RISING FROM THE ASHES

By Graeme Hurst

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Ask any petrolhead raised on 1980s cars in SA which badge best symbolises performance and they’ll likely quote the letters GTi, GTV6 or XR8 or – if their family had deep pockets – 911 or 928. But ask the same question over in England and you’d be more likely to hear the letters TVR. It’s a badge that’s as synonymous with glassfibre construction and its Blackpool roots as it is for fronting a proliferation of models with stonking performance that scared the hell out of makes costing twice the price.

Not familiar with the badge? Well, in a nutshell, TVR made sportscars in England in some form for the best part of six decades. And what started out as simple parts-bin affairs, with Ford or Coventry Climax power built in three-digit production runs, ultimately evolved to become 400+bhp offerings with supercar abilities before the marque – which like so many small carmakers teetered on bankruptcy at various points in its history – ceased production in 2006.

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Following several off-and-on rumours, TVR fired back up in 2017 with the all-new V8-engined Griffith. It’s a stunning coupé design that, despite the marque’s limited penetration on our shores to date, now gives TVR a South African connection thanks to its designer: one Gordon Murray. And if you’re familiar with the marque’s history you’ll know that the Griffith name is synonymous in TVR lore with epic performance. But to understand that, and the background to this marque that commands so much affection over in Blighty, a little history lesson is in order.

Seven and a bit decades ago, post-war England was ravaged with austerity measures that lent a ‘make do and mend’ mentality to the automotive industry. While big players such as Austin and Jaguar followed the ‘export or die’ mantra to secure access to materials, small-time entrepreneurs keen on building something to blow the doors off their mate’s MG turned to their garages (or even kitchen tables) to cobble together their own cars based on proprietary mechanical parts but with their own bespoke chassis and bodywork.

It was an era of rich entrepreneurial spirit that saw some talented individuals develop fantastic, race-tested machinery. Individuals such as Colin Chapman, who spent the early 1950s creating Lotus, and Jem Marsh and the Walklett Brothers with their respective Marcos and Ginetta models. And, of course, one Trevor Wilkinson, a 24-year-old engineer from Blackpool who started up Trevcar Engineering from an old wheelwright’s workshop back in ʼ46.

He soon applied his skills to cars, cutting down an Alvis to create a special to which he applied those three letters from his name. That was in ʼ47. Two years on he got going with his own chassis design to create his first complete car for racing. It was based around a Ford side-valve engine. A few others followed until he discovered the production benefits of using glassfibre in the mid-ʼ50s.

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With moulds vastly cheaper than fabricating body panels in alloy or steel, this then-new technology allowed Wilkinson to start a proper production run with his 1958 TVR Grantura: a pretty coupé body over a tubular frame chassis using Ford or Coventry Climax power. The build recipe would go on to define TVR for the next half a century as TVR models evolved and the company frequently shopped around for a different engine.

Like many low-volume 1950s and ʼ60s British glassfibre cars, TVRs were available as a purchase tax-busting self-build kit. Which is how at least one Grantura made it to SA: the 1962 Kyalami 9 Hours featured a Grantura on the grid. Imported as a CKD kit by Norman Lamont, it was entered by Gene Bosman and Neville Austin and the pair drove it to an impressive fourth place in a rain-mired race won by David Piper’s 250GTO.

That same year Wilkinson’s time at TVR ended after he was ousted and, a year on, the company was liquidated but soon reborn as Grantura Engineering. Around that time the Grantura got a serious performance boost when – much like the story behind the Sunbeam Tiger – a US dealer named Jack Griffith shoehorned a small black V8 under the ‘hood’ to create the Griffith.

With 271bhp in place of around 95bhp, it had huge potential across the pond but a cock-up with import paperwork froze a huge batch of export sales and TVR went under again. It was a blessing in disguise as the company’s assets were bought out by a young enthusiast by the name of Martin Lilley. With financial backing from his father he changed the name back to TVR and would inspire a raft of popular models over the next 16 years.

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The Griffith was replaced by the Tuscan by ʼ67 and it quickly cemented TVR’s performance reputation after Motor magazine declared it the fastest production UK car after a 0-100mph in 13.7 seconds test result. Buoyed by sales of the Tuscan, Lilley’s team were able to evolve the model further with the launch of the M-series, featuring an all-new chassis design configured to take Ford crossflow, Triumph 2500 and Ford Essex V6 power – the latter badged as the 3000M. That range hit the showroom floors in ’72, by which time TVR was ensconced in its famous Bristol Road factory in Blackpool – an address it would have until it ceased play.

The launch of the M-series was also the start of the marque’s ‘bad boy’ image after Lilley got creative with his marketing skills and hired a topless model to display her wares on one of the new cars at the 1971 London Motor Show. Naturally the press was all over her and their resultant column inches propelled TVR sales, and a convertible version – the first for TVR – soon followed.

By the late 1970s TVR’s styling was looking dated and the lads at Bristol Road opted for a step change in design: cue the influence of one Oliver Winterbottom of Lotus Elite and Eclat fame. His efforts with the Tasmin series ¬– a convertible, coupé and the first 4-seater TVR, the 2+2 – was the start of TVR’s ‘wedge’ era. Performance to match the looks came thanks to Ford’s 2.0-litre Pinto and 2.8-litre V6 units and there was an auto option – another first for TVR.

