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Rudester! - Wheels Magazine

It’s accepted practice in automotive design to have a throttle pedal that one pushes downwards in order to go faster. The Elfin Streamliner may have a stock-standard, crate-fresh Commodore V8 shoehorned beneath its Batmobile bonnet, but something seems to have flipped in the translation to a two-seat, all-Aussie roadster.

In the Streamliner, you see, you’ll be beetling along in second, doing maybe 50km/h. On the 6250rpm limiter. Lift off the throttle, and the Ghost of Elfins Past tenses up its forearms, rabbit-punches your kidneys and hurls you bodily at the horizon. And that thick, while cloud that you’ve been towing like an ethereal caravan is suddenly unhitched and left behind…

Okay, we’ll admit to a little understatement with the ‘Commodore’ and ‘roadster’. More accurately, there’s 5.7 litres and 245kW of all-alloy, Gen III V8 and six-speed manual ‘box under there, a very fitting tribute to the Chevrolet-powered Elfins of old.

So, too, the chassis, a steel spaceframe with fully-adjustable, fully rose-jointed (to eradicate the flex of traditional rubber bushes) double-wishbone suspension at either end, six-pot front and four-pot rear billet brake calipers, and an adjustable pedal box with brake-bias adjustment. All-up weight is just 1100kg, or, umm, about 20kg lighter than a Mazda MX-5 SE. The diminutive Elfin is a ‘roadster’ like Michael Schumacher is a ‘motorist’.

The term ‘Australian special’, fashionable when Elfin was founded in the ‘50s, would also gravely underestimate the Streamliner. Its elements are diverse, but pure. There could not have been a better designer for it than Mike Simcoe – talented, passionate, sensitive to Elfin’s history. No more appropriate drivetrain for an Aussie muscle-sports than a stock, dealer-serviceable V8 delivering equal parts testosterone and trustworthiness. And, perhaps, no better people to build it than classically trained, CAD-savvy engineers who’ve built reputations and race winners from historic Jaguars, Aston Martins and, of course, Elfins.

They’ll have to be comfortable being mentioned in such company, because the Streamliner is asking Porsche money: $135,850 puts it lineball with Boxster S. Or, to further confound the categorists, with a Morgan V6 Roadster. The Streamliner lists as options three-part mica paint ($3500), boot-mounted remote sound system ($1800) and a gullwing-doored, hatchback hardtop ($4000).

Elfin co-director Bill Hemming says that most of the Streamliner’s 20 paid-up customers already own a stable of performance cars – often track-day Ferrari 360s and Porsche GT3s. The car’s conceptual rival is probably the Lotus Exige, $40K cheaper but 100kW poorer. The real rival? "Same as usual. Divorce."

Playing in Porsche’s sandpit is a big step up from the better-established Elfin experience, which kicks off with the do-it-yourself Clubman Type 3 four-cylinder at less than $17,000. And, er, if you hadn’t figured it out yet, the Streamliner (and the new Clubman V8) definitely aren’t available as home-builts.

The Streamliner has gone from the Melbourne motor show stand to this pre-production version in just 16 months. Elfin co-director and handy race driver Nick Kovatch explained that this ‘Streamliner Yellow’ example awaited only final emissions testing before the model is given ADR compliance. He’s doubly happy because, eventually, this one’ll become his new race car.

Kovatch adds that the Streamliner is the only low-volume Australian car to have been through front, three-quarter front and side-impact simulation testing to meet European requirements.

One of the biggest compliance headaches – and one that’s occasionally beaten better-backed brands such as Panoz and Noble – was meeting ADR noise regulations. The Streamliner squeaks by, thanks to what Kovatch calls a "ridiculous set of mufflers". Despite some gain from a nifty cold-air intake, the exhaust still trims five kilowatts from the V8’s usual 250kW.

The muffler behind the rear grille is to blame, Kovatch explains: at full throttle, the back-pressure’s enough to strain the exhaust system rearwards by 20mm. Replacing that (flanged) muffler with a straight-through balance tube, Kovatch says, liberates a further 15kW for track day use. It’s a 10-minute swap.

One styling change yet to be made, and dictated by the ADRs, will be the relocation of the high-beam/parking lamps from the upper corners of the grille to the side wings (making a stack of three).

Indeed, there’s been a bunch of subtle changes from the red Melbourne prototype, basically a running mock-up. Most obvious is the full-width cockpit and windscreen. Mike Simcoe shaped the latter, in clay. "He came in one day, literally rolled his sleeves up and spent seven hours just immersed in it," Hemming says. "Nick and I went to lunch."

Simcoe’s screen enriches the car’s proportions. For too many low-volume cars, the necessity of proprietary parts such as windscreens and doorhandles sets up a chain of compromises that end up in a dog’s breakfast. The Streamliner’s windscreen is as good a symbol as any of what makes the Elfin so polished and professional throughout: it’s purpose-designed and purpose-built.

