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A Tale of Two Chitties
Part 1: Elva of a Thousand Days
by Jerry Whitman (Aug 2010)

 

Introduction by Roger Dunbar ... There are many delights associated with the fabulous Goodwood Revival, one being the opportunity to meet with Elva people, often previous owners who enquire of the whereabouts of an old friend. In 2008 I chatted with Jerry Whitman about his ex. Malcolm Wayne Courier, and in July this year our paths crossed again in the pretty village of Burpham near Arundel. Just across the river from the imposing castle, stands the village pub, named the George & Dragon, and the landlord had arranged for a gathering of local ‘classics’ on the cricket field, so the ‘yellow peril’ Courier was called into action. After checking out the real ales on offer, including some bottles of Robbie’s Red (a hard job but someone has to do it), I returned to the Courier to find Jerry enthusing about the car. We again discussed his previous ownership of ‘9330 UG’ and thankfully Jerry was kind enough to put his fond memories into written words. Enjoy. You will soon learn from his story that Jerry is not only a talented engineer but a very likeable and interesting guy too.


My lodging companions at University College of North Wales, Bangor from 1962 included motor sport enthusiast Tony Bastow and I was soon hooked on the Jim Clark and Lotus mythologies. Another was Roger Kennedy who was more interested in motor bikes. In the Spring of ’63 I bought a Morris 8 series E, though still a learner, and by graduation in 1965 had gained some driving feel by thrashing a poor Morris Minor van around Anglesey for a year. Roger and I stayed on for another three years of post-grad courses and Tony for a couple more, and I decided I was ready for a TR2.

During that summer in Ipswich, my home town, a local garage advertised an “Elva Sportscar, 1961, £200” so I went along and it was white, pretty, fairly basic and had no rear damping. The test drive showed it to be quick and it handled directly enough that the hopping rear end was no problem, and it had a close ratio gearbox. So I sat down and wrote down all the pros and cons of it vs a TR2, mostly cons. But then I drove a good-condition TR and was so appalled by its handling and layout that I bought the Elva, 1st September 1965. It rewarded me by breaking down on the way home but I soon diagnosed a dodgy SU Petrol Lift. Bastow rolled up in a TR2 but I never mastered its disembodied steering and chunky gear change (and three years later he regressed to a Morris Minor) while Roger traded his sidecar combination in for a Norton 600 Dominator, registered “177 MPH”, which made both cars seem slow. Then he tuned it.

“9330 UG” was a Mk 1 Courier with a round tube ladder frame and MGA power train. The speedo read 21,000 miles and the log book showed that the original owner was Malcolm Wayne and I learned from him that the car had been raced and had won both races at the Oulton Park Easter meeting of 1960! The engine had been tuned by Vic Derrington of Kingston which included a three-branch tubular exhaust, BMC ‘A’ series bucket cam followers each drilled with twelve lightening holes (instead of the standard, heavier ‘B’ series device) followed by aluminium-tube push rods operating polished rocker arms and standard valves. The rockers were spaced by loose alloy tubes without springs and the expansion of the Al push rods required setting the tappets to 0.025” cold to keep the clearances when hot. The cam appeared to be standard. Twin SUs were fitted, 1½” I believe, and I soon made a couple of ram pipes for them and they did boost the power around 3500 rpm but above it the engine choked off and I never implemented what I assumed to be the need to equalise pressure in the float chamber to that at the jets. So I removed them and fitted oiled pancake air filters.

The radiator was standard, very tall, angled steeply and slotted between the rods bracing the front suspension wishbones making it difficult to seal the air stream into it. I had it repaired by Serck when the leaks got bad. The close-ratio gearbox was very slick except for first gear which was noisy and difficult to double-declutch into. With the 14” wheels it was geared for about 105 mph with third gear pulling over 80 mph and second over 60. These ratios were a delight to use out-of-town and perfect for overtaking and roundabouts. Ifor, from the college workshop, bent the upright lever forwards so that it was easier to reach after a year of groping behind.

Front suspension used the Standard Motors upright, with three grease nipples, and Elva wishbones whose pivots allowed spacers behind them to change the camber. I fitted Herald trunnions later which removed two or three of the nipples. Rear axle was from a BMC ‘A’ series held in by a Panhard rod and short parallel trailing arms, the latter giving the expected twitching on fast, bumpy bends though easily compensated. (For the uninitiated, on cornering hard the trailing arms on both sides take up an angle and the axle moves forward a little. Hit a bump and the outer links angle more and the inners straighten so the axle steers the back end.) Brakes were drum all round with dual master cylinders and the handbrake “fly-off” which it occasionally did of its own accord!

