The TVR that I let get away
Two few weeks ago I wrote a piece titled “You’re Slow, Old Man,” in which I poked fun at myself for not being quick or decisive enough to grab or even go see several interesting cars that came onto my radar, while also letting it slip that y’all should cut me some slack because this was against the backdrop of my wife having cardiac surgery. At the end of my column, I said that there was a car that I was actively pursuing, but I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag lest anyone steal it out from under me. That episode has played out, so I can now make with the reveal.
It was a 1974 TVR 2500M. If you’ve never heard of TVR, they’re a British boutique car manufacturer best known for the three tiny similar-looking models built in the mid-1960s and ’70s—the Grantura, Vixen, and 2500M that share a design including a catfish-sucking-up-the-pavement nose and a big piece of wrap-around rear glass. If vintage Lotuses are too pedestrian for your Brit tastes, you can go TVR and feel at home, as both are lightweight cars built with fiberglass bodies on steel frames. And in the fine tradition of other classic Brits like the Sunbeam Tiger, the most valuable TVRs are the handful of Cobra-like models into which the factory stuffed a small-block Ford Windsor V-8 (the Griffin is a V-8-powered version of the Grantura; the Tuscan is built on the Vixen).
To be clear, the 2500M isn’t one of those. Built from 1972–77, the 2500M has more than just the usual Triumph parts bin brakes and steering components like my Lotus Europa—it has a TR6 engine, as that mill had already cleared U.S. emissions testing. It’s estimated that about 80 percent of the 947 2500Ms produced were sold in the United States. Europe also received both the slower 1600M with a Ford Kent 1.6-liter four-pot, and the quicker 3000M, Taimar hatchback, and 3000S roadster, all powered by the Ford Essex 3.0L V-6. Unlike the Grantura and the Vixen, the 2500M never had a factory Ford V-8 variant, but the North American TVR importer apparently developed a small number (less than 10) of 5.0-liter, V-8-powered cars and badged them as 5000Ms. Due to this history, some enthusiasts roll their own 302-powered 2500Ms.
While I can’t say that a 2500M causes me same knees-weakening-mumbling-in-adoration response that an early E-Type does, I’ve always thought that they’re very cool little two-seaters, scratching the same itch as the Triumph GT6 I owned 45 years ago and the BMW M Coupe (“clown shoe”) that I currently have.
So when I saw this ad on Facebook Marketplace one evening, it instantly had my complete attention:
“1974 TVR 2500M. Very nice, car starts on starting fluid and is a beautiful candidate for your dream restoration or could easily be roadworthy in a couple of weekends. Only 947 of these produced worldwide 1972 to 1977, this one also has a complete set of 5 rare Wolfrace wheels that were an option from the factory. If you’re truly interested and understand how rare these are to find complete, then please reach out. $11,500.”
The ad had just four photos, all of the exterior. They showed a silver car with a black top, a black factory sliding fabric sunroof, and black trim. There was some patina to the paint, but the car certainly wasn’t a basket case.
I saw that the ad had just gone up 36 minutes earlier, so there was the chance that I could be the first one to respond. However, there were two non-trivial issues that stopped me.
The first was that the car was in central Long Island, New York. Having purchased a BMW 2002 in the Hamptons a few years back, I was intimately familiar with how long a schlep that is. I own a truck but not a trailer, and by the time you factor in picking up the rented U-Haul transporter, it’s difficult to squeeze the 500-mile round trip into a day, particularly if, like me, you’re only good for about an hour of driving after sundown.
The second issue was, of course, the far more important one—my still-recuperating wife. Although a week had passed since her surgery, it was still early enough that I didn’t feel right about vanishing for a full day (and likely overnight) for something as trivial as not just a car, but a British car (sorry). So I sighed, closed the lid on my laptop, and crawled into bed, knowing full well that the car would likely be marked “sold” in the morning.
But it wasn’t. The following evening, I sent the seller a friendly message explaining who I was (and that I’m a fellow Long Island boy—my parents are buried about 25 miles from his location), and what my circumstances were that would likely cause me to miss out on the car, but that he should hold onto my contact information because, well, you never know.
