Motorists who hankered after a sports car for road and competition use in the early 1950s but couldn’t get hold of a new Triumph or MG, most of which were being sent overseas, had an alternative option of a Ford or Austin based special. Also available were the first cars produced by a number of specialist constructors which emerged as self-build kits thus avoiding Purchase Tax – Lotus and Lola undoubtedly being the two most famous marques of the bunch at the time.
As the London Road Garage proprietor in Bexhill-on-Sea East Sussex, Frank Nichols was bitten by the motor racing bug after driving a friend’s Morgan. Impressed by the performance of other specials he asked another friend, Mike Chapman from Hastings, to build him a car for the 1954 season. Due to delays in the construction of what would be christened the C.S.M. (Chapman Sports Motor) Nichols actually started off his racing career in a secondhand Lotus Mk 6. This was quickly sold on once Chapman delivered the new Ford engine special and Nichols enjoyed a successful debut year behind the wheel of the C.S.M. Success was encouraged by the development of the I.O.E. conversion designed by 'Mac' Witts which increased the power of the Ford s/v engine and was marketed for the E93A and later 100E engines to become an important source of income for the new and growing team in Bexhill.
In order to improve his chances of winning more often in 1955, Frank Nichols then decided to build a better car. This featured Standard 8/10 front suspension in place of the previous Ford split axle and was the first car to carry the Elva name (derived from the French ‘Elle va’ meaning ‘She goes’). During an early test session with the car at Brands Hatch, Nichols was approached by a couple of drivers who asked about the possibility of buying Elva replicas and the die was set.
The Elva Engineering Company was established at two London Road workshops and the orders started to come in. Approximately two dozen of the Elva Mk.1 and Mk.1B models were produced and a succession of sports-racers followed which achieved some considerable successes in the USA. In the UK, cars were driven by Archie Scott Brown and Robbie Mackenzie-Low with regular Press updates from John Bolster. The next significant move made by the company was to introduce a proper road car, quite an undertaking for an outfit still very much in its infancy. Nevertheless, thanks to his advance payment on an initial order for thirty cars from American importer Walter R. Dickson, the Elva Courier was born in 1958. To satisfy the demand a purpose built factory was opened in Hastings and the future looked extremely promising.
The arrival of the Elva Formula Junior single-seater in 1959 – one of the first to hit the track – brought more kudos and a further flood of orders. And, even though the Elva was soon outpaced by the rival Formula Junior offerings of Cooper, Lola and Lotus, throughout 1960 the company still managed to maintain an average output of four or five cars a week (75% of which were Couriers) with a significant demand from the States.
Unfortunately, in 1961, Elva suffered an insurmountable financial crisis when the business of its US agent suddenly collapsed and Walter Dickson was imprisoned. Elva Cars Ltd. was forced into voluntary liquidation and Frank Nichols formed a new company, Elva Cars (1961) Ltd., which moved Elva into a new era. The Rights to the Courier model were sold to scooter and bubble car manufacturers Trojan Ltd of Croydon, while Elva relocated to Rye with a reduced but enthusiastic workforce. Due to the designs of talented Keith Marsden and agreements with Porsche and BMW as engine suppliers the team created more success (and orders) in both the UK and America for Elva Cars, but in 1964 it was announced that the Lambretta-Trojan Group had completed a takeover of the entire company. A link-up with the Bruce McLaren Racing Team to build the customer big bore Can-Am cars provided a much-needed boost however Trojan were looking towards F1 and seeing their name as the manufacturer. Circumstances conspired against the stunning Elva-BMW 160GT model and only three cars were made instead of the planned 100 units.
Trojan allowed the Elva name to fade having passed the last of the Courier production to Ken Sheppard in 1965. His Shenleybased operation built 26 Couriers under Licence before production came to an end in 1968, and the untimely loss of driver and constructor Bruce McLaren in 1971 finally changed everything. The Elva story is an all too familiar tale of what might have been, however the delightful cars produced by the company are occasionally seen on the road but remain a popular feature at Historic meetings in Europe and the many US based Vintage racing events.
In common with several other specialist sports car marques, Elva (from the French phrase elle va - she goes) evolved from a one-off model built for an enthusiastic amateur racer.