The tyres were still Dunlop racers (R5?) with a Michelin X spare! By the time I had driven to Bangor the racers were bald but first I fitted new Armstrong Firmaride rear dampers, the front dampers lasting for another year before I felt the car pattering wide.

The interior was simple and the tunnel and possibly floor were covered in grey-beige carpet or similar while the door panels were black-vinyl covered hardboard with useful inset pockets and including a pull cord to open the door. There were no exterior door handles. The hood clipped on the body and unsupported windscreen rail over a fold-down frame and the whole hood would fold down behind the seats on the frame. The drop-in side-screens had securable flaps at the bottom for hand-signals or accessing the door latch from outside. It was fairly water proof. I had new glazing fitted in both hood and side-screens but the elderly, one-eyed upholsterer died so his employees finished it.

By now Roger and I were living in Blaen y Cae (ByC), a cottage above Y Felinheli (Port Dinorwic), which was idyllic and had a view of Snowdon. It included an open three-bay barn to shelter vehicles and an outhouse which we used as a workshop. There were four students in the house, usually engineering post-grads like us, and we were there for three years. Bastow’s parents had bought a cottage up in the Dinorwic quarry area so we didn’t see him as often. At first a rich kid sophomore, John Ellerton, had the ground-floor room, unfortunate to have broken his thigh badly by dropping a crankshaft on it, and while there he bought several vintage cars, including a boat-tailed Invicta 4½ litre (which I believe he still has), a restored HRG 1100, and an MG six cylinder racer.

His daily transport was an SAH tuned Herald drop-head which he generously lent me several times (and which I nearly crashed when the rear suspension jacked up, without provocation). He also gave me a Formula Junior steering wheel which Ifor welded to a boss I designed using Argon arc, but it was too light for the car and was tiring on long journeys, so when two spokes fatigued through I refitted the original heavy wheel. After college I bolted a “cosmetic reject” Motolita wheel onto the boss and that was just right.

The road from Bangor to Caenarvon below ByC comprised a narrow walled section up to the junction to Menai Bridge and then opened out to a fast and curved open road before a straight into Bangor. On a good run I could reach 100 mph half-way down that straight into Bangor but stopped doing it after a car staggered out of the petrol station in front of me. The roads are all different now.

One very wet night in November ’65, upset over a girl, I was driving too fast with the spare Michelin X on and the car aquaplaned through one of the fast bends, but I checked it easily so later on floored the throttle in third and crunched off a wall on opposite lock. It was a classic bad car, bad driver, bad weather incident. I wasn’t far from ByC so I collected up the bits of fibreglass and was sufficiently unfazed to volunteer to ferry Roger and his girl Evelyn back to Bangor in the pouring rain (no weather for a bike), changing gear right-handed as it was so cramped! There was no chassis damage but the bodywork was missing from the air intake to the wheel arch on the driver’s side.

I took it to Premier Metal of Llandudno Junction, where they wanted to make an Ali mould to mirror the intact LH side and then fibreglass into it. That sounded expensive so I, knowing nothing, suggested that they could make a rough shape with chicken mesh and lay fibreglass mat over it, and it appears that’s what they did as I could see a mesh pattern underneath the wing! It cost my parents £80 which I repaid and slight distortion around the air intake is visible in some photos. The welded-up alloy bumper was perfect.

A set of Dunlop SP41s was soon acquired and the car became wonderful to drive, though I should stress I am not a brave driver, and it was extremely stable despite the bump steering rear end. It drifted under power though I wasn’t aware of it at first due to a broken driver’s seat but I never “hung it out” like a rally car. I loved the floor mounted pedals, which I’ve read other people deriding, as they were perfect for heel-and-toe changes. I made many trips to Ipswich and down to Croydon with, or following, Roger to his home. Down the A5 through the twists around Betwys-y-Coed was an adrenalin rush and on one trip I never dropped below 3500 rpm. I undertook two or three trips to a workplace in Edinburgh without problems in the summer of 1967, apart from the exhaust falling off several times, and in fact I only broke down completely once in 3½ years, as will be related.

