Labels

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

TVR Is Gone And They're Never Coming Back


Over time, even the wildest car companies have decided it was time to calm down and make money. Porsche now make an SUV and a 4-door executive car alongside their sports cars, Ferrari have made a four-seat shooting brake designed using customer requests rather than tradition, Lamborghini no longer has a two-wheel-drive model, and so on. Except that the wildest car company didn't calm down, because to this day, TVR has never made a boring, sensible car. Not even a particularly tame sports car. They've all been nut cases, the equivalent of a tattooed bald guy who has unspeakable piercings and rides around on a thumping great Harley-Davidson causing trouble. It's that bad-lad quality that drew people to them, in the same way that while some enjoy singing along near the back at a live music event, others get right near the front, get piss-drunk and start beating the shit out of eachother.

Alas, last week saw the end of the comatose British sports car company, as Russian billionaire and all-round bad guy Nikolay Smolensky has officially announced that TVR is, once and for all, gone. Not a very rock 'n' roll way to go, its poor financial record and somewhat niche audience (only so many people enjoy the fact that they might die tomorrow morning) meant that it's been hanging on for dear life for the last six years, and was finally allowed to let go and start spitting flames out sideways in heaven. As an obituary, here's a history of the last pure British sports car company.

Trevor Wilkinson - or should I spell that TreVoR Wilkinson, founded TVR in 1947, originally as Trevcar Motors. Initially, Trevcar repaired and sold existing cars, as well as repairing other stuff like fairground rides and military trucks, but really he wanted to design and build his own little sports car. So, in 1949, he put the mechanicals from a Morris 8 and a Ford 100E engine (like you'd find in an Anglia or Prefect) into a tubular chassis and wrapped it in an alloy body he designed himself, to make the two-seater TVR No.1. Little else is known about this car, as it was crashed and then cut up to make another car. However, there is a drawing of it, which is atop this page. Before No.1 was cannibalised to make No.3, Trevor made TVR No.2 in the same year, which refined various elements such as adding a larger radiator to cool the engine and added such decadent luxuries hub caps and the rev counter from a Supermarine Spitfire. This car still exists, and is thus the oldest-surviving TVR. Now living in a museum, it was raced in Formula 1172 races (that's not to say that there were thousands of racing formulas back then - the number refers to engine size) at a few circuits in Great Britain, and now lives in the hands of a devoted collector, who restored it fifteen years ago.

The first production car from TVR - renamed after they made these first three cars under "TVR Engineering" and then shortened to just the acronym in 1953 - was the fibreglass-bodied Grantura. Using a 'backbone' tubular chassis and fully independent suspension at both ends, this platform was also sold in the US as a JOMAR, brought about by American racing driver Raymond Saidel, who wanted a better-handling car than his Oldsmobile-powered Allard and had failed thus far to make one himself (Jomar Mk.1 had solid axles and cable brakes...). The chassis, built by Wilkinson, featured an 1100cc Coventry Climax engine coupled to an MG TC's gear box, and was fitted with Saidel's open-cockpit "sport spider" body in America to become Jomar Mk.2. It raced poorly in 1956, but was properly ready in '57, with one of the two cars finishing 4th at Lime Rock. Later on, the earlier of the two chassis was destroyed in a crash by Ray Heppenstahl. Jomar Mk.3 raced in England with revised suspension and less weight, and this partnership lead to the first TVR-Jomar Coupé. To cut a long story short, the bubble-roofed original had no radio, heater or ventilation, and the roof was too short, so they made a fastback version and that evolved into the Grantura, which was first produced, in Blackpool, in 1958. For more on Jomar, whose story ends at this point due to production issues, go here and here.

What the Grantura lacked in practicality (no bootlid means you have to access the spare wheel and luggage from inside the car), it had in lightweight engineering and parts from other cars. The brakes were from Austin-Healey, the suspension was from a VW beetle (and later on from Triumph), and the rear axle was from BMC, the people who brought you the Mini. And that's leaving out the choice of engines available to customers. You could originally have either the 1100cc unit from the Jomar or a Ford 1172cc inline-4, probably much like the one he first used in No.2. To give you an idea of the build quality, it was also available as a kit car...

