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New owner wants Elfin to be Australia's Lotus

Export aim: The MS8 Clubman and Streamliner will be exported.

Tom Walkinshaw takes control of niche sportscar marque

13 Dec 2006

HOLDEN Special Vehicles (HSV) owner Tom Walkinshaw has taken over the Melbourne-based niche sportscar marque Elfin and intends to turn it into Australia’s answer to Lotus.

In a multi-million-dollar deal which has taken the past eight months to conclude, the new Walkinshaw Performance outfit will take Elfin’s Mike Simcoe-designed MS8 Clubman and MS8 Streamliner sportscars and develop an export program to the UK and left-hand drive countries including the US.

The Elfin cars will also soon be sold through select HSV dealers across Australia, enabling prospective customers to visit a showroom and drive demonstrator cars.

Under the direction of HSV director and now Walkinshaw Performance chief executive Chris Payne, Elfin has revamped its production processes to secure Australian and overseas design rules compliance for the Chev 5.7-litre V8-powered MS8s.

The added clout of the Walkinshaw Group behind Elfin could also result in the development of a more mainstream passenger sportscar – in the vein of Lotus – to sell alongside the MS8.

"We’re not known as a bunch of people who like to stand still and rest on our laurels, so absolutely (there could be a mainstream sportscar)," Mr Payne told GoAuto this week. "In two, five or 10 years’ time we’d like to think Elfin will be a different company to what it is today.

"It’s never going to be a major volume car manufacturer. It’s always going to maintain that exclusivity. I think the challenge is to retain the character of what Elfin is about." Under the deal, Elfin will be able to harness the Walkinshaw-owned organisation’s engineering, design and sales expertise to lift its global profile and sales volumes.

It will also be able to piggyback on export deals HSV is thrashing out with General Motors affiliates in Europe and elsewhere, although Mr Payne stressed there would be no Elfin-branded HSV product.

"I guess it’s a car that when HSV is blazing the world looking for opportunities for HSV road cars, Elfin is a car you have in your kit bag when you’re presenting to appropriate dealers, customers around the world," Mr Payne said. "You can present a niche sportscar opportunity from the family of HSV, if you like, even though they are two distinct entities.

"I think that will work very well for us and put the car in front of a lot of very serious potential distributors for the car." According to Mr Payne, Elfin aims to commence European exports within three years, under the acquisition deal struck with the company’s existing owners and co-directors Nick Kovatch and Bill Hemming. Mr Kovatch will continue as a technical consultant, while Mr Hemming is retiring.

After almost 50 years of building track cars, the horizon has widened for Elfin.

The brand intends to sell 75 road-certified cars next year, up from this year’s total of 13 road cars. The short-term goal is to build 100 street-legal cars a year.

Mr Kovatch said that with the backing of Walkinshaw, Elfin could unlock a huge export potential for the $98,990 MS8 Clubman and $119,990 Streamliner, not least because the vehicles were designed with left-hand drive markets in mind.

 center image"It’s in the GM family tree," he said. "The attraction in the States is enormous. We’ve had several contacts over several years looking to buy licences but have kept away from that until we finished the cars totally. This is really the time to move forward with all that." According to Mr Kovatch, the MS8s fit into "a lot of different club race categories around the world".

"Club racing is getting more popular around the world. It fits really well considering the cost of running what is a very fast sportscar compared to other brands," he said.

"That’s what we’ve been angling for – it’s a GM powerplant which is mass-produced, the power-to-weight ratio is unbelievable, and the cost of maintenance therefore is very cheap. Wear and tear is reduced dramatically compared to 1700kg or 1800kg cars.

"That was always the plan from day one – to build an affordable sportscar that people could actually go and do club days with or even serious motor racing." Mr Kovatch said that under the current low volume rules, Elfin could build up to 500 cars a year. But he admitted that to go forward and build this number "obviously needs another level of investment and probably new product".

However, he warned that Elfin was known for its sports and racing cars.

"For 50 odd years we’ve never built anything else," he said.

Mr Payne said the temptation to make Elfin more than a low-volume brand would be resisted.

"We’re quite happy to leave it as a low-volume maker," he said. "Not only are there certain physical aspects of what makes an Elfin an Elfin, in talking with potential customers for the car it’s very important to them that this car remains very exclusive and niche and hard to get.

"Elfin cars are not HSVs, they won’t be, and there are certain characteristics that make an Elfin an Elfin, and the company has a history. The brand is about racing and that’s all of the 50 years since Garrie Cooper founded the company.

"Racing is going to be very much the DNA of what Elfin is about." After the shock 2004 Melbourne International Motor Show unveiling of the MS8 Streamliner and Clubman, Elfin had more than seven million "hits" on its website as news spread around the world about the new performance cars.

The structure of Elfin means the company sits under the Walkinshaw Performance Pty Ltd umbrella, which also runs the race operations that include HRT management, Toll HSV and the new Walkinshaw Performance Tuning business.

HSV retains its original equipment arrangements under Holden – that is, HSV road cars and the business of HSV Individual, which was previously known as Holden By Design, the sports accessory modifications and contract work done for Holden by HSV in Adelaide.

HSV is operated by Tom Walkinshaw’s company, Premoso Pty Ltd, which is in turn 100 per cent owned by Riverson Pty Ltd, Walkinshaw’s private family company.

Elfin’s suburban Braeside facility currently has 10 full-time staff but there are plans to expand the workforce as production ramps up.

Elfin history
ACCORDING to the Elfin website, the company is the world's second largest producer of racing cars.

Next year will be its golden anniversary. The company was started in Edwardstown, South Australia by Garrie Cooper in the late 1950s.

Over 25 years he built 250 racing, sports/racing and clubman cars, which were sold in Australia and oversea. Drivers that raced Elfin's included James Hunt, Didier Peroni and Vern Schuppan.

Frank Matich, Larry Perkins and John McComack also race the cars.

Cooper died in 1982 at the age of 46. His father, Cliff, completed outstanding orders, including six Elfin New Generation Formula Vees, before offering the business for sale.

Tasmanian Don Elliott, racing driver Tony Edmondson and mechanic John Porter moved in an designed a new Formula Vee, the Crusader, and a Formula Brabham car.

In 1993, the Elfin name passed to Victorian Murray Richards, who set out to build a "new generation" Elfin Clubman.

He subsequently sold the company in 1998 to the current owners, Bill Hemming and Nick Kovatch.

Hemming and Kovatch aimed to maintain the exclusivity of Elfin, and design and build a quality product.

Both believed they were custodians of the brand and needed to protect people's investment, which meant maintaining the cars' heritage and making sure no replica Elfins ever appeared.

As Nick said, the Elfin changed when Mike Simcoe said he wanted to design a sportscar.

The rest is now a big part of Elfin's history. The MS8 and Streamliner are destined to become global exports.

Elfin race cars won no fewer than 29 championships and major titles, including two Australian Driver’s Championships, five Australian sports car championships, four Asutralian tourist trophies and three Formula Ford titles.

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