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Saturday, 21 July 2012

TVR - Trevor's Visceral Racers

Black Cat Racing TVR Tuscan Challenge car
To cut back my history of TVR, I decided to leave out their forays into motorsport, a world to which their powerful-but-light cars are surely well-suited. So here's the rest of it.

The first time Trevor Wilkinson made a racing car was actually the 1950s 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.

Their next big motorsports effort didn't come along until 1989, when Peter Wheeler's TVR devised the TVR Tuscan Challenge one-make series, using a bespoke car that was never produced as a road car for financial reasons. The series ran from 1989 to 2004 when a lack of factory support forced it to integrate with another independent TVR series, and the cars featured a bespoke engine, after the Rover V8 reached its limit. Called the 'AJP8' and colloquially known as the "Speed-8" engine, this was a 450bhp beast, with 380lb/ft of torque shifting the 850kg rollcaged open-top Challenge cars exceedingly rapidly; 0-100mph took just 6.9 seconds! That puts it in range of the brand new McLaren MP4-12C, although to be fair the Tuscan obviously used racing tyres. TVR dealers were encouraged to take part, and even Peter Wheeler had a go! As well as him, Jimmy McRae was a series regular, and guest drivers included his son Colin McRae [RIP], Tiff Needell, sportscar legend Andy Wallace and BTCC legends Anthony Reid, John Cleland and Tim Harvey. Nigel Mansell was even set to take part, but he was hospitalised by a serious BTCC crash before he could. Many current sportscar racers developed their skills in this series, which used to have a race through Birmingham, as this video - which is worth sticking with until the end - shows:

These fearsome machines were not the ultimate symbol of TVR's madness, however. No, that'd be the Speed 12, and if you're aware of the Speed-6 and Speed-8 engines, then you already have a clue as to why that is. The original Speed 12 was revealed at the 1996 Birmingham Motor Show as Project 7/12, and featured the kind of performance figures that humble a McLaren F1 (which was still all the rage back then, of course, much as the Bugatti Veyron was two or three years ago). The engine was essentially two 3.8-litre Speed-6 units joined together with a steel block, which was then developed further by John Ravenscroft to become a 7.7-litre V12, sitting in an 1100kg car. They put the engine on a dyno designed to withstand 1000 horsepower... and the dyno blew up. They then measured each bank of cylinders separately to find that they produced 480bhp - or the power of a Ferrari F40 - each. This would theoretically combine to make 960bhp, although in the end it was "officially" quoted as having 800bhp. Eight. Hundred. Horsepower. In 1996. This gave it a power-to-weight ratio of 727bhp/tonne, which is over 2.5 times the ratio in a Ferrari F355! It's also a good 150bhp/tonne more than the McLaren, so surely it's faster than the 240mph legend? Peter Wheeler never explicitly denied it...


The aim of this car was to make a rival to the McLaren, as well as compete in GT1 racing. Considering the budget differences, that wasn't going to be easy to pull off, and sure enough only four engines were made, with just one Speed 12 reaching the road with an evolved, smoother body and the Cerbera moniker shoehorned into the name. Peter Wheeler said of this beast "I knew within 300 yards this was a silly idea. Over 900 horsepower in a car weighing just over a ton is plainly ridiculous on the road." Gee, what was your first clue? As for the racing car - restricted to 675bhp - it made a few outings in GT1 racing, but before long it was made obsolete by rule changes and the arrival of cars like the Porsche 911 GT1 and Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR to the series, so it never made it to Le Mans. The Cerbera Speed 12 it grew into by 2000 entered in GT2, winning several races but breaking down in several others.

With that, TVR decided not to make a road car. There's no point building a killing machine, no matter how awesome it is, and after Wheeler had declared it too ridiculous for the road, deposits were returned and the remaining prototypes were broken up to free up parts for the racers. However, one road car did make it, sold to a TVR enthusiast personally approved by Wheeler and sporting 880 bhp with a "mild" cam profile and ECU map. Effectively a finished-off prototype, the car has since sprouted a front splitter and gigantic rear wing, to try and peg down that rear end. Supposedly, at an even-lighter 975kg, it has a power-to-weight ratio of 903bhp/tonne, which leaves behind just about everything... assuming you can get the power down. If you can, you'll hit 60 in about 3.5 seconds and on past 240mph, although not that far past, due to the big wing. Unlike all the other TVRs, this used an aluminium honeycomb tub with a steel tubular rollcage and subframes, over which sits a carbon fibre body. While some go faster and more have similar power this remains the maddest, most swivel-eyed supercar ever made. Not how the McLaren F1's remembered, but more a front-engined Koenigsegg of sorts, only more... unhinged. It was restored in 2007 to the tune of £45,000 with a titanium rear end and sold on via Pistonheads. Maybe the old tail broke off after a lapse in concentration and talent. For more, go to these places: Pistonheads.com/tvr/speed12, Pistonheads.com/tvr/cerbera/gt2, http://speed12.info/, "The Silly Idea", evo.co.uk, Supercars.net. Or Wikipedia.