They built a hundred Granturas before updating it to the Series 2 in 1960, by standardising rack-and-pinion steering and front brake discs, refining the bodywork and changing the engine line-up a bit. A 1.6-litre B-Series engine from the MGA became the standard choice, with later Mk.2As also offering a 1.4 Ford engine. The 1.6 car could hit 60mph in 12 seconds and had a top speed of nearly 100mph. Two years later they updated it again with a longer and stiffer chassis. The Series 3 also gained coil-sprung independent suspension and MG engines of either 1.6 or 1.8 litres. The 1964 1800S had an updated body featuring the tail lights from a Ford Cortina which sat on a flatter rear fascia, making a kamm tail akin to a Shelby Daytona or Honda S600 in shape. This third iteration of the Grantura would form the base for all their cars for the next decade, including the Vixen, a direct evolution featuring a Ford Kent engine also found in the Cortina and Capri, and the V8-powered Griffith. The first Griffith appeared in 1964 when Jack Griffith looked at the AC/Shelby Cobra and decided he could do that, so de cut back and hammered down (literally) the front of the chassis until the 4.7-litre Ford V8 would fit inside, modifying nothing else except for adding wider tyres. Yikes! This is a 200-horsepower car - or 270bhp with a slightly meatier tune - that weighs about 860kg and has basic brakes and a very short wheelbase (the whole car's about 3.5m long). That makes for a tricky little blighter of a car, on road or track.

The Griffith and Tuscan (1967-71, Ford V8 or V6) kept essentially the same look as the Grantura, with the style only changing in 1972 when a new "M Series" came along, sporting a new chassis designed by Mike Bigland that was longer than before, perhaps to accommodate longer engines such as the Triumph straight-six used in the 2500M (although having the engine behind the front wheels also meant you could keep a spare under the long bonnet). This new "era" of cars was known as the "M Series" cars, as the company was bought by Martin Lilley and his dad in 1965 and these were their cars.

The new ownership didn't see a change in methods. For you money you got a tubular 'backbone' chassis, fibreglass body and a choice of engines. The three versions available were the 1600M, with a 1.6 Ford Kent inline-4, 2500M with a 2.5 Triumph inline-6 and a 3000M with a 3.0 Ford Essex V6. The 106bhp, 133lb/ft 2500M was mainly aimed at the US market, where they enjoyed continued popularity after Jomar and needed an engine to meet strict US emissions laws. The Triumph TR6's lump did, so they used that, along with the TR6's gearbox and front suspension uprights. However, in the UK where the 138bhp and 174lb/ft 3000M existed, the 2500 version only lasted a year. The 86bhp, 92lb/ft 1600 was originally only going to last a year as well, but the 1973 oil crisis necessitated its return in '74 after a one-year hiatus. Eventually, the M-series branched out in body styles, adding a hatchback bootlid to the 3000M to make the Taimar and a folding fabric roof to make the 3000S convertible. The M-Series TVRs lasted until the end of the decade, and with '70s build quality and a low budget, were probably lively things to own, in more ways than one.

In 1977, development of a new car began with input from two of the key men responsible for the Lotus Elite and Eclat, stylist Oliver Winterbottom and chassis draughtsman Ian Jones. The car would look radically different, while still sticking to TVR's core values and using a now-traditional powder-coated tubular backbone chassis. Two years later, just in time for the '80s, the wedge-shaped and apparently absurdly loud Tasmin appeared, in three body styles - two-seater, four-seater (which only sold about 50 units in the end) and convertible - but now with just one engine: the 2.8-litre Ford Cologne V6.

The Tasmin 280i may look suitably... angular for its time, but it's not the fastest thing in the world, with 2.8 litres only mustering up 160bhp and 162lb/ft in a car that weighed a lot more than the V8 Griffiths of before. Once again, the mechanicals were a hotchpotch of Ford bits - the engine and front brakes were from a Granada, the suspension and steering were from a Cortina and the gearbox was from a Sierra - and being from a small British sports car company, it wasn't going to be a masterful showcase of build quality. As such, it wasn't great, and a £2000-cheaper entry-level version using the 101bhp 2.0-litre four-pot from a Ford Pinto did nothing to improve things, only selling 61 of them (45 of which were convertibles). It was at this point that the company was bought by enigmatic chemicals tycoon and all-round cool guy, Peter Wheeler, who would turn the company around from this point. In 1981, when he took over, he brought about a Series II Tasmin (meaning the S1 only lasted a year) featuring many improvements, but still wanted more power than the anaemic Ford engines were offering. He solved this in '83 by dropping a V8 into it, a 3.5-litre unit from Rover. This would start a relationship with the Rover V8 that would last until the engine's demise early in the 21st century.

