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First drive: Clubman heralds Elfin revival

Line up: Get in a straight line and go and the MS8 leaps like it’s been electrocuted, the connection between throttle and rear wheels almost direct. Pictures courtesy New Zealand Autocar.

Racing duo ready to put hot Elfin Clubman on the streets

8 Dec 2004

IF you were at the Melbourne motor show last March you’ll remember the sensation caused by the two concept cars on the Holden stand, the Elfin MS8 Clubman and Streamliner.

The open-wheeler Clubman and the enclosed Streamliner combined modern-retro styling, pure race-oriented engineering and the 245kW Gen III Chev drivetrain straight out of the Holden Commodore SS.

But rather than being dreamland concepts with no show of production reality, these two cars will be seen on our roads and racetrack as soon as January when the first production Clubman rolls out of Elfin’s small Braeside factory in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.

That’s right, for all the vital Holden involvement in this project, it really is the passion and property of two Melbourne racers and businessmen, Bill Hemming and Nick Kovatch.

They took over Elfin 50:50 in 1998 when Australia’s foremost racing car constructor had slumped into the doldrums. The business had originally been started by Garrie Cooper in Adelaide in 1957, and he ran the business until his untimely death in 1982.

Mr Hemming and Mr Kovatch are both racers who are committed to the Elfin resurrection plan as much out of passion as logic. Initially, their plans had included a new generation Clubman racer and perhaps, one day, a venture into production car manufacturer.

But all that changed when former Holden design director Mike Simcoe walked into their old Murrumbeena factory about three years ago. Then Mr Simcoe had the simple plan of buying Elfin’s traditional Clubman kit car, the Type 3.

Mr Simcoe soon offered to redesign the traditional Clubman body to give it a more contemporary edge.

From this point, the project began to escalate, first with the original four-cylinder engine scrapped in favour of the Gen III V8 and then Elfin took the decision to design a totally new chassis to fit within the new body style.

Late in 2003, with the Clubman design and engineering project well advanced, the decision was taken to design a modern interpretation of the classic Elfin Streamliner body, tailored to the same chassis. Little more than 20 examples of this enclosed aero-bodied sports car, prized by collectors, were designed and built between 1960 and 1963. (For more on the development process and Holden’s involvement, refer to our Future Models story, “First look: Holden’s retro double”, published on February 27, 2004.) Since the show Mr Hemming, Mr Kovatch and their small crew have been hard at work delivering on the Melbourne promise - no easy task, with adaptation to suit Australian Design Rules proving particularly frustrating.

As a result, the time for first deliveries of the Clubman have blown out from November, while the first Streamliners should appear about mid-year.

That’s not all that’s moved either, with pricing for road registrable Clubman and Streamliner now starting beyond $100,000 (see pricing listed below), when it had been hoped to start pricing from the open-wheeler as low as $85,000.

There are two specifications for both cars in road-going form. The Sportster includes leather seats, full width aeroscreen and a two-piece tonneau. A luggage rack, space-saver spare, carbon-fibre pack (guards and light pods) and heater are optional, although the Streamliner substitutes air-conditioning for the heater and doesn’t need the carbon-fibre pack.

101 center image The Roadster specification has a full windscreen and wipers for both and removeable door panels for the Clubman. Options for both include soft top and frame and side removeable windows.

The Racer specification includes a choice of single-seater solid tonneau/windscreen, engine upgrades, side exhausts, CAMS approved rollbar, suspension sway bars, race seat/harness, wheel/tyre upgrades, fire extinguisher, tow hooks, catch tank, battery switch and race mirrors. Pricing depends on which boxes you tick.

With 17 $10,000 deposits stashed away and more expected as media drive reports start filtering out around the globe, it looks like Mr Hemming and Mr Kovatch’s seven-figure investment in their dream has the chance to pay off.

Currently, orders are split evenly between Clubman and Streamliner, but the expectation is that the latter will eventually account for 60 per cent of interest. Just 25-50 cars will be built per annum, understandable when it takes six months to build a Clubman and nine months for the Streamliner.

There is an ambition to build 100 cars per annum, although that requires a solid export program.

There are signs that will emerge with two cars already sold to the US, plus plenty of interest in the Middle East and mainland Europe as well. Since launch, nearly 50 per cent of activity has come from overseas, which has been encouraging.

All the hard work that’s gone in this year hasn’t diluted the look or engineering fundamentals of the MS8 series though, which remain lightweight and hard-core sportsters.

Compared to the car you see here, which is literally Clubman 001P (P equals prototype), the production car will have high beam Xenon lamps mounted within the upper section of the radiator, side indicators moulded into the scuttle and some warning lights in the dash.

With 245kW on tap (as a starting point) and an estimated kerb weight of 875kg, the Clubman has a power-to-weight ratio of 3.57kg/Kw. At 980kg and with a slipperier shape, the Streamliner shouldn’t do too badly either in acceleration terms.

The engine, six-speed Tremec gearbox and limited slip differential all come straight from Holden, and they are encased in a simple and immensely strong box-section steel spaceframe chassis that has been designed by Mr Kovatch and his chief engineer Arthur Neill.

