New and Old TVRs

The new TVR has us thinking about old TVRs

The good news is: TVR has just launched an all-new Griffith sports car.

The bad news is: Few of us care.

The sad news is: We would care, if only we’d been more exposed to the quirky, wonderful, bonkers machinery that was hand-built in Blackpool, England, for so many years.

The wishful news is: By playing on the familiar-ish Griffith name, maybe we’ll all start to care now? That’s my hope, anyway.

England has a long history of producing neat cars that never reach U.S. shores in numbers that make the average car guy say, “Hey, that’s cool.” Carmakers like Caterham, Noble, Bristol, Ginetta, and Radical produce exceptionally fun cars in exceptionally low numbers, which generally means those manufacturers and others like them either can’t afford to conform their precious few cars to U.S. standards.

You could put TVR in that category, too.

Like many small carmakers, the TVR story is one of financial ups and downs. Until the new Griffith was unveiled at the Goodwood Revival in England, it has been told in four chapters, which are narrated to various degrees of success and failure by the four men who oversaw the company during each of those chapters.

Trevor Wilkinson founded TVR in Blackpool in 1947, lending a few consonants from his forename and his considerable engineering chops to getting things off the ground. Cars like the Jomar, Grantura, and original Griffith came to bear during his tenure.

Those first Griffiths were a collaboration with Long Island Ford dealer Andrew “Jack” Griffith, who wanted a car to offer his clients that could compete with the Cobra. Using a Grantura rolling shell supplied by TVR, Griffith replaced the 98-horsepower MGB powertrain with a 271-cid Ford V-8 and BorgWarner T10 gearbox. The result—so much power in such a small car—was startling.

Martin Lilley took over in 1965, leading the company until 1981. Notable pointy-shaped models under his watch included the Tuscan, Vixen, M Series, and Tasmin, not to mention the considerably curvier Helen Jones and Susan Shaw, whom Lilley hired to pose nude with his cars at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1970 and ’71. Inarguably, this is TVR’s randiest chapter.

TVR diehard client Peter Wheeler bought the company in 1981, and his navigation over the next two decades included wild, big-engined beasts like the Chimaera, Cerbera, Griffith (again), Tuscan, Tamora, T350, and the wildest looking of them all, the Sagaris. Wheeler was also responsible for developing his own engines in-house, first an alloy V-8 and then a straight six known as the Speed Six—remarkable achievements for a firm so small.

In 2004, Wheeler sold TVR to the incompetent Nickolai Smolenski, who’s lasting legacy was to drive a well-loved, well-respected car company with devoted clientele firmly into the ground. It was swift and devastating, and by early 2007 there was little left.

All of which brings us back to Goodwood, where newest owners Les Edgar and his TVR Automotive Ltd. investment group unveiled the first pages of the fifth and latest chapter of the TVR story.

The Griffith, as this new car is called, made its debut in a room full of past TVR concepts, race cars and production cars, and without a single nude woman to adorn it. As an American car guy whose exposure to TVRs had only ever been through British car magazines and the Gran Turismo video game series, to see so many of them gathered in one place was truly special.

Here are 10 notable TVRs you might not know of:

1949/52 TVR “Number Two”

1949/52 TVR "Number Two"
1949/52 TVR “Number Two”
Stefan Lombard

TVR Number One was destroyed several years ago, but this car—never badged as a TVR—incorporates the same chassis design, with similar bodywork. It features the rear axle, springs, dampers, brakes and steering from a 1930s Morris Eight, along with the same Ford side-valve engine. It was originally purchased locally for competition use and then registered for the road in 1952, when it received a new body and new instrumentation, including the tachometer from a Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane.

1959 TVR Grantura Mk I

1959 TVR Grantura Mk I
1959 TVR Grantura Mk I
Stefan Lombard

The Grantura was the first true production TVR. The fiberglass-bodied Grantura, with its fastback rear end and wraparound rear window, set the TVR styling tone for the next several years. This is evident in later cars like the Griffith, Vixen, Tuscan, and even the 3000M of the 1970s. Engine options included Ford, Coventry Climax, and MG. A few Granturas, badged as the Jomar, were sold in the U.S. by racer and businessman Ray Saidel.

