Thirty years ago, the marque “Elva” came to the scene and, for a decade, was one of the world’s most successful makers of production racing cars.
During a period of roughly 10 years, beginning in 1955, Elva cars enjoyed enormous success in competition but since most of it was in the United States, the marque remained relatively undervalued in Britain. Lotus, Cooper and Lola were the firms which captured the imagination at home, mainly because they were successful In the single-seater categories. Elva was content to concentrate largely on production competition cars, attempting to establish itself on a sound commercial basis. Frank Nichols, the morque’s founder, recalls, “Every year I’d write to L’Autornobile Club de l’Ouest asking how much they were prepared to pay in starting money for my cars to take part in Le Mans and every year they’d write back and tell me that competing was reward enough. I couldn’t run a business on those terms.”
In the strictly amateur racing organised by the SCCA, however, Elva competed on equal terms with its rivals and there the firm enjoyed its greatest successes both in terms of wins and of sales. In 1960, for example, Formula Junior was dominated by the works Lotuses of Jim Clark, Trevor Taylor and Peter Arundell. The success of these three brilliant drivers soon convinced everyone that the only way to win in FJ was with a Lotus or a similar, rear-engined, British car. In America Charlie Kolb swept everything before him in his front-engined Elva-BMC which everyone in England knew to be hopelessly out-dated. It was lust as well that Kolb apparently didn’t know. Kolb’s rivals had access to the latest machinery and so it was a fair and square win, but it was one which went almost unnoticed here.
When Jim Clark led the 1962 Nurburgring 1000 kms in his 1.5-litre Lotus 23-Ford it rightly created a sensation. When, the following year. a 1.7-litre Elva-Porsche won the prestigious Elkhart Lake 500 sports car race, it was, if not an equal feat, one which was worthy of comment. In the States it led to 15 immediate orders for cars yet it caused scarcely a ripple in Britain.
The trouble is that all marques of the time tend to be overshadowed by the innovative genius of Colin Chapman and Elva cars tended to be just a step behind Lotus. When the Elva VI, a little rear-engined sports car, first underwent testing in late 1961. it easily lapped under the Goodwood record. Then, at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting, Chris Ashmore created a sensation by latching his 1,100 cc Elva VI-Climax onto the tail of Graham Hill’s 3-litre Ferrari. A couple of weeks later, though, the new Lotus 23 went testing and showed itself to be even quicker.
The difference between Lotus and Elva was that Lotus was headed by a designer who was backed by excellent accountants who managed to keep the business going leaving Chapman to explore his art and be almost reckless in his ambition. By contrast, Frank Nichols of Elva was a businessman who limited his company’s activities in order to sell racing cars profitably. In practical terms that meant no wholly-supported works teams and, following on that, no employment of the very best in driving talent. It meant no forays to Le Mans, say, and certainly no involvement in F2 or F1.
Frank Nichols was born in Bexhill-on-Sea in 1920 and, on leaving school aged 14, became a grocer’s errand boy but had graduated to cutting cheese behind a counter by the time war broke out. Having joined the Territorial Army early in 1939. Frank soon saw action in France, with the 58th Field Artillery. He was evacuated from Dunkirk and was at El Alamein but a wound at Benghazi left him completely paralysed for two years with post-diphtheratic polyneuntis. After recovering, he was sent to the RASC on the transport side and after spells in Italy and Greece was demobbed.
The war changed many things for many people and Frank underwent two of the changes which are not uncommon in the backgrounds of those who were to found the British racing car industry in the Fifties. For one thing. he had been brought into intimate contact with machinery and found he had a flair for handling it, something which perhaps would not have occurred to the pre-War errand boy. In common with many others, he also had heightened expectations of what post-War life might offer. He had no intention of returning to the cheese counter and, instead, used his savings and army gratuity to open a small garage, first in Pevensey, then in Bexhill-on-sea where he serviced cars and wheeled and dealed.
Nichols had always been interested in motor racing so when his business was sufficiently prosperous, he decided he’d have a go himself. In late 1953, he commissioned a “special” from Mike Chapman of Hastings and while it was abuilding, bought a secondhand Lotus VI with which to gain some experience.
