I was privileged to be able to visit Daphne Witts and her grandson Gavin just before Christmas, to talk about ‘Mac’ and his days with Elva Engineering in Bexhill-on-Sea. Sadly, ‘Mac’ had died in 2006 but had typed his recollections albeit he never did put them in the post to me as he had intended. Daphne and Gavin were anxious to pass on this information and I am extremely grateful for their help and kindness. They were quick to point out that ‘Mac’ had very strong opinions, did not suffer fools gladly or make friends easily, however he was an extremely talented ‘hands-on’ designer and engineer who perhaps never received the recognition he deserved.
These are his words …
“Without the Suez business there would have been no Elva cars. In the very early days, Frank may have induced Mike Chapman to build the CSM with the view to manufacturing it for sale. Mike had a habit of sticking blowers on various unlikely vehicles, being a fairly good machinist and a passable welder. In the mid Fifties it was difficult to live on the wages offered to an employee of a local garage, and so it was necessary to become self-employed and work for various ‘tin-pot’ car dealers.
Both Arthur Lee, an excellent welder and sprayer, and I were working for the best of the local outfits under Joe Davis in Bexhill, and we were both asked by Frank Nichols to take on some work as he had recently acquired the CSM. I was the mechanic and Arthur did various jobs at the premises in London Road. I had been slowly building a car while with Joe Davis as a chassis-less open car before the arrival of the MGB’s and E-Types.
When I moved to the workshop behind the York Hotel, the car came with me but was never completed. I had also announced to anyone who would listen, that I wanted to make an overhead inlet valve head for the 93A Ford 10 engine. Frank had the support of ‘Doc’ Murphy and they expressed their enthusiasm for the production of the cylinder head and building a chassis. However, they knew that I had no training as a draughtsman and, in fact, had never seen the inside of a drawing office! To save time it was decided that I would have to use the Standard 8 front suspension assembly, but it did add about 1 cwt. to the weight. Arthur and I made up the chassis on the floor of the building behind the York Hotel. It was brazed rather than welded to allow for corrections if needed and was built to my design, although Arthur was no fool where structures were involved. It looked okay and Arthur then proceeded to cut and saddle the joints properly.
I remember someone tap tap tapping for hours on end as presumably Arthur had made up 10mm steel tubing to support the body panels. The idea was to get a similar appearance to the SS Jaguar 100 with the flared wings, but somehow it was not very near or as pretty! Some you win etc. Meanwhile, I was butchering some ½” oak plank to the rough shape of the proposed cylinder head, internally and externally so that the casting moulds could be made. Frank then got someone else to tidy this up and although still a little rough it was fortunate that Birmingham Aluminium took an interest in the project and put one of their pattern makers on the job. They knew a thing or two about water jackets etc., having produced a lot of aircraft castings including the Merlin. They also specified a decent material that would not distort in use.
Next to arrive on the scene was ‘Ted’, a local and brilliant machinist with a disgusting sense of humour! Soon we were joined by Keith Marsden and David Peckham. When we first ran the E93A with the conversion we did not get the anticipated improvement in performance. I did not get a chance to investigate as Frank dashed off to Harry Weslake and they put the engine on a test bed where they soon found that the area over the cylinder bore was too small. Correcting this had the desired effect.
I went to the Weslake premises on several occasions and Harry explained his findings on valve seat radiusing. Using his advice and techniques plus fitting a large inlet valve with an oversize carb resulted in 84 bhp from the 100E conversion. About this time Frank had me start work on a Mk.II chassis and there were ‘threats’ about making me a Director of the Company, however it was quite obvious that such an arrangement would not have worked.
A car had been prepared for the 1955 Dundrod TT race in Ireland to be driven by Robbie Mackenzie-Low and Richard Mainwaring. Previously Robbie had teamed up with Peter Gammon and I was concerned that Richard rather than Peter was to co-drive as he was much bigger and heavier that Robbie and there was no way to make a quick adjustment for the seat during a driver change. I also had concerns about the use of the Climax engine rather that the IOE converted Ford engine which offered more torque. I did not go to Ireland as I had suffered a slight workplace injury, but you will know that the Elva race entry ended tragically.
However, when the Suez Crises came about everything in the motor trade stopped and it was the interest from overseas which produced orders for the cars we built. I left Elva Engineering in December 1956 due to differences of opinion with Frank. I wanted any money to be put back into design and development whereas Frank wanted the big ‘show’. I received little recompense or recognition from all the LRG/ELVA I.O.E. conversions that were sold from my design.”
Frank Nichols and ‘Mac’ Witts were two strong characters with firm opinions so perhaps it is not a surprise that the relationship ended prematurely. Having left the Elva team just before Christmas 1956, ‘Mac’ worked for a while at a local Hurst Green garage but soon turned to Harry Weslake for advice. Harry suggested that he should apply to Rover and Vauxhall and he was welcomed into the experimental department at Vauxhalls. ‘Mac’ was also asked to produce a new car with a London based sponsor, but for the rest of his life remained skeptical about sharing his designs.
Having remained at Vauxhalls for eight years, ‘Mac’ left to concentrate on his latest project, being a folding boat/camping trailer. He built various successful prototypes but became increasingly frustrated by all the demands of registering the Patents to the point that his health suffered. He returned to various short term jobs until he busied himself building scale models of a personal flying machine incorporating a gyro mechanism but further ill health eventually overtook him. A very talented and capable man who made a huge contribution to the early days of Elva cars, and I feel sorry that he did not allow himself to put his recollections in the post box and give us the opportunity to thank him for putting ‘Elva’ on the road to success.
Roger A Dunbar (March 2009)