1965 TVR Tina Coupe Prototype

1965 TVR Tina Coupe Prototype
1965 TVR Tina Coupe Prototype
Stefan Lombard

Following the 1965 takeover by Arthur Lilley and his son Martin, the elder Lilley employed designer Trevor Frost (who worked under the name Trevore Fiore) and Carrozzeria Fissore to style and build him a steel-bodied coupe, with power to come from a rear-mounted Hillman Imp engine. The Tina prototype was unveiled at the 1966 Turin Motor Show as both a coupe and convertible. British racing legend Gerry Marshall bought the coupe off the show stand.

1965 TVR Trident Fissore Prototype

1965 TVR Trident Fissore Prototype
1965 TVR Trident Fissore Prototype
Stefan Lombard

TVR built four Trident prototypes in 1965—three coupes and one convertible. All were powered by the 271-cid Ford V-8 found in the Griffith, and the alloy and steel coachwork was handled by designer Trevor Fiore and Carrozzeria Fissore in Italy. The car was well received on its debut at the 1965 Geneva Motor Show. TVR’s U.S. importer, Gerry Sagerman, was less enthused, much to the chagrin of the Lilleys, who’d planned on focusing the Trident on the American market.

1978 TVR 3000M

1978 TVR Tuscan 3000M
1978 TVR Tuscan 3000M
Stefan Lombard

The M-Series TVRs served as an evolution of earlier Vixen and Tuscan models and were produced in various guises from 1972 to 1980. Riding on the best TVR chassis to date, models included the Triumph-powered 2500M as well as this car, the 3000M, with its 165-horsepower 3.0-liter Ford Essex V-6.

1988 TVR 420 SEAC

1988 TVR 420 SEAC
1988 TVR 420 SEAC
Stefan Lombard

The Peter Wheeler era ushered in the wedge shape at TVR. Powered by a 4.2-liter Rover V-8, the 420 SEAC (Special Equipment Aramid Composite) had a body made of 20-percent Kevlar, which made it lighter than the fiberglass-bodied cars. Fewer than 40 420 SEAC cars were built before an even more powerful 450 SEAC debuted.

1988 TVR White Elephant

1992 TVR Griffith 4.3 Big Valve and 1988 White Elephant
1992 TVR Griffith 4.3 Big Valve and 1988 White Elephant
Stefan Lombard

The one-off White Elephant is unique even among a host of rare, odd TVRs. Powered by an experimental 405-hp 5.0-liter Australian Holden V-8 race engine (the only Holden-powered TVR), it was built to be company director Peter Wheeler’s personal car. Moreover, rumor has it the White Elephant was built to be his shooting car, complete with a spot behind the passenger seat for his gun dog, Ned, and a compartment in back for his shotguns, hunting boots, and any pheasants he might happen to get. Eventually it was left to sit behind the factory, until it was rescued by a devoted TVR client in the mid-2000s.

2002 TVR Typhon

2002 TVR Typhon
2002 TVR Typhon
Stefan Lombard

In the late 1990s, director Peter Wheeler began setting the stage to bring TVR to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The first production car to benefit from this vision was the Typhon. Powered by TVR’s own 440-hp Speed Six engine, which was mated to an in-house sequential gearbox, the Typhon had a top speed of more than 200 mph, making it the fastest production TVR ever built. Just three were constructed.

2005 TVR Tuscan Speed Six 400R

2005 TVR Tuscan Speed Six 400R Le Mans race car
2005 TVR Tuscan Speed Six 400R Le Mans race car
Stefan Lombard

TVR did, in fact, make it to Le Mans—a remarkable accomplishment in the modern era for such a small manufacturer. This car, powered by the 4.0-liter Speed Six inline engine, ran in the GT2 class. It completed 256 laps, which wasn’t enough to finish in a classified position, though officially it was listed as 46th of 49 finishers.

2005 TVR Sagaris

2005 TVR Sagaris
2005 TVR Sagaris
Stefan Lombard

Based on the TVR T350, the Sagaris was one of the wildest-looking machines to come off the TVR production line. Essentially a race car for the road, it was designed and built with an eye toward endurance racing. The cars lacked anti-lock brakes, airbags, and any sort of electronic driving aid, now-ubiquitous safety items that director Peter Wheeler felt could lead to driver overconfidence.