The Trident Clipper is one of the most attractive British GT cars of the 1960s that you’ve (probably) never heard of. With dramatic style and copious performance, it should have been a huge hit.
Andrew Elphick tells the all-too brief story of this delectable and misunderstood sports car.
Suffolk Punch: the Trident tale
Bankrupcy has sired many great sports car fables over the years. You only have to delve into the history of Aston Martin, DeLorean, Jensen and Marcos to see that hard times have almost always ended up resulting in a very unhappy ending – and, the more glamorous the marque is when it fails, the harder the fall from grace is. Sometimes, though, a very big negative can lead to something new and exciting – and the convoluted tale the Trident Clipper is such a tale…
In a nutshell, it’s a story of how a steel-bodied coupe became a glassfibre GT, after rising phoenix-like from the ashes of Trevor Wilkinson’s TVR dream. In 1964, TVR – today famed for its six- and V8-cylinder powered glassfibre coupes – decided that to attract a more affluent type of customer, a classier-looking Carrozzeria-styled car would be essential. These period gentlemen’s expresses, as epitomised by the DB Aston-Martin, Jaguar E-type, Gordon Keeble and Facel Vega among others, featured elegant coachwork penned by those delicious-sounding Italian styling houses that produced the motor show specials of dreams.
Okay, so the great styling houses such as Bertone, Giugiaro, and Zagato, might have had a hand in the humblest of family saloons of the day, but that didn’t dilute their mystique one iota. Even the lowly Triumph Herald owner could boast to his mates about the Michelotti input. With this in mind, TVR’s managers met Trevor Frost (aka Trevor Fiore) in a public house near Blackpool… If that doesn’t sound too promising, read on.
Artistic beginnings – confused ownership
Frost penned some sketches, but more importantly convinced Carrozzeria Fissore, to construct the prototype Trident for TVR, ready for the upcoming 1965 Geneva Salon. At the heart of the steel-panelled showstopper was a Ford 5.0-litre V8 engine (a 270bhp Cobra V8 unit, rife amongst sports cars of the day) and a four-speed gearbox.
Rolling on Dunlop Racing 72-spoke wire wheels, and decorated with the most delicate chrome and lighting details (sourced from domestic Italian marques), the Trident looked a million dollars. Judged a roaring success by potential buyers, orders worth in excess of £150,000 were placed at the show, and this prompted TVR to commission a further two prototypes (another coupe and a convertible) for serious evaluation.
Unfortunately – as is frequently the case at TVR just when things are getting interesting – fate conspired against the company. Within six months of the Trident’s Geneva Show debut, the receivers were called in, and by August 1965, TVR was declared bankrupt. Existing TVR distributor, Martin Lilley, bought the remnants and acquired the manufacturing rights for the production models… although that did not include the Trident.
Due to both Frost and Fissore still being TVR creditors, another distributor, William Last, secured the Trident’s design rights, even though – allegedly – Martin Lilley later purchased the third and fourth prototypes from the Italians! (However, Last and Lilley never agreed the true story).
Under the skin… familiar stuff
William Last’s Trident Cars Limited wasted no time in displaying the Trident at the January 1966 Racing Car Show, but it was not until a year later (again at the London Olympia Racing Car Show), that the definitive article appeared on sale – at first only in coupe form. Though visually very similar to the TVR prototypes, Last’s ‘Clipper’ featured a glassfibre body shell sitting on a separate chassis sourced from the Austin-Healey 3000 – but with simplified lighting arrangements.
It was still powered by the Ford 289cu Cobra V8 engine; shared with the AC Cobra. However, compare the prices – the AC came in at £2952, while the Clipper appeared something of a bargain at £1923 – even if the fast but flighty Sunbeam Tiger weighed-in at a mere £1471. According to Trident Cars, the Clipper could crack the 0-60mph benchmark in 5.0 seconds, and reach the magic 150mph. Whether this was actually attainable is debatable, but since the launch of the Jaguar E-type in 1961, this had become the figure to beat.
The brakes were by Girling – 11-inch discs with coil sprung wishbone front suspension, and 11-inch drums mounted on the end of a 3.5:1 live rear axle. Steering was by cam and peg, and it seemed that the only real sophistication lay in the 12-volt alternator-driven electrical system, which boasted (optional) air conditioning. Inside, you could also specify it with sumptuous leather and deep pile upholstery.
Expanding the portfolio
In 1969, a second Trident model was announced – the ‘Venturer’. Powered by the Ford 3.0-litre Essex V6, it had a top speed of a 120mph, and a competitive 0-60mph time of 8.0 seconds. The major difference for both of these models was the adoption of an off-the-shelf Triumph TR6 chassis – by this time, Austin Healey supplies had run out. To make sure the wheelbase remained the same as the older underpinnings, five inches of steel was crudely inserted into the chassis rails. One positive aspect of this change was that the new underpinnings featured independent coil suspension for both front and rear wheels.
For the 1971 range the ‘Tycoon’ model was added, featuring automatic transmission coupled to the Triumph straight-six, and was was offered with the troublesome Lucas fuel injection system for the first time. This raised the price to £2584, £285 more than its carburettor-equipped Ford V6-powered sister.
Another variation appeared, this time powered by Chrysler’s 5.9-litre 360 cu Hemi V8 (though only one was produced, and ex-Trident employee suggests this was a free sample engine) in place of the Ford V8. Equipment was generous – with electric aerial and windows, reclining seats and a hazard warning light on the list, as was ‘No-Glare’ tinted glass. Those who demanded true opulence could even order an eight-track radio cassette and TV system! Bizarrely, the clock was still an option…
By 1974, the worldwide Fuel Crisis and economic recession had killed demand overnight and forced the company into ceasing production.
Two years later, there was an attempt to re-start Clipper production, and despite offering a more appealing revised model, it didn’t get very far. The major difference in these new models were the ungainly looking fibreglass pedestrian-friendly rubber-style bumpers – a nod to ever tightening safety legislation, and the desire to appeal to the US market. Chrome-faced Wolfrace slot mags replaced the Dunlop wires and, in homage to Giugiaro’s Lotus Esprit, flush fitting Morris Marina door handles appeared.
Quite unusually at the time, the steering wheel featured a stylish crash pad, making its appearance not dissimilar to today’s airbag-equipped jobbies. In total, a further two Clippers were constructed in 1976 – and that was that. Of these last two, one is on display at Ipswich’s Transport Museum, bequeathed by Lesley Last – daughter of the late William Last.
|Glassfibre Coupe prototype||1|
According updated Trident Club records, approximately 80 cars were constructed.
Of the original TVR prototypes 3 steel coupes and a steel convertible were made. (All are extant but currently only two are in working order)
With thanks to David Rowlinson of the Trident Car Club.