Elle Va? Mais Oui?
Just outside Arundel and not a million miles from Bexhill, the birthplace of Elva Engineering Co. famous for its sports racing cars of the Fifties and Sixties, you will find a small firm by the name of Elva Racing Components Ltd. It is run by Roger Dunbar, secretary of the Elva Owners Club, and it was born of his enthusiasm for this characterful marque. Judging by the care with which his staff were putting the finishing touches to the Elva Courier I had gone down there to see, the whole company thrives on that same enthusiasm.
Roger founded the Elva Owners Club in 1979, and the company he now runs was started in order to satisfy the increasing demand for information and parts. It is very much a specialist company and resolved not to be diverted away from dealing exclusively with Elva cars. It is one of the pleasures of what one might call the vintage and classic car scene that small businesses like this exist, not for the making of a fast buck, but because of an enthusiasm and respect for the cars in which they deal.
The majority of the work is with the Elva Mk7 sports racer, and a considerable amount of business comes from the States where there is a keen Elva following, and so it was rather unusual for them to be preparing an Elva Courier for a customer in Switzerland. That customer was Mr Hilton Johnson, who interestingly enough last had a car featured in MOTOR SPORT in 1948 when WB tested his supercharged six-cylinder Citroën. Mr Johnson wanted a car that could be used on the road as well as for racing, but one that was a little less valuable than his Bentley. It was at the suggestion of a friend that he first looked into the possibility of getting an Elva.
Roger managed to find a Courier that was in a rather dilapidated state after it had sat in a garage for ten years ‘awaiting restoration’. The condition was no matter since a rebuild was necessary anyway while all the major components were sound. It was then stripped to the chassis, a more difficult task than it sounds due to the fibreglass bodywork being bonded to the chassis rails. The chassis itself is a clever piece of design and bears witness to the fact that Elva was primarily a racing car manufacturer. It is a ladder-type frame, curving inwards at the middle, and is built up of 2 1/4″ 14-gauge steel tubing. The result is a stiff frame, especially for such a light car, and a combination of this with the carefully thought out plan of weight distribution gave the Courier some very useful roadholding characteristics.
The engine is set far back in the chassis, and is also set quite low; the fuel tank normally sits above the rear suspension and with the driver in place the car has close to a 50/50 weight distribution. The fuel tank in Mr Johnson’s car has been modified, and was one of several aspects of this particular car where a compromise has been reached between a modified racer and a manageable road car. The tank above the suspension was removed, and a fifteen gallon tank was placed in the boot. This would give the car a sensible touring range for journeys to and from the race meetings. On an event like the Coppa D’Italia, where there might be up to 150 miles between fill-up points, and a couple of hillclimbs in between, a five gallon tank would have been totally impractical.
The standard engine in a late Mkl Courier was a 1600 cc MGA unit. The engine in this car retains the original MGA block but has been otherwise modified to race specification by Mansell McCarthy Motorsport Ltd. It produces 125 bhp, which is quite modest for a race specification unit when 140-150 bhp is possible, but again the road suitability of the car has had to be taken into consideration. The engine has been kept more manageable, with an even spread of power, by fitting a comparatively mild rally camshaft. The flywheel has been lightened, but not to the extent that the engine is lumpy on tickover, and the twin plate clutch is quite progressive. A Kenlowe fan has been fitted and the radiator has been boxed in to improve the cooling. The standard car would often overheat because the airflow would pass around the radiator rather than through it. The engine bay has been superbly laid out so that everything is accessible, and yet is neatly tucked away. Other race modifications include a close ratio gearbox and alloy wheels, but very little has been done to the chassis or suspension.
The Courier was conceived by Frank Nichols, the founder of Elva Engineering in 1956, as a car that could be used for anything from shopping to driving to and from and competing in race meetings. As such the chassis and suspension can cope with considerably more power than the standard MGA unit produced. A roll bar has been fitted and this naturally stiffens the chassis a little.
