and was hiked off to gaol. It seems that rather than him being outrightly crooked, it was a case of trying to juggle too many plates in the air at once with the result they all crashed to the ground.
Despite having proven itself to be a useful dollar earner, Elva was denied a loan by the government and so the old company was liquidated. In the States, Carl Haas took over the importation of Elvas and spent some time trying to sort out the existing financial tangle. It’s pleasant to record that when the Beatrice F1 team was launched early last year, Carl Haas’ guests included Frank Nichols and Burdette Martin for Elva was responsible for bringing Haas into the business side of the sport.
With financial backing from Haas and others, Frank was able to set up Elva Cars (1961) Ltd and buy back many of the liquidated assets from the receiver. The Courier project was sold to Trojan, which was then trying to diversify, somewhere between three and four hundred Couriers had been made in the Hastings works in the previous three years. Just 210 were to emerge from Trojan’s Croydon works over the next four years. “I think Trojan underestimated the problems of making specialist cars,” says Frank.
Trojan had been making light trucks and vans and had realised that the days of these were numbered against competition from larger firms which were investing in more advanced vehicles. Around the time that the company bought the Courier project, it also began to produce karts (the Trokart was cheap and initially quite successful) and the Trojan 200 bubble car which was the old Heinkel design. In addition, Trojan imported Lambretta scooters. Neither the karts nor the bubble cars lasted very long, while scooters, which had been considered quite chic for a while, were shortly to decline in popularity. Despite passing through various updates and revisions, the Courier project was dead within four years.
Working from smaller premises in Rye, Elva got back into its stride, though on a much reduced basis. The rear-engined FJ car, the “200” series, and the MkV, a remarkably low updated version of the IV, formed the 1961 range while Keith Marsden was pressing ahead with two new models. Neither of these cars sold well, perhaps 20 Juniors were made and ten MkVs. Neither was a particularly successful car though Chuck Dietrich who scored a total of 65 wins with the various Elvas he owned, managed ten consecutive victories in the Mid-West with his Junior.
The first of the “new” Elvas was another FJ car, the “300” series, which was intended as the 1962 customer car and which may have been the lowest single-seater production racing car ever made. It appeared at the Whit Monday Goodwood meeting but the driver, Chris Meek, crashed at the chicane doing no good either to himself or the prototype. Six were built in all but none scored any notable successes except in the hands of Chuck Dietrich.
Bernard Cowdrey of the Elva Owners Club has been working on a compilation of Elva competition results and would like to hear from anyone with information. Letters will be forwarded.
Based on the FJ car was the MkVI sports car which used a 100 bhp Coventry Climax FWA engine developed by Henry Weslake. This appeared just before the Lotus 23, which featured Lotus twin cam version of the Ford 105E engine and which proved the better long-term bet. Chris Ashmore, in the first MkVI, caused a sensation at the Boxing Day Brands meeting by embarrassing Graham Hill’s three-litre, rear-engined, Ferrari Testa Rossa, sharing the fastest lap with it.
The MkVI had a low slippery shape (the wheel arches were higher than the windscreen), with two little nostrils to take in air, a light but very stiff triangulated spaceframe, wishbone, coil spring and damper front suspension along the lines of the MkIV. While rivals were specifying disc brakes, Marsden stuck with Lockheed/Alfin drums (outboard at the front, inboard at the rear). A number of engine options were available but all drove through a modified VW gearbox. It was a decided advance in small sports racing car design — until the Lotus 23 appeared shortly afterwards.
Though results suggested otherwise, there was not a great deal of difference between the Elva and Lotus chassis in terms of merit, the main difference lay in the engines. Chapman had been typically astute in his provision of a suitable power unit and Nichols had to hunt around to find an answer.
1962 was a mixed season. Paddy Gaston crashed the works MkVI early on at OuIton Park and Bill Moss, who took over the drive, injured himself badly in the FJ car at Reims. Still, Gaston was able to win his class in the Aintree International and Chris Ashmore and Robin Carnegie won the two-litre class in the Nurburgring 1,000 kms. Dizzy Addicot, using an Alfa Romeo engine in his MkVI trounced strong Lotus opposition to win the 1,300 cc class in the Guards Trophy sports car race at Brands Hatch in early August and, at the Boxing Day Meeting, brought a 1.5-litre Alfa Romeo-engined MkVI home second to Mike Beckwith ‘s Lotus 23 in the Silver City Trophy race.
