The History of TVR

There is the obscure, and then there is the arcane. When the revival of TVR was announced, with a grand touring car based on Gordon Murray’s iStream manufacturing technology, it is likely that more contemporary car enthusiasts were familiar with Murray than with TVR. Even most car enthusiasts have never heard of the marque.

TVR is a specialist British sports-car maker that’s been around since the early 1950s. Over the years they’ve managed to produce a few thousand fiberglass-bodied cars with quirky styling, confusing names, and a passionate following despite repeated bankruptcies and numerous changes of management and ownership.

Founder Trevor Wilkinson left the company in the mid 1960s, though the company retained its name, based on the letters of his first name.

After a series of specials, TVR’s first production car, the Grantura, was introduced in 1958. It had a tube space frame that surrounded a central backbone.

Early Grantura’s used front and rear VW Beetle trailing arm suspensions and brakes from the Austin Healey 100. A variety of Coventry Climax, Ford, and MG engines were fitted. By the time the Mk III Grantura was introduced in 1962, it had a longer chassis with coil springs and independent suspension at all four wheels. The front end was restyled slightly and a little bit of chrome was added.

Power was by MG 1.6 or 1.8-liter inline fours. That chassis was designed by John Thurner, who had bought an early TVR while working as an engineer at Rolls-Royce and liked it so much he quit his job and went to work for the sports car maker.

The Mk III Grantura chassis would be used by TVR, with modifications, into the 1970s.

1963 TVR Grantura Mk III

1965 TVR Griffith Series 200

By the mid 1960s, Sydney Allard, Donald Healey, and Carroll Shelby had well proved that putting a powerful American engine in a lightweight British sports car was a winning combination. In the case of the Griffith TVRs, the combination almost killed the company.

TVR started exporting chassis to America very early on in the 1950s. Jack Griffith was a Long Island Ford dealer who liked to race and he got his hands on a Grantura.  Griffith dropped a 289 Windsor Ford V8 into his Grantura MkIII. Acceleration was even better than Griffith and Dick Monnich, an American associate of TVR, had hoped. The spindly chassis and standard brakes, however, were not up to the task, so David Hives, at the TVR shop back in Blackpool, modified John Thorner’s chassis to better handle the V8 and its power and built a second prototype with better brakes and handling. Satisfied with the results, the TVR works built three additional cars without engines and shipped them to Griffith.

That car was known as the Griffith Series 200. Plans were made for a Griffith 400 and Hives spent months sourcing components from other British car companies. A Griffith 600 was planned as well.

In the spring of 1964, Hives went to America to join designer Robert Cumberford in styling a model and making the molds for what was hoped to be the Griffith 600.

Hives and Griffith’s race mechanic George Clark also set up a small assembly line in Syosset, Long Island to install the Ford V8s into cars built by the TVR factory in the UK.

Unfortunately, 1964 did not turn out well for TVR. As one might expect from a tiny English car company in the 1960s, TVRs were not quite as reliable as VWs or Chevys. Customers started complaining. Then a dockworkers’ strike in the United States stopped the flow of engine-less cars to Griffith from TVR. Unable to fill orders, Griffith couldn’t pay Ford for the engines, so they cut off supply.

Griffith also couldn’t pay TVR for cars already shipped to him. That put TVR, already in its usual precarious financial situation, beyond life support.

In September, directors voted to stop production and close the factory. The company went into liquidation in late 1964.

1970 TVR Vixen

One might ask, if the styling was odd and the power was provided by off-the-shelf units sourced from other companies, what was the appeal of the TVR? Well, with tube frames and plastic bodies they were lighter and faster than the MGs with the same engine.

To offset their losses of £2,000 worth of TVR stock in the 1965 bankruptcy, TVR distributor Arthur Lilley and his son Martin bought the assets of the company out of receivership and reorganized it as TVR Engineering Ltd.

1978 TVR 3000S

The company was in shambles. There were no outstanding orders, but there was outstanding debt to suppliers who needed to be compensated before production could begin again. Also, as they were being laid off, the previous employees had apparently stolen parts and vandalized equipment. The Lilleys hired new workers, put a management team in place and started producing the MkIII again.

In the meantime, a factory supported Griffith was doing well racing in America, generating much-needed positive publicity to offset the negative publicity generated by the crappy quality of the Griffith-finished cars.

A new American distributor was set up and TVR Cars of America was established in 1967 with a small showroom and repair facility on Long Island.

Plans to put the Trident, a new model with a stylish, less-dated body, into production were shelved when Martin Lilley failed to gain rights to the design.

Production of the Griffith was stopped and the Tuscan V8 was introduced. It was not successful, though, and very few were built.

