Now that’s a ‘Wing Car’! Garrie Cooper awaits clearance for takeoff at Adelaide International, ‘Elfin 792 Cessna’ in 1979…
When I originally saw this shot on the wonderful ‘Elfin Monocoque Aficionados’ Facebook Group page I thought it a promotional pisstake, the additional wings added to get some column inches for Elfin’s sponsor, Ansett Airlines of Australia. Ansett was an Australian icon, our ‘other’ domestic airline until its corporate failure in 2001. Reg Ansett would have turned in his grave that day.
Whilst it was John Bowe’s car the helmet was Cooper’s, JB confirmed it was the Elfin chief at the wheel; ‘Garrie kept and prepared the car in Adelaide, he was always fiddling around with new ideas and this is one of them. I met the car and raced it at meetings but GC did all of the development work on the chassis’.
Elfin boss Cooper and mechanic/engineer John Porter were experimenting to understand the forces their new ‘ground effect’ designs would be subjected to by trying to create the downforce of GE tunnels by the addition of the side mounted wings.
In 1978 Colin Chapman, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson ‘swept the boards’ with their dominant ground-effects Lotus 79, Mario took the drivers and Lotus the manufacturers titles that year.
The complexities of aerodynamics, what a ‘black art’ it was then with the technology of the day was such that the dominant team of 1978 didn’t win a race in 1979!
Chapman pushed the envelope ‘too far’ with the ‘wingless’ Lotus 80 despite all of the knowledge Peter Wright, Tony Rudd, Chapman and the rest had acquired during 1976/8. The best ‘Lotus 79 copy’, the Williams FW07 was the fastest car of 1979 albeit Ferrari ‘nicked’ the title with its T4 design as Patrick Head and Frank Williams didn’t get their new car onto the grid early enough which allowed the ultra reliable, just fast enough Fazz Flat-12 to win for Jody Scheckter.
The technical challenges manufacturers of production racing cars like Elfin faced in 1979 were the aerodynamic forces unleashed on their structures. They both needed to understand how to create the downforce Lotus harnessed and then strengthen their structures to cope with the download and cornering forces applied to the cars chassis and suspension componentry as unheard levels of grip were created.
The difficulty for people like Cooper at the ‘far flung ends of the planet’ was not being able to see how things were evolving directly week by week at race meetings in Europe, get the ‘goss from suppliers and the press etc.
The Elfin 792 VW Golf was Cooper’s 1978 ANF2 car (1.6 litres, SOHC, carburettor formula, engines gave circa 185bhp) but it arrived late so took the 792 appellation. GC had a huge F5000 shunt in 1978 at the Sandown Gold Star round from which he was lucky to escape, a story for another time, an impact was the delay of a swag of Elfin projects including the F2 car until Garrie was back on his feet.
When laid down the little single-seater was designed as a neat, conventional aluminium monocoque with outboard suspension. It was a replacement of his Type 700, originally built as an ANF3 (1300cc) car but evolved into an F2 car by many racers when fitted with a Ford Twin-cam or various pushrod/SOHC 4 cylinder engines as the class evolved from a 1.6 twin-cam to a 1.6 SOHC formula with effect from 1978.
Later Australian Gold Star and Touring Car Champion, John Bowe raced both the factory MR8 Chev F5000 and 792 and with more luck could have won both the Gold Star and the 1979 F2 Championship.
Bowe may not be known to all overseas readers, he is one of Australia’s pro-driver greats over 4 decades. He had a great career in single-seaters before turning to ‘the dark side’, touring cars where he was and still is, an ace. He won 6 Australian Championships in four categories including the then prestigious ‘Gold Star’ for our champion driver, 2 Bathurst 1000’s and the Australian Touring Car Championship.
‘I grew up surrounded by cars in Tasmania, my dad had a dealership and raced, I went to lots of local meetings at Symmons Plains, Baskerville and Longford. I raced an Elfin Formula Vee when I first started and an Elfin 600 after that, and it was Garrie who gave me the chance to race on the mainland, which is something I really wanted to do’.
‘He was great to me by giving me the opportunity and also the guidance. The Elfin drives were the big boost my career got, everything that happened later was a function of the success I had in the F2 Elfins and especially the F5000 MR8 drives I had, which established my big-car credibility’.