Twenty-eight of these cars were made, with two-thirds going Stateside. Meanwhile Elva was acting as a consultant to Trojan and that year saw a Mk3 Courier which could be supplied complete for £965. or £716 as a kit. There was the promise of a restyled Courier, Mk4 with irs, in the offing. Unfortunately, to increase cockpit space, Trojan moved the engine of the Mk3 forwards with the result that the handling was diabolical. In its capacity as a consultant, Elva moved the engine back where it ought to be and restored the handling at some cost to comfort.
One can understand why Trojan made the modification, there is a larger market for comfortable sports cars than there is for uncompromising ones and the aim was to produce over 500 Couriers a year. What is more difficult to understand is why Trojan was apparently baffled when a conscious change in weight distribution altered the handling characteristics of the car. It seems that Trojan was floundering in every direction for early in 1962 it was selling Trokarts at massive discounts (you could buy one complete with engine for £251, the scooter market was declining rapidly, and the decision to build bubble cars when everyone else was stopping building them was decidedly odd.
Whatever the reasons behind Trojan’s thinking, Keith Marsden pressed ahead with the Mk7 sports racer in Rye.
The Mk7 Elva followed similar lines to the VI but beneath the smoother, lower fibreglass shell there was a new car. The spaceframe had been lightened and, at 73 lb complete with brackets, it was 12lb lighter than the MkVI. Front suspension was new too, with unequal wishbones ball – jointed to a magnesium upright and, at last, drum brakes gave way to discs. Thirteen inch wheels replaced 15 inch wheels, reducing unsprung weight and allowing a lower, neater. bodyline.
At the rear. fixed length driveshafts gave way to splined shafts with an anti-roll bar.
In production terms the VII was highly successful, 29 were built in Mk VII guise and 42 of the lightly revised VIIS were made and these were fitted with a wide range of engines, including Coventry Climax, Ford and Osca but two are particularly interesting: BMW and Porsche. Nichols helped bring BMW back into motor racing as an engine supplier after the Bavarian company had begun its recovery from near bankruptcy in the Fifties. A lot of background work went into the deal, the object of which was to give Elva a distinct power advantage over its rivals.
Elva, Alex von Falkenhausen of BMW, Frank Webb of Nerus Engineering and Ted Martin, who designed the dry sump conversion, came up with a racing two-litre engine, based on the 1,500 cc unit which first appeared in 1950. This gave 182 bhp at 7,200 rpm and 156lb ft torque at 5,000 rpm and fed through a five-speed Hewland HD5 gearbox.
At the same time that the BMW deal was being worked out (1962/3), Nichols, Haas and ollie Schmidt an American Porsche distributor, were making overtures to Porsche for the supply of the flat four 1,700 cc dohc engine. The original idea had been Schmidt ‘s and it was a bold one for Porsche had previously turned down such overtures. Dr Ferry Porsche, supported by Huschke von Hanstein, the racing director, and Herbert Linge, Porsche’s test driver, agreed to supply the engines and one must ask why.
The reason they gave is that Elva was already well known and respected, there had been lots of racing Elvas in Germany, and some Couriers. I suspect, though. that the real reasons were that Porsche was looking for further expansion in the American market and also wanted to monitor British chassis and suspension developments for Porsche bought one of the cars and fitted it with an eight-cylinder engine. With it, Herbert Muller finished second in the 1964 European Hill Climb Championship — behind Edgar Barth ‘s similarly-engined Porsche RS Spyder. Muller was driving to team orders and so it was just possible that he might have won the Championship, at any rate the 1965 two-litre Porsche appeared to have some Elva influence.
A Mk 7 chassis was beefed up to accept the Porsche engine and five speed gearbox and was completed on August 22nd 1963, arriving in the States just before the Elkhart Lake Road America 500 race on September 8th. In its maiden race it faced 60 other entries of the order of Cobras, Ferraris, E-Type Jaguars and Porsches. Bill Wuesthoff. a noted Porsche exponent, promptly put the car on pole!
Everything had been done at such short notice that a second driver had not been signed but no fewer than 11 other entries had been nominated as a relief driver on the grounds that the car of at least one of them would be out of the race by the time Wuesthoff was ready to hand over. Dr Sodt’s famous law was operating at full strength, however, and the cars of all 11 nominees were going strong. Permission was then sought from Roger Penske, and granted, to allow Augie Pabst to take over after his stint in Penske ‘s Ferrari GTO.
Pabst had not even sat in the car at the point he took it over but he swept on maintaining Wuesthoffs lead and the car scored a memorable victory, even though it went largely unnoticed here. It was the first time that so small an engined car had won the RA 500 and the race itself was second in prestige only to Sebring. It was hailed as a “David and Goliath” act and 15 orders were immediately placed for replicas.
