I was in England for my sister’s wedding in Oxford in July 1991, my first visit to the UK,’ recalls former TVR Car Club of North America president Marshall Moore, ‘and as a diehard TVR fan I simply had to include a visit to the factory. I drove around Blackpool for a while, then spotted a TVR S with the works registration number TVR 22 and followed it to the factory. I went inside, told the receptionist why I was there and she called a young gentleman out to take me on a tour. In retrospect I realise it was probably Ben Samuelson [TVR’s marketing and PR manager and sometime racing driver].
‘S production was in full swing. Chassis were in line to have suspension components and engines fitted. The wiring, upholstery and paint shops were all focused on Ss, and outside at the back S bodyshells were curing. The wedge bodyshells and moulds had been retired and were sitting on top of the roof.
‘Inside it was clear that TVR was heading in new directions. The Griffith prototype, Peter Wheeler’s “White Elephant” and the prototype Speed Eight were in a separate garage area. However, in one special section of the factory employees were working on a solitary 450 SEAC. Stunning in dark green, it looked about 90 per cent complete. My guide told me this was the last 450 to be built. I thought, “There’s one lucky soul, somewhere.”’
One of those workers was Andy Clifton. ‘I used to set up their suspension, engines and steering geometry,’ he explains. ‘The SEACs used rose joints rather than the usual Metalastic bushes. They were a right pain to calibrate – you had to take the whole assembly apart to adjust them, rather than tweaking individual joints. Setting up a SEAC’s suspension took one and a half hours.’ The highly-tuned engines weren’t straightforward either. ‘We had to rev them up to set the timing rather than doing it at idle.
‘The bodywork was part-Kevlar, although only the bodyshop knew what proportion of Kevlar went into each shell. Some of them didn’t have any at all, or just select panels, but they all kept the SEAC [Special Equipment Aramid Composite] name. I don’t know whether that car had Kevlar in it or not. There was certainly no mistaking them for other TVR wedges, with their rear spoilers and wide-bore exhausts making them look much bigger from the rear.’
Moore’s ‘lucky soul’ was serial TVR customer Alistair Binning, a financial advisor from Gerrards Cross. He passed away in 2012 but his wife Sara remembers the car well. ‘When I first met him my colleagues wanted to know what he drove and I said, “a leaky old sports car”.
Then he arrived to pick me up in it and one of them said, “That’s not any old sports car, that’s a TVR!”’ Binning had owned the first Kevlar-bodied TVR 420 SEAC road car, so it was appropriate that he commissioned the last one too. ‘He’d had quite a few and had a good relationship with the factory and went there quite a bit,’ says Sara.
‘Two weeks after he bought the 450 SEAC, Alistair went to see a client at Eel Pie Island. He parked up, walked away, heard an almighty crashing sound and turned to see it rolling down the steps towards the Thames. Thankfully the tide was out and there wasn’t a scratch on it when it was recovered. He didn’t take it out much after that, but when he did I could hear him coming from miles away.
‘It didn’t get much use because we had three children and he got rid of it when our fourth child was born in 1992. My son is only just old enough to remember it but he’s written to the current owner, asking whether he can buy it if it’s ever for sale.’
The car was then bought by caravan entrepreneur and supercar collector Martin O’Neill. ‘I had a Lotus Esprit SE – the fastest-accelerating production car of the time – but after driving the 450 SEAC I had to have it. It was the most memorable of five TVRs I’ve had. I bought the J5 EAC registration number from the DVLA for just a few hundred quid. It was my daily-driver for a year.
‘I always thought it looked a bit nose-high. It turned out that Alistair Binning had it built that way, the body raised from the chassis using two-inch wooden blocks. The Wilton carpets smelt a little earthy too. When we investigated, it turned out the factory had cut a rough hole in the tub to stop a chassis tube rubbing against it. Easily fixed with more glassfibre.
‘It was fast, but not as fast as the Lotus. I don’t think it quite had the 320bhp TVR claimed. However it was one of the most charismatic cars I’ve ever owned – and I used to have a Venturi 400GT and Lamborghini Diablo.’
The car’s next owner was Nigel Wood, who bought it in September 1995. ‘Portfields, a dealership in Chichester, always had interesting cars and held open days when you could drive their stock,’ he recalls. ‘I was always interested in TVRs, but new ones were out of my financial reach. I went there to try a Corvette Stingray but the older TVR caught my eye. I had to wait a week before test-driving it because a wheel bearing needed replacing, but I bought it after that chance encounter.
‘Because of the joy of the noise it made, I tended to gloss over certain issues. The main problem was that it leaked; the driver’s footwell filled with water, even when it was in the garage, and I could never work out why.
‘Portfields was close to Goodwood, and a year to the day into my ownership I was invited to one of the track days it organised at the circuit. The thought of driving the car on track petrified me, but with a training instructor in the passenger seat it turned out to be rather fun. Funny thing was, it failed Goodwood’s decibel test, but the organisers let it onto the track anyway. ‘It was my main car, not some weekend fun machine. I went to see my parents in it shortly after buying it and my mother’s response was, “Is it always going to make that noise?” She looked very disappointed when I answered yes!
‘I only owned it for 18 months. I took it on a touring holiday round Kent, but soon realised that I needed a more sensible car. I traded it in for a Mitsubishi 3000GT at Portfields, which may not sound sensible, but was at least a more mass-produced car with easily-available parts and which didn’t leak whenever it rained.’
