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The Perfect Classic? - Australian Classic Car

In the 100-plus years that motor cars have been crowding our roads and scaring our horses, technology has come a long way. It's what makes modern cars so much more dependable than old cars.

Conversely, classic cars have more style, more history, more driver involvement and more downright chutzpah than anything remotely affordable and built in the last 20 years or so. Am I right?

Well actually, no. The Elfin Clubman Type 3 will change all your preconceptions.

A Proud Name

The history of Elfin is long and illustrious. For the full story, track down a copy of the definitive book, 'Australia's Elfin Sports and Racing Cars' by John Blanden and Barry Catford (publishers Turton and Armstrong, copyright 1997).

Elfin is the world's second largest producer of racing cars. Ever.

A modest bloke called Garrie Cooper began a small operation in Edwardstown, South Australia, in the late Fifties. In just 24 years, he produced 250 racing, sports/racing and clubman cars, which were sold in Australia and overseas. They were fast, desirable, relatively affordable and very, very competitive. James Hunt raced one, so did Didier Peroni and Vern Schuppan.

Garrie died in 1982, tragically young at just 46. His father, Cliff, completed outstanding orders, including six Elfin New Generation Formula Vees, before offering the business for sale.

Tasmanian Don Elliott, racing driver Tony Edmondson and mechanic John Porter assumed the mantle, designing a new Formula Vee, the Crusader, and a Formula Brabham car.

In 1993, the Elfin name passed to Victorian Murray Richards, who set out to build a 'new generation' Elfin Clubman. In failing health, he in turn sold Elfin in 1998 to the current enthusiastic and capable owners, Bill Hemming and Nick Kovatch.

Ghost Of Garrie Cooper...

Australian motoring history is littered with the failures of visionaries. If it was tough to create a motoring icon in the 20th century, it is even more difficult and expensive today.

Bill and Nick are determined not to repeat the errors of their predecessors. Naturally, their first objective is to create a quality product. As Bill explains in the busy Bentleigh workshop, "We are the custodians of the brand and we have to protect people's investment. Part of that is looking after the heritage of Elfin and making sure there are no cheap and nasty replicas or exaggeration of supposed production numbers.

We often feel the ghost of Garrie Cooper peering over our shoulders. For example, we copied the original grille badge exactly. It was hand-carved out of a piece of wood - incredibly inexact, but we thought we shouldn't change it."

You'll go a long way to find two guys more passionate or committed to what they're doing. And it shows in the end result. As we chat beside a 1961 Elfin Clubman (the second ever built, car #1621, previously owned by long-time custodian John Blanden), even I feel the ghostly presence of Garrie Cooper. I like to think he'd approve.

If it was possible to become a car, the Elfin Clubman is probably what you'd turn into. Once you stand on the seat and slide into the very cosy cockpit (beautifully trimmed in red and black leather in this example), you almost feel as if a rear wheel has sprouted directly from each buttock.

The steering wheel is a direct connection from fingers to front wheels. The neat aluminium gear knob becomes an extension of the palm of your hand so you can almost reach in and shuffle the cogs inside the gearbox. The fully adjustable rose-jointed suspension is taut yet compliant. The kart-like message is that a twitch of the wrists and a flick of the backside are all that's needed to rip around the tightest bend.

It has often been claimed that it's possible to feel an empathy with outstanding cars. The Elfin Clubman is so much more - like it's part of your body, directly connected to your senses and brain ... the ultimate motoring metamorphosis.

Buying One

Usually about now in Guide to Owning, we start telling you what to look out for, and to seek independent and expert advice.

That still applies if you are determined to find and buy one of the original 14 Clubmans built by Elfin in the early Sixties. Same for the four replica cars reputedly built in the Eighties. You could be waiting a long time before one becomes available.

But to buy a brand new, fresh-off-the-shelf car, just get on the phone and talk to Nick or Bill. Better yet, wander down to their workshop/showroom and inspect one of the four or more cars in various stages of construction. You'll almost certainly bump into a couple of owners down there, too, who treat the place as a sort of unofficial clubroom.

"We keep making the coffee worse, but it doesn't deter them", laughs Bill.

Buyers fall into a number of different categories. There's the enthusiast who wants a potent and competitive car to race or rally. Many are motorcycle enthusiasts who want all the thrills with the safety of four wheels and a body. Others are do-it-yourselfers who buy a kit and do anything from a little to most of the work themselves. Some buyers are retirees looking for a hobby.