Nineteen Elva-Porsches were made all told including the one bought by the Porsche works which was given a Porsche designation. Though these were successful in the USA not one of them was bought in Britain and, indeed, only one ever raced here. That was in the 1963 Boxing Day Brands meeting (so much of Elva ‘s fortunes seem to be tied up with that event) and Mike Beckwith brought it home a lacklustre fifth on a greasy track.
At the Racing Car Show in January 1964, the Mk VII-BMW was shown for the first time, Tony Lanfranchi was announced as the works driver and for the first time for Elva, this was a full works drive. Lanfrenchi was to repay this faith with a good season in his BMW-powered car, eventually emerging as the Autosport Champion. Trevor Taylor came close to winning the Tourist Trophy with another Mk VII, but was scuppered by dynamo failure. Lanfranchi says now that the Elva was a good car but, in his opinion, not quite up to the contemporary Lotuses and Brabhams.
At the same time that the 1964 racing plans were revealed it was also announced that Trojan had taken over Elva. Trojan had ambitious ideas, which included F1, and also had the resources to Implement those ideas. It must be remembered that long after Nichols departed, Trojan did build F5000 cars and an F1 car, designed by Ron Tauranac.
Trojan was still producing the Courier in Croydon, though at a rate of only about one a week, Elva was making Mk 7s at a similar pace, and the first car of the Trojan-Elva marriage was conceived, the GT 160. The plot of this car was simple, and it was brilliant. An Elva Mk7 chassis, a two-litre BMW engine and a GT body designed by Trevor Fiore and built by Fissore of Turin.
When it was shown at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1964, it created a great deal of attention, was widely acknowledged as the “Star of the Show”, and many orders were placed.
Unfortunately, the idea was impractical. If the chassis had to go to Italy to be bodied, then there always had to be a comparatively large number of cars “in the pipeline” and a small company could not support that. The new Labour Government imposed a 15% import surcharge which immediately raised the price of the car. The CSI imposed a new ground clearance regulation which meant that the 160 GT would have to be re-designed. The Fissore body was anyway too heavy.
Frank says now that his idea was to fit the car with a fibreglass body designed and built in England and with hindsight, says that the ideal solution would have been to hand it over to Ogle Design.
Only three 160 GTs were made, though Elva had been geared up to make the 100 minimum then required for homologation. One of these cars was entered into a number of classic races by Anglian Racing Developments, but it failed to finish any.
An updated version of the Mk7, the Mk8, appeared at the end of 1964 and a total of 21 were made (nine Mk8s and 12 examples of a revised “S” model) but then the company took a new direction with the construction of customer versions of Bruce McLaren ‘s McLaren M1 sports-racing design, the forerunner of the McLaren Can-Am car. Most “customer” McLarens were built by Trojan/Elva up to 1971. Nichols was disenchanted, he’d seen his company grow, fail grow again and then gradually slip away from his control. Though the name “Elva” was associated with McLaren sports-racing cars for a while it was eventually dropped but by that time Keith Marsden had gone to Ford and Nichols had resigned for “health reasons”, as they say in diplomatic circles.
Nichols was not quite through with racing and he joined forces with Len Terry to form TAC (Trans-Atlantic Consultants). TAC built a CanAm car for Shelby and a chassis for BRM but the partnership did not last long and besides, is not strictly part of the Elva story. Nichols backed away from the sport and for the next 20 years built up a series of successful businesses. His current interests revolve around Lochin Marine of Rye (“Lochin” being a near-anagram of “Nichols”) which makes fibreglass-hulled boats mainly for Customs and Excise use and rescue services. One of Lochin’s boats is the only commercially designed hull ever to be bought by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute in its 150 year history. The grocer’s errand boy has not done badly.
With Elva celebrating its 30th anniversary in 1984 and the Historic movement gaining greater ground both here and abroad, Nichols has been in some demand as guest of honour at various meetings mainly in the States. His cars are as successful there in Historic racing as they were when they were new but, the irony continues, they are not often seen in British Historic racing. — M.L.
Echoes of Imola
Echoes of Imola by David Tremayne. MRP, £16.99. This is a book about the Imola Grand Prix circuit, the races it has seen, and in particular the changes made there…
Just the Ticket
More equipment, less charisma; we have seen the process a dozen times and more. Mass manufacturer comes up with a sporting car that catches on in the USA and Europe.…
Cars in the UK Volume Two: 1971-1995
Cars in the UK Volume Two: 1971-1995, by Graham Robson. MRP, £19.95 The second volume of Robson's incredibly detailed directory of UK car production to date (his first covered 1945-1970)…