|ELVA at Sebring|
ELVA at Sebring
We are indebted to Stan Mason who spent much time putting together this article.
Sandusky, Ohio-based driver Chuck Dietrich had contacted FGN during 1956 having read UK race reports of early Elva successes, which was hugely fortunate for Elva as the Suez Canal conflict had seriously curtailed motor sports in the UK. Chuck signed an Agreement to become the Official Regional Distributor for surrounding States around Ohio in September 1956. Chuck was surprised to find his first June 1956 shipments of Elva Sports Racers had no headlamps, stoplights, horn or passenger seat, which were required for endurance races such as the 12 hours of Sebring. Much attention was being paid to these early cars and Chuck soon secured orders including Ripley Motors who wanted to purchase a complete car less body so that a custom coupe body could be produced in Italy. As interest increased, Frank Beich attracted additional distributors including Burdette Martin of Vogue Motors, Millard Ripley of Ripley Motors and Walter (Bud) Dickson of Continental Motors who later became the official US importer. The much improved Elva Mk.II was being developed at the end of 1956 which featured a De Dion rear axle and soon the ELVA Mk.II "SEBRING" Model was announced 'complete and ready to race' with a Stage 2 Climax at £1375.00, or Stage 1 Climax at £1325.00. The Mk.III was an evolution of the MKII with additional Endurance Race options and improvements, which included Appendix C full-width windscreen, single mechanical windscreen wiper, and a roll bar enclosed in the head fairing. The Climax Engine was moved aft by 5 inches, the roll center was lowered, and cars were fitted with the first Elva magnesium cast wheels, designed by Peter Nott.
Chuck was approached by Millard Ripley at the Harewood Ontario race meeting in September 1957 about a team entry for Sebring the following year, as Ripley wanted to enter his Mk.II, Ravesi (heading another dealership) in another Mk.II also wanted to join, provided FGN agreed to a factory entry, meaning some factory support. This was conveyed to FGN who was happy to accept. At the same time 'Doc' Wyllie asked Chuck about the possibility of a car being built for his newly ordered Climax 1500cc FPF unit. This special double overhead cam engine was originally intended for a Lotus, but he was becoming frustrated by Colin Chapman’s delaying tactics, and was anxious to race the new Coventry Climax power unit. A special Mk.III was built for Wyllie to include all-wheel disc braking and weight beneath the required limit of 1100lbs.
The earliest documentation of Elva’s interest in Sebring was found in the March 1957 Motor Racing periodical which reported on 2 Elva Sports Racers both with Ashley Laminates fiberglass bodies (molded from an earlier Keith Marsden designed Elva alloy bodied car that resembled a Maserati A6GCS) and full space frames prepared for Sebring. The article shows a white car with wheel valances believed to be 101-C-1 and a darker car believed to be 101-C-20.
The January 1957 shipping papers to Bo Crimm in Dallas Texas revealed:
While these race cars were being shipped by Sea Container to Bo Crimm, others stacked above them broke through and damaged them enough that they never made the race and were apparently returned to Bexhill England for repair. Bo Crimm entries for Sebring have been seen on the Internet, which are assumed to be early entry applications since the cars never appeared at the race.
The Elva marque was gaining popularity during 1957 at many US race tracks and the dealer network was willingly selling Elva sports racers. Alec Ullman, Sebring Race Director / Organizer, was approached about the proposed Elva team contingent that would like to enter the 1958 race. However, Ullman was unaware of Elva’s capability as a race car and said that he would consider their entry depending on their performance at the December 1957 Nassau Bahamas Races.
The May 1958 Sports Car Illustrated periodical interviewed Charlie Kolb, the General Manager of Continental Motors and Entrant in the 57 Nassau Races. The article identified Elva’s success at Nassau with:
The Nassau race entries gleaned from the Internet included:
The success of Nassau allowed for an easy entry for an Elva Team at Sebring.
The 1958 Autosport John Bolster Article highlighted the specially prepared Wyllie Mk.III with compliments on its handling.
The April 1958 Autocourse and Sporting Motorist periodical reported on an “Elva Progress Article” showing improvements made to the Mk.III Sports Racer and announced the arrival of the road going Courier. Sebring was also mentioned “Three cars were prepared for Sebring in good time: two Coventry-Climax eleven-hundreds for John Bentley and Charles Kold (thought to mean Kolb), with bolt on magnesium wheels and some of the firm’s engine modifications; and a twin o.h.c. 1 1/2 –litre Climax for another U.S. driver.” These cars that were mentioned were all Mk.III. The FWA engines were Candy Poole modifications, which FGN was pleased with.
The March 1958 Speed Age Periodical by John Bentley who also drove in the race predicts “Look for Elva at Sebring to give Lotus and Cooper a run for their money. Expect to co-drive a factory entry with Bill Bradley. There will be others. Which Coventry-Climax engine? Which do you think?” In his article he teases about the possibility of a FPF. This 1500cc FPF Coventry-Climax was reported by Doc Wyllie to be the first into the U.S. This was an important engine since it was also used successfully in Formula 1 Grand Prix cars as well. Great expectations were anticipated by the Elva contingent.
These cars were all prepared to FIA Appendix C Specification including full width windscreen with one hand operated mechanical windscreen wiper.