But they all know what they're looking for, and most have made extensive comparisons with other clubman cars on the market. Each of them ends up with a bespoke car, perfectly matched to their needs, budget and intentions. Kits start at $10,805. $37,950 buys you everything you need to build a road-ready car in about 100 hours, and a turn-key car starts from $43,970.

"It is very easy to go away from the original concept of clubman cars - literally a racing car for the road. Even we may have gone too far with the luxury fittings. But once you start changing the wheels and rubber, you might have better ultimate grip but you're losing that balance and finesse."

Cars in this category can disappoint their new owners. A seductive body may blind intending buyers to engineering and design shortcomings, and a short term project can become a marathon or, worse still, never reach completion. A critical consideration when buying a car from a specialist small manufacturer is whether you can register it. Not all can be registered in all States. The Elfin Clubman sports the all-important new Australian compliance plate.

"It took two years to go through all tests," said Bill. "Every single item, nut and bolt, suspension, wishbones, everything, had to meet every ADR and quality control. One chassis was virtually destroyed testing seat belt anchorages. They subjected it to six and a half tonnes of pressure, just to see when it would let go."

Bill and Nick tell me hair-raising stories of the problems encountered, but now, every new factory-built Elfin Clubman carries that vital plate on the bulkhead (and owner-built cars can be inspected for one).

"The ACT and NSW are making it hard for kit cars to be registered," said Bill. "If you buy a manufacturer's chassis, they no longer consider it to be an 'individually constructed' vehicle. Registered kit cars are being closely scrutinised. The national compliance plate means the Elfin can be registered anywhere. If you build one from a kit, most States currently will register it as an "individually constructed" car or we can inspect it and issue a compliance plate. It is the best of both worlds."

Amateur Alert!

Bill Hemming picks me up at Tullamarine in a brand new, road-going red Elfin Clubman and explains that we are going out to Calder. What he doesn't tell me is that this is practice day.

It's 20 odd years since I raced at Calder, and the track is a lot different. I'm in a car I don't know (and don't own). And there are some very quick drivers out there in serious race cars.

After one or two tentative laps (in the only road-registered car on the track), I'm feeling right at home. Not very quick, but right at home! Remember, this example has not been prepared for track use. Notwithstanding, the handling is tight and precise. The torsional rigidity is quite remarkable. There is absolutely no bump steer. And the performance is in supercar league.

After a few more laps, confidence building, I tag along behind a Konica car and keep it well within reach. I let a couple of duelling Porsche GT3s through and then keep them in sight. Working on myentry to the main straight, I finally manage a terminal speed of 175kph (windscreen and clamshell mudguards conspire to create an aerodynamic wall). It feels fast until the bright yellow 7-litre Just Cars Monaro leaves me swirling in its slipstream.

To quickly put things into perspective: a Porsche GT3 won't leave much change out of $250,000; the new 7-litre Monaro has just been announced at $215,000. The Elfin I am driving is the base spec, sub-$44,000 model!

Bill tells me to give the car a thorough shakedown, and I drive it as hard as I dare, arbitrarily choosing to change gears at 7,500 rpm (there's no redline on the tacho), occasionally hitting the rev limiter at 8,200. The tacho in the centre of the dash, courtesy of the ADRs, makes it difficult to watch track, mirrors and revs all at the same time (conversely, driving Bill's more developed car on the road with tacho in pride of place makes it hard to keep an eye on the speedo).

The final defining point comes as the brakes start to get very soggy (this is the road-going version with the disc/drum combo - the uprated all-disc set-up is much better suited to hard track work) and bits of balled-up rubber fly off the Yokohamas. That's when I spin at turn 4. It's a very gentle, easily controllable spin and quite free of drama but I reluctantly decide to call it a day.

Will Davidson, considerably younger and more talented than I, was able to outshine EVO6s, WRXs and GT3s in a race-prepared Elfin, and within 15 laps, equal the marque sports car lap record. Impressive stuff indeed! Bring on the supercharged version ...

Drive It, You'll Buy It

A full turn-key car can be yours within four or five months from ordering. A $14,000 kit (realistically the cheapest kit you'd consider) takes two months to build and supply from order.

The Elfin Clubman is fully Australian built. When you visit the workshop, you can see the pre-cut 16 gauge steel tubes ready to be welded into a fully triangulated chassis and various components ready for fitting.

That compliance plate means insurance, too, is no problem. "We just send people down to Shannon's, who class it as a 'new classic' and charge around $450 for full comprehensive cover." Including the four under construction in Bentleigh, Elfin have so far sold 35 cars. I wish the 36th had my name on it.