Originally built for the 1970 Australian Sportscar Championship, The CAN-AM Elfin ME5 has been immaculately restored. And, with 590BHP, It’s fast. Fellow Aussie Peter Robinson slid behind the wheel
I don’t dare let on. To do so could cost me the chance of a long-awaited drive. But with my knees hard up against the lower edge of the dash, how the hell am I going to pilot the Elfin in anger if I can’t brake, can’t accelerate? Merde
Just how tall is Neil Allen anyway? He must be way shorter than my 1.92 metres, otherwise there’s no way he could have played hero at Warwick Farm, NSW, when he won the 1970 Hordem Trophy in this very car, first time out of the box.
Sitting here, squeezed into the one and only ME5 sports racer, all I’m sure of is that when Gary Cooper and Ron Lambert designed the Elfin for Allen back in 1969, they weren’t to know that 26 years later another, lankier, Australian would hope to drive their car, now owned by Harm Lagaay, the head of Porsche design, on the Nurburgring Grand Prix circuit in Germany. Elfin’s tiny Edwardston, South Australia, factory never felt so far away.
This is madness. Mentally, I’m panicking. Hiding in a helmet, at least my anxiety is out of sight.
Calm down. Be rational. Harm’s almost as tall, must be, after all I’m wearing his driving suit, even his racing shoes, and they fit okay. There must be a way. I shove back into the racing bucket, realise there’s still space between bum and seat and snuggle down hard. My hips are too wide to be comfortable, but I’ve found an inch or two of room. Now at least I can swivel my feet among the pedals. Even if the seat-belt harness is proving a pig.
Harm leans down into the cockpit to shout instructions. Again. The starting procedure is simple enough. Full throttle until the engine fires, then ease off, holding the revs at the 3500rpm idle. Sounds easy enough.
The starter is plugged in behind the driver, the motor spins, the Chevy V8 barks instantly. But the accelerator is near rigid; it won’t release smoothly, so keeping a consistent pressure against the spring proves impossible. The revs lurch down to below 2500mm. It stalls.
We repeat the process. If there’s a rhythm to the throttle action I can’t find it. I know a small block, 5-litre Chevy V8 tuned to pump out 590bhp is never going to idle quite like a Toyota Lexus, but this is ridiculous.
It stalls. Again.
“Why can’t you get it to work?” Harm asks, almost plaintively.
Then it comes together. By constantly blipping the throttle I manage to settle the engine into a semi-harmonious throb, a twitching roar from 3000 to 4000rpm. First gear in a Hewland DG300 gearbox is across the incredibly narrow gate to the far left and down. The tiny alloy lever slots in precisely.
Of course, a Can-Am racing sports car, weighing just 660kg (1455lb), isn’t designed to ease gently into the traffic. But the clutch bites home quickly, the Elfin stumbles momentarily, then jerks out of the Ferrari pit that’s our home for the day’s testing .(and was Michael Schumacher’s base during the 1996 European Grand Prix), and erupts down the pitlane. Better to reduce the chances of stalling and leave the ME5 in first, before I’m out on the track.
Why is that man waving me off the track? I hesitate. It’s a mistake, he waves again. I know, he knows, I’ve seen his signal. He turns out to be the same official who earlier refused us permission to do car-to-car photography between practice sessions. Of course, I should have ignored him and booted the Elfin away, like everybody else. Instead, it stalls.
And without a starter, I’m stuck. Harm appears with the life-support system, after I’ve clambered out. Climbing in requires dexterity and technique. The Elfin’s so low you feel as if you are sitting on the tarmac. My view of the track is defined by the incredibly low shovel nose, that almost scrapes the blacktop as it carves out the air between the two flat and amazingly symmetrical guards. The cockpit is tiny, instruments limited to revs, and pressure and temperature gauges, and the diminutive wheel an easy reach. You’re not conscious of anything behind you, even the huge black wing. For somebody three inches shorter, the driving position would be very comfortable. Out on the track it seems small, compact and yet from some angles it looks as wide as it is long.
We’re soon mobile, and this time not to be denied. The V8 rumbles defiantly. Above 3000rpm it runs effortlessly with that slightly ragged, utterly distinctive throb that’s typical of a highly-tuned bent eight. It’s not a sound Europeans instinctively understand, but in Australia and America it transcends all manner of automotive rankings.
Remember the McLaren F! doing the same thing. Harm says the engine is safe to 8000rpm, though I’m content to use 7000rpm as the red line. There’s enough pure grunt at any speed to make even the McLaren seem comparatively tame. When my helmet begins to lift in fifth down the straight, I reckon it’s time to pack it in. I brake as late as I dare, but I’m using road car terms of reference and inevitably the Elfin slows too early and I have time to accelerate before the apex. It’s a common mistake by drivers who have grown accustomed to road cars.
It seems to understeer on turning in to corners, but it’s early days in the development of the ME as an historic racing car and Lagaay says this can be dialled out. The steering is direct and well weighted once the Elfin is moving, but it loads up quickly and would be tiring to drive hard over any real distance. The lock is a joke.
Up to a point, the Elfin is easy to drive, as long as you take care to get away without stalling; beyond that point it needs skill and practice. I’ve been told to watch the water temperature gauge. From the days when Peter Malloy worked the spanners for Neil Allen, the ME5 has had heating problems. In 1970, nobody really understood aerodynamics and how to use the air flow to cool a racing car efficiently. Now, even after the ME5’s been stripped down and beautifully restored, the engine rebuilt by Lee Muir ( the brilliant American who was Denny Hulme’s mechanic in the glory days of Can-Am racing) it still suffers from the same inherent flaw.