Historic aircraft restorer Howard Burgess bought the car in 1996. ‘I modified it somewhat,’ he laughs. ‘Wedge Automotive in Sheffield fitted it with big-valve cylinder heads, hotter cams, larger throttle bodies, suspension and brake upgrades and a stainless-steel exhaust. I wanted it to be quicker because I intended to race it. I had the ECU remapped by a guy in London. It all cost a fortune – thousands.
‘Unfortunately, the SEAC has a particular handling foible. Obviously it lends itself to going very fast but that rear spoiler only really works at very high speeds. As a result when you come off the gas and the weight transfers forward, the back end gets very skittish very quickly unless you’re going extremely quickly. My 350i was similar, but it was exaggerated in the SEAC.’
Via Wedge Automotive, Burgess managed to solve a mystery surrounding all SEACs. ‘It was one of the Kevlarbodied cars,’ Burgess exclaims. ‘Richard Thorpe found out when he was modifying the car – all SEACs are rare and the 450s even more so, but Kevlar makes it the rarest of all. It would have made an incredible racer. ‘Sadly I was working abroad a lot back then, so I never got round to racing it. I think it’s fair to say that I spent more time modifying it than driving it, so I ended up selling it after four years.
‘My Porsche 996 Carrera 4S felt like a Honda Jazz after I’d taken the SEAC for a test drive’
‘I’d love to have a go in it now though. The current owner got in touch with me because he couldn’t work out how to operate the alarm I’d fitted. He’s offered to let me drive it if I’m ever down in Cornwall. It might be worth booking a holiday for that…’
Phil Sissons bought the car in 2001 and owned it for 14 years. ‘Phil bought that car to be used, not sit in a garage,’ recalls Phil’s’ widow Lyn. ‘We put a lot of miles on it. Phil absolutely adored it. We used it for everything – I remember him taking my 82-year-old mother to outpatients’ appointments in it and she had to push herself out of it on her hands and knees. And she’s blind!
‘We weren’t precious about it at all. We had some brilliant trips with the Cornwall TVR Car Club, including convoys to Brittany, and round France and Belgium. It did break down a couple of times, but little garages in France could always cobble together some solution to keep it running. On one occasion though, Phil needed to lubricate a replacement fuel hose during a roadside repair and ended up using an expensive Chanel lipstick of mine. And he handed it back when he’d finished!
‘He’d take any excuse to drive it. It had work done all the time and when he popped out to “get some carpets” I thought he meant a £50 set from Halfords – but he went to a specialist in Totnes and they were £800… ‘Sadly, Phil fell ill and for the last three years of his ownership the car sat unused in our garage. His last conscious memory was of the man from Ferris Garage coming to take the car away. It fired on the first turn of the key and we both started to cry. He wouldn’t have sold it to just anyone. What the current owner is doing with the car now is what Phil would have done.’
‘He turned to see the car rolling towards the Thames. Thankfully the tide was out’
Geoff Smith, senior deputy vice chancellor and professor of music at Falmouth University, fell for the car as soon as he heard it in August 2015. ‘I’d taken my Porsche 996 Carrera 4S in for a service at Ferris Garage in Feock and I heard the SEAC start up. I just had to take it for a test drive. It felt like someone had strapped a Spitfire engine to a stepladder – my Porsche felt like a Honda Jazz afterwards.
‘Immediately there was talk on TVR internet forums, “There’s a SEAC for sale” – it felt like a major event. But then the internet TVR community started to get suspicious – how come it’s at a local non-specialist garage in Cornwall? No-one could account for it and as a result Ferris didn’t get any club enquiries. Most of the interest came from Europe where SEACs are even rarer. But Ferris, at the behest of previous owner Phil Sissons, wanted to keep this special car in Cornwall. So I took the plunge. At £21k it wasn’t expensive for a SEAC.
‘I didn’t really know what I’d bought, if I’m honest, but I loved the sound it made and the TVR ownership community is like no other. It’s easy to get in touch with authoritative figures in the TVR story. In my year of ownership it’s needed a window switch, a door handle, a brake caliper and a headlamp motor, but that’s it.
‘Looking over the service history though, it’s clear that there’s a programme of works when it comes to looking after TVRs. It’s on its fourth clutch – the first clutch change was at three years old and it’s needed a new one roughly every 10,000 miles since. And over time the tyres, trim, rear screen and radiator have needed attention. The major servicing never stops, but it just needs gentle preservation, not nut-and-bolt restoration. I prefer classic car ownership to be about slowing down and arresting deterioration, not starting from scratch. ‘In total I’ve spent £4000 recommissioning it at RPB, Cornwall’s TVR Heritage Network centre, a 100-mile round trip that reminds me of how intense the car is to drive. You have to concentrate so hard that every aspect of that moment is about the TVR. It’s intoxicating.’
‘I just had to test drive it – it felt like someone had strapped a Spitfire engine to a stepladder’
As soon as Geoff heard the 4.5-litre V8 fire, he knew he had to have it. Driving this TVR is intoxicating, says owner Geoff Smith. SEACs had rose joints rather than Metalastic bushes and setting up the suspension took 1½ hours. Big rear spoiler only does its job at very high speed, says third owner Howard Burgess. Nice registration number – and the SEAC really looks at home at Goodwood. Second owner Nigel Wood never discovered where the rain leaked into the cabin. A narrow escape when the SEAC rolled from its parking space to the Thames. ‘Oi, you can’t take that round Goodwood – it’s too loud. Oh, go on then…’ Howard Burgess verified that the car’s body is part-Kevlar, justifying its Special Equipment Aramid Composite cognomen. A SEAC is born – the last 450, and the car on these pages, nears completion in 1991.