In the first year of ownership I rebuilt the engine, I think to try and restore low oil pressure (eventually cured with a new pump), and had the crank reground. I even painted it (black except for the silver painted iron head) and dried it in front of a roaring coal fire in the house. When it restarted it would only run on two cylinders but I got it to the Lotus garage in Anglesey where a cracked distributor cap was diagnosed. Their chief mechanic set up the carbs and timing and the performance was fantastic! For two miles anyway, as he’d not tightened the distributor clamp. I could never reproduce his settings.

Shortly after that I travelled down to Croydon behind Roger, the fast trip already mentioned, but it started sounding rough so we investigated it at a petrol station. The rocker cover seemed dry inside so I poured in some more oil but things didn’t improve so we stripped out the rocker assembly in a car park to investigate, which meant slackening the head bolts, of course! Things soon became clear: there is only one oil feed to the rocker shaft, up one of the four supports, and the only support with a hole in it was at the wrong end. It seems that when I had disassembled the shaft I’d laid all the bits down on their sides but on reassembling I’d turned them the same way instead of backwards, so the shaft was assembled upside down i.e. back to front. Soon corrected but one of the rockers had worn through its bronze bush and damaged the shaft so we had a bit of work to do in Roger’s Dad’s workshop.

Another memorable trip was from Bangor to Chesterfield with the twisted spire when I got late for a school friend’s wedding. I drove quite hard through the Pennines and when I came to slow down into Chesterfield found that I didn’t have any brakes! I could have stopped by turning off the engine in gear, but I managed to creep right through the town as far as the church only to find that I’d missed the wedding anyway. The brakes recovered perfectly after cooling down but I’m not so sure about the bride.

The sole unfinished trip was in April 1967 when the crankshaft broke at Pentrefoelas, in the Welsh mountains, during a return from Ipswich. It explained a mid-rev vibration I’d had for some time and it showed typical fatigue patterns on the break which was ironic as my first year of research concerned metal fatigue! Remarkably, I managed to get hold of Vince Essex using a phone box and he towed me 30 miles in his nice Wolseley 1500 back to ByC where he was living too. I considered fitting an MGB engine but the company’s help sheets persuaded me otherwise and I found another crank.

The exhaust often fell off and was always LOUD! The outer branches of the manifold joined and met up with the centre pipe in a Y-piece and thence to the silencer pipe, but the silencer picked up on gate stops etc and pulled the pipe free, or it slid out of its own accord. I decided, in the third year, to build a twin pipe system, one pipe for the outer manifold and the other for the inner. I drew the chassis life-size on a roll of paper and planned and computed bends needed in the pipes to clear the chassis members. Then I cut V-grooves to fold up the pipes which were welded by Ifor and it fitted perfectly but wasn’t any quieter than before. I slimmed down two more small silencers to sling under the boot but even with them it got noisy once the padding blew out of the main silencers and I was nearly booked for it, ironically on my way to get it sorted at Derrington's.

I made several plans for the interior of the car but only two got carried out. An urgent one was to seal the back of the hood storage area behind the seats to stop road water coming in. Possibly road cars have this sealed already but on my car there was a gap at the back, so I made cardboard inserts and covered them with PVC and there were no more muddy jackets. The other job was to place the instruments in front of the driver. I cut holes in the dash for the Tach and Speedo and made a panel in wood covered in black vinyl for the four small instruments and the ignition/lamp switch below the wheel. I had added an oil temperature gauge when the crank broke and the other gauges were fuel, ammeter and oil pressure / water temperature. The looms and pipes just stretched to their new position and I fixed a lined PVC sheet into the vacated dash cavity for gloves. Minor jobs included repairing the driver’s fragile fibreglass bucket seat and reclining it on a board raised 5½” at the front, fitting reversing lamps and a pair of racing mirrors, painting the bodywork inside the windscreen matt black and adding bits of rubber to the doors, bonnet and boot to stop them rattling (which added 10 mph to my country speed).

Not long after my purchase the 70 mph speed limit was introduced. Initially everyone complied but speeds soon picked up again. Oddly, the traffic everywhere now formed long trains, making overtaking difficult, whereas previously it had been fairly spaced out.

