Resto Heroes: Nova Sean Kell’s Nova Sport is a work of art – impressive going for just three weeks of graft.
Restoring an Eighties hatch in 21 days seems like a foolish endeavour. Until you meet Sean Kell and Lee Valentine…
Sean Kell runs a company that makes animal feed. After a teenage fling with a Nova Sport, he’s returned to the model in a big way almost 20 years on, which led to the build of this high-speed concours champion.
Lee Valentine is as skilled under the bonnet as he was behind the wheel during a highly successful competition career in autotesting. His garage business in Heaton, Newcastle-upon-tyne, distracts him from a growing collection of Novas.
It starts as a familiar story. Lad buys car, lad loves car but lad eventually sells car as he grows up and gets something newer and more sensible. Then, when the lad has become a man with a bit of time and money to spare, he hunts out another car like the one he remembers fondly from all those years ago.
‘I had a Nova SR when I passed my test,’ says Sean Kell. ‘But what I really wanted was the quicker one – the Sport. There were only 502 of them built to homologate a twin-carb 1.3-litre version for rallying. And I found one at a car show for £400.’
The Nova Sport was only rated at Group 5 in the old insurance system, so it was just about affordable for Sean. Nonetheless, he eventually traded it in for something less lairy and life went on. At the age of 35 he decided to find another and duly bought one from East Sussex and brought it home to County Durham, only to sell that too. Sean had built a business selling pet feed and decided to be sensible and put his time into that rather than cars, but of course he regretted the second sale almost immediately and began browsing the small ads and auction sites for another.
‘There was an unfinished project on ebay. It was dismantled and needed paint but it looked pretty solid. So I phoned Lee Valentine and said: ‘Will you do it?’’
Lee and Sean met a few years back. Lee is a former National Autotest Champion, something he achieved driving Novas, and he just happens to run a garage business. But this wasn’t a case of booking the car in with a garage for a chequebook restoration – Lee’s garage is not a resto business and he’d only restored cars for himself.
‘I’ve never restored a car for someone else before,’ he says. ‘And I doubt I ever will again. It was quite stressful!’
That’s partly down to a decision taken early in the process. Lee went right over the shell and found only very minor repairs were necessary – some welding around the battery tray was the most significant. So off it went for paint at a local Vauxhall dealer, and when it came back Sean and Lee were impressed.
‘It was very good,’ says Sean, ‘so I decided with Lee that he should go ahead and do it to a really high standard. I’ve ruined plenty of cars myself, so I was going to be more use sourcing parts.’
Here’s where the story takes an unusual turn. Lee decided to take three weeks’ holiday and get the whole thing done in one go, working every day. That put pressure on himself and also on Sean, who had a list of obscure Eighties Vauxhall bits to track down or get remade.
Same, but different
‘The Sport has quite a lot in common with the SR, but not everything. I ended up getting a set of 5J wheels out of someone’s loft in Preston.’
While Sean was busying himself with this and other tasks, Lee cracked on with assembly. Or he
‘I found the right wheels in someone’s loft in Preston’
tried to, but the standard of the job began to impose itself on the components he wanted to re-attach. Take the engine and gearbox – they were supposed to be perfectly serviceable as they were, so the plan was simply to clean everything and fit it.
‘I decided that wasn’t going to be good enough,’ says Lee. ‘So I stripped it right down, checked and rebuilt both the engine and gearbox, with the right finish on all the bits you can see.’
Sean and Lee wondered whether to paint the gearbox casing but decided the only finish that would look right was the soft semi-matt sheen you get from vapour blasting. Pressurised water containing tiny glass beads both cleans and slightly polishes the surface, and if you’re wondering about the frame of mind Sean and Lee were in to obsess over the cosmetic appearance of the Nova’s gearbox casing, you’re not the only one.
Angle of attack
‘We found ourselves discussing the correct angle for bits of the wiring loom to sit at, and what the clips should be like,’ says Sean. ‘It was getting a bit serious!’ Lee cracked on with rest of the running gear, painting the ream beam axle and front suspension components glossy black, re-bushing everything, fitting new brakes all round and a fresh steering rack. To finish the interior, Sean had to
hunt for various pieces such as the rear bench seat unique to the Nova Sport. The car came with a radio as a special order and had a set of skirts fitted by the dealer when new, but that wasn’t the look Sean wanted this time. A network of Vauxhall buddies, internet listings and parts specialists in Germany helped him tick off the list and occasionally he enjoyed a stroke of luck, as he recalls.
‘Ashley made the exhausts for the Sport when it was new, and they can still supply them today! I got the back box as a Christmas present from my wife.’
Before Lee could finish the exterior fit-out of badges, lamps and so on, he had to apply the replica decals. Sean had found a company that could produce an excellent replica set and they finish the Sport’s look perfectly. After purchase in December 2014 and paint in January 2015, only three further weeks were needed before the little Vauxhall gulped and snorted into life, fully finished.
From there, Lee went for a bit of a lie-down and Sean plotted the car’s first appearance at the VBOA Billing show in the summer of 2015, which just happened to be the Nova Sport’s 30th anniversary. The result? The car won the Chairman’s Cup and has since accumulated other trophies for Best Eighties Car at Newcastle Racecourse and Kendal. It’s still barely run-in… Sean is frank about its ‘trailer queen’ status, but he has a decent excuse. ‘I’ve now got another Sport that I use and enjoy driving,’ he says. ‘For that matter, so has Lee.’ Sounds like the future of this particular model is in great hands.
Dazzling decals and that red exhaust tip are 100% correct.
The Nova Sport components were a dealer-installed upgrade pack, complete with instructions.
It’s not just concours Ferraris that come with original tool kits.
Delivery… that ‘what have I done?’ moment!
A rare outing for this pristine trailer queen.
Dash is shared with Nova SR, as are front seats.
There are perhaps only 30-40 Sports left and values are shooting up.
Irmscher cam and twin carbs knocked two seconds off 0-60mph time.