Mike Chaprnan’s car, the CSM was delivered late in 1954, a typical special of its time with a spaceframe, a simple aluminium body styled along Lotus VI lines, a split (Ford) front axle and a coil spring-suspended beam rear end located by a Panhard rod. The engine was linered down from 1,172 cc to 1,100 cc, a special camshaft fitted and transmission was via Buckler close ratio gears. Frank’s was very much a “blood and guts” approach, with the throttle either fully open or shut. There was nothing in between, no subtlety It was a technique which
did not lend itself to wet conditions which, not surprisingly. Nichols hated.
A shrewd man, Nichols soon lent his car to John Bolster who wrote glowingly about it in Autosport, mentioning the possibility of replicas to be sold in kit form for around £500. This upset Colin Chapman who threatened to sue for infringement of copyright on the grounds that the car used a spaceframe. Frank’s reply was roughly translated. “Seek ye the sage and the onion”. The idea of the spaceframe had anyway, been around for quite some time though it has to be said that the CSM did bear a resemblance to a Lotus Six except that it used a torque tube.
On one occasion, Nichols beat Colin Chapman at Brands Hatch and Chapman came up to ask what the secret of the engine was “If I told you you wouldn’t believe me,” came the reply, but I’m not going to tell you Nichols response was not only the guarding of a trade secret, there was lust a touch of the shamed face there too, for he had raised the compression ratio to giddy heights by heating up the cylinder head and melting two brazing rods into each combustion chamber. It’s the sort of blacksmith approach you wouldn’t want to admit to.
Malcolm “Mac” Witts, Frank s mechanic, suggested making an overhead inlet valve/side exhaust valve head which gave 65 bhp at 5.700 rpm when fitted with twin SUs. Witts had the idea and Nichols saw the commercial possibilities and invested in It. When the prototype was completed, Harry Weslake undertook detail gas-flowing and brake testing as a favour. The production castings were made by Birmingham Aluminium Castings and they were finished off at Frank’s business, the London Road Garage (when the unit appeared early in 1955, it was known as the “LRG” head). The head originally cost £58 10s. nearly doubled the output of the 100E engine and, it was claimed, could be fitted in three hours.
As most readers will know, “Elva” is a contraction of “Elle va” . French for “she goes”, and it was a name suggested to Nichols by Jim Murphy, the brother of Dr Bill Murphy, a friend of Frank’s. 1955 saw the first Elva car which was conceived by Nichols and Witts with Bill Murphy assisting with the bodywork and was intended to provide a show case for the special cylinder head, the notion being to race in order to drum up orders for the head — to sell heads — to make money in order to race.
The new car followed the general chassis layout of the CSM but had Standard Ten front suspension and steering while the rear was again a live axle but this time located by trailing arms and triangulated stabilizer rods mounted on rubber bushes.
In the best traditions of the Fifties, Frank was testing his car in chassis form at Brands Hatch when an onlooker, Dennis Wakeling. asked if he could buy one. With the first sale the special builder becomes a constructor and so it was that the Elva Engineering Co Ltd was formed. The rolling chassis, less engine, gearbox and body, cost. £350. The works could supply a neat but crudely styled aluminium body.
Again Nichols made his car available to John Bolster and again JVB was able to enthuse about it. With a 1,098 cc Ford engine fitted with an Elva head and four Amal carburetters, Bolster achieved a “pretty staggering” top speed of 109,8 mph and found that it could be driven right on the limit all the time without ever becoming unstuck. He used it on the roads for a week, too,
Bolster’s road and track test helped the little firm establish itself but by mid-1955, the cars had already begun to make a reputation, both for speed and reliability, in the hands of Robin Mackenzie-Low, Peter Gammon and Les Leston.
Soon afterwards, Frank’s own racing career came to an end when the bonnet of his Elva came adrift in testing and hit him on the head causing severe concussion. “Two weeks later I returned to the circuit and went like crazy — or so I thought. Then Mac Witts suggested I’d be quicker if I ran around the circuit. I was 11 sec off my own pace! I thought I’d better pack up before I did something silly.”
It is thought that 20-25 cars were built in 1955. six Mk1s and the rest Mk1Bs which had neater bodies, 15 in wire wheels and Elva ‘s own wishbone front suspension. More authorities claim 20 Mk1/1Bs but Roger Dunbar of the Elva Owner’s Club puts the figure higher. The Club has had to work out probable production figures from the chassis plates of the cars it knows. Throughout this article I have accepted the Club’s approximate production figures. In some cases these are greatly different figures which have been quoted in other articles on the marque but the Elva Owner’s Club must be accepted as the authority in such matters.