The resulting 350i, which dropped the Tasmin name before long, still wasn't exactly a Porsche 911 Turbo or Ferrari 288 GTO. Still, it had 190bhp and 220lb/ft, just as it did in the SD1 Vitesse of the time, which got the first V8 TVR since 1969 from 0-60 in 6.3 seconds and on to 130mph, good figures for the time. Not using a Ford engine also meant they could sell the car in Arab countries, where they weren't keen on Ford sue to their close dealings with Israel. Whether the region subsequently filled up with TVRs or not, I don't know, but you've got to be aware of these things when selling a product, and sell the product they did - The 350i went on to be the best-selling TVR of all time, shifting over 1000 units and being praised by CAR Magazine as "the greatest sports car since the Ferrari 275GTB/4". Now that's what you call a turnaround!

TVR 400SE
The V8 range got increasingly wild, starting off by growing the 390SE a year later in '84, which added 85bhp onto the existing 190 to make something a little fruitier, as well as high-lift cams, Cosworth pistons, as well as a stronger clutch and wider tyres to put that power down. There were even seven 420SEs, which had an even bigger engine. But why stop there? As well as a 400SE, there was a 450SE with 320bhp and a 150mph top speed, and the ultimate evolution, the 420 and 450 "SEAC". the extra two letters stand for Aramid Composite, and signified that rather than being 100% fibreglass, the body was 20% Kevlar. Does that make it bulletproof? Who knows. The engine certainly wasn't. The 450SE, with a 4.5-litre TVR-tuned Rover V8, had 325bhp, 320lb/ft, a 0-60 of 4.5 and a blistering top speed of 175mph. Only 17 were made in 1988/9, although many wedge cars have since been converted to this spec. Because it's the meatiest one. TVR commemorated this highly-popular "Wedge Age" at its end in 1990 with a 25-car run-out special edition called the 350SE, featuring an all-alloy 3.9-litre version of the Rover engine, multi-piece alloy wheels and adjustable Koni shock absorbers. Typically, car #13 wasn't built out of superstition and a #26 made up the numbers instead. Wouldn't want to jinx the 1990s, now would you?

While the wedge was getting all the looks, an "S-Series" car came about in 1986, being produced just 12 months after being shown off at a motor show due to the overwhelming response. This had more traditional styling, started off with the original 280i's Cologne V6 - which gained another 10 horsepower and 100cc as well as longer doors, tweaked suspension and a catalytic converter later on - and became the V8S in 1991. Packing the 400SE's fuel-injected 4.0 Rover V8, this was faster than an Aston Martin Virage, Ferrari Testarossa, Lotus Esprit Turbo SE and a Porsche 911, with 240bhp and 270lb/ft getting the unusually-well-sorted 1032kg car from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds, 0-100 in 12.9 seconds and onwards to 150mph or so. Impressive, and more attractive to my eyes than the now-dated wedges, despite its Ford Escort tail lights. Reviews did and continue to give a good impression of this car, saying it's a real pleasure to drive and has an exhaust note that'll leave a better impression in your ears than Queen's Greatest Hits I. I wonder what they sell for?

TVR S3 (left) and V8S (right)
An interesting aside in the S-Series is the 2.0-litre supercharged V8 developed for Italy's strict displacement-based engine tax of the time. Based on the Rover 3.5 but using a smaller-throw crank to give an extremely short stroke of 40.25mm (compared to the 88.9mm bore), it had 230bhp, 196lb/ft and comparable performance to the "mainstream" 4.0 naturally-aspirated version. Only one is known to still exist. The V8S ceased in 1993, to make way for the new Griffith, which featured very smooth, rounded styling, like a fibreglass pebble with a convertible roof and four wheels. Oh, and the tail lights from a '90s Vauxhall Cavalier.