The Lilleys did manage to introduce a “new” TVR. The Vixen was first revealed at the British motor show in October of 1967 and generated enough new orders that the Lilleys decided to ramp up production for 1968, even though 1967 had shown a financial loss. The Vixen used the same tube-frame chassis as the Mk III 1800s, with double wishbone suspension fore and aft, and disc brakes up front. There were some minor styling changes but the primary mechanical difference was switching to the then new 1.6-liter version of Ford’s “Kent” block four-cylinder. Ford was less hassle to work with than MG and the engines were cheaper (and probably more reliable as well). Vixens were also fitted with the round taillights from the first generation Ford Cortina.

Though the Lilleys had experimented with a steel bodied concept, the Vixen used glassfibre reinforced plastic like other production TVRs.

For the Series 2 Vixens, introduced in 1968, that body, however, was now bolted to the longer-wheelbase Tuscan V8 chassis, rather than bonded as with previous TVRs. That made repairs much easier. More laminates were used to make the body stiffer and an attempt to improve panel fit was made. A better interior was fitted, and the steering wheel was mounted lower to address customer complaints. Slight styling changes were made to the hood/bonnet. With over 400 sold, the S2 Vixen was one of the better selling TVRs.

1978 TVR Taimar

1979 TVR 3000S

The Series 3 Vixens had minor changes, while the S4 Vixens were transitional models that used the Vixen body shell and the later M Series chassis.

An economy model, the TVR 1300 was introduced in 1971. It used the 1296cc engine from the Triumph Spitfire. With just 63 horsepower and a top speed of 90, it was not popular and just 15 were sold.

The TVR 2500 (not to be confused with the later 2500M), marketed as the Vixen 2500 in the United States, was sold in 1971 and 1972. The car existed because Triumph’s 2.5-liter six was already certified by the U.S. EPA. The last 96 of 385 2500s that were built used the Vixen body on the M Series chassis.

For its next cars, TVR finally replaced John Thorner’s original space-frame chassis with one designed by Mike Bigland, an engineer and TVR dealer whose suspension modifications vastly improved the handling of the Thorner chassis cars. The new chassis was safer, more rigid, and cheaper to build. It would be the foundation for 1600M, 2500M, 3000M, 3000S, and Taimar, selling slightly less than 2,500 cars over nine years.

The chassis has a center backbone with perimeter tubes, made up of both round and square 14- and 16-gauge steel tubing. Lilley invested in new fixtures that allowed TVR’s two chassis welders to make up to five frames a week. By leaving the oil film on the tubing from its manufacturing process, capping the ends and not using through-fasteners, TVR was able to offer a five-year guarantee against corrosion.

Using TVR’s traditional front mid-engine layout, with the engine behind the front axle, allowed Bigland to mount both the radiator and the spare tire in front of the motor. That not only freed up luggage space in the trunk, it helped with collision safety. As a matter of fact, when the UK’s Motor Industry Research Association crash tested a M Series car in 1971 it was the only car they tested that remained steerable after a 30 mph front collision.

Fully independent suspension was via double wishbones and coil springs all around. The differential carrier, suspension wishbones, and uprights were of TVR’s own design and manufacture but as with other specialist makers like Lotus, parts were sourced from bigger companies’ parts shelves. Brakes (11″ discs in front, 9″ drums in the rear) were from the Triumph TR6. A production Alford & Adler steering rack was connected to a British Leyland steering column. Motive force was provided by Ford, in the form of Kent fours and Essex V6s, and Triumph, using the TR6’s 2.5-liter inline-six.

1995 TVR Challenge Racer

The new cars got a newish body. To save money, the passenger cabin, including the doors, roof, front bulkhead, and Ford Consul windshield, remained the same. Bigland gave the bonnet/hood another restyling while Martin Lilley directed the shaping of a new rear end by company fiberglass specialist Joe Mleczek. Lilley also designed the new interior and trim. Depending on the models and how hot they ran, some M Series cars had vents on the hood and fenders.

Again, a variety of taillights were used, including Mk II Cortina lamps mounted upside down and switched left to right, Triumph TR6 taillamps, and stock square Lucas units. A variety of aluminum wheels were also offered. Chromed Triumph 2000 bumpers were used until 1974, when they were replaced with black foam – likely to comply with 1970s era bumper standards.

In January of 1975, several completed and nearly finished cars were destroyed when a fire broke out at the factory. The likely cause was faulty wiring on a 3000M factory demonstrator car (no Lucas jokes, please). Under the Lilleys, TVR tried to keep about three months worth of parts on hand and many of those were also destroyed in the fire. Sandblasters were used to remove soot but the sand ended up damaging equipment. Despite those setbacks and working without heat or electricity, TVR employees managed to get production running again, slowly.