#48, the Mk.III SR Wyllie F-Sport entry, was an impressive sight at Sebring with his typical South Africa Livery Heritage of British Racing Green and Gold trim with a similar colored Cadillac tow car. The body utilized running lamps higher in the front fenders along with traditional lower Elva head lamp location. This car was a mechanically unique Mk.III with 4 wheel Girling disc brakes, Elva’s new-for-1958 magnesium cast wheels, and of course the 1500cc FPF with twin plate clutch. This car had been tested in England that winter by Autosport’s John Bolster. This serious attempt of high performance hardware along with Doc’s previous Sebring experience and Chuck Dietrich’s driving skills were intended to seriously challenge the others in F Sports Racing. During the Thursday Sebring practice the rear wheels were fouling the fenders with full petrol tanks. This interference was reduced by placing wooden blocks between the top of the rear spring hangers and body. The car was experiencing extreme over steer and was uncontrollable once the rear wheels broke loose. During night practice on the third lap, when it was coming out of the burn flat in the middle of the warehouse straight, something in the suspension collapsed and the car went out of control. Dr. Wyllie described the occurrence: “In consequence I motored sideways between the telephone post and the steel guide-wire of not one but two posts. The front and rear of the car was destroyed in a spectacular manner, but I in the cockpit was unscathed.” Bentley also reported in the July 1958 Speed Age Report "The sad wreckage of Dr. Wyllie's 1500 twin-cam Climax-powered Elva, strewn over the grass parallel with Warehouse Straight; a depressing green omelet of aluminum and steel that started out as a beautifully polished machine." This eliminated the opportunity to make a mark in this seriously equipped Mk.III at the 12 hours.
#78 Mk.II SR was the Ripley G-Sport entry in a British Racing Green with white trim tapering back to a point at the scuttle. Later pictures from Sebring reveal a red rimmed nose trim over the white. This car was the best finisher among the Elvas, accumulating 151 laps. This car was reported to be using a stock FWA engine. Millard Ripley would sell many other Elvas with his Ecurie Ripley team of Elva over the next couple of years. This Watkins Glen New York group consisted of Bill Milliken (The Father of Vehicle Dynamics and recognized through out the world) along with Watkins Glen legend Cameron Argetsinger, responsible for the beginning of sports car racing at the Glen. Number 78 was reported to run like a train during practice and completed the entire 12 hours, though with some overheating. Great black and white photos were taken of the Elva Pits and many other great shots of the event. Later advertisements for Ripley Motors featured #78 in the Sebring Pits.
#58 MkII SR was the John Bentley G-Sport entry in a natural Ally finish. Driving responsibilities were shared with Bill Bradley. This car body was similar to the Wyllie cars with the 4 head lamps for improved endurance night visibility. He reported on Sebring in the July 1958 Speed Age periodical and mentioned his frustration with overheating and engine misfiring during the race. Several racing pictures of #58 can be seen in this article along with being featured on the cover. A piston became seized at about 6:00 pm, causing a DNF after accumulating 71 laps.
#57 Mk.III SR was the US Elva Importer Continental Motors G-Sport entry. It was white with a center racing stripe running on the front of the car and was featured in later advertisements for their business showing some of the battle wounds of Sebring. The driving team included Burdette Martin (later holding executive positions in SCCA and FIA), Frank Baptista (who would later that year capture the G Modified SCCA Championship title in another Mk111) and Bill Warren, the new car owner of #57. Early in practice the rear axle seized due to lack of rear axle oil. Baptista started the race and found himself in 2nd place in Class G before going off at the hairpin over the sand bank, which was repeated on the next couple of laps. At 2:00 PM Warren took over the driving, hitting one of the oil drums marking the course with damage to the left side of the car. The car was running on 3 cylinders during a pit stop. The Amal Carburetor slide was found not to be moving freely. Sandpaper corrected the interference, and the car was sent back out. At 5:00 PM Martin took over the driving responsibility. At 7:30 PM and 114 laps completed, the #57 car was retired with a rod through the FWA block. May 1958 issue of the SCCA’s Sports Car periodical enjoyed emphasizing Baptista’s sand bank experiences. #57 was able to accumulate 114 laps before its DNF.
#77, the Mk.III SR G-Sport Avant Corp entry, was actually a Mk11 (in appearance and also listed in the September Road America race as a Mk11). This Metallic Blue Car was purchased through Continental Motors and was driven by Charles Kurtz along with J. Kramer and Alan Patterson; Patterson would race other Elvas in his long SCCA and Vintage Race Career. The May 1958 SCCA Sports Car Periodical cover page shows #77 at the apex of one turn with a 300S Maserati and an Ecurie Ecosse D-Type attempting to squeeze by. In the background the wrecked White Cunningham Lister Jaguar with Archie Scott Brown is seen. Archie helped place Elva on the map with his great success in various Elvas from the previous season (sadly he would die a Spa later this season driving a Lister). This car accumulated 65 laps before retiring, with reports of a stripped timing gear or a clutch failure.
The 1958 Elva Sebring Inaugural Event like many racing events did not meet the initial expectations that so many had hoped for. It turned out to be a shakedown cruise with the experienced gained and now applied to the 1959 race. Many of the same drivers who entered the 58 Sebring would dominate G-Sport (First and Second in Class) in the competitive upgraded Elva Mk4s with lighter, shorter wheel base and independent rear suspension for the 59 Sebring.
The 1960 race would be the Courier’s inaugural event, with entries for the next 3 years. The Mk.IV Sports Racers continued to succeed with a second place class win.
The 1962 race would enter Mk.VI Sports Racers (Elva’s first, but not last rear engine Sports Racer)
Elva cars were also very successful in other support races including a Formula Jr Race.
Like most HISTORY new information will continue to improve our understanding of this most colorful period. They were the best years of Sports Car Racing, and SEBRING, the USA’s first International Sports Car Endurance Race, was our most famous race.