The Thrill of the Drive: TVR History

In the pantheon of British motoring, few names evoke raw emotion and excitement like TVR. The history of TVR is one of exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows. Fast, exotic, sometimes even eccentric, here’s the truly remarkable history of TVR.

Automotive History
14 December 2023

Founded by twenty-three year-old Trevor Wilkinson in 1946 in Blackpool as Trevcar Motors, the TVR founder had a simple yet ambitious goal – to create cars that were both exhilarating to drive and a joy to behold. The history of TVR cars is the very embodiment of that philosophy, though it’s fair to say there were a few speed bumps to navigate along the way.

TVR’s first cars were a testament to the brand’s ideals of pushing boundaries. These early models, characterised by their lightweight chassis, hand-built bodies, and emphasis on performance, quickly garnered a cult following. Cars like the Jomar, Grantura and Griffith 200 established the company’s reputation for producing fast, agile, and uniquely styled sports cars.

Yet the history of TVR has been tempestuous, interspersed with challenges and triumphs, while the business itself was often fraught with financial struggles and corporate upheavals. The brand navigated through turbulent times, including multiple changes in ownership, each bringing a new vision and direction. These periods of uncertainty were mixed with moments of brilliance, such as the introduction of icons such as the Tuscan, the Chimaera and the Cerbera, models which arguably redefined what a sports car could be.

This TVR history is a tribute to a remarkable journey, a story of a small British company that dared to dream big and fast and very, very loud.

The Birth of a Legend

1954 TVR RGS Atalanta (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

TVR founder Trevor Wilkinson left school at fourteen with no qualifications and did an apprenticeship at a local garage. He bought an old wheelwright’s workshop in Blackpool in 1946 and began to service cars and trucks under the name Trevcar Motors.

The true history of TVR started a year later when the company was renamed TVR Engineering – simply based on dropping letters from his name – and despite very little formal training, he built his first car in 1949. It was a hodge-podge of bits and pieces from other cars, including a live axle from a Morris Eight and a 1.1-litre engine out of a 1936 Ford van.

His next car, TVR Number Two, was again cobbled together from a Morris Eight with a Ford engine – but this time, with a few modifications, it was registered for the road and was more in line with what would become the company’s standard offering. It featured a unique design and was another step towards establishing TVR as a bona fide car manufacturer.

What became the first production model in the history of TVR cars debuted in 1954, and was called the TVR Sports Saloon. Handbuilt to customer specification, no two cars were alike and the company started to gain a reputation as a maker of high quality sports cars.

The development of a tubular steel spaceframe chassis, allowing the seats to be set lower and in turn improving the car’s handling capabilities, prompted an American racing driver named Ray Saidel to order a car which was delivered to New Hampshire in June 1956. This experience now prompted Wilkinson to get serious about sports cars.

The Tumultuous Times of TVR

1963 TVR Grantuta Mk. II (Credit: Michael Cole/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1958, the fastback-styled TVR Grantura was launched. This marked the beginning of a more standardised production line for TVR, and was the first in the series of Granturas, featuring a fibreglass body and available with a range of engines. Indeed it was such a good car TVR now rivalled Lotus as a maker of outstanding small, fast and nimble sports cars.

However the company was in debt, and with relationships straining at the top of the TVR tree, a complex series of management changes, new investors, company dissolutions and reformations occurred, culminating in the resignation of TVR founder Wilkinson in April 1962.

There was to be further corporate strife in the history of TVR cars when the the launch of the Mark III Grantura faced delays, further complicating the company’s challenges. Additionally, the imposition of substantial duties on cars exported overseas and the closure of two major UK-based distributors added to the company’s difficulties during this period.

TVR was in disarray, but the launch of the Griffith 200 steadied the ship for a while. Powered by a small-block 4.7-litre Ford Windsor V8, the 200 was hot, cramped and virtually untameable, but it was incredibly powerful and gained a cult following.

But again, the company fell into trouble. Already on life support, engine supply issues meant that TVR was sinking fast and went into liquidation in November 1964.

Taming the Wild Child

1973 TVR Vixen (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1965, TVR’s history started on an upward trajectory. Shareholder Martin Lilley took control. His tenure at the helm – which lasted until 1981 – is often regarded as a period of stabilisation and innovation. Taking over during a challenging financial period, Lilley steered the company towards more sustainable and standardised production.

Under Lilley’s leadership, TVR shifted from producing a small number of highly customised vehicles to a more consistent lineup of models. This period saw the introduction of some of TVR’s most iconic cars, which were known for their blend of performance, style, and relative affordability.