In the '90s, Wheeler's TVR really stepped up their game. As well as starting a one-make race series with a fierce, bespoke Tuscan racing car, they brought out that speed pebble in 1991. The Griffith 400 had a 4.0 Rover V8, probably either the exact one from the 400SE or closely related to it, which produced 240bhp, or 280bhp if you asked for a 4.3 with big-valve cylinder heads in '92 (which 70% of buyers did). Originally it was effectively the same car as the V8S, but the S-Series chassis was found not to be strong enough for the power they wanted in the Griffith, so it used a development of the Tuscan Challenge race car's tougher powder-coated tubular backbone frame. With fully-independent double-wishbone suspension, a low weight of just 1048kg and that power output, it was a great recipe, and sure enough the original 1990 show car drew in 300 orders. It wasn't a very neat driving machine, though - the huge torque in the light body meant you could quite easily spin up the rear wheels at 80mph in 3rd gear... and that was when it was dry. The quick steering also demanded accuracy and the bonnet started to lift up a little bit at high speed. Speaking of high speed, the 500 could go from 0-60 in 4.1 seconds and on to 167mph. Lairy. In 1993 they made it less jittery.

TVR Chimaera 450
While the Griffith was made in relatively small numbers, a twin sister with a different, more butch body came out at the same time to act as the bigger, slightly softer GT car, and had the most appropriate name of any TVR: Chimaera. Named after the mythical creature that is made up of numerous other animals, the Chimaera had the same set of engines as the Griffith, all Rover V8s. Starting with a 240bhp 4.0-litre one and also offering a 280bhp 4.3, 285bhp 4.5 and culminating in a 340bhp 5.0-litre TVR-developed version of the faithful engine. All had an unforgettable - and significantly loud - exhaust note. Both models lasted right up until 2002, and the rarer, rawer Griffith fetches more money these days.

Although Peter Wheeler had transformed the wedge cars into a success, they weren't technically "his". The Griffith was his first creation, and along with the Chimaera introduced a new generation of petrolheads to the brand by appearing in a little-known PlayStation game called Gran Turismo in 1997. Having used them in every edition to the series, I can assure you that they're just as wild and unruly in the virtual world as well!

Wheeler's third TVR was actually the first one that couldn't be referred to as an automotive chimera, as it only used TVR parts, and crucially engines, as BMW had bought Rover and it was decided that making their own units was safer than if BMW pulled the plug on the long-serving Rover V8, which they eventually did. Called the Cerbera, it was Wheeler's first hardtop and the first 2+2 in the range since the original Tasmin's ill-fated variant, although because the front passenger seat can go further forward than the driver's seat, it's more like a "3+1" layout, as sitting behind the driver requires very short legs. The original 1996 car used a 4.2-litre "Speed Eight" AJP8, a 75° V8 with a flat-plane crank, much akin to contemporary Formula 1 engines. Designed like a racing engine by race engineer Al Melling, the original 4.2 produced 360bhp and 320lb/ft, in a car weighing roughly 1130kg, which ensured it was fast. 0-60 was dispatched in 4.2 seconds and the Cerbera sped on to a blistering 185mph. That's fast enough, right? Of course not. This is TVR! A 4.5-litre version was developed with 420bhp and 380lb/ft of torque, cutting the 0-60 by 0.3 seconds and adding 10mph onto the top speed.

As usual, TVR didn't have much of a budget to play with, so to stretch out the range further, they made a "Speed Six" to sit under the Speed Eight Cerberas. After their previous "entry level" version - the Pinto-powered Tasmin 200 - completely bombed, they weren't going to chicken out with this one, so despite being an entry level engine, it only made 10bhp less than the 4.2 V8, and actually made a smidgen more torque! Of course, being a straight-six, the real differences were in the nature of the delivery. 0-60 took 4.4 seconds and it hit 180mph. The Speed Six engine, which is actually mounted at an angle, making it a "Slant-Six", would last through to TVR's end, and at 4.0 litres is one of the biggest six-cylinder engines ever put in a car. Featuring four valves per cylinder as opposed to the V8's two, its key design features bore resemblance to those of the Suzuki GSX-R 750 sport bike's engine, which Melling also designed, and the head actually flowed better than that of the Cosworth DFV engine that had powered so many winning F1 cars by that time that it had become the most successful racing engine ever. The Speed Six was cheaper to build and maintain than the Speed Eight, so when TVR fell into more serious financial difficulties, the V8 TVR died when Peter Wheeler's first three cars - Griffith, Chimaera, Cerbera - ran their course in 2003.