This car still has all the attributes for which they were praised when Frank Nichols first put them into production. “The Elva Courier is an attractive sports car of moderate cost. Propelled by the 1600 cc MGA engine, its light weight and clean shape ensure a brilliant performance. It handles well, and has many practical features, which renders it an ideal machine for the fast tourist who wishes to indulge in a little competition work on the side.” The suspension in fact comprises of a double wishbone coil spring/damper arrangement at the front, and rigid rear axle with parallel radius arms and Panhard rod at the rear. The positive steering employs a Morris Minor rack and pinion. This vision of a racing-cum-road car is exactly what Mr Johnson had in mind and so the Courier would seem perfectly suited to the job. He intends to race the car in the FIA Trophy competing in class T7 for 1300-2000 cc GT prototype cars. With a standard windscreen the car could be run as a GT, and in fact he is up against greater competition in the prototype class, but he feels that there is also greater variety and that one is in amongst more interesting cars. Jokingly he added, “a friend of mine has a Birdcage Maserati. I know that going into a corner I have the edge over him because his car is worth over a million pounds!” He intends to drive the car to and from race meetings starting with a meeting at Monza, and the furthest he will have to drive to will be Czechoslovakia. The passenger seat can be taken out and a much smaller fold-up one (as a token seat to pass scrutineering) can be put in its place, thus allowing a little more room for luggage. Tools will easily fit in the side panels inside the boot, and with a spare wheel and jack in front of the petrol tank, the car is ready for touring and racing.
Climbing in and out proved to be quite difficult because of the small door and the roll bar and the large transmission tunnel makes the driving position rather strange. As a racing car, however, it is a rather civilised machine having fitted carpets and very comfortable bucket seats. The dashboard has a strangely positioned speedometer and rev counter; both seem to be obscured by the steering wheel, which is probably a little smaller than the original one. Mr Johnson would be wise to turn the rev counter in order to see the vital 5-7000 rpm segment of the dial. The exhaust gave out a typically MG note, the newly built engine sounding crisp and tight but also quite heavily baffled — the engine might sound a little less restrained with the open pipe Mr Johnson will be fitting at the less fussy circuits. Even with the baffles, however, there is certainly plenty of power; when fully laden the bhp per ton is still approximately 180.
The rev limit once the engine is fully run in will be approximately 7000 rpm, and so this little Elva will certainly prove to be quite quick, the top speed working out at approximately 125 mph. The handling was also very impressive, without noticeable roll, oversteer or understeer. It felt very neutral and controllable and the steering was astonishingly precise. The firm ride had us darting about the road on uneven country lanes but that would prove to be no problem on a smooth circuit. In fact the set-up of the suspension felt just right, as soon as the car went into a corner it became rock steady, and the steering would move the front end about with the precision of a single-seater racer. All this added up to very accurate cornering and a wonderfully even spread of power as one accelerated away from the apex. Taking the engine up to a conservative 5000 rpm one could just begin to feel the serious power coming in, but it would pull with increasing strength from 2000 rpm.
Giving a gutsy kick in the back, the low bonnet would lift sharply, and with the wind sweeping over the tiny windscreen and the exhaust barking in our left ear we tore off into the distance.
All in all this nippy little car may well prove to be a bit of a giant killer. Its combination of even power, good handling and precise steering make it very manageable.
The lightweight fibreglass body was finished in a nice shade of brick red. Stepping back from the car to study its lines, the looks slowly begin to grow on you. With a rounded rear wheel arch, though, I think there would be a considerable improvement, but it is certainly a pretty sports car and seemed to catch the eye of many a tourist at Arundel Castle.
Above all it is good to see a car designed for truly enjoyable amateur competition. Not so valuable that you are afraid to use it and not so highly tuned that you cannot drive it on the road. It is a car of enjoyable character and as Roger Dunbar said, “it was conceived and built by a company who built race cars; you can drive it on the road but if it bumps a bit, and if it is a bit noisy, well that is what race cars are like.” We would like to thank Roger Dunbar, Elva Racing Components Ltd and Mr Hilton Johnson.