During Lilley’s tenure, TVR introduced several notable models. This included the enhanced 1.8-litre Grantura 1800S, and the Tuscan, offered with either a three-litre V6 or a more powerful 4.7-litre V8 engine. Additionally, various versions of the Vixen were developed. Another significant achievement was the launch of the M series, which enjoyed considerable success and remained in production until 1979. The new models collectively marked a significant phase in TVR’s history, showcasing innovation and diversification in their lineup.

These cars were not only visually striking but also offered improved performance and handling compared to their predecessors. During this era, TVR expanded its production capabilities and modernised its manufacturing processes. This allowed for better quality control and more efficient production, therefore allowing the company to expand its reach and cement the brand’s status in the sports car world.

However in 1980, the wedge-shaped Tasmin, also known as the 280i, was launched. While it was critically acclaimed for its handling and chassis, it was very expensive and didn’t sell anywhere near the numbers required to make it profitable. Martin Lilley is believed to have said it was ‘a big disappointment’ and sales manager Stewart Halstead called it ‘absolutely dreadful.’

Poor sales coupled with an early 1980s economic recession in the UK again put TVR in jeopardy. After sixteen years, Martin LIlley sold the company to businessman Peter Wheeler.

Fast Cars with Mythical Names

1993 TVR Griffith (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

One of Peter Wheeler’s first tasks as boss was to replace the company’s naturally aspirated and turbocharged V6 engines with raucous five-litre V8s from Rover and Holden, and his stewardship is often considered a golden age in the TVR cars history, with the creation of models like the Griffith, Chimaera, Cerbera, Tuscan, T350, and Tamora. Under Wheeler, TVR became known for its powerful engines and distinctive – often considered outrageous – designs.

However there was still the age-old issue that TVR didn’t produce their own engines, but that was rectified in the 1990s. The company developed the TVR Speed Eight, a 4.2-litre or 4.5-litre V8 which was used in the Cerbera and the TVR Tuscan Challenge track car.

The Speed Eight was then replaced with the cheaper and easier to maintain Speed Six, a naturally aspirated 3.6-litre or four-litre straight-six which powered most of the late model TVRs including the last tranche of Cerberas, the Tamora, the T350, the Sagaris and the Typhon.

Indeed the Speed Six, which produced well in excess of 400hp, is believed to be the most powerful naturally aspirated inline-six ever used in a production car.

Fast, Faster, Fastest…

1997 TVR Cerbera. (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In the late 1990s, as if the cars they were making weren’t insanely styled enough, loud enough or fast enough, the powers-that-be at TVR decided to bolt two Speed Six engines together for Project 7/12, with the intention to create the fastest and most powerful road car, not just in the history of TVR cars, but in the history of motoring.

What became known as the Cerbera Speed 12 had a 7.7-litre V12 engine reportedly capable of generating over 1,000hp. TVR suggested the top speed surpassed that of the McLaren F1 – 240.1mph – however TVR’s claims were never independently verified.

They put the car into production and took deposits on a retail price of £245,000, the most expensive car in TVR history, but Peter Wheeler pulled the plug at the last minute saying it was unstable and simply too powerful. Evo magazine described it as ‘terrifyingly quick.’

Deposits were returned and the production schedule cancelled. In May 2023, the original Cerbera Speed 12 was sold at auction for £601,500.

In 2004, the company changed hands again. Peter Wheeler sold up to a Russian businessman named Nikolay Smolensky for a reported £15 million.

A Sad Decline

TVR car badge (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Smolensky’s ownership of TVR was marked by significant challenges and the company faced numerous production and financial difficulties. Efforts to modernise the brand and introduce new models were hindered by operational issues.

Plans for new models and alternative production strategies, including outsourcing manufacturing in Italy, failed to take off. This period in the TVR cars history is often remembered for unfulfilled promises and uncertainty over the company’s future. In fact the marque would remain in this state for close to a decade until 2013 when a syndicate led by British entrepreneur Les Edgar acquired TVR.

Edgar announced plans to revive the brand with new models and a continuation of TVR’s tradition of high-performance sports cars. The company was said to be developing an all-new Griffith with a five-litre Ford V8, as well as an electric version to meet the changing nature of the motoring industry.

End of the Road or New Beginning: The History of TVR

The history of TVR encapsulates a remarkable journey of innovation, resilience, and passion. From humble beginnings to a symbol of British motoring excellence, TVR’s story is woven with triumphs and tribulations.

The company’s resilience through various ownerships, financial challenges, and changing market trends underscores its enduring spirit. TVR’s legacy, marked by distinctive designs and thrilling performance, continues to captivate petrolheads the world over.


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