Bexhill’s Engineers

This exhibition does not attempt to cover every single engineer or engineering firm that had their home in Bexhill. We have instead highlighted three individuals, firms and projects. One is an individual from the beginning of the 20th. century, the second is an individual and firm from the middle of that century and the last is the work of some pupils from St. Richard’s School at the end. We consider that all three of the subjects covered by this exhibition have not received the recognition that they deserve and in bringing their work before you we hope to remedy this and encourage you to consider what has happened and what is continuing to take place in Bexhill.

It must be admitted that when thinking of inventions and engineering one does not immediately think of Bexhill. But over the years inventors, engineers and engineering firms have made their homes and places of work here. We should also remember that during the Second World War several shadow factories were set up in the town by the government; one need only think of the aircraft undercarriage parts made at Morris House at the end of Sackville Road. However much we might like to think of our town as being a place for the world’s movers and shakers it must be admitted that our three chosen subjects made an impact on the international scene for the most part local industry has been just that. There are still local firms that are important both nationally and internationally.

Finally we would ask you to consider that the St. Richard’s pupils were no different from those attending local schools at the present time. Given the lead and incentive they too could conquer the world.

GUSTAVUS GREEN  (1865-1964)

Green’s 4-cylinder aerial_engine (Rankin_Kennedy,_Modern_Engines,_Vol_III).

Gustavus Green was 32 years old when he moved to Bexhill in 1897. He opened a cycle-making business at 5, Western Road where he is shown in the Bexhill Street Directory as a cycle engineer until 1902 where he is called a general engineer. By 1904 he had moved to Reginald Road where he occupied a Motor Works. He had no engineering training at all but about this time he designed a motor car and engine which was sold to a Dr. Miller. His second car was exhibited at the 1906 Motor Show and was sold to Lord Francis Hope of diamond fame. The design of the engines interested the Commandant of the Balloon School and Factory at Farnborough which led to an order in 1908 a more powerful version for use in airships. The works in Victoria Road had the capacity to manufacture entire cars but from this time the work was put out to other engineering firms and this was how his areo-engines were produced. He now seems to lose interest in motor cars but continued to manufacture and supply two sizes of motor cycle engine to other makers such as Zenith.

From 1908 he concentrated on designing and building aero engines which were used by such flying pioneers as A. V. Roe, Tommy Sopwith, C. Grahame-White and W. Cody. His 35 h.p. engine enabled Moore- Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon) to win the £1,000 prize for the first circular flight of one mile by a British pilot in an all British aeroplane. The 100 h.p. Green engine powered the first successful British amphibian, the Bat Boat, made by Tommy Sopwith. This plane, piloted by Harry Hawker, flew 1,045 miles around Britain over two days. It failed to complete the full 1,540 miles due to the pilot’s foot slipping on the controls causing an early descent onto Lough Shinny near Dublin.

Green seems to have flown only twice in his life. Once in an airship powered by a Green engine and the other time with Col. Cody also in a Green powered craft. On the latter occasion it was on the day before Cody crashed fatally. He later claimed that the authorities considered him useful to risk his life flying.

His aero engines tended to become heavier and with the increasing competition from the expanding aero engine industry his product was less in demand. However the power and reliability that the Green engines provided was just what was required by the Admirality for their coastal motor patrol boats. It was boats of this type with the Green engine that took part in the Zebrugge raid and other actions during the First World War.

 Green’s final invention before retiring was a ship’s lifeboat which creates a link between him and Frank Nichols.

 He retired in the early 1920s to his house at Twickenham where he occupied himself with his hobby of clocks. Eventually at the age of 93 he was remembered as the great pioneer of British aero engine design by the award of the Honorary Companionship of the Royal Aeronautical Society, only the sixth time the award had been made.

THE HISTORY OF ELVA

Frank Nichols was born in Bexhill in 1920 and after leaving school was employed as a grocer’s errand boy. By 1939 he had progressed to working behind the cheese counter. As a member of the Territorials he was called-up early and served with 58th. Field Artillery in France being evacuated from Dunkirk. He took part in the battle of El Alamein and was wounded at Benghazi. It took him two years to recover and he was then transferred to the RASC working on the transport side. This is where he discovered his flair for working with motor vehicles. On demob he invested his savings and service gratuity in a small garage at Pevensey where he both worked on customers cars and also bought and sold second-hand cars.

The early Fifties was a time for amateur motor racing on a small budget and Frank was keen. He got Mike Chapman of Hastings to build him a “special” which was delivered in 1954 and with which he was quite successful. He now had his garage in London Road near where the Viking Fish Bar now is and with his mechanic, Malcolm Witts and Bill Murphy built the first Elva. The name is derived from the french ‘elle va’, ‘she goes’. At his time it was not intended to sell the cars but to use the original as a display platform for the cylinder head which they had designed and to use the profit from the sale of these to go racing. However, when Frank was testing the car at Brands Hatch he was approached by Dennis Wakeling who asked if he could buy one and thus became the first customer of what now became the Elva Engineering Co. Ltd. A chassis without engine, gearbox and body cost £350. A favourable road and track test by one of the leading motoring journalists of the day led to the sale of cars to drivers of the calibre of Robin Mackenzie-Lowe, Peter Gammon and Les Lton who had some success and demonstrated the speed and reliability of the car. Franks own racing career came to an end when the bonnet of his Elva came off and hit him on the head causing severe concussion.

