Rally seats

Seats are a big deal for me.  Austin Healey seats don't have much lower back support.  Certainly that's no penetrating insight to anyone that's taken a long drive in their beloved Healey.  I know that for some of my friends this isn't an issue.  Lin Rose did an 8,000 mile tour (Going Mobile) without an issue.  That wouldn't have been my experience.  It isn't that I have major back issues, but I find my back is very picky about getting the support it wants on long drives.  We've purchased 2 new cars that gave me back aches after half an hour of driving.  Unfortunately, that isn't something you learn on a short test drive.  One of the cars we sold in a time period that was much quicker than we normally would have.  The other I took in to my favorite upholstery shop, Auto Weave Upholstery, and they redid the seat's support to my liking.  Then we put 140K comfortable miles on the car.  The point being seats can have a big impact on one's driving satisfaction level and the finished project.  

Building a Works rally replica gives me some lattitude in seat selection.  The seats in the Works rally Healeys were almost always modified to accommodate the driver of the car.  Vintage pictures of Works Healeys show a variety of seating mods.  I wanted to stay true to the period, so I started looking for vintage style rally seats.  While visiting Jonathan Everard's shop in Leamington Spa, UK (JME is now located in Warwick in the old Cape works building (link)), I saw period correct rally seats in one of their Works rally replicas.  I was told they were Ridgard Seats (link).  I should point out that our Healeys can only handle seats up to about 17 1/2" at the base.  This restriction eliminates most seats, so this discovery of the Ridgard rally seats was exciting. 

I called Ridgard, and they agreed to sell me two unupholstered Classic Rally seats.  I didn't want them upholstered because I wanted to finished them with the same material as the rest of the interior, and I was a long way from making that choice.  I did purchase one set of their upholstery that I had hoped we could use as a pattern for the final upholstery. 

Once I got them, I welded strap metal to the original seat mount to allow mounting of the Ridgard seats.  These mounting straps were set back 2" to give addition leg room (Pic #1).  The seats are now able to bump up against the kick-up on the body.....meaning they can't possibly go any farther back.  You will notice in this image that the transmission tunnel has been modifed to provide a bit more seat room.  I have a 5-speed conversion by Pete Delaney (formerly Smitty's) which allowed me to reduce the size of the tunnel....more info on that is availble in my Project Paper on the Tunnel Modifications for 5-speed Conversion (link)  . 

For the next few weeks, I looked at and sat in the seats in the car (Pic #2).  There were two things that I didn't care for: 1) the seats were about 2" higher than the top body line.  2) The seats upper bolster came across my shoulders at an uncomfortable level for me.  With the seats in the unfinished state, I was pretty sure these things could be remedied.  (As an aside, in this picture you may notice a high tech fuel system strategically located behind the passenger.  This was in place while developing the electronic fuel injection system (link) and is not recommended for daily use.... Wink.)  But, back to fixing the seats....  


Off I went with seats in tow to Auto Weave Upholstery.  Ron Nelson, the owner of Auto Weave, and I discussed the issues (link).  Then Ron and I chatted with his ace upholstery artist (he is genuinely an artist at his craft), Jim Skinner.  We decided Jim would cut the frames down 2", recushion them, install a Recaro infatable lower back platter, and fit them with black leather in a design that recalls the original pattern.  Pic #3 shows them after the frame has been cut down 2" and the initial foundation has been established.  


In Pic #4 Jim has installed the Recaro inflatable bladders and done some initial shaping of the foam underlayment.  It was at this point that I visited Auto Weave to test fit them and a few minor changes were made.  We also decided to eliminate the seat belt passthroughs that were in the original seats.  In sitting in the seats is was obvious that the most comfortable location for the seat belts would be over the seats, not through the seats, so Jim filled these before designing the final upholstery patterns.    

Auto Weave's Jim Skinner Pic #4a.

Here is the final configuration in a supple black leather (Pic #6).  I chose to pattern the upholstery in a fashion similar to the Austin Healey upholstery while incorporating the look of the period rally seats.  The bulbs near the front corners of the seats are for the Recaro manually inflateable lumber supports.

Mounted in the car....Pic #7, albeit the "car" in this image is a looong way from being done.  Please note that the "high tech fuel system" has now been eliminated from the area behind the passenger.  The car now has a proper Works rally aluminum fuel tank to go with the functioning EFI.

I just had to include this picture (Pic #8) to show you Jim's beautiful detail work.  The seams, stitching, and fit are absolutely outstanding.  In fact, Jim has applied his craft to many award winning automobiles which includes a Riddler Award winner (arguably the highest award for a car in the rodding world).  I should also note that Jim did Eric Hendricksen's Gold level BJ8 which was featured in the September 2009 issue of Austin Healey Magazine.  Eric worked closely with noted Healey expert and co-auther of Austin-Healey 100/100-6/3000 Restoration Guide, Roger Moment, in the construction of this car.  Roger has engaged Auto Weave's Jim Skinner on many Austin Healeys over the years.  I'm fortunate to be able to have an example of his work in my Healey.

With the seats to my liking, I'll have no excuses for not taking some long distance runs in my completed Works rally replica!  So watch out, I may turn up at your door some beautiful summer day! 

 Steve Thomton

This project paper was first posted on March 31, 2010.