The '00s heralded yet another new era for TVR, then, and it was entirely powered by the Speed Six engine. Despite poor financing, Wheeler wanted TVR to become Britain's Ferrari, so a new model line was introduced at the turn of the century, called the Tuscan Speed Six. The first non-V8 TVR for decades was meant as a GT car, with a targa roof and a big boot complemented by a 3.6-litre engine producing 350bhp and 290lb/ft. Despite meaning to be an everyday GT car, perhaps like a Porsche, it actually had no airbags, no ABS and no Traction Control (all of which cost money, you see), so the typically hyper-sensitive throttle, meaty torque and light weight meant that driving in the rain was... lively. A proper TVR then, rough and ready and not for the faint of heart. Or the poor - together with the Cerbera, the Tuscan went upmarket in price, which would be fine if the more complex Tuscan was as reliable and well-built as a car costing the same as a Porsche...

Tuscan Speed Six
The Tuscan quickly got a 4.0-litre version of the same engine, whose power figure rose from 350 to 400bhp over time to make the Tuscan S. Did it ever outsell Ferrari and Porsche? Nope, although it was used in the movie Swordfish. In 2005, it was updated to the Tuscan II, which featured updated bodywork, a full convertible version and a more refined drive to make it more usable. Did it gain any driver aids or airbags? TVR says that such things don't actually make their cars safer, so no it didn't. It also didn't get any more power, still offering a 380bhp 4.0 or a 400bhp 4.0 'S', although a 440bhp 4.2 was added right at the end of its life. A four-seat version entered Le Mans and GT racing under the name "Typhon", and was set to hit the road as the T400R/T440R, but didn't for financial reasons. One car that did, however, was the Tamora, a two-seat roadster that was slightly under 4 metres long, weighed 1060kg and punching 350bhp and 290lb/ft from a 3.6-litre engine. Twitchy, unreliable, but bloody fast, it was roughly on par with the Cerbera Speed-6 in a straight line.

Wheeler's last car would be the T350. Based on the Tamora and using the same engine, the fixed-head fastback was heavier, but more practical and, as Richard Hammond explains, better:


As well as a T350C coupé, the non-structural fibreglass body meant that a "Targa" version, called T350T could be built without losing any structural rigidity whatsoever, while providing lift-out panels over the two occupants' heads. All the better to hear that straight-six with! In July 2004, Nikolay Smolensky bought TVR off Peter Wheeler, who by then was too old to be running a debt-riddled car company like TVR. The 24-year-old Russian spent around £15m in order to inherit all the financial problems, and his reign subsequently didn't last long. In the two years that TVR remained a fully-functioning company, they pulled out of the Tuscan Challenge racing series, updated the Tuscan road car to Spec II, but could only squeeze out one new car. It was a wild one, though, a raw, deranged thing with slits in the wheel arches, exhausts that pointed out sideways and a perspex rear spoiler. Oh, and it was named after a Greek battleaxe. If you wanted to reassure people that TVR wasn't going to die quietly, you couldn't do much better than building the Sagaris.

The overall shape echoes the T350 underneath, but there's so much "axe murderer" laced over the top of it that you don't sit there and moan that it's basically the same car. You just stand back and wait for it to go apeshit. There are actually two bonnets on this car, one with adjustable flaps, presumably to act as huge vents for that 4.0 slant-six, and then a bigger one to actually get at the engine when it breaks down or needs something replacing. No other car I can think of has a Targa-top engine cover. The roof itself was fixed, and includes a bubble on the driver's side ready for when Jeremy Clarkson (or other tall people) gets behind the wheel to experience the terror.

