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At Home With The Oz Born

Aussie sports car make Elfin is back with two new cars, powered by Corvette V8s and the financial muscle of motorsport guru Tom Walkinshaw. But is that enough on Britain's B-roads? We find out.

Story by Jami Corstorphine, Photography by Matt Vosper

Given that the imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Lotus must be blushing with embarrassment, such is the stream of constructors who have taken the Seven as their inspiration. Scan Wikipedia and you'll find a 30-strong list of firms producing Seven-a-likes - firms like the Australian outfit Elfin, whose 1998 Clubman 3 even came in Lotus green and yellow paintwork and with the option of self-assembly.

There is, however, more to the Elfin story than a homage to the Seven.

Established in 1957, Elfin has a rich racing history in small sports cars, open-wheeled racers and, in the 1970s, thundering Cam-Am racers. An Elfin won the 1968 Singapore GP and James Hunt drove for the marque.

Last year Tom Walkinshaw, of TWR, Arrows and Holden Special Vehicles fame, bought Elfin, incorporating it into his Walkinshaw Performance concern with the aim of bringing the brand to a wider audience, including the UK.

So another superlight special, powered by a highly stressed four-pot or transplanted bike engine? Not exactly. Elfin's latest product, the MS8, may be light-ish (around 900kg) and an ideal track day tool, but the heart of the beast is every inch an Aussie. Although it doesn't do justice to the hand-built tubular spaceframe construction and all-round double wishbone suspension, the Elfin MS8 is best described as a Monaro with half of its weight taken out. It features the same 329bhp 5.7-litre V8 and mechanical six-speed gearbox, except with almost zero inertia and a soundtrack approximately four times as loud.

A common drivetrain and chassis can be draped with two different body shapes: the Clubman, an open-wheeled, doorless model available with or without a windscreen, or the Streamliner, with enclosed wheels, flip-up doors and optional hardtop. The Clubman's long snout and open wheels are reminiscent of an original Seven transported to some futuristic, steroid-fuelled other world.

The Streamliner provides more wind protection, a laughably small boot and a massive one-piece bonnet complete with four sunken lights, overtly chiselled wings and as much road presence as the stillborn TVR Speed 12.

At less than 3.5 metres long, the MS8 is a short car, although from the driver's seat it feels much larger. Unsurprisingly, the car's physical shape is dominated by the colossal engine, dictating that you sit practically over the rear axle, with the huge bonnet stretching ahead - good for a sense of drama, less handy if you're judging the car's extremities. The cabin is compact but roomy enough for those up to six feet tall, although it's a tighter squeeze in the 200mm shorter Clubman.

Climbing aboard is not for those precious of their dignity. The Streamliner's tiny doors hinge forwards and upwards - the driver's side at the press of the key-fob button - to reveal broad sills that house the exhaust cans. in the Clubman you simply step over low-slung sidepods and straight into the cabin.

Of the two models, the Clubman is the more extreme, stripped of the Streamliner's air conditioning and brake servo. Neither model offers power-assisted steering, making the MS8 a very physical car to drive, but exactly the ticket if you're after the genuine hot rod experience.

But even Elfin isn't totally unaware of what could happen if the uninitiated were let loose in a rear-drive, 365bhp-per-tonne sledge, so it raided the GM parts bin for a traction control system. In the dry, the long pedal travel and 265mm-section rear types mean the traction control is only troubled if you're deliberately committed with the throttle, but in the wet it could be a lifesaver.

Perhaps more impressive that the rate of forward progress - Elfin claims 0-60mph in 4.4sec - is the accompanying multi-layered soundtrack. At first there's snorting induction, soon accompanied by an angry metallic thrash and, as the engine really starts to sing, a high-pressure hiss as the tyres succumb to the 5.7-litre Corvette engine. Snatching second gear adds some percussion as the mechanical 'box finds the next ratio, before the deep V8 rumble resumes. At the top end of second the wheels will spin again, by which time you're well past 60mph. This is a seriously quick car, capable of getting you into all sorts of trouble - the kind of trouble that might require a sharp lawyer as well as talent.

The same exercise in the Streamliner is almost as blisteringly quick but without the same rampant willingness to spin its rear tyres, the effect of an additional 200kg of bodyword and ancillaries.

A small car with broad tyres and all-round independent suspension, the Elfin grips extremely well. At anything above 30mph the steering is light and gives a clear indication of what's happening at the front end, but at three turns lock to lock, it needs some turning.

To drive up to and beyond the limit requires a firm hand, because if any corrective steering is required it needs to be accurate and administered quickly.

There is nothing awry in the MS8's handling - it is rather good, in fact - but a tool for the novice it isn't. Of the two cars, the Clubman drivers more decisively, with sharper turn-in and better body control. That's possibly down to its lighter kerb weight or simply a better set-up, for the MS8's suspension is fully adjustable. The brakes are solid, well balanced and, with no servo, strong on the feel.

Is Elfin another Caterham rival? Not really, for the MS8 starts at 42,000, right at the top of the Caterham price range, and in reality it delivers a very different driving experience. In truth it's closer in spirit and performance to TVR, but wherever you position it and in spite of the high price, our B-roads and racetracks will be all the better for its quirky looks and epic noise.