The proof is that, in the flesh – actually, fiberglass over mild steel – the Streamliner doesn’t look like anything else. But you know it looks like something. One scrambles to recall some Dutch or maybe Swiss concept car, spotted on a European motor show stand. A couple of bystanders we met took a guess at Lotus.

The styling doesn’t have the handicap of wind-up side windows. Or any side windows, in fact. You’ll forgive anything for the doors, which stand up at the stab of the key-fob (or a recessed, stainless-steel button on the inner door post). The arched hinge is a delight to behold, as is the embossed kick-panel on what’s either the doorsill or the armrest. It’s best placed to be an armrest.

You step onto the seat itself or the floor in front of it, and slide down into the four-ribbed cushion. It’s a work of arse, this seat, if slightly less comfy to occupy than to observe. The backrest angle is fixed, but with conventional fore-aft slide and the surprise/delight inclusion of steering column height-adjust, the driving position’s a beauty.

The cockpit’s snug, but there’s nothing of the thigh-bruising transmission tunnel, wildly offset pedals and shoulder-crushing narrowness of a traditional Clubman (with which, amazingly, the Streamliner still shares its wheelbase). Slide the seat forward, though, because the throttle pedal has a l-o-n-g way to go to the firewall. Nick Kovatch explains that’s to give greater finesse at the pedal.

Think of the throttle-pedal travel expressed as a percentage of the wheelbase, and you’ll be grateful for it.

Still, for all that big, ballsy bent-eightness under the forward-flipping bonnet, the exhaust sure sounds wussy. At idle, the chassis rocks gently from side to side, the engine note constantly, gently rising and falling. It obviously does the same in a Commodore, but you wouldn’t hear or feel it.

Bury your foot a couple of times in the loud pedal and, above the hint of an induction growl ahead of you, comes the whoosh of a council street-sweeper from behind. Can’t wait to hear one with the straight-through balance tube on it.

Did you ever look at one of those Panoz LMP-1 front-engined Le Mans cars, and wonder how it felt to sit low in that cockpit, the V8 ahead at gut-level, like you’re riding a trotting buggy behind Phar Lap? I reckon it feels just like this.

There’s certainly something about sitting in the Elfin’s glove-fit cockpit that gets you thinking about temperamental race cars, and worrying about stalling. But, remember, it’s all Holden V8 underfoot, and with exactly one-third its usual burden removed. The Streamliner wouldn’t stall if you pointed it up a wall.

The clutch pedal’s light and quick, but the gearshift feels exactly how it is: a heavy, notchy Holden six-speeder with a shortened lever.

We only needed to drive 100 metres to form some impressions that lasted the rest of the day. The Streamliner is production-car tight, no raggedy-arsed special or raw race car with flapping aluminium and rattly rivets and a flywheel whirring noisily by your kneecaps. It feels solid and sophisticated.

And scary-fast. Remember that throttle we mentioned? Think of it as the temperature setting on a tyre-fryer. Oh, the Streamliner sits fat and squat and sticky, and the new Yokohama Advan Sport 235/40ZR18 tyres are truly impressive at ferreting for grip on a firm throttle out of corners, but the simple physics of 465Nm and 1100kg give you on-demand overwhelm.

The Elfin boys have exploited the Streamliner’s light weight with a 3.46:1 final drive ratio, an option from Monaro and slightly taller than the usual VZ Commodore SS’s 3.73 ratio. It makes sixth a tad too tall for the freeway, dawdling at 1400rpm at 110km/h. Fifth feels better, at 2300rpm.

Still at Calder, when we’d had enough fun doing second-gear rolling burnouts, we found the best method for hooking up the Streamliner was simply to motor assertively off the line. Control yourself for a firm squeeze – rather than a slam – into second. Same again for third.

Twice, with two-up, we covered 0-100km/h in five seconds neat and the standing 400m in 12.9 seconds neat. Felt quick enough to us, but Kovatch and Hemming merely frowned. Kovatch says they’ve sprinted the similarly engined Clubman down the strip in 4.4 and 12.4 seconds, respectively, also two-up.

What we had found, meanwhile, was that driving in a straight line is a lot more comfortable than going around corners. The Streamliner’s steering, like its unbelievable brakes, is unassisted. Say all you want against hairdresser roadsters and in favour of the telepathic steering feel of the unboosted Lotus Elise/Exige, but a 5.7-litrre V8 sitting smack between two fat tyres is something you’re gonna notice.

It was so heavy that I found, when fiddling about for the oversteer pics, I couldn’t physically wind lock on and off quickly enough. That’s not why I spun onto Calder’s infield, however, lobbing the Streamliner into a foot-deep puddle and drenching the open cockpit; I’d simply run out of talent. But such bicep-bruising effort and the fact of having to shove the wheel with one’s shoulders certainly sapped my confidence. Neither did it enhance the Streamliner experience as the day progressed.