With a fibreglass body, tubular backbone frame and an exceedingly low kerb weight, it was pure TVR, using all the philosophies of the cars right near the top of this page from all those years ago. 380bhp and 349lb/ft met 1078kg to get to 60mph 3.7 seconds, before heading on to 185mph flat-out, at which point the targa-top bonnet will be lifting up out of position, as if the 4.0 Speed Six engine is trying to escape its inevitable death. Despite gleefully ignoring the European guidelines suggesting that maybe your car should have ABS, the brakes were highly effective, getting the car from 60-0mph in 2.9 seconds, assuming you didn't lock them up and go straight on into that deer in the road, in which case you're probably reading this in hospital with your only remaining eye and arm. Bad luck, mate. TVR deciding that airbags promote overconfidence and shouldn't be included hasn't worked out well for you, has it? Get well soon. Now you know why they're the Blackpool Bruisers.

Of course, if you do get well soon, you'll have done better than the lovable maniac of the car industry, as TVR got into serious trouble under Smolensky's reign. In 2006, after production had become intermittent at best, it was just plain halted, and the famous Blackpool factory was closed down. Smolensky tried what he could to restart production, devising new models and trying to reassure everyone that TVR was not dead yet. He moved to Austria and built three prototypes with the aim of resurrecting TVR, each of which had varying credibility as ideas; one was a Tuscan II with a 400bhp General Motors LS3 (that's a Corvette V8), which would've worked, another was a Cerbera with a BMW V8 Twin-Turbo diesel, which would've been awesome but probably not have sold that well, not least because it would've been very front-heavy, and the last was a T350 with a 100kW (134bhp) electric motor. Smolensky is quoted as saying "We built three cars. They all worked well, but the costs were high. We would have to sell them at between £100,000 and £200,000, which was too high to make sense." The unusual choice of a V8 diesel TT was changed to a more sensible straight-six from the BMW 335d, and the plan became to recondition Tuscans, Cerberas and Sagarises and add a GM LS3 V8 or the BMW diesel six, but it never got off the ground.

That idea isn't a bad one, and harks back to Trevcar's original business of repairing and selling existing cars, only now it's their own. But TVR wouldn't be TVR if it wasn't highly ambitious, so they were also planning a new model. Combining a Tuscan chassis with an LS3 and a new body, codename "MD-1" was planned to be unveiled at Geneva this year as a comeback for the company, with the reconditioning happening in the meantime, but having closed down the Blackpool plant they had nowhere to build the car or otherwise operate out of. Smolensky got close to sealing a deal with Caterham wherein the Caterham-based firm provided manufacturing support to TVR, but in the end he had his doubts over whether the operation would actually make any money. This excuse is also why the MD-1 is purely two-dimensional four months after the Geneva Motor Show, and shall now remain a what-if. In the end, there was no profitable way back for the Blackpool Bruisers, and despite showing off a Corvette-powered Sagaris with US-friendly straight exhausts in 2008, TVR went into administration, and last week a statement revealed that this is really it. TVR is dead. Smolensky still owns the name and so on, and won't sell it unless money can be made out of the proposed business plan. And so, the company that went from refurbishing machines to building tiny and overpowered sports cars, before growing into a hardcore provider of thunderous-but-rough-edged roadsters and coupés while always sticking to their core values, is now only likely to make portable wind turbines in the near future...

The question is, why did it all go to pot so quickly after Wheeler sold it? Was it about to do so anyway and Wheeler was just smart enough to bail out, or did the Russian business boy mess it up, talking a good game and not delivering or taking any much-needed risks? If it's the latter, then Smolensky, you're to blame. Sorry to be frank about it, but I've said it now, and it's true. You did a bad thing. I hope your silly windmills keep falling apart and smell like a canoe factory. Now we have nothing but memories, Gran Turismo and classified ads by which to experience the unique blend of agility and brute force. Sure, this blend doesn't include a lot of build quality or refinement, but you're supposed to call that 'character'. And TVRs were full of it. Goodbye, TVR. It's a shame your Russian stepfather was full of something else...

Sources (aside from the linked ones): TVRwedgepages.co.uk, TVR-Car-Club.co.uk, Wikipedia, Compucars.co.uk Autocar.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment