One careful owner. The tale of the Elfin, a forgotten Aussie racer that’s still with its first keeper. ‘Unique’ is an overused word, but… …this car is a real Aussie one-off – and the man who commissioned it almost 60 years ago still owns it… Words David Dowsey. Photography Richard Weinstein.
Elfinn – Australia’s FORGOTTEN RACER The classic-car world is full of lists: the first this, the fastest that, the oldest, the rarest, the most expensive…
Many claims do not stand scrutiny. But let us suggest to you that this coupé has a history that is possibly unprecedented: a unique sports car that was ordered from a fledgling racecar constructor, by a man who oversaw the design, provided the specification and, almost 60 years later, is still its proud owner.
This Elfin GTS Coupé was commissioned by George Spanos who, in 1960, was a lecturer in Fine Art at Melbourne University’s Secondary Teachers’ College. Only a year earlier, a new sports and racing car manufacturer had been founded in South Australia by a tenacious and talented young man by the name of Garrie Cooper. The paths of these two men were soon to cross and create history.
Adelaide-born Cooper was a motoring enthusiast from his earliest days, and a racer as soon as he could drive. His father was a skilled body builder and painter who owned and ran Cooper Motor Bodies, which built bus and truck bodies, and converted saloons into wagons and utilities to special commission.
Within these walls, Cooper cobbled together rudimentary bodies for – and tinkered with the mechanicals of – a series of racing specials that he modified and campaigned with his mates.
When a friend from the Austin 7 Club of South Australia asked him to build a streamlined body for a Ford 10-based special he owned, Cooper suggested that he could make a better-looking version of the Lotus Eleven, which he had seen in the metal at local race meetings.
A handbuilt aluminium body would be expensive but, not wanting to let the opportunity pass, he murmured that if his other club chums would also like a body – or a complete car – then the price would be a little more reasonable. Several enthusiastic friends took the bait and before he knew it, Cooper had a racing car company.
He chose the name Elfin – a small and sprightly mythical creature – for practical and obvious reasons: Cooper Cars had beaten him to the punch, and was already up and running, winning Grand Prix World Championships with fellow Aussie Jack Brabham behind the wheel.
Elfin Sports Cars’ first model was the Streamliner of 1959. An initial series of six was built for five mates and for Cooper himself to race, of course, and in total nearly two dozen were built over a four-year period. Its visual connection to the Frank Costin-designed Lotus Eleven is immediately obvious and it proved to be a popular choice for privateer racers competing in sports-car events across Australia, including the 1961 Australian Grand Prix at Mallala.
Built on a tubular spaceframe chassis, the Streamliner typically featured independent front suspension with unequal-length wishbones, Armstrong coil springs and an anti-roll bar, with a live axle at the back (although independent rear suspension was optional). There were drum brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, and 13in drilled disc wheels. It was available in kit form or fully constructed at the Elfin works.
Pinning down the specification of an Elfin Streamliner – or indeed any Elfin model – is problematic because all sorts of engines, gearboxes, suspension layouts and more were used. Various parts were often supplied by the commissioning buyer and sometimes these were changed or updated at a later date; no two cars were the same. But there is one Streamliner that is unlike any other.
Racers Peter Manton and the previously mentioned Spanos – having witnessed the speed of the Streamliner first-hand at the Phillip Island Trophy Race in December 1959, with Cooper behind the wheel of the Ford E93A-powered prototype – decided to commission their own cars. However, while Manton ordered a conventional open Streamliner for sports-car competition, Spanos wanted his racer to have a roof so that he could run it in GT events. No such car existed at the time, but over a cup of tea with Spanos, Cooper quickly sketched out what would become the GTS Coupé on a scrap of paper. It was beautiful but, as both gentlemen were soon to discover, it proved rather time-consuming to produce.
“I visited the factory in Adelaide [at the start of 1960] and Garrie told me he wanted to build a car that was a proper roadgoing version of the Lotus Eleven, but with a stronger body,” Spanos recalls. “At this stage he had not built a closed car but when I saw the open Streamliners, I said, ‘I would like a coupé.’”
“Is this what you want?” Cooper asked him, showing him his sketch. Spanos said it was perfect, and a deal was struck.
“Garrie Cooper was the most honest man I have ever met,” remembers Spanos. “He was remarkable. He was a lovely man.”