As things returned to normalcy in my house, the seller and I swapped messages, then a lengthy phone call. He said that the car had been previously owned by a fellow in New Jersey who’d had it since the 1980s. It had passed from daily driver to pleasure toy, then sat from about 2006 through ’17. The owner then revived it, thinking he’d undertake a restoration. That never happened, and the seller bought it late last year. He said he had visions of doing a Ford 302 engine swap, but the car was stored at his business, he was retiring and closing the building, and decided to sell it instead. As the ad said, the car reportedly fired up on starting fluid, but he hadn’t put the time into getting it running and driving. He said that he didn’t have a lift, but he’d jacked up the car and found only surface rust on the frame tubes, outriggers, braces, and suspension components. He sent me a bunch of still photos of the exterior and interior, and two videos of the undercarriage. He described some light damage to the fiberglass under one of the wheel wells, possibly due to a blowout, and the driver’s seat needing full reupholstery.
Maybe it was the Long Island secret handshake, but the seller struck me as a straight-up guy. It started the mental gears turning enough that I asked him about the title. He said that he’d never registered the car, but had an open title from the previous owner.
“Signed but undated?” I asked.
“No—signed and dated.”
This was a problem. While I have no moral qualms with an open title, in Massachusetts there’s a quirky issue where you can be assessed a penalty with interest if you buy a car and title isn’t transferred into your name within 10 days, so a title with an old signing date is potentially problematic. The odd thing is that the registry can’t tell you what the penalty is—they refer it to the Department of Revenue, which kills a goat, reads the entrails and comes up with a number. Seriously, I’ve never been able to find a printed reference for what the formula is. But I once saw a Boston television news segment where a guy who’d bought a TR6 decades ago and didn’t register it until a lengthy restoration was completed was assessed over $10,000 in penalties, so it’s something I’m wary of.
While I was thinking all this over, my wife caught me looking at the ad. I spooled out the whole story. “I’m fine,” she said. “If you want to go look at it, go!” (See why I love her?) But it’s a funny thing how, when learning that something you think you want to do is now possible, you examine whether or not you really want to do it.
I’ve certainly had my automotive passions carry me into questionable decisions, but I’m usually pretty rational and steely-eyed in these matters. I like to think it through to where there’s a trigger point that could go either way—e.g., “If I do A, then B will happen, but if I do X, then Y will happen”—and I’m satisfied with either outcome. While I’ve lost some cars I should’ve have, I’ve kept myself out of quite a bit of trouble too (says the guy with the brown Lotus Europa).
I wrote up a list of pros and cons. The pros were that I know what blows my skirt up. I wanted the car. And I joke that the “business model” of this phase of my life is buying needy cars that generate content for these articles, but it’s really not a joke, and the car would be perfect for that. The cons were price, distance, and the title issue.
The bottom line was that if the car was 2/3 the asking price and nearby, I’d have ignored the title issue and bought it already (more accurately, I’d have driven there, looked at the frame tubing carefully, and if it wasn’t rotted through anywhere, bought it on the spot). If I passed on it and found out later that someone else grabbed it for a great price, I’d be pissed at myself. But I now have over 20 grand in my ratty Lotus, it’s probably worth only $10K due to its survivor appearance (I love survivor cars with patina, but the market doesn’t), and I need to try to avoid having that happen again.
The distance was a funny thing. If the TVR was only a couple of hours away, I’d just jump in a car and drive there to make sure I wanted the car, close the deal, and then come back when it was convenient with the truck and trailer. But before I drove 500 miles down to Long Island and back, I wanted to be pretty sure that I was coming back with the car. There was an added complication about a non-running car being difficult to get up on a U-Haul auto transporter, but that was a detail. It was tempting to just zip there and back in my comfortable fast BMW for a look-see, but that seemed like admitting that I was less likely rather than more likely to buy the car.
Regarding the title issue, this risk may not seem like a big deal, but it did affect the value of the car to me. In the past I would’ve just run the car through the Vermont DMV, but with The Vermont Loophole closed, the options were to risk the penalty from the old date on the title, or try to get a clean duplicate title through the previous owner (I searched on Facebook and found his video of the car running in 2017).
Regarding price and value, I looked at 2500M values on Hagerty, at 2500M sales history on Bring a Trailer, and at project cars on GrassrootsMotorSports.com. Hagerty lists the value of a 1974 2500M in “fair condition” (described as “has visible flaws to the naked eye, runs fine but could use mechanical or cosmetic attention”) at $9800. As this one wasn’t a running, driving car, its condition was probably lower than “fair.” BaT sales prices of good and excellent cars seemed to correlate with Hagerty values pretty well, with the highest-priced cars being ones that had undergone a well-executed 302 V-8 conversion. The lowest-priced 2500M sold on BaT was $10K in 2021. It had been sitting for 34 years with a free-turning engine, but from the photos, that car appeared to be in substantially better condition than this one (e.g., shiny pretty paint, unripped seats). At the low end, on Grass Roots Motorsports, I saw stories of 2500M projects where people had picked up smashed glass, rodent-infested, basket-case cars for next to nothing. Clearly this car was in far better condition than those. So I couldn’t find data directly supporting value of a 2500M in the almost-running-but-not-driving survivor condition this one was in.