I drove a friend along the south-east edge of Anglesey from Menai Bridge to Beaumaris where we were canoeing. The last part of this road was beautifully smooth and twisty with a rock wall on the left and a stone wall on the right protecting a fifty foot drop to the beach and, knowing it well from my Minor days, I slid it through all the bends in second with panache. Arriving at Beaumaris I turned in my seat to reverse-park and the steering wheel spun loose in my hands, the column having pulled out of the spline on the rack! The pinch-bolt used to clamp the spline was a size too small, so not only was it loose but the column's spline could pass under it, which the proper bolt doesn't allow. I've been lucky at times, but I've never made the same mistake twice.

After my trips to Edinburgh the SP41s were worn out. I got enthused with the new Goodyear G800 but the supplier couldn’t get the right width so I fitted one size wider. They ruined the car and it would not hold a straight line like the SPs, and I couldn’t place it on the road where I wanted it entering a bend. I called in a Goodyear rep but he couldn’t detect the wandering but suggested I checked all the steering bushes, which I did and replaced most of them to no effect. I even packed out the upper wishbones with a ¼” spacer, for added camber, but the tyres were simply too wide. Being confined to a £400 annual grant I couldn’t afford to scrap them and never thought of making a trade-in deal.

I left Bangor in the autumn of 1968 and started work in Teddington, not far from Derrington’s in Kingston, and apart from having a garage change a rear wheel bearing, which I couldn’t shift, I don’t recall much trouble during six more months of ownership, which included several trips to Birmingham to visit Roger and Evelyn and one or two to Bangor. We met up with Bastow and others a few times too at a mid-point.

I had been over-driving the Elva for some months and wanted something faster, more refined (with a heater at least) and reliable. So I placed an advert in Sexchange & Mart at £150 which brought three enquiries and I sold it for £180 to a chap north of the M4 who had lived close to the Elva factory years before and had always fancied one. On the 14th May 1969 I blasted the beast up the M4 at 100 mph for the last time just to say goodbye. A couple of days later he rang me to ask where he could get a new cylinder head as he couldn’t keep up with the water leaking from it! Now this was news to me and I couldn’t help him, nor was he seeking compensation, but it troubled me. I eventually recalled there being a mysterious rust line on the head which I had never investigated and I guess that the head had cracked a year earlier on the night I had run out of water driving back to ByC and the blast up the M4 must have been the last straw. I heard no more and have no idea of the car’s fate but guess it is scrapped. There was only one car on my buying list, a Lotus Elan, which will become Part 2 of this tale, entitled “Forty years of bad road”!

I only ever saw one other Courier on the road but he was only cruising. ByC inmate Ian Finnely was offered a scruffy Mk 4 coupé with inboard brakes in 1968 but he declined it and bought a fine MGA drop-head with Twin Cam chassis. It drove well but felt heavy.

Numbers

Registration Plate: 9330 UG; Chassis No: 200/46/RK; Engine No: 48G 157RS; Weight 13½ cwt (1512 lb = 686 kg) weighed with 3 gallons of petrol and my tools.

Postscript

Roger learned to drive in the Elva but passed his test in his own Austin 10, soon moving on to a well-kept Austin 16! We took the Elva to Oulton Park, Brands Hatch and Snetterton at various times, but only as spectators. We also had some fun sliding on extensive tarmac at Martlesham, the wartime airfield (now a housing estate), especially when it started raining!

Evelyn lent me her Honda 50 to learn on and after passing my test I was soon on the Norton, but I was never a good rider and Roger always had to reset the gearbox position after my clumsy clutch use. After leaving Bangor he bought a Jaguar Mk II 3.8 and married Evelyn in 1971 and they had two fine sons. The younger, Seth Kennedy, is well known in classic car circles and I’ve met him occasionally at Goodwood. Tragically, Roger died in 1996 after a short illness but I am in constant touch with Evelyn who had been such a part of Blaen y Cae.

Some time in the 1970s, Ifor, who did all that work for me, was found dead at the bottom of a quarry pit. It was a tragedy by any measure and it is hard to reconcile it with the skilful craftsman who helped me so cheerfully. (It is possible that I have mixed his name up with another’s, but if so anyone from that workshop will know his correct name, and I apologise to the real Ifor).

I lost track of Tony Bastow soon after showing him the Elan. His parents in Harpenden had been very hospitable to us all throughout college, and his brother was quite a character and drove the Elva faster than me, but he was a motor engineer. Get in touch, squire, and anyone else, especially Vince and Ian or workshop members.




 

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