Elfin GTS coupe review

By: David Dowsey, Photography by: Richard Weinstein

Presented by

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A real Aussue one-off and the man who commissioned it almost 60 years ago still owns it!

The classic car world is full of lists: the first this, the fastest that; the oldest, the most expensive, and the grammatically challenged – the most unique…

Many claims do not stand scrutiny. But let us suggest to you that this featured coupe has a history that is possibly unprecedented: a unique sports car that was commissioned by a man from a fledgling racecar constructor; who oversaw the design and provided the specification and, almost six decades later, is still its proud owner.

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The Elfin GTS Coupe really is a unique car

This Elfin GTS Coupe was commissioned by George Spanos who, in 1960 was a young lecturer in Fine Art at Melbourne University’s Secondary Teachers’ College. Only one year earlier, a new sports and racing car company had been founded in South Australia by a tenacious and talented young man by the name of Garrie Cooper.

The paths of these two men were soon to cross and create history.

| Flashback: 1970 Opel GT

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Cooper of Adelaide was a motoring enthusiast from his earliest days and a racer as soon as he could drive. His father was a skilled body builder and painter who owned and ran Cooper Motor Bodies, which built bus and truck bodies and converted sedans into wagons and utilities to special commission. It was within its walls that young Garrie cobbled together rudimentary bodies for – and tinkered with the mechanicals of – a series of racing specials that he modified and campaigned with his mates.

When a friend from the Austin 7 Club of South Australia asked Garrie to build a streamlined body for a Ford 10-based special he owned, Garrie suggested that he could make a better looking version of the Lotus 11, which he had seen in the flesh at local race meetings. A one-off hand-built aluminium body would be expensive. But, not wanting to let the opportunity pass him by, Garrie murmured that if his other club chums would also like a body – or a complete car – then the price would be a little more reasonable.

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Several enthusiastic friends took the bait and before he knew it Garrie Cooper had a racing car company.

He chose the name Elfin – a small and spritely mythical creature – for practical and obvious reasons: Cooper Cars had beaten him to the punch and was already up and running and winning Grand Prix World Championships with fellow Aussie Jack Brabham behind the wheel.

Elfin Sports Cars’ first model was the Streamliner of 1959 – an initial series of six were built for five mates and one for Garrie to race, of course. Nearly two dozen would be built over a four-year period. It’s visual connection to the Frank Costin-designed Lotus 11 is immediately obvious and it proved to be a popular choice for privateer racers to run in sports car events across Australia, including the 1961 Australian Grand Prix at Mallala in South Australia.

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You have to admire the lines – all done by hand in aluminium

Built on a multi-tubular spaceframe, the Streamliner typically featured independent front suspension with unequal length wishbones, Armstrong coil springs and an anti-roll bar, with a live axle at the back (although independent rear suspension was optionally available); drum brakes; rack and pinion steering; and 13-inch drilled disc wheels. It was available in kit form or fully constructed at the Elfin Works.

Pinning down the specification of an Elfin Streamliner – or any Elfin model – is problematic because various engines, gearboxes, suspension layouts and more were used. Various parts were often supplied by the commissioning buyer and sometimes these were changed or updated at a later date.

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No two cars were the same. But there is one Streamliner that is completely unlike any other.

Victorian racers Peter Manton and George Spanos – having witnessed the speed of the Streamliner first-hand at the Phillip Island Trophy Race in December 1959 with Garrie Cooper behind the wheel of the Ford E93A-powered prototype – decided to commission their own cars.

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However, while Manton ordered a conventional open Streamliner for sports car competition, Spanos wanted his racer to have a roof so he could run it in GT events.

No such car existed at the time, but over a cup of tea with Spanos, Garrie quickly sketched what would become the GTS Coupe on a scrap of paper. It was beautiful, but proved time-consuming to produce.

"I visited the factory in Adelaide (at the start of 1960) and Garrie told me he wanted to build a car that was a proper road-going version of the Lotus 11, but with a stronger body. At this stage he had not built a closed car but when I saw the (open Streamliners), I said, ‘I would like a coupe’."