The fledgling car constructor fixed the fee at £1000 (minus engine, exhaust system, gearbox and differential) but, after he discovered to his absolute horror that the Coupé cost twice that to construct, subsequent entreaties to build replicas were politely rebuffed. Nevertheless, true to his word, Cooper produced the GTS Coupé for Spanos, asking for not a penny more than the original quote.
From the initial pen sketch to delivery, the GTS Coupé took a little over 12 months to complete. This caused some minor discomfort for Spanos, but the person who ended up with the major headache was its constructor.
Unexpectedly, almost everything about the Coupé was different from the Streamliner on which it was theoretically based, and the one-off, hand-beaten aluminium body could not be amortised across a series of cars, or subsequently moulded in much cheaper glassfibre, as was often the case at Elfin Sports Cars.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project ended up running significantly over budget, but then no one ever accused Cooper of being a great businessman. What customers, former employees, fellow competitors and team drivers all agree upon, however, is his honesty and integrity.
He was a man who always honoured his commitments, often to his own detriment. At a time when £1000 – the amount ‘lost’ by the Elfin firm on the GTS Coupé – could buy a flat in Adelaide, the fact that the car was delivered as promised, on price and to the agreed specification, demonstrates the kind of gentleman Cooper was.
While Elfin’s team in Conmurra Avenue set about completing the rolling chassis, skilfully welded by long-term employee Fulvio Mattiolo, and the hand-formed body, made by Englishtrained John Webb, the coupé’s mechanical specification was set by Spanos.
“I told Garrie that I would send all of the mechanicals over [from Melbourne] – the engine, the gearbox and the diff,” says Spanos. “I had bought Peter Manton’s Morris Major and all of that stuff went straight into the Elfin. It has a BMC 1489cc engine with a Derrington crossflow head and twin-choke 45DCOE Weber carburettors, a BMC Morris Major gearbox and a specially built exhaust. There have been five diff ratios used on it: 3.7, 3.9, 4.2, 5.1 and 5.5. It has the original wheels, but with slightly wider rims. We went to disc brakes on the front because they were originally drums.”
The build was protracted, so in 1960 Spanos and Manton flew to Adelaide to check on progress; they were becoming impatient. “We were very anxious to see our cars,” says Spanos. “We agreed we were going to be very firm and say, ‘We have been waiting and we are getting a bit concerned.’ When we arrived at the factory there was Garrie’s dear old dad, Cliff, and he said, ‘Hello, come and have a cup of tea. ’We couldn’t get cross with them; they were wonderful.” Eventually, the cars were returned on the back of a trailer to Melbourne, where some fine-tuning was done at Manton’s Monaro Motors. “I was absolutely delighted with the finished product,” recalls Spanos.
It was supplied with vinyl bucket seats, full instrumentation and electrics, and an elegant wooden steering wheel, handmade by Cliff. It was road registered in January 1961 and has remained so ever since – today it runs custom ELFIN plates. “I used to drive the car to work occasionally,” says Spanos. “People were intrigued; they all thought it was remarkable. It attracted a huge amount of interest.
“I have raced the car at Calder Park, Fishermans Bend, Albert Park [home of the current Australian Formula One Grand Prix], Longford, Mallala, Tarrawingee, Hume Weir, Winton and Ballarat Airstrip. I would drive up, race the car, then drive it back home.” Now in his 80s, Spanos leaves driving duties to others: “Everyone who has driven the car is amazed by the handling. Garrie did an amazing job – it handles magnificently.
“Garrie finished it in the Monaro Motors blue, a dull sort of hue. I had it painted silver at one stage – it looked remarkable in a metallic. I ran it like that for a little while, with a white stripe over it, but when Ford (Australia) brought out the True Blue colour [in 1971] I had it painted in that, and it remains that way.”
He no longer drives it competitively, but Spanos, the man who ordered this unique sports car, still owns the Elfin. Maybe not for much longer, though: he admits that because he’s getting on a bit, he may be persuaded to sell – but only to a sympathetic buyer.
Until that time comes, we will leave the last word on this remarkable and head-turning one-off roadgoing racer to him: “People often comment that it is pretty unusual for a young man to purchase a truly original car straight from the factory and to still own it as an 80-odd year old, but to me it’s just a motor car. I have a certain attachment to it, but I am not pathologically fascinated by it. It does look great, though, doesn’t it?”
The Elfin now wears Ford’s True Blue paint. Opposite: founder Garrie Cooper (on left) overseeing work on the unique coupé.
Clockwise from top left: all Elfin steering wheels were handmade by Cliff Cooper; delicate details; the petite Morris Major 1489cc engine; GTS has been registered for road use since January 1961.