With underbonnet space at a premium, but the US market beckoning (the car was engineered for left-hand drive from the start), Elfin is investigating two different electric power-steering systems. The chassis isn’t especially snap-happy, which is truly commendable given the tight wheelbase. The steering demands just 1.8 turns lock to lock, yet turn-in is so consistent and linear that the gearing almost feels slow.

There’s some tramlining, surprisingly well controlled given the sizes of the tyres, but only made an issue by the effort required to correct it. Even more of an accomplishment is the ride quality that, while very firm, doesn’t feel half as much arse-over-axle as it might when, er, one’s arse is indeed over the axle. In ironing out harsh surfaces, the Streamliner is actually more comfortable and less crashy than BMW’s Z4 when fitted with its optional big wheels.

The heavy steering, notchy gearbox and a steadily numbing bum were the only real dark marks against the usefulness of what is, after all, a truly race-bred car. Hemming confessed that heat-soak through the firewall becomes an issue in city driving, but the Streamliner’s fitment of air-con goes a long way to curing that.

On the open road, cabin heat isn’t an issue. The breeze curls gently around the windscreen, in light drizzle leaving a mist on the interior mirror and inside the screen. There’s talk of a wind-blocker being developed, which will further increase cockpit comfort that’s already entirely acceptable but for an abundance of road noise from the rear tyres, and wind noise from the exterior mirrors.

Good Lord – just listen to us. The Elfin Streamliner could easily have turned out to be a crude, uncompromising car that’s built for the amusement of race engineers and masochists. Or it could have been a tough-talking, T-shirted Monaro convertible. It has turned out to be neither.

I’ll tell you what it’s turned out to be. It spoke to me on a particular stretch of road at Mt Macedon, damp along the edges where it snaked and dipped along a ridge. I was playing with the throttle through a slow series of corners, fiddling with the very fringe of grip, where wheelspin and side-slip lie just beyond.

My biceps were tense, my palms pushing against the steering’s resistance, when I detected a harder and more serious edge to the engine. I became aware, in a very peculiar way, of the rigid web of hand-welded tubing around me, of the fabricated suspension wishbones that supported me, of the hard-earned expertise of people, not computers, that had created this Elfin car. I suddenly had a new respect for it.

I waited for the straight and pushed down the throttle. To go faster, I mean.

Construction Sight

At Elfin’s small 22,000-square foot factory in the Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin, 12 full-time staff, another 12 part-time contractors and an unending flow of volunteers labour for six months to manufacture an MS8 Clubman. A Streamliner takes a further three months. The process goes something like this:

Box section mild steel cut to length and welded into a spaceframe chassis then powder coated. Streamliner distinguished from the Clubman by its wider nose, 50mm-wider cockpit and outriggers to which bodywork attaches.

Suspension components are fabricated. Most, including chrome-moly front A-arms done in-house. Milled aluminium uprights and brake calipers come from APS, hubs are Holden, vented and slotted discs from DBA, fully-adjustable oil dampers from Koni, springs from Eibach.

Brake and fuel lines installed. Braking system bled and tested. Alloy inner panels and steering system fitted. Latter comprises Barina column, locally made shaft and UK-sourced rack. Full alignment.

Gen III V8 drivetrain fitted including Tremec six-speed gearbox. Hand-made aluminium 67-litre fuel tank sits over the top of 3.46:1 diff and specially-made short-length tail-shafts and driveshaft.

Engine, dash, front and rear wiring harnesses are mated to Holden-supplied ABS/traction control, cruise control and engine management computers.

Clubman gets an aluminium radiator, while wider Streamliner has standard Commodore cooling system fitted, including air-con (if ordered). Dash and instrumentation installed. GRP body panels are trial fitted and brackets adjusted. Panels then sent for painting.

HM exhaust system fitted along with the fabricated air-filter housing. Car fired for the first time.

Panels return for final fitment, specially-made seats, trim and details installed.

Verdict - 4/5

+ Intimate driver connection; V8 thrust, unique styleing, well finished

- (unassisted) steering's weight; heavy, notchy shift action; muted engine note

The Builders Of A Sports Start

Bill Hemming and Nick Kovatch look buggered. The Elfin co-owners have been riding a Gen III-powered rocket since the 2004 Melbourne motor show, and the continuous strain is obvious. But the end of the beginning is also in sight. In September, the first five production MS8s will be in the hands of customers. It’s an incredible achievement for the two motor racers who took over an ailing Elfin in 1998 and moved it from Adelaide to Melbourne intent on regeneration. Back then they concentrated on manufacturing the existing Type 3 Clubman, but once Michael Simcoe walked through the door in 2001, the scope of the exercise changed forever. "A lot of people have said that we would never get into production," says Kovatch. "But the challenge is something that spurs you on. We just think it’s got to be done, so we go and do it." Adds Hemming: "A lot of it is because we are pig-headed." It’s a rare characteristic they share. Hemming is the businessman, the talker, the marketer and the seller. Kovatch is the engineer and designer who had made a career out of motorsport. The good thing is their differences seem to help the partnership gel and the business continue … and hopefully prosper.