Then there was the issue of the money itself. Ten-ish grand is a lot of cash to be traveling with. I scoped out that there’s a branch of my bank in the town where the car was, open until 2 p.m. on Saturday. But boy, picking up a trailer on Saturday morning, getting down there, looking at the car, negotiating, and getting to the bank by 2 p.m. seemed like a thin needle to thread.
I decided to bounce it all off my good friend Tom. Tom and I have done each other multiple significant car guy favors. He has eclectic automotive tastes—BMWs, an E-Type, vintage Volvos, a hot rod—so I value his perspective. And he’s got a truck and a covered trailer with a winch, and has said he’s down for a road trip if there’s something I needed to bag and drag. I thought that if I went, I could use the company. We could share the driving. Hell, if I asked him to, I’m sure he’d go down to Long Island, negotiate on my behalf, and do it all.
Tom and I had a long talk. Though he’s an enabler (he literally asked “When do you want me to pick you up?”), he also gave me a dose of reason. He cycled through the Hagerty valuation and BaT sales just like I did, and said, “It looks like you can pick up pretty, shiny, running 2500Ms for $17K. You’re not going to pick this one up for 10 and turn it into one of those for another seven.”
He was right. Although I buy well-priced cars because I like their stories and want to be part of them, and I rarely think in terms like “upside” and “being underwater,” the episode with the Lotus has forced me to not do anything overly stupid.
The 2500M only made sense to me at significantly under the seller’s asking price. When I’m selling a car, I hate the sight-unseen buyer question “What’s the lowest you’ll take for it?” We all joke that the seller’s standard reply should be “What’s the most you’ll pay for it?” Negotiations are always best done with skin in the game—face to face with the seller, having driven there with a trailer and money. I really didn’t want to do to the seller what I hate having done to me. And if I did, it would be meaningless because I hadn’t yet seen the car.
So what was the play?
I sent the seller a lengthy detailed email saying most of what I said above (I’ve always found it helpful when both buyer and seller have the same information), and ended it with this: “If you said, ‘Well, I paid $X for it, I need to get rid of it, but I was hoping to get something out of owning it,’ and if $X was a good number, I’d be interested and would come down. But if you said ‘$11,500 is the firm price, I’ve gotten a hundred messages, someone will pay it, three guys are coming down this weekend,’ then I don’t think there would be a path to ownership for me, and that’s OK.”
The seller sent me an equally thoughtful response, the pivotal part of which was “There’s multiple offers on the car at this point, exceeding the [$10K] car on BaT … While I am motivated to sell, I’m by no means vulnerable or desperate, and will start working on it in September if it doesn’t sell.”
And with that, my patented “If he says yes, I’m good, and if he says no, I’m good” process played out. So, no. Done. Move along. Nothing here to see.
But the seller also offered me this poignant perspective: “Everyone, including myself, would love running survivor TVRs below $10K. Those days came and went years ago. Cars deteriorate more over time, so few survivors exist anymore, and it’s hard to find complete and restorable cars of any brand. They are few and far between. If anything, the buyer in our age group is the vulnerable party. Sometimes you just have to pull the trigger at any cost, as tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and we may not be above ground when the next car we dreamed of comes along.”
He was right. Except for the last part. Maybe I’ve simply gotten spoiled, as well as less hungry, if that dichotomy is possible. My 1970s BMWs and the ratty Lotus Europa certainly aren’t the seven-figure exotics that real collectors have, but I’m blessed to own them. As I said earlier, I’d love to have an E-Type in my garage, but if I really wanted one, I could sell a few cars and make it happen, and I don’t.
The truth is that owning and experiencing any particular car before I die isn’t even remotely on the list of things I want to do before I pass on. I’m simply not wired to “pull the trigger at any cost.” Honestly, I’d rather follow my own quirky automotive compass and hang out with my wife.
Long may you run, TVR 2500M. May we both enjoy our paths.
Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.