Exact production figures are not known but it is believed that 20-25 cars were built in 1955. These were Mk Is and Mk IBs. The Mk II appeared for 1956 and of the 25 or so built most went to the united States where the marque was building up a good reputation in the hands of Chuck Dietrich and others. In Britain both the Cooper and Lotus cars tended to out-perform the Elva. However, during the year Archie Scott-Brown, who had only one arm, had several wins in Britain driving a ‘works’ car which was loaned to him. From this time Frank concentrated on the American market where the amateur driver did not come across competition from works cars and drivers and also where the profits were better. Frank was in business to make money from the sale of cars and this had to be kept in mind at all times.

For 1957 the Mk III was produced but was unfortunately up against the Lotus XI which had the benefit of the aerodynamic skills of Frank Costin whilst Elva depended on development by eye. During the year Malcolm Witts left and Keith Marsden took his place as designer. Keith had started as a mechanic with the firm and had taught himself draughtsmanship and design through going to evening classes and reading. The decision was also made to build a road car and thus the Courier was born. It was the one design for the company by Peter Knott who stayed with Elva for only a short time. Because Frank was unable to expand in Bexhill a factory was opened in Hastings and the cars first raced in 1958. The price in the States was equivalent to £1,150. Also in 1958 the first Keith Marsden design, the Mark IV, appeared which was more than a match for the Lotus Seventeen but unfortunately could not out perform the Lola. It did well in the States and in 1959 scored 1-2 in Class at the Sebring 12 Hour race which led to more US orders. Mid-way through the year the Mark V appeared but the dominance of Eric Broadley’s Lolas continued.

In 1959 Elva built their first Formula Junior car in readiness for the 1960 season. The cars and drivers were successful and the company received a flood of orders and supplied possibly as many as 70 cars.

By the end of 1960 Elva was producing about four or five cars a week. Couriers accounted for approximately 75% of sales. Most were being sold to the States.

The following year saw disaster. The American importer ran into financial difficulties and bills for cars already sent were not settled. Carl Hass took over the import side in the USA and tried to sort out the financial problems and with backing from him with others Elva Cars (1961) Ltd., was set up to buy the assets of the old company which had been liquidated. The Courier side of the business was sold to Trojan. Elva had produced some 300-400 cars in three years, Trojan managed 210 in four years before Courier production ended.

The works was now transferred to Rye in smaller premises and new Formula Junior and sports cars appeared and achieved varying success both in racing and commercial terms. During these years Elva had been acting as consultant to Trojan and in 1964 Trojan took over the firm. At the Earls Court Motor Show of that year the Elva GT160 was shown and was declared the ‘Star of the Show’, attracting many orders. Tax and racing regulations amongst other things complicated matters and eventually only three were built.

One of Elva’s greatest successes took place on 8th September 1963 in the Elkhart Lake Road America 500 race. The Elva Porsche facing more powerful machinery took pole and once in the lead never lost it. Hailed as a ‘David and Goliath’ act orders for 15 replicas were placed.
Elvas finally went out of production in 1969 but Frank had previously resigned ‘for health reasons’.

VOLTA

Students at St. Richard’s RC School had been building ‘real’ motor cars for quite some time when, in September 1993, they set a new WORLD RECORD for Battery Powered Cars (under 500 kg.) on the runway at Greenham Common, the former American Cruise Missile Air Base, in Berkshire.

In 1990, a previous team of students had won the prestigious BP Buildacar Competition with a very attractive battery powered, four seater car called ‘Richelle’. Project Volta was conceived when a student asked the question, “we’ve won that, what can we do now?”  A small group of students looked into the then current electric car world record situation and, after making approaches to possible sponsors, it was decided that a serious attempt on the record would be made.

The project would not have been possible without the generous help of a number of national and local companies who supported the students enthusiastically with financial and practical help.  Team Volta spent a day in the MIRA wind tunnel evaluating and modifying the aerodynamics of the vehicle and made several visits to LOTUS ENGINEERING in Norfolk for development and testing on the Company’s test track.

The extremely light Kevlar body was made by Lotus on the ‘plug’ built at the school.  SEEBOARD DETA BATTERIES and ATS Tyres were major sponsors and all the contributing organisations and companies were acknowledged by having their colourful logos displayed on the vehicle.

The team set a new record at 106.746 mph., a brilliant achievement that was widely reported by the media both in this country and abroad.

THANKS

  • The Temporary Exhibitions Team of Gill Streater, Alan Beecher, Hans Heetveld and Alan Malpass would like to thank:
  • Roger Dunbar, the Hon. Secretary of the Elva
  • Owners Club, for the loan of models, parts and the Elkhart 500 cup.
  •  Peter Fairhurst for much material in connection  with Project Volta and some relating to Gustavus Green. Also for agreeing to open this exhibition.
  • Darryl Burchmore for the donation of the  illustrated book of racing cars.
  • Jenny Branahan
  • Jennifer Elliott
  • David Dickens Smith
  • Frank Weeks
  • Julian Porter (Curator)
  •  Don Phillips (Office Manager)
  • Joan Austen

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