So how do you follow that? Well, you can't, really, but Peter Wheeler was determined to go racing at Le Mans, so he set about making a "super Tuscan" using experience from the Challenge cars and a similar structure to the Speed-12, as opposed to the normal fibreglass-body-on-tubular-backbone-frame. The 1100kg 'Tuscan R' that resulted was sold on the road three years later in 2004, as the T400R and T440R, whose numbers referred to horsepower rather than displacement, although at 4.0 litres for the 400 and 4.2 for the 440, they'd be pretty similar numbers either way. There was going to be a supercharged 'Typhon' atop the range, with a staggering 585bhp from a supercharged 4.2-litre engine and a racing sequential gearbox with adjustable ratios, but the amount of heat generated from both entities made it unsafe as a road car, so it was canned, leaving the T4x0 for customers to buy in very small numbers for around £75,000, although with a supposed top speed of 215mph, the naturally-aspirated versions were still the fastest TVR road cars ever built more than once. For a little more on the road cars, go here.

This won't end well...
The racing version was more of a success however, starting in the British GT Championship in 2001 by two cars winning three races in its début season (the first at Castle Combe), and becoming something of a fan favourite thanks to its distinctive looks and that glorious exhaust note from the 4.0-litre slant-six present in all Cerbera-onwards TVRs. The car that got two of those wins, run by Rollcentre Racing, won four more races in 2002, nearly winning the championship, while a very bright-orange third car entered with terrible luck. Rollcentre also scored second in class at the first non-British race for the T400R, the 2002 Suzuka 1000km. This picture was 'shopped to prank the driver, by the way. He didn't really jump that high.

In 2003, the black-on-yellow DeWalt-sponsored Peninsula team arrived with two cars, aiming squarely at Le Mans. To impress the ACO, who run the famous race, they decided to go to the Sebring 12 Hours, which is a highly-punishing warm-up race on the very bumpy and hot Sebring Raceway in America. In a grid full of world-class teams, they wanted to finish, and finish well, in their first major endurance race. Full of typical British optimism, then! As onlookers cast a cynical eye on the underdogs, said cynical eyes would be opened wide, as they saw a T400R finish 6th in class, with no problems other than a faulty battery right near the end of the race. Oh, and the fixed windows were baking the drivers. That can't have been pleasant. Nevertheless, they had finished, and well. It was probably the first time ever that a TVR had gone 12 straight hours without breaking down.

With three TVRs finishing 1st, 2nd and 3rd at Silverstone back in the BGTC, the ACO were suitably impressed, and TVR finally reached Le Mans. Unfortunately, this wasn't going to be the same shining début they had at Sebring - of the two DeWalt cars, one was taken out by another car and the other made it so close to the end, before limping back to the pits and being retired with a technical failure. Still, with Bentley winning outright, there was at least some British success that year, even if the Bentley Speed 8 [no relation] is essentially a dressed-up Audi R8. Overall in the BGTC that year, TVRs scored three wins. The following two years only saw one win in the BGTC at the 2004 Oulton Park race, but their dreams of finishing Le Mans came true in '04, as two purple widebody cars came 8th and 9th in a class of 16, beating the fastest LMP2 car to boot, while their last attempt in '05 saw another 8th-in-class. Their last year of competition also saw TVR win the prestigious 1000km of Spa, earning a 1-2 finish for the British marque. For more on the T400R GT cars, go here.

Alas, this is where TVR's racing story ends, as troubles with noise restrictions caused them to frustratedly withdraw from the British GT Championship, and they weren't invited to Le Mans in 2006. Of course, '06 was the year that TVR as a whole started to fall apart, but at least they had achieved Peter Wheeler's dream of racing competitively at Le Mans, and picked up a couple of historic wins in GT racing. All in all, their racing history is one to be proud of, even if they never dominated the world. Besides, there's something very British about being the plucky underdog, and how could you not be proud of creating the Cerbera Speed 12?

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