The Mk2 Elva which appeared in 1956 had detail modifications, a de Dion rear axle and was generally fitted with Coventry Climax FWA engines. Many, too, were clothed with Falcon fibreglass bodies. It was a good clubman ‘s car but no match for most Climax-powered Lotus Elevens or “bob tail” Coopers.
British sports cars enjoyed great popularity in the States at the time and an order for a Mk1B came from Chuck Dietrich who went on to score many wins in the mid-West. Burdette “Birdie” Martin, together with Frank Beich, began to import them into the States as a part-time activity and then Continental Motors of Washington, D C., took over the job.
Most of the 25 MkII Elves made went Stateside and there they were a great deal more successful than they were in England though the marvellous Archie Scott-Brown, who began to drive a works car late in 1956. was able to post a few wins with one. This was not a works drive as we normally understand the term. No money exchanged hands, it was a case of Archie being keen to get as many drives as he could and Frank gladly loaning the development car to a truly great driver.
Having discovered the American market, Nichols concentrated on it. There were two main advantages. The first was that America was neutral territory where amateur drivers raced customer cars without the results being affected by works cars. The second advantage was financial for the American market offered higher profit margins, was expanding rapidly, was less prone to the sort of jolts which, for example the 1956 Suez Crisis gave and, moreover, had no purchase tax problems. In Britain at the time. purchase tax was waived on kit or component cars. The Customs and Excise Service tried to implement the rules and, as vigorously, most competition car makers applied their own cavalier interpretations of them. The full story of all the little tricks. the swapping of chassis plates, the selling of completed cars as “kits”, the game of getting the Excise man drunk at lunch and all the other imaginative ploys will one day be told but in the meantime Frank is refreshing in that he does not deny that such things went on. Still, purchase tax was a headache which was avoided by exporting to the Slates though it also led to a certain vagueness about production figures which has caused problems for many a motoring writer.
1957 saw the MkIll Elva, which was a further update and clothed with an aluminium body. While Lotus could call on the aerodynamic expertise of Frank Costin, the men at Elva relied on eye-experience and in the days when aerodynamics as applied to racing cars were still something of a black art, Elva lost out. You only have to compare the radiator orifices of the Lotus Eleven with the Elva III to see the difference. In racing terms, this meant that Elvas could be competitive on sprint circuits but lagged on speed circuits.
The MkIll was Elva’s 1958 production sports racer and was a further refinement of the basic MkI concept though it was lighter and fitted with a bulbous aluminium body which made the little machine look quite bulky. Customers were offered a choice of engines. BMC Series “A” or “B” or Coventry Climax FWA and most chose the latter. Whatever the choice, transmission was through a four speed MG gearbox. It’s a small point, the Elva’s distinctive cast magnesium wheels first appeared on the MkIII.
Small sports car development had moved along at such a pace that a refinement of a 1954/5 design was not going to be competitive against the Lotus Eleven Series II which had been introduced at the beginning of 1957. Not only was the Eleven winning in Britain but it took two classes and 1-2 in the Index of Performance at Le Mans. It’s not surprising then that only twelve MkIlls were made, half the number of either of its predecessors.
The MkIll’s best hope was to find a power advantage, something which Nichols attempted to do throughout Elva’s history, beginning with the special head for the 1172 Ford and ending up with the involvement of BMW and Porsche.
It seemed that such an advantage might be possible by using Archie Butterworth’s air-cooled flat four engine (see MOTOR SPORT, October 1984). The deal was that Butterworth would supply the engine and a mechanic, Nichols would supply a cut and shut MkIll chassis and Archie Scott-Brown would drive the car.
Butterworth’s engine had a unique inlet system, with swing valves operated by torsion springs. It was tricky to get running but once under way it delivered enormous torque and around 100 bhp per litre, then the Holy Grail of all engine builders. Unfortunately Butterworth had been supplied with sodium-filled poppet exhaust valves which had been ill-machined and so, ironically, the engine constantly failed due to the failure of the conventional valves. When the engine failed, Scott-Brown was generally in the lead but we are talking about an engine which fails to complete five laps of the short circuit at Brands Hatch. Finally, at the last meeting at Brands Hatch, the engine held together for long enough for the Elva-AJB to win a race. Nichols, however, had had enough of all the problems and did not take up his option to proceed any further with the engine, and since other potential users had been put off by the constant blow-ups, the AJB engine project passed quietly into history. What a pity this was for the bottom end of the unit was indestructible and the top end was sound as well, if given competent quality control by subcontractors.
