Feature: Bill Hemming

By: David Dowsey, Photography by: Wayne Preusker, Ellen Dewar

Presented by

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So passionate about Elfin cars, this devotee not only bought the company but created a museum to safeguard its heritage

Growing up in Brisbane Hemming clearly remembers his first Elfin sighting; the grizzly scene leaving a lasting impression on the 17-year old. "I watched Glynn Scott kill himself in an Elfin 600 at Lakeside," Hemming begins.

"He was black-flagged for not having his goggles on but he ignored it, determined to win and misjudged, went up over the back wheel of Ivan Tighe and went under the armco and killed himself."

| Related: Marques of distinction - Elfin

Hemming’s first car was an Austin 8 Tourer which he restored and traded for an MG Y Type. A Bugeye Sprite followed and the beginnings of a collection addiction were already well established.

Hemming started his working life as a tax assessor for the Taxation Department. But through the MG car club he met British Motor Corporation (BMC) PR Manager Brian Tebble who found a job for him in the advertising department.

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Starting in 1969 Hemming spent 12 years with BMC in Australia with stints in Melbourne as State PR Manager and Sydney as Promotions Manager. He was then posted overseas for six years with BMC and ended up as European Marketing Manager based in Brussels.

"BMC cars were different," says Hemming. "They had everything from Mini up to Jaguar. I had a terrific time with them.

"While I was in Europe I bought an Austin-Healey, then a Jaguar XK150 and I cruised through Europe in that. I went to all of the circuits, especially over in Germany. I was a brash young Australian drinking lots of beer and chasing women.

"In hindsight I should have concentrated more on the motorsport. A highlight was promoting and touring with the Broadspeed XJC V12 driven by Tim Schenken and Derek Bell." As part of his advertising duties Hemming recalls taking a Land Rover to Iceland for a calendar shoot; the Landie is still there. "We lost one of them when we placed it on a floating ice slab," he says. "We pushed it out and got some photographs of it but then it started drifting out and it turned turtle and we lost the bloody thing."

Bill -hemming -7Hemming is hands on providing parts for surviving Elfins

Hemming left Leyland in 1981 after a suggested relocation from Brussels to Birmingham; he returned home to continue working in advertising, later starting his own consultancy which he still runs 25 years later. But historic racing remained on the agenda.

"My dream was to own a Jaguar D-Type. But that will be a dream that will never be realised," he says. "I had raced my XK150 and a Sprite but then I thought I had better get a proper race car.

"The 1960 Elfin Streamliner was the same ilk of car (as the D-Type) with its beautiful shape. I couldn’t really afford it at the time, but I had to have it, so I moved heaven and earth to get it in 1997." Hemming hadn’t had much wheel time in Cooper’s cars prior having only driven a Formula Vee Elfin briefly back in 1983.

AustinGarrie Cooper's first special built on an Austin 7 chassis sits alongside other memorabilia at Elfin Heritage Centre

The man who maintained Hemming’s race car and future partner at Elfin, Nick Kovach, along with Paul Sabine used to sponsor a lot of historic racing at the time and one night Hemming attended a Victorian Historic Racing Register Christmas party. It was to prove the beginning of the next chapter in his life.

"That night they launched the Elfin book by John Blanden and Barry Catford and they gave a copy to Nick and Paul as a thank-you. I was sitting at the table and we went through the book; it was at that moment that I was hit over the head with the facts. I didn’t realise that Cooper had done so many successful cars. I was aware of the brand as a youth but I had no real knowledge of Elfin.

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"Murray Richards owned Elfin at the time and unfortunately developed cancer, so he wanted to sell the brand. He got quite a few offers, including one from a guy who sold underwear. But Murray took our offer, even though it probably wasn’t the best because he thought we would do the best job of it.

"So we started out thinking that we were going to have a little hobby building the four-cylinder Clubmans. Then (Monaro designer) Mike Simcoe came in totally unannounced saying he wanted a Clubman. He said he liked the Elfin but thought he could make the car a bit better looking."

Simcoe returned two weeks later with some sketches of what ended up being the MS8. "He then said: ‘How about I do this properly in the studio for the staff, sometimes they can get a bit bored doing utes and station wagons. I will give them this little project to work on. But I will only do this if you promise to put it into production; I don’t want to waste time.’

Elfin -3Elfin 600 part of Heritage Centre’s attractions

"We did it the wrong way because we had a powerplant and a shape and we had to sandwich a chassis in between, so it was very difficult to develop. We should have started with the drivetrain dimensions.

"We finished the Clubman three months before the Melbourne Motor Show, then Mike came back with sketches of the Streamliner. He said ‘this way we get two cars for the price of one. We need a hero car for the show and the one we were going to use is not quite ready.’ So he talked the board into doing it and we did it all in time for the show (from sketch to a running prototype in 12 weeks)."

The unveiling of the two cars in 2004 at the Melbourne Motor Show was a career highlight for Hemming. But he admits that he and Kovach didn’t have the resources to fully capitalise on the publicity.

Elfin -2Hemming campaigning his ’67 Elfin 300 at Speed on Tweed

"It took us, with our limited resources two years to bring it to market... in a niche market, time is of the essence. "It caused a lot of financial strain and enormous stress. We never did any less than 12-hour days. We had to do everything ourselves. What we did was miraculous with what we had and we can take a lot of pride in that.

"We decided that we needed capital and new partnership resources to get it to where we wanted it to be. That’s when (Tom) Walkinshaw walked in the door and after nine months of negotiating, we came to a deal. Walkinshaw Performance has put a lot behind the venture and to date about 40 MS8s have been constructed with several going overseas."

Hemming says he left the venture at the right time for himself and the company. But he was still very interested in the history of the marque and having built up a stable of Elfin race cars wanted to keep them in the public eye, so his latest venture is the newly opened Elfin Heritage Centre in Melbourne (see story left).

It appears now that Elfin is in the very best hands; Tom Walkinshaw with the muscle to bring new Elfins to the world and Bill Hemming ensuring that the legacy of Garrie Cooper lives on.

Bill -hemming -6Vern Schuppan ran this MR8 in CanAm series with altered bodywork

ELFIN HISTORY SAFE

Having collected around a dozen Elfins that needed a home and being passionate about ensuring their place in history, Bill Hemming put his money where his mouth was and created the Elfin Heritage Centre. It was officially launched by Elfin founder Garrie Cooper’s wife, Lorraine on August 16 2007.

The centre features a permanent museum of racing and sports cars, along with extensive memorabilia. In addition, it provides a parts and restoration service for historic racing Elfins, and also acts as the Elfin Owners’ and Drivers’ Club rooms.

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Beginning in Adelaide Garrie Cooper’s Elfins dominated local open-wheeler and sports car racing from the early-’60s to late-’70s. Cooper and his team built 248 cars and 27 different models, winning 29 national championships and major titles. Garrie Cooper died in 1982 aged just 46.

Open between 2-5pm weekdays and the first Saturday of the month the Elfin Heritage Centre is located at 29 Capella Crescent Moorabbin, Victoria. Visit the website at www.elfinheritage.com.au

FACT FILE

Name: Bill Hemming
Born: Brisbane, June 10, 1950
Claim to fame: One-time Elfin company owner and creator of new Elfin Heritage Centre
Career highlight: Launch of Elfin MS8 at 2004 Melbourne Motor Show
Career lowlight: Working for Tax Department as accountant
Inspirations: Garrie Cooper/Norman Lindsay
Favourite quote: "If the job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well."

 

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