Suspension is via double wishbones all round, the front pair a sexy chrome moly aerofoil design. Add in Koni coil-over shock absorbers, fully adjustable rose jointing throughout and Elfin’s own uprights, which adjust for camber, caster and toe, and the racing focus is obvious.

Steering is via a rack and pinion system sourced from the UK, while the steering column comes from Holden and the sexy flat-bottom steering wheel from Sparco.

The braking package comprises Holden-supplied slotted and ventilated discs, mated to Elfin alloy billet machined six-pot callipers up front and four-pot callipers at the rear. Housing them are 18-inch wheels and in road-going form, 235/40 tyres. ABS and traction control will provide some artificial assistance in terms of grip on production cars.

Overall, the Clubman’s GRP-clad body is 3200mm, width is 1700mm, wheelbase 2290mm, front track 1460mm and rear track 1430mm. The Streamliner, by comparison, is 300mm longer and 10mm wider.

Elfin MS Pricing:
Elfin MS8 Clubman Sportster: $109,645
Elfin MS8 Streamliner Sportster: $128,480
Elfin MS8 Clubman Roadster: $114,515
Elfin MS8 Streamliner Roadster: $133,850


THE surprises start with the MS8 Clubman before you even fire it up. Slide in and its surprisingly easy to fit. People with full-size legs, not only midgets, qualify to drive.

Next up is the quality of the interior itself. A beautifully simple design by Holden’s Warrack Leach (Max Wolff of SSX concept car fame did the exterior), there’s speedo and tacho gauges behind the flat-bottom Sparco steering wheel, while three small dials run vertically down the centre of the dashboard, which is covered in black leather.

There’s more leather on the seats, which feature mesh grates between the panels on the cushion. The backrest is heavily bolstered but due for a reprofile for production.

There aren’t too many familiar Holden items in the cockpit, but the handbrake is one.

The interior is only an entree to the panoply of sensory sensations that are about to assail you. Turn the key and the air is filled with a chunky exhaust note that forms an almost physical assault.

That’s because the prototype is fitted with racing-style side pipes rather than the street-legal items that exit through the rear end. It’s so brutal and thick that you expect it to take three-dimensional form and drop in blocks around the car.

The whole experience is accentuated as your head is buffeted around because the tiny aeroscreen is doing absolutely nothing to deflect wind flow

Bathing in that noise, you expect a difficult chore engaging gears, co-ordinating the clutch and getting moving without stalling. But the fact is it’s very easy, reflecting the Commodore origins of the driveline.

But once you’re up and away any connection with Holden’s staple sedan fades quickly. Get in a straight line and go and the MS8 leaps like it’s been electrocuted, the connection between throttle and rear wheels almost direct.

The whole experience is accentuated as your head is buffeted around because the tiny aeroscreen is doing absolutely nothing to deflect wind flow.

Electronically timed independent acceleration figures recorded at Calder Park raceway on a dank and damp morning confirm what your sesnse are telling you. The car produced a 0-100km/h dash of 4.8 seconds, while a quarter-mile dash comes up in under 13 seconds. No worries about criticism of the Gen III engine’s lack of lowdown torque in this application. These are Supercar figures, eclipsing any local mainstream vehicle.

Not that the MS8 is mainstream, of course. It is incredibly quick and just so focussed.

Driving it at Calder was an intoxicating and experience. On a slightly damp track there was absolutely no drama inducing wheelspin in fourth gear. Provoking the rear-end to move about under acceleration was similarly accessible.

Not that we were about to go drifting on a damp Calder with Elfin’s one and only running Clubman… But the 50:50 weight distribution ensures this is no wild and uncontrollable beast, at least in the dry.

Instead, it steers accurately and quickly and delivers plenty of feel in a race-car like fashion, that feature accentuated by a lack of power steering.

But you are always aware that there is a lot of power lurking there. It requires a reasonable degree of respect and a little skill from the driver to access the performance potential.

The brakes, for instance, take some getting used to. Not because they lacked power – just the opposite – but because the lack of booster meant there was no real modulation or progression, simply whack the middle pedal and feel the car sucking down hard and fast every time.

And with 240km/h-250km/h – according to the speedo – easily obtainable on the Calder front straight, there was plenty of need to use them. Aiding that process was formidable engine braking. Heel and toe changes were easy to reproduce thanks to the well-designed pedal box, while it’s amazing what a difference a shorter gear lever makes to the accuracy and speed of changes.

So how would all this go on the public street? It would not be everyday transport, but it would certainly attract attention with its wonderful combination of modern and classic looks, and deliver massive thrills on something like the Great Ocean Road.

And that’s the beauty of the Clubman. It is focussed, it is demanding and it is very fast. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else and good on it for that.

It deserves to be a success simply on the basis of the quality, but also for Bill Hemming and Nick Kovatch as a reward for their determination to keep a great Aussie name alive.

#Special thanks to Revolution Racegear, which supplied the safety equipment necessary for GoAuto to track test the Elfin MS8 Clubman. Established in 1992, Revolution Racegear provides a full range of motorsport and fast road products. Contact: freecall 1800 804 778.

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