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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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)|
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|
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.
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|
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.
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.
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