So, how come Harm Lagaay, a 50-year-old Dutchman living in Germany and working for Porsche, has spent three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars buying, rebuilding and now racing an unknown (in Europe) Australian sports car?
The first thing to appreciate is that here is one senior car company executive who actually spends his leisure time working on, and racing, old cars. The Elfin is number six. Lagaay first worked as a technical journalist, moved to Porsche Design in 1970, before running Ford’s advanced studio in Cologne from 1977 to 1986, when he went to BMW as head of the Technik studio responsible for the Z1. He returned to Porsche with Ulrich Bez in early 1989 to take over as head of design. Today, though, the bloke who’s been so generous with his priceless car is Harm Lagaay, historic racer.
So what is Can-Am? The Canadian-American Challenge Cup series, to use its full tide, offered a huge purse, bank-rolled by Johnson’s Wax, to lure the world’s best drivers into a racing series for some of the mightiest sports cars the world has ever seen. From 1966, when John Surtees won the first title, until the money ran out in 1972, the Can-Am sports cars became ever faster and more powerful. Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme won so often in the orange McLaren M6A and M8 that it eventually became known as the Bruce and Denny Show. Even Ferrari built a special racer for the series, but it was Porsche who topped them all with a turbocharged 917, the flat 12 machine with about 1100bhp, then the most powerful racing car of all time.
Today, Can-Am cars are not only very collectible, but also expensive. An original, if basket-case, McLaren with a racing history could set you back £125,000. And not even the director of design at Porsche has that kind of money. Lagaay persisted with his Chevron B8, but dreamt of a Can-Am car.
In early 1993, Lagaay visited Chuck Haines, an American Can-Am specialist, and told him what he was looking for. Within weeks, Haines had rung to tell him of a sports racing car advertised in, of all places, Australia. This was the unique ex-Neil Allen ME5, then owned by Bob Minogue, the 11th person to register his name in the logbook.
“What’s an Elfin?” asked Harm. He was soon to find out, and has answered the same question countless times in Europe. In early 1969, Neil Allen asked Elfin to build him a rival fbr Frank Matich’s highly successful SR-4 for the 1970 Australian Sports Car Championship. Although it was never truly successful it was the only car ever to beat Matich’s four-cam Repco-powered V8 in a straight fight.
Essentially, the ME5 was a two-seater F5000 – the V8 open-wheeler formula that replaced the Tasman Cup cars at the end of the 1960s in Australia – with sportscar bodywork. Originally it was going to be of space-frame construction but, based on information about the Can-Am cars, Cooper decided on a monocoque with tubular front and rear ends. The Bartz-prepared 5-litre Chevrolet V8 produced 460bhp at 7500rpm on Lucas fuel injection and was a fully stressed member of the structure. And appearances don’t lie: by the standards of the time, the ME5 was tiny.
By April 1993, sight unseen, Lagaay had agreed a sum (unknown, but I reckon to be about £40,000) with Minogue. Impatient to see his new toy, Lagaay had it flown to Stuttgart. The restoration started in late 1993 and in February 1994 the local launch of the new 911 gave Lagaay an excuse to visit Australia. He loves the place and has just been back there for the Boxster’s debut.
“I met all the Elfin people and learned something about the history of the marque,” says Harm. “I became aware of my responsibility.
“I wanted something rare, a car which shows that its makers had a vision and were prepared to do something different Now I’ve finished the Elfin I tend to lose interest in the project. It’s been the same with all my cars. You know, the restoration and rebuilding is probably more important to me that the actual racing. When I’ve finished I want to sell it and find something new. Now I’m thinking about a Shadow Mk 1, the Can-Am car with the tiny 10-inch wheels. It was totally unsuccessful, but I think I know how to solve its problems.”
In July last year, the ME5 was flown to America for a gathering of Can-Am cars. With its 5-litre V8, the Elfin was the smallest and least powerfull of all the cars at the meeting. Yet it climbed to ninth in a race featuring more than 50 Can-Am cars, before the engine blew. That old over-heating problem. Lagaay says he has a solution, but worries that it would mean deviating from its historic specification. It’s a problem many owners of old racing cars face.
But what of the Elfin company? Where do its roots lie? The name may not be a household one in Europe, but between Gary Cooper’s first alloy-bodied Streamliner in 1959 and his ground-effect MR-9 F5000 in 1979, Elfin sportscars won 15 Australian national championships. Two ofthese went to the designer-driver himself.
Elfin Cars, in Adelaide, South Australia was Australia’s most prolific racing car constructor, producing open-wheel racing cars and sportscars. Cooper took over his father’s truck body business in the late ’50s and decided he wanted to build road-legal sports cars. He created everything from Formula Juniors to Formula 5000s, together with a variety of Lotus Super Seven-like Elfin Clubman sports cars.
In all some 250 Elfins were produced.
Australian drivers such as Frank Matich, Larry Perkins, Max Stewart John McCormack, Bob Jane and Greg Cusack all raced Ellins during the firm’s golden era in the ’60s and early ’70s. Cooper never had any formal training and his cars were noted more for the common-sense in their designs and the quality of their finish than the innovation of the technicals. Among those who worked for Cooper was Tony Alcock, the Englishman who died alongside Graham Hill and Tony Brise in the 1975 aircraft crash and who worked for Elfin in the early T60s.
Gary Cooper died in 1982, from a burst aorta, aged only 46, and the company he founded quickly went into a decline from which it never recovered. It finally closed down in December 1989.