‘The 1.6 single-cam F2 formula was really good at the time, it had some young, fast guys involved; Sheady and Sambo in the Celica powered Cheetah’s, John Smith in his Ralt RT1, Davo in the Hardman, Norden in the March copy and others. The fields had depth, the racing was hard, that (younger not Shead and Sambo!) group of us were young guys pushing up so we gave the class a real shake’, said John.
‘The 792 was a good car, it was quick but it wasn’t too long before it got a bit floppy at the back. The weakness or lack of stiffness was in the mounting of the frame to the tub, in the end Garrie said we should sell it. Cooper built three of the cars and they are now all in the hands of the one guy, although none of them are running’ in historic racing.
The chassis was an honeycomb aluminium monocoque with conventional outboard wishbone suspension at the front and single top link, twin lower links and radius rods for fore and aft location at the rear. New uprights were used as well as Elfins own steering rack. Hewland’s Mk9 5 speed ‘box with slippery diff was fitted and 190’ish bhp claimed for the VW Golf engine which was built in-house at Elfins using the best Super Vee bits from the ‘States. The suspension was finished in cadminium plating, the superbly presented car glistened in the Benalla sunlight as I shared the scrutineering bay with it in at Winton in late August 1979, my Venom F Vee feeling very ‘povvo’ in comparison!
The class of the 1979 F2 field was John Smith’s Ralt RT1. He raced this as an F Pac with a Cosworth BDD fitted and an AN2 with a pushrod Ford ‘Kent’ 711M, which was pretty neat. The ‘Kent’ is the same block used in Cosworth’s BDD, in pushrod form modified with lots of Cosworth bits. The car was heavy as an F2 but Smithy’s skills more than made up for any weight disadvantage the package had. He was fast but he didn’t have reliability on his side that year.
JB debuted the 792 successfully in Baskerville’s end of February meeting, he won the F2 race and set a new outright lap record. Still in Tasmania on 14 March he won 3 races and again set an F2 lap record, besting the Birrana 274 F2 twin-cam mark set by Leo Geoghegan.
At Sandown on 8 April Bowe again set an F2 lap record besting Leo’s time again but was 2nd in the race between the Cheetah twins; Brian’s Shead and Sampson in Cheetah Mk6 Toyota’s. At Oran Park 6 weeks later he was 3rd.
In the Gold Star chase Bowe was 2nd in the AGP at Wanneroo Park in WA, the winner John Walker in a Lola T332 Chev, for a change JW was the lucky beneficiary of others misfortunes. John followed this up with a flag to flag win in the first Gold Star round at Oran Park on 29 July, a great drive for an F5000 relative novice.
JB on the speed of the Elfin MR8; ‘When I stepped up into F5000 I was a young driver and by that stage the Elfin MR8 Chev was well sorted, GC built the first one around 1976. Garrie, Vern, (Schuppan) James Hunt and others had raced the things so they were developed by guys who knew these big cars, I didn’t have a yardstick but I reckon the Elfin was every bit as good as the T332 Lolas and other contemporary cars of the day’.
Bowe took the first F2 Championship round at Calder in early August beating Brian Shead over the line by less than a second, both drivers did the same fastest lap and became joint holders of the F2 lap record.
Later in August Bowe was knocked off the track at Winton whilst lapping a competitor, breaking an upright and spinning into the infield in the second AF2 championship round. John Smith was the quickest car that weekend, but went off in the wet, the winner was Graham Engel in a Cheetah Mk6 Ford.
On September 9 Bowe contested the last round of the Gold Star at Sandown and was convincingly in the lead after the brakes on Alf Costanzo’s Lola T430 wouldn’t release but a left rear tyre deflated. In trying to get back to the pits John damaged the rear suspension cradle. John Walker took 2nd, the series and promptly retired from the sport he loved. Costanzo won the race.
