No room for Trevors any more.
I can still remember pegging out of the morning part of my Junior Cert maths exam, a mere hour and a half ticking down in front of me before it would be time to turn my papers over again. Dashing (I could dash in those far off thinner days) out of the school, along the road and into the village, I grabbed the volume I was looking for off the shelf and sat down to read. Last minute cramming? No. The TVR Griffith was on the front cover of Autocar magazine and I was desperate to find out what it was actually like to drive…
It seems so odd now that even in the midst of my exams, a tiny Blackpool-based car maker should be able to cast such a bewitching spell. That Griffith, all compound curves and barely restrained aggression, seemed to me at the time to be the epitome of the true thoroughbred sports car. Never mind that it was made from glass fibre, its engine was lifted from a Range Rover and its rear lights were off an Opel Vectra – I hungered, even at the possible cost of my maths mark. (I passed, just. Thanks for asking.)
TVR, which had been founded in the sixties by Trevor Wilkinson (the name was a shortening of his own) was always a bit of an oddball company, founded on the principles of stuffing hairy V6 and V8 engines into light, simple spaceframe chassis and draping them with bodies variously artful (Griffith, Cerbera, V8S) or shonky (Tasmin, 350i). Reliability was predictably woeful, safety wasn’t even a consideration (“Airbags? ABS? Traction control? I think you’ve got the wrong number sir…”) and the quality was variable, not surprising when you saw that bodies and chassis were wheeled across open courtyards between big sheds during construction.
And yet, the pull of a TVR was indescribably powerful. This was a time, remember, when if you wanted a two-seat sports car you essentially had the choice of a Mazda MX-5 or a Mercedes SL. There really wasn’t much else on the shelf at the time, and certainly nothing with the Porsche-bothering power outputs of TVRs. Thanks to their muscular Ford V6 and Rover V8 engines, combined with those light, plastic bodies, they went like stink and sounded like artillery. And when TVR, then under the chain-smoking control of arch-enthusiast Peter Wheeler, started making its own V8 and straight-six engines, it was a move so audacious that one contemporary commentator described the very thought of a small sports car maker building self-designed engines as “like Dad’s Army developing a tactical nuclear weapon.” Quite.
I got to sample one of those feral, late-era TVRs almost exactly a decade ago. A Tuscan, with swooping, almost sci-fi bodywork and an interior to match with a bellowing, roaring 4.0-litre straight-six. Even at a time when airbags were generally fewer in number and stability control was still a loftily priced option, it felt raw and uncompromising. Its power was prodigious, its noise like putting your ear to the speaker at an AC/DC gig. Its handling was… entertaining. If you were in the right mood. Terrifying if you weren’t. It was hairy-chested fun but playtime ended early when the electronic door release on the Tamora we were testing on the same day started to play up and we had to limp back to Blackpool.
Not long after which, it all started to come unravelled. Wheeler sold up to a youthful Russian millionaire, Nickolai Smolensky, who very quickly realised that the only way to make millions from a small sports car maker is to spend billions. By now, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and others were making light, fast, noisy sports cars which may not have been quite so outrageous as a TVR but came with warranties, reliability and safety equipment. The writing wasn’t so much on the wall as it was on the sign on the door; closed. TVR’s moment had, it seemed, passed.
There were some murmurings over the past few years. Production would be restarted at a new factory in Blackpool. Production would be restarted at a new factory in Turin, with the engines built in Blackpool. Smolensky came, went and came again as TVR’s owner. Electric cars were even spoken of. Then, finally, a couple of weeks ago came an official announcement; TVR would go back into production. As a maker of wind turbines.
Coming at a time when, once again, Lotus is in financial trouble and the likes of Mercedes, Audi and BMW are all planning more sports variants and models, is there any space left for the small, focused sports car maker? Can someone called Trevor still knock up a world-beater in a shed somewhere, or is all that game down to Ferdinand and Soichiro now?
Steve Cropley, editor-in-chief of Autocar magazine saw the whole TVR saga, from the glory Griffith days through to the sad Russian decline: “It was the change in regulations really. It got so hard for people who built cars in low volume and didn’t really have lots of money to invest in engineering to make make cars that were compliant, make them clean enough and all the rest of it, even to meet the noise regulations. It just got hard.
“I think there is a place for companies like this. TVR just sort of fell into the middle, into the wrong volume. Morgan has a business because it either sells cars at the very low end of type approval like the little three-wheeler, or they sell their Aero series which has full worldwide type approval and can be sold into any sophisticated market. There are still people like Ariel and Caterham, they use a thing called small series type approval, which works OK, in the UK at any rate. So it can happen but what you can’t do is have a very big company with a lot of overheads and continually change the models. You have to know what you’re doing it for.
“I think Wheeler did realise what was coming and he did the last good deal that could be done. Smolensky was a very young guy with wealth that he hadn’t earned, that came from a family source, and he didn’t realise that the world had changed and it was all a bit of a shock to him. Not only had the regulatory world changed, but the demand for cars had changed. All of those people who were used to taking a risk and living with the unreliability of a TVR suddenly found the Boxster, which had the same prestige, started every morning and was worth quite a lot of money when you came to resell it. It was a better proposition.
“I’d love to see them come back, I still think that they were special, those cars. They just had a special persona. What would have to happen would be that a very modern minded manager, someone like Simon Saunders at Ariel, if he were running TVR at the scale of his business, with very low overheads, then I bet a car like that could be successful. But not with too many employees and too many models, and too little reliability.”
Could TVR come again? Yes, potentially. There are plenty of examples of small car makers having a successful go, but, as Cropley suggests, it will probably have to be structured around one, relatively simple, model and a very small staff to keep the overheads under control. It’s doubtful in the extreme that we’ll see the TVR of old ever again; a daring, innovative company that tried to build a four-car range of garden-shed-Ferraris. Cars as beautiful, swift and as awkward as a thoroughbred horse, twice as exciting and enough to tweak the imagination of any schoolboy.