{vsig}2010-9_2528{/vsig}Frank Nichols’ first sports-racer was built in 1954, designed by Mike Chapman, competing immediately and successfully against the similar small-displacement Lotus sports-racers of Colin Chapman. Its success encouraged Nichols to emulate its design with the first few Elva live rear axle sports-racers. Mk II featured a De Dion rear axle. The Mk IV had fully independent suspension and was the first Elva with a tubular space frame.  Nichols continued small-displacement sports-racer development with the Mk V, the ultimate front-engined drum-brake Elva sports-racer. Only 13 were built, but with power from the Coventry Climax FWB single overhead camshaft engine, they were the equal, if not the better, of Chapman’s Lotus 11 in England, Europe, and the United States.

Power is from a 1490 cc long stroke Coventry Climax FWB with dual Weber carburetors through a Taylor Race Engineering rib-case Sprite-type close ratio 4-speed gearbox. The engine was built in 2006, with an aluminum girdle plate to join the block and bearing towers for strength and reliability in its long stroke configuration. Rebuilt in 2007 by VDS engines with a re-engineered head, camshaft, and valves from Sid Hoole Racing, it has only four race weekends since. 

Prepared without regard to cost, maintained to the highest standards, track-ready, and one of the most attractive, aggressive, and aerodynamically effective front-engined, drum-braked sports-racers, this Elva Mk V Climax sports-racer will be immediately competitive and a valued entrant in the most desirable historic racing events.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1959 Elva Mk V
Years Produced:1959 - 60
Number Produced:13
Original List Price:$4,500
SCM Valuation:$70,000 - $90,000
Tune Up Cost:Cost per hr to race $700
Chassis Number Location:Tag on dash
Engine Number Location:Front right side of block
Club Info:Elva Owners Club
Alternatives:Lola Mk I, Lotus 11, Elva Mk IV, Cooper T 39
Investment Grade:B

This car sold for $58,500 at Bonhams Greenwich, Connecticut, auction on June 6, 2010 (lot #431).

The front-engined, big-bore racing cars of the late 1950s are generally considered to be the most-glamorous, most-collectable, and highest-valued cars in all of vintage racing. Their little sisters, the small-bore cars of the same era, are nowhere nearly as valuable or collectable, but they are fabulously fun to drive and can be amazingly quick; a well-driven one can give fits to 3-liter Ferraris and Maseratis, particularly on a tight track.

The Elva V is an excellent example of the breed, and a good place to start discussing this category of racer, so let’s start with a bit of historical perspective. England has always been a particular hotbed of enthusiasm for motor sport, but the aftermath of World War II made things very difficult. The economy was devastated, and it took the country almost 10 years to recover.

During this time, most of the amateur auto racing was in what we would consider to be jalopies: either old sedans or specials pieced together from junkyard bits. Fuel was both scarce and expensive, so most of the racing was in under-1 liter classes.  Jaguar and Aston Martin were primarily export companies in those days, building larger-engined cars for the international market.

More money and more race cars

As the economy and disposable income improved by the mid-1950s, the market for proper sports-racing cars became apparent. Several constructors crafted suitable offerings to fill the need. Colin Chapman’s Lotus is by far the best known of these, but there were many worthy competitors, particularly Cooper, Elva, Tojeiro, and towards the end, Lola. Beginning in 1954 with the Lotus Mk VIII, the Cooper Bobtail, and the Elva Mk I, the cars quickly created a very competitive racing environment. The cars evolved slowly until the mid-engined revolution changed everything in 1962. For the record, the Coopers were mid-engined from the beginning.

The biggest thing these cars had in common was the engine. Coventry Climax was an industrial engine and forklift company which had hired Wally Hassan as chief engineer in 1950. Though personally very interested in racing, his first project was to design a light, portable engine to power a marine fire pump unit for the Royal Navy. The new engine was called the FWP (for “Feather Weight Pump”) and entered service as a military unit in 1952.

It was a very light and compact 1-liter engine, all-aluminum, with iron liners and a chain-driven overhead camshaft. The emerging racing car constructors were struggling with making cast-iron flathead fours from Ford, Triumph, and Austin work as race engines, so when Coventry Climax put an FWP on their stand at the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show, the response was immediate.

Hassan had never thought of the FWP as an automotive engine, and he was actually deeply involved with designing a 2.5-liter GP unit for that purpose. But the interest at the auto show caused him to adapt his approach, and in 1954, the FWA (Feather Weight Automotive) was introduced. It was 1097 cc, just under the 1100 cc racing class limit, and it found immediate success. It became the racing engine of choice in the under-1500 cc range until Ford’s Anglia “Kent” engine became available in the early 1960s. In today’s world, the FW is seen in three variants; the 1100 cc original (seldom used, and almost strictly in Europe), 1220 cc (the European standard, an 1100 bored out to maximum), and 1460 cc (both bored and stroked to the maximum).  In the United States, virtually everyone runs the big engine, but it’s not generally legal by European FIA rules.

Marching to a different drummer

With effectively a spec engine and tires being a constant (tire technology changed very little until 1964), the competitive developments in the cars had mostly to do with weight, chassis stiffness, suspension design, and aerodynamics. The cars were so light that disc versus drum brake issues had little effect. Lotus was the dominant constructor through most of the period, with its very slippery Lotus 11. Cooper’s T 39 “Bobtail” provided counterpoint—until Lola brought out the Mk 1 in 1959, after which it pretty much ruled the roost.
Elva spent the entire time playing in the same game, but marching to a somewhat different drummer. Part of it had to do with personalities; John Cooper, Lotus’ Chapman, and Lola’s Eric Broadley were all passionate racers and engineers, while Elva’s Frank Nichols was a businessman who built and sold racing cars.

So, while Lotus, Lola and Cooper fought over wins and podium finishes, Elva went about building cars they could sell to private racers in the rest of the grid. Also, Elva decided early on to sell primarily to the American market rather than contest in the highly competitive English one.

The result is that Elvas of the front-engined era were more cautious than innovative; they watched what Lotus and Lola did and imitated, rather than pushing the edges themselves. Elva built excellent, competitive, and successful cars, particularly in American racing, but they never had the status or cachet of the name brands.

Three tiers of value

All of the various cars sold for roughly the same amount new, and the Elva V was very competitive with the Lola 1 at the time. But the differing histories and perceptions have translated into three tiers of value for this type of cars. The Lola Mk 1 was clearly the fastest car at the end of the era, and it remains the car to have if you insist on finishing first. These Lolas are worth about $185-200K these days.

The middle tier includes the earlier and more collectible—being aluminum bodied counts for a lot— but not-quite-as-fast Lotus 11 and Cooper Bobtail in the $125-140K range.

The bottom tier includes cars that have neither front-runner cachet nor alloy-bodied collectability, such as the Elva Mk IV and Mk V. In today’s market, these usually sell in the $70-90K range, and represent excellent value for those looking for participation and racing experience rather than bragging rights. I have no doubt that our subject car, given a competent driver, could run at or near the front of any suitable vintage racing grid, but it’s a weapon, not an icon.

Auctions remain a difficult place to sell pure racing cars, and this may be another example. This car had been privately marketed for quite some time for substantially more than it sold for here—obviously without a result. I’m guessing that the seller either got tired of waiting or chose to accept the certainty of an auction sale over an uncertain future, but either way it allowed an astute buyer the chance to buy an excellent racer at an attractive price. I’d say very well bought.

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