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A potent little package set well back in the chassis

Garrie showed Spanos his sketch.

"Is this what you want?" he asked.

Spanos said that it was perfect, and to proceed, asking Garrie how much he wanted for it.

"Does £1000 sound all right to you?" responded the Elfin owner.

"I said to Garrie, ‘That is too reasonable: £1000.’

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Weber carbs dominate the engine bay

"‘No, I don’t want to charge you a penny more than that for the car. I would be very happy to do it,’ was his reply. Garrie Cooper was the most honest man I have ever met. He was remarkable. He was a lovely man," remembers Spanos.

The fledgling car constructor fixed the fee at £1000 (minus engine, exhaust system, gearbox and differential), but when he discovered to his absolute horror that the coupe cost twice that price to construct, subsequent entreaties to build replicas were politely rebuffed. Nevertheless, true to his word, Garrie produced the GTS Coupe for Spanos, asking not a penny more than the original quote.

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From Garrie’s initial pen sketch to delivery, the GTS Coupe took a little over 12 months to complete. This caused some minor discomfort for Spanos, but the person who ended up with the major headache was its constructor.

Unexpectedly, almost everything about the coupe was different from the Elfin Streamliner on which it was theoretically based, and the one-off hand-beaten aluminium body could not be amortised across a series of cars, or subsequently moulded in the much cheaper fibreglass, as was often the case at Elfin Sports Cars.

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The project ended up running significantly over budget. But then no one ever accused Garrie of being a great businessman. What customers, former employees, fellow competitors and team drivers all agree upon, however, is the honesty and integrity of Garrie Cooper, a man who always honoured his commitments, often to his own detriment.

At a time when £2000 – the amount ‘lost’ by the fledgling company on the GTS Coupe – could purchase a flat in Adelaide, the fact that the car was delivered as promised, on price and to agreed specification, demonstrates the complete measure of Garrie Cooper.

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While the crew at Elfin Sports Cars in Conmurra Avenue set about completing the rolling chassis – skilfully welded by long-term employee Fulvio Mattiolo – and hand-formed body – made by English trained John Webb – the mechanical specification was set by Spanos.

"I told Garrie that I would send all of the mechanicals over (from Melbourne) – the engine, the gearbox and the diff. I had bought Peter Manton’s Morris Major and all of that stuff went straight into the Elfin.

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"It has a BMC 1490cc engine with a Derrington crossflow head and twin-choke 45 Weber carburettors, a BMC Morris Major gearbox, and a specially built exhaust. There have been five diff ratios used on it: 3.7, 3.9, 4.2, 5.1 and 5.5. It has the original wheels, but with slightly wider rims. We went to disc brakes on the front because they were originally drums.

 "I was absolutely delighted with the finished product," recalls Spanos.

The GTS Coupe was supplied with twin bucket vinyl seats, full instrumentation and electrics, and an elegant wooden steering wheel, handmade by Cliff Cooper. It was duly road registered in January 1961 and has remained so ever since – today it runs custom ELFIN plates.

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"I have raced the car at Calder Park, Fishermans Bend, Albert Park (home of the current Australian Formula One Grand Prix), Longford, Mallala, Tarrawingee, Hume Weir, Winton and Ballarat Airstrip. I would drive up, race the car, then drive it back home."

Now in his eighties Spanos leaves the driving of the GTS Coupe to others.  "Everyone who has driven the car is amazed at the handling. Garrie did an amazing job. It handles magnificently."

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Getting on a bit, Spanos admits that he may be persuaded to sell – but only to a sympathetic buyer.

Until then, we’ll leave the last word on this remarkable vehicle to Spanos.

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George Spanos, the man behind the elegant one-off coupe

"People often comment that it is unusual for a young man to purchase a truly original car straight from the factory and to still own it as an eighty-odd-year old, but to me it’s just a bloody motor car. I have an attachment to it, but am not pathologically fascinated with it. "It looks great, though, doesn’t it?"

The full history of Elfin Sports Cars is told in Elfin: The Spirit of Speed.

 

From Unique Cars #442, July 2020

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