Like AC Cobras, but nuttier.
The British sports car company TVR occupies that rare space in enthusiast circles where its models are mocked for their lack of reliability yet lusted after for their raw driving experience. That driving experience in more modern TVR models is often best described as startling.
TVR's history stretches back to 1946, but most know the brand by its more recent vehicles that are loud, fast, and uncouth. A familiar thread through TVR's history is that it has always been the underdog. Its lifespan has been one of perpetual financial struggle and, as a result, is currently under its fifth owner. Despite the struggles, TVR has delivered some legendary cars, but they've also attained infamy for being dangerous to drive. These cars are notorious for being sharp but unforgiving sports cars with no driver aids. As Jeremy Clarkson commented, "Owning a TVR in the past was like owning a bear, I mean it was great, until it pulled your head off, which it would."
Following the popularity of a new semi-spaceframe chassis with a central backbone in the 1950s for a race car, TVR introduced the Open Sports and Coupe. The vehicle raced regularly in the US, championed by a US driver and entrepreneur, and the company started looking to improve it for daily usability. That led to the TVR Grantura, branded as the Jomar Coupe and Gran Turismo Coupe in the US. The Grantura was built in true start-up mode using parts on its tubular space frame chassis like Volkswagen suspension, Austin-Healey brakes, and a fiberglass body.
The car was small to the point of being cramped and weighed 930 pounds due to the light chassis and aluminum bodywork. The Anglo-American project fell flat, though, and TVR only built around ten cars. The company was in a lot of debt, and its director and financier, Fred Thomas, planned to use TVR's failure as a tax advantage. The story gets complicated from there, but somehow TVR survived.
The TVR Griffith 200 grew from the development of a Mk III Grantura model. American race car driver Jack Griffith told Carroll Shelby he could build a car that could outperform an AC Cobra. Griffith had been racing the Grantura and built a prototype with his mechanic, George Clark. TVR built a second prototype in the UK, and the TVR Griffith 200 was born.
The Griffith 200 was, at times, literally hammered out between the two countries. When finished, it was available with either Ford's 289 small block V8 or the 289 High Performance. It weighed just around 2,000 pounds and was even less refined and scarier by all accounts to drive than the 427-powered Shelby Cobra. The car pictured below was built in the UK, then shipped to the US for Jack Griffith to add the Ford 289 motor and make his modifications.
Given what we've established here about TVR's cars, adding primitive turbocharging technology in the 1970s sounds like both a terrible and great idea. As part of TVR's M Series line of sports cars, the 1976 Taimar Turbo - with a unique hatchback-like body style - was one of the first turbocharged sports cars, The original M series models came with an anemic 1.6-liter four-cylinder Ford engine, but for the next evolution, TVR went with a 3.0-liter Ford V6 and a turbocharger from a company called Broadspeed. The boost came late and suddenly but didn't wind down quickly. TVR only built 32 units, which was probably for the best, but it's now a rare and desirable model.
The next version of the TVR Griffith is often cited as being the first time the company used the legendary Rover V8 for power. However, in 1986 the TVR 420 SEAC used a special 4.2-liter version of the engine making around 300 hp. That explains the 420 part of its name, while SEAC stands for Special Edition Aramid Composite (or Special 'Equipment' Aramid Composite, depending on who you ask), or Kevlar as we know it. The Kevlar bodywork was one of the first uses of the material in a road car, albeit one with a production run of only 37 units. Even then, the bodywork was deemed too stiff, and only the first few had full Kevlar bodywork. Technically, the 420 SEAC is part of TVR's series of "wedge" cars from the period but bred explicitly for racing. In true TVR fashion, though, it couldn't build and sell enough to homologate the race car. The race car was disqualified from the series it ran in.
The Griffith name returned in 1990 and with all the TVR key ingredients, and it came with many of the features that made its Griffith 200 and Griffith 400 namesakes so special in the sports car world. It was built with a steel backbone chassis, a lightweight fiberglass body, and powered by a TVR-fettered Rover V8. A later 5.0-liter V8 version made 340 hp, and that was in a car with a curb weight of below 2,900 lbs.
The handling was sharp and balanced but more refined than past TVR cars, which is to say it had elbow room and somewhat compliant suspension. It was a huge success when it debuted at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1990, with one being ordered at an average of every eight minutes throughout the rest of the event.
Like the Griffith, TVR had already used the Tuscan name, but it returned with a huge increase in power and agility. It arrived in 1999 with a TVR developed and built 3.6-liter straight-six making 350 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque. It also came without traction control or ABS braking because it added weight and was expensive. That didn't stop TVR from adding more power to the already brutish Tuscan by releasing a 4.0-liter version making 380 hp, then a Mk II version making 400 hp.
There were no electronic driver aids, but it did come with a sound system. The head unit would have been from Alpine if TVR had paid its bills, so instead, the Tuscan came with whatever inexpensive units that were cheap and plentiful from a local store in Blackpool. Besides its power, the Tuscan was also sensational to look at.
The TVR Sagaris debuted in 2003 and then the production model followed in 2005 while the company was under its new owner, the Russian Oligarch Nikolay Smolensky. It started production in 2005 and was suitably bananas. Its front-mid mounted 4.0-liter straight-six made 406 hp, and first gear got the Sagaris to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. It would then hit 100 mph in second gear.
The Sagaris weighed around 2,370 pounds, rode on stiff Bilstein suspension, and TVR saw fit to put on a substantial set of brakes. However, the engineers and bean counter still eschewed safety systems like ABS, traction control, and airbags. TVR built the Sagaris for little over a year and just 211 were made. The fact that only around half of them are still on the roads tells its own story.
Smolensky sold TVR in 2013 to a UK company run by Les Edgar and John Chasey. TVR promptly announced the TVR Genuine Parts initiative to keep the classics on the road. In 2015, TVR announced the development of a new car with Gordon Murray and Cosworth as partners. It was codenamed T37, which is Murray's project naming convention and tells us how much input he has while Cosworth develops the 5.0-liter Ford Coyote engine lifted from the Ford Mustang GT. Despite delays, the new TVR Griffith is inching forward to a release date. The best bit? It's looking likely that we'll see the new TVR here in the US.