Although the Tasmin’s styling was radical, the ‘wedge’ look would go on to define the marque in the 1980s after the company’s new owner, a chain-smoking, politically-incorrect Yorkshireman by the name of Peter Wheeler, took the helm from late ’81. Wheeler’s first task was to get the marque back into America to increase sales. And his second was to massively boost its reputation for thrilling on the tarmac by signing up a deal to shoehorn in Rover’s Buick-based 3.5-litre V8 to create the 130mph 350i.

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From ’86 TVR’s finances were healthy enough to develop a cut-price offering to complement the 350i, the S-series. Inspired by the popular looks of the earlier M-series, this was an early example of ‘nostalgia’ styling that would become prevalent in the automotive sector by the mid-ʼ90s. The model featured the Cologne V6 and simpler specs (wind-up windows and drums at the rear) and offered predictable but impressive handling. It hit the mark big time, with demand so strong that the factory developed the Rover-engined V8S for ’91 (as pictured here in blue).

Although the early ʼ90s was a healthy time for TVR sales wise, the marque was yet to play with the big dogs when it came to performance. That would soon change with the 1990 Birmingham Motor Show, where Wheeler pulled the wraps off his latest model: the Griffith.

Featuring a stunningly curvaceous but simply styled body (still out of glassfibre) with a proper chassis featuring a double-wishbone rear end to allow the 240bhp from its 4-litre V8 to be safely explored, the ‘Griff’, as it’s fondly referred to in TVR circles, was an instant hit. Its styling was also hugely clever from a production point of view: the undercut front edges to the bonnet and doors lessened the need for costly panel gap fixing, always a labour-intensive job when working with glassfibre.

As ever, the Blackpool factory upped the ante with various capacity increases up until the 340bhp, 161mph Griffith 500 launched in 1993. By then the Chimaera was rolling off the assembly line too; this was a stretched Griffith offering a more compliant ride and (some say) fussier styling to accommodate a bigger boot for the TVR enthusiast who had by now matured and was after space for his golf clubs.

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The same TVR fan typically also had a couple of kids to think about… which led TVR to massage the Chimaera’s shape to create the Cerbera in 1996. This was a 4-seater coupé with pillarless styling that was as dramatic as the noise it made: open the bonnet of one and you’ll see that the venerable push-rod Rover V8 made way for an overhead cam V8 that Wheeler developed for his racing activities – something that featured throughout the marque’s history. Known as the AJP8 engine it was designed by engine guru Al Melling and featured a flat-plane crank and dry sump.

The new engine pushed performance up to a claimed 185mph with 0-60mph in 4 seconds… well into Porsche and Ferrari territory. Those were big numbers for a 4-seater but TVR had a similar offering for the purist with the Tuscan (as we have here) which came on stream in 2000 and offered 2-seater agility and the first taste of TVR’s bold but slightly sinister looks.

With TVRs still being made to the glassfibre-over-tubular frame recipe, evolution continued to be relatively easy and a proliferation of models followed, including the Speed 12 (featuring a racing-derived V12) and models such as the Tamora and T350C. The run would culminate in the Sagaris. Launched in 2005, this was a 0-60mph in 3.9 second, 406bhp ‘straight six’ beast that put the marque firmly into supercar territory, even if its garish looks and radically styled interior was more Manchester United footballer than Maranello in taste.

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The daring looks and impressive metrics may have etched TVR into the cerebra of the modern petrolhead, but all the engine technology and styling changes pushed TVR into hot water financially. What’s more, the marque was no longer in enthusiast hands as Wheeler had sold out to Russian investor Nikolai Smolenski a year earlier. And, when the numbers started getting scary, he pulled the plug in 2006.

At the time, Smolenski hinted at assembly restarting in Turin, Italy. That horrified TVR die-hards, who staged a TVR cavalcade through the streets of London to protest at the marque’s demise and the recent loss of nearly 300 jobs at the Blackpool factory. But it had little effect and TVR was gone in all but name until 2013, when the brand was acquired by a UK company. Rumours that the new owners intended to restart production got fans excited, especially with the announcement of an official TVR parts business a year on, but nothing came to fruition.

Then in June 2015, the news TVR enthusiasts were holding out for: the promise of an all-new model that would see a return to TVR’s roots, thanks to V8 Cosworth power in a simple rear-drive format. And that’s what was delivered at the 2017 Goodwood Revival with the launch of the Griffith: a 400+bhp Cosworth-tweaked Ford 5.0-litre V8 mated to a 6-speed gearbox in a lightweight, carbonfibre-based coupé body designed around Murray’s patented iStream® construction technique to minimise production costs.

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It was announced in January 2018 that the Welsh Government had previously acquired a minority 3% stake in TVR in early 2016, following independent and specialist due diligence, for the sum of £500 000. With this share purchase, it also provided a £2 million repayable commercial loan to the company, alongside a private sector lender. According to the Welsh Government, the minority stake will "ensure the Welsh tax payer will benefit from the company's successes". By June 2020 it was reported that TVR was owed more than £8.23 million from debtors, and has net assets slightly exceeding £2.1 million. TVR needed to pay off a £2 million loan from the Welsh government and a £3 million loan from financial firm Fiduciam. To fulfill its obligations and put the Griffith into production, TVR attempted to raise £25 million by issuing bonds on the Euronext Dublin, Ireland's main stock exchange, through Irish firm Audacia Capital.

In January 2021, Fiduciam granted TVR a new £2 million loan through the UK's Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme

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Pictured cars supplied by www.sportsandgtclassics.com/

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SuperClassic
SuperClassic
3 weeks, 2 days ago

Good read.


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