John then travelled back to Winton for the ‘Rose City 10000’ F5000 race contested by both 5 litre cars and Formula Pacific cars which were incredibly fast around twisty Winton with its multiple changes of direction. JB qualified on row 2 but was in the lead leaving behind the scrapping Costanzo Lola T430 and Smith Ralt RT1 BDD. With 8 laps to go John spun, broke the Elfin’s nose and was black-flagged, Alf won the race from Smithy by less than a half a second.
At Symmons for the final round of the AF2 championship on 11 November Ian Richards set fastest practice time in a Golf powered car called a Tudor, but Bowe was only a tenth slower with Brian Shead 3rd on the grid. JB won the first heat from Shead and had the title within his grasp but in the final, in the wet, a plug lead came loose whilst in the lead giving the round win and championship to the evergreen, muti-talented Cheetah constructor, Brian Shead.
JB’s F2 season ended at Calder’s sportscar championship round in late November with a win over Ian Richards Cheetah Golf, Ian having won the preliminary race and giving intent of his increasing competitiveness as a driver which would be fully exploited in his own, beautiful ground-effect Richards 201 Golf with which he took the 1981 AF2 Championship.
With the season ended Bowe sold the 792 putting pressure on Cooper to finish the GE225 F2 car for 1980, a story for another time. It was an amazing 1979 for Bowe, he didn’t win either title, both of which seemed a strong possibility at one point but he had absolutely established himself as one of the top drivers in the country.
If the Elfin looks familiar to some of you its probably its March 792’esque nose. That BMW engined car won the 1979 Euro F2 Championship for Marc Surer. The Elfin also raced with a ‘Tyrrell’ bluff nose but Bowe’s definitive spec was with this nose and an airbox fitted atop the downdraft Weber carbs.
In 1980 John Bowe contested the ANF2 title again, this time in Cooper’s GE Two-25, his first completed ground effect design, no doubt the research found on this 1979 test day was instructive in that cars design!
In the UK Ron Tauranac was struggling to get his first G-E car, the F3 Ralt RT3 to go quicker than the old RT1 (he succeeded bigtime!) whilst Cooper and Porter were simulating the sort of forces they would encounter in designing their new car by running Bowe’s 792 with this wing amidships. No way could it have legally raced with an additional wings mounted where these were.
The GE Two-25 was an F2 race winner for Bowe in 1980 but Richard Davison won the title in a Hardman JH1 Ford in an interesting and competitive ANF2 Championship, a ‘wing-car’ story for another time and one with a potentially better Elfin outcome had Cooper finished the car in time for Bowe to contest the full championship…
Special thanks to John Bowe for his time and insights
Elfin Monocoque Aficionados’ Facebook Group, Barry Catford and John Blanden ‘Elfin Racing Cars’
Stephen Lambert, Ian Smith, oldracephotos.com, Peter Brennan
Tailpieces: Cooper quickly got the hang of the design of ground effect cars; John Bowe in his only Elfin MR9 Chev drive at Sandown on 22 February 1981 after Cooper was a ‘bit spooked’ by the car in Gold Star practice…
Alfie Costanzo’s Allan Hamilton owned, Tiga converted ground-effects ex-F1 McLaren M26 Chev was the class of the field that weekend but JB drove very well to 2nd after a big fright in practice when the MR9’s left rear rocker bent after underestimation of the down force created. The components on all four corners were strengthened overnight at Porsche Cars Australia’s workshop just up the road from the circuit in Dandenong.
John; ‘I was at Sandown racing my Elfin GE225 F2 car and Bryan Thomson’s Mercedes sports sedan when Garrie asked me to have a drive of the MR9 on the Friday. He said he was a bit ‘spooked’ by the car and wasn’t sure whether it was him, he’d had a big accident at Sandown a couple of years before, or the car. It was the early ground effect days, the Elfin MR9 was a great design but the forces weren’t fully understood by many designers’.
‘One of the many wonderful memories I have of GC was being in restaurants with him all over the country and him scribbling notes or diagrams of ideas on paper napkins! What was happening was the chassis was flexing a bit, the front wheels losing alignment and any semblance of castor so the car was very unpredictable under brakes in particular, you had to stop the thing by braking down the middle of the road. And then the upright broke which was very exciting! He strengthened the car in various areas and got it sorted later on but I only drove it the once at Sandown’.
The MR9 is a story for another time…