During 1957, two significant things happened within Elva. The first was that “Mac” Witts left and his place as the man finally responsible for design under Nichols was taken by Keith Marsden, who later worked for Ford. Marsden had begun with Elva as a mechanic but had taught himself design and draughtsmanship through books and evening classes. As things turned out. he was destined to remain unknown to the majority of enthusiasts who always associated Frank Nichols alone with Elva, but he was unquestionably a gifted designer.
The other significant move was the decision to build a road car, which was an ambitious one given that Elva was only in its third year of
existence. This became the ultimate responsibility of Peter Knott, introduced to Nichols by Archie Scott-Brown. Knott stayed with Elva for only a short time and the Courier was his only design for the company.
Frank says. “The Courier was conceived as a car for the road which could also take part in competitions and the ideal customer would have a weatherproof head and a pneumatic bum. The car came about at the prompting of Walter R. Dickson, our American importer, who ordered 30 cars and whose instalment payments allowed the car to be built and developed. Dickson later ran into financial difficulties and his problems affected us badly but have to say that for a long time he did very well for us.”
The Courier was a simple, light, car with a tubular steel chassis fibreglass body, Elva front suspension, live rear axle and a BMC Series “B” engine tuned to give 72 bhp against the 68 bhp of the heavier MGA. It handled well and would accelerate from 0-60 mph in 9.2 sec and, more, was sold in the States for an initial price of the equivalent of £1,150. A new factory was opened in Hastings to produce the cars and Couriers first appeared on the circuits in 1958. It was an instant success and was soon winning racing on both sides of the Atlantic, indeed, the SCCA eventually had to modify its class structure to move the Courier up to compete against bigger-engined cars. It has to be said, though, that the Courier faced little in the way of real opposition in its class.
1958 also saw the MkIV the first of the cars Marsden designed with Nichols. This was a crisply-styled sports racer powered by a Coventry Climax FWA engine driving through an MGA gearbox with, as before, a spaceframe and alloy drum brakes. The thing which made it unusual was the independent rear suspension in which the unsplined driveshaft served the function of the upper wishbone. It is sometimes said that the MkIV was the first racing car to use this system but the fact is that Eric Broadley was developing the Lola Mk I on similar lines at the same time and the Elva happened to be finished a few weeks before the Lola. Ian Raby drove the prototype in Britain without scoring any notable successes, though the car did well in the States and revived Elva’s fortunes in small capacity sports car racing by selling 32 examples altogether.
The MkIV’s rear suspension shows that Nichols and Marsden were innovative and it was hard luck that Broadley had brought out his Lola at the same time for that was the cream of small front-engined sports cars. Without Lola on the scene, Elva should have been able to have beaten Lotus in 1959, for the Lotus Seventeen was something of a disaster.
Nichols really needed a good works driver and, in October 1958, nearly secured the services of Peter Ashdown who, after testing the car at Brands Hatch, hung around the circuit and was invited to try Broadley’s prototype Lola. Nichols never did find the one special driver with whom to form a team. The MkIV was Elva’s production racer for 1959 and it began well in the States by scoring a 1-2 in class in the Sebring Twelve Hour race. That success led to orders in the States but in Britain 1,100 cc racing was all about Peter Ashdown and his Lola. This was a shame for Elva for the MkIV was probably better than either the Lotus Eleven or seventeen. As soon as Nichols was in a position to beat Chapman, along came Broadleyl
Midway through 1959, the MkV appeared. an uprated. even lower, development of the MkIV. The prototype was put in the hands of Mike McKee, an exciting driver who seemed certain either to wrap himself around a tree or else become an F1 ace (where is he now?) but even McKee’s talent and enthusiasm was no match for the increasing number of Lolas which were appearing. McKee was able to mount a challenge but never to beat them. The MkV became Elva’s production sports racer for 1960 and, as before, it did quite well in the States, selling a total of 10 cars, but 1960 was to see a dramatic change of emphasis in racing at a junior level. — M.L.
(To be concluded next month).