Clockwise from far left: B-series engine wears Derrington head and 45DCOE Webers; delicate buckle of racing belts; George Spanos still owns the Elfin GTS Coupé he commissioned in 1960.
“People comment that it is unusual for a young man to purchase a truly original car straight from the factory and to still own it as an 80-odd year old”
Although in theory based on Elfin’s Streamliner, the unique GTS Coupé was significantly different, making it more pricey and time-consuming to build.
The finished product is true to Garrie Cooper’s original sketch.
ELFIN SPORTS CARS: THE ORIGINAL AUSSIE GRIT
Magnificent stories often have humble beginnings, and so it is with Elfin Sports Cars. Built in a simple factory in suburban Adelaide, Elfin’s products were at the vanguard of competitive Australian motorsport from the late 1950s until the premature death of founder Garrie Cooper, at just 46, in 1982.
From sprightly closed-wheel sports cars to ferocious V8-powered Formula 5000s, the greatest Australian drivers of the time drove Elfins to 29 major Australian titles, winning the Singapore, Malaysian and New Zealand Grands Prix along the way. The driver roster included Vern Schuppan, Larry Perkins, John McCormack, John Bowe, Frank Matich, Bob Jane, Alfredo Costanzo, Kevin Bartlett and Spencer Martin – plus Formula One World Champion James Hunt and Ferrari ace Didier Pironi.
Elfin Sports Cars continued trading after Cooper’s death, first with his elderly father Cliff continuing to build Formula Vees. Don Elliott then purchased the company, constructing numerous Formula Fords for privateer racers and running a works team with successful Formula Two and Formula Holden cars from the original Elfin factory premises.
Bill Hemming and Nick Kovatch bought the firm in 1997, moving manufacturing to Melbourne and working with Holden to create V8-powered lightweight sports cars. Jaguar and Touring Car hero Tom Walkinshaw bought Elfin in 2006 – shortly before his death in 2010 – and had plans to take the brand to Le Mans. His estate still owns Elfin, although no new cars have been built since 2012.
The original Streamliner was the first car constructed by Elfin. Numerous powerplants were used, but the prized versions had Coventry Climax engines (right); only two were produced.
Eventually, 23 Elfin Streamliners were built: frame numbers one to 22, which included the GTS Coupé, plus Garrie Cooper’s unnumbered prototype.
Elfin Sports Cars raced in almost all available categories in Australia, including Australian Formulas One, Two and Three, Formula Ford, Formula 5000, Formula Junior, Formula Vee, and sports car and GT classes. In addition, a few were exported and raced in the USA, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand. Today, many are still competing in historic motorsport. Surely that is the ultimate testament to the skilful engineering and incredible ingenuity of Elfin Sports Cars.
JAMES HUNT’S FINAL VICTORY
Did you know that James Hunt’s last win was in Australia, driving an Elfin? In 1978, he campaigned an Elfin MR8-C Formula 5000 in the Rose City 10,000, a few weeks after the season-ending Grand Prix in Canada on 8 October. It was a big coup to attract Hunt, who was still a major international draw, despite having endured a tough F1 season.
For Hunt, fly-blown Winton Raceway was a long way from the glamour of the Monaco GP and this proved amusing for the Elfin crew, which was used to making do with humble resources. At one stage, Hunt’s Chevrolet V8 had a misfire and he demanded the engine be changed. Elfin didn’t have one. They did, however, set up the car to suit his large frame, with a seat fitting and personalisation of the gearlever, the pedals and the steering column.
Hunt said the Elfin “seems a very good car, it is very forgiving”, and noted that it was a lot easier to drive than the Eagle he had raced in the US in ’1974, his only previous F5000 experience. Taking a swipe at his McLaren F1 team, which he was leaving after a miserable season, he added: “It’s good to have a competitive car for a change.”
Hunt qualified on pole, seven tenths faster than local John McCormack in his ex-British GP-winning McLaren M23. Garrie Cooper wrote that Hunt was: ‘Very impressive right from the start, being very smooth and precise and getting the power on noticeably earlier than the others.’ Yet he was only pacing himself to the opposition and, said Cooper, ‘Could have gone quicker.’ The race was a procession, with Hunt winning by 40.5 secs from Alf Costanzo in a Lola T400.
Hunt’s win in the Elfin MR8-C was to be his last race victory. He retired suddenly midseason the following year, after he and his new Wolf F1 car proved uncompetitive.