England was teeming with sports car builders during the middle of the twentieth century. MG and Triumph were establishing themselves as the go-to guys for affordable fun. TVR had just begun production of its signature brand of outlandish vehicles and Lotus was proving that, fun cars or not, when it came to racing the Brits were serious.
Those brands flourished at a time when sports cars were at their best. By the 1950's, most of the bugs had been worked out of the teeny roadster concept. MG and Triumph were selling cars to an eager public as the pricier marques built enviable machinery. Not everyone could be as successful as Colin Chapman in their endeavors, though. The sports car boom brought with it many happy endings, but with so many companies springing up it was inevitable that some would falter in the shadows of better-established competition.
Founded in 1955 by Frank Nichols, Elva followed a path similar to its contemporary sports car builders. It started off producing bare competition cars, and then built sporting road cars after realizing moderate success. The brand's story was as telling of the enthusiastic British spirit as was the tale of Lotus. Towards the company's end, though, the brand faced difficulties and the name went under. Largely forgotten by history, Elva's story is one worth repeating.
After completing his military service in 1947, Frank G. Nichols bought a little garage in Westham, England. His efforts earned him the funding to set up a larger shop in Sussex, where he was in the company of other avid racing enthusiasts. Nichols was a skilled racer and did well behind the wheel of cars like the Lotus VI, but by 1955 he had decided to focus himself on the production of racing cars of his own design. He established the Elva Engineering Company in that year.
The first Elvas were great racers, and they brought initial success to the company. The Elva Mk I sold in high enough numbers to justify continued development. The Mk IB and Mk II followed in close succession.
The Mk II was built on a sturdy welded space frame with independent front suspension by coils springs and a De Dion rear axle also equipped with coils. Coventry Climax engines made their way into the Mk II, coupled to four-speed transmissions. Finned aluminum drum brakes by Alfin provided stopping power in early cars. Well-designed bodies clothed the Mk II's superb mechanicals, creating a package both effective and attractive. The earliest of the Mk II vehicles were the most striking, with their handmade skins of polished aluminum. Such lavish construction was too costly, though, and later cars used fiberglass body panels.
Elva's Mk II was successful on the track in the hands of both privateers and the Elva works. The most notable of the Mk II's achievements, though, was no single victory but rather its role in helping Elva reach the American market. Such an achievement was accomplished through the car's entry in the 12 Hours of Sebring. The Sebring race was 'an important test for any small, low-volume constructor that hoped to carve out a market niche in America (2).' Gaining a foothold in America was critical for Elva when the brand first raced at Sebring in 1958. With the Suez Crisis taxing English motorsports, failure in America would have meant disaster for the marque.
The Sebring races provided the opportunity for Elva to showcase the quality of its cars to potential customers, and Elva made sure to take advantage of such a chance. Five Elvas were entered in 1958's Sebring race. Two of the cars were backed by the company, while the other three were private entries by Ripley Motors in Ithaca, NY, Avant Corp. in Pittsburgh, PA, and Dr. M.J. Wyllie from Allison Park, PA (1). The car entered by Ripley Motors was the only Mk II. The other four Elvas were built to Mk III specification.
The 1958 season, though not entirely successful, gave Elva the necessary experience to come back for '59 as a serious competitor. The 1959 races at Sebring saw Elva's company-entered Mk IV cars take home honors for first and second places in their class.
Such a feat did not go unnoticed. U.S. sales picked up, and new developments kept Elva competitive. The company experienced problems with its American importer, though, and despite the initial success the company was taken over by Trojan, Ltd. and produced cars only through 1968.
Even with Elva's truncated history, the company accomplished a great deal. Their racing efforts allowed them to prosper for long enough to develop some very well-engineered racers. The Courier, Elva's car for road and track introduced in 1958, sold in reasonable numbers and showed Elva was capable of building competent cars for enthusiasts bound to public roads as well as for diehard competitors. It also offered Lotus Elan-like styling even before the Lotus Elan. In Elva's history, cars like the Mk II were instrumental to the company's success. By being one of the first Elvas campaigned at Sebring, the Mk II helped introduce a new name to American buyers and help prolong one brand's sports car fairy-tale for a few precious years.Sources:
1. Mason, Stan. 'Elva History: Elva at Sebring.' Elva Cars 10 Jan 2008 Web.28 May 2009. http://www.elva.com/history/20080126-sebringhistory.php.
2. '1957 Elva Mark II Bobtail For Sale.' Classic Cars for Sale Web.28 May 2009. http://www.classiccarsforsale.co.uk/classic-car-page.php/carno/51280.By Evan Acuña