Lunch with... Darrell Waltrip
"When I first started out in NASCAR in the 1960s,” says Darrell Waltrip, “it was…
In 1990 we joined the throng of Birmingham Motor Show, compressed around the TVR stand. In pre-feminist times, this would simply have indicated that TVR had cheerfully decided to exploit another skimpily attired girl.
Not this time.
What emerged was the most gorgeous British sports car since the ’60s, and TVR had fittingly exhumed the Griffith name to accompany that seductive prototype.
Recently TVR has turned its breezy Blackpool enthusiasm away from promo girls and towards the manufacture of increasingly effective V8 and V6 sports cars. Production rates have risen and quality is immeasurably improved over that of the mid-’80s. Against this background the TVR Tuscan racing series was initiated. Since 1989 the bellowing V8s have become an established part of the British racing calendar. The series has attracted three MOTOR SPORT writers to participate since its inception, but has more importantly honestly helped the development of the Griffith.
In what is arguably the biggest transfer of track technology to a production car, the TVR deploys traditional sporting traits such as low weight, rugged chassis and a simple V8, all encased within a glassfibre body of modest dimensions and outstanding eye appeal. We found nothing but praise for these ‘in-house’ TVR lines, regenerated in glassfibre under TVR chairman Peter Wheeler’s watchful eyes. Regenerated, for the design was substantially overhauled after its 1990 NEC debut.
This was an astonishing piece of self-criticism, for the car was widely admired in its original form. Yet TVR has succeeded in making even more of an impact for the 250 convertible examples produced to date (in rhd only). On a performance-per-pound ratio the Griffith is unbeatable on a regular production basis. Because the technology employed is relatively straightforward, TVR should not fall into the tragically unprofitable trap entered by the late, lamented, new Lotus Elan, RIP. For £27,207 the TVR Griffith offers jaw-dropping, accessible, performance: our second attempt at an acceleration run returned a 0-60 mph time of 4.7s. The 0-100 mph sprint occupied about the same 12s period that a 5.7-litre Chevrolet Camaro V8 offered when tested by MOTOR SPORT in racing trim, years ago. The TVR maximum of 158 mph would have been faster, had we not been baulked (twice) by a BMW 3-series carrying out durability tests. Top speed aside, those are the fastest acceleration figures for 0-60 mph that we have recorded. They line up slightly ahead of the Porsche 911 Turbo (and RS Lightweight) and most machines below the F40 Ferrari price stratosphere.
More relevantly, the TVR has the brakes and chassis to complement its cost efficient muscles, though we are not writing of the perfect sports car. Indeed there are some puzzling basic flaws in a machine of such world class dynamic abilities. What we are saying is that TVR has wrapped up old and new engineering and design practices with an exhaust note that the Japanese are probably even now ‘replicating’ (hideous word, hideous practice).
The Griffith is listed in two body styles – convertible and targa – with the choice of 4.0 or 4.3-litre modified Rover V8s that rumble forth 240 and 280 bhp respectively. We had the higher capacity and a 40 bhp bonus at £27,206.72. The smaller unit in the same body saves an appreciable amount, listing at £24,802.89. Since TVR still reckons on a sub-5s 0-60 mph time for the four-litre and a 148 mph maximum, it is worth serious consideration. Especially for those who might prefer to be on the cheaper side of 20 mpg more consistently.
The Griffith Targa – with fixed rear section installed in place of the aluminium strut folding mechanism of the test convertible – “is just beginning to escape our production facilities,” says TVR’s James Pillar. List prices for 4.0 and 4.3 litres are £25,091.34 and £27,495.19, but you have to be beware the extras list in this case. The Kevlar carbon fibre composite roof panel we admired and utilised on the convertible is listed as a £769.24 extra on the targa. TVR talked only of widely admired full-hide trim (it really is applied on every conceivable surface) at £1480.77 and £278.84 for superb metallic grey paint as extras on the test car. A price list we hold from a dealer suggests that the effective Gemini microwave alarm/immobilisation system is a £250 option. Every Sierra Cosworth should have one…
Apart from its Griffith newcomers, TVR still offers the Ford V6-powered S3 and S3C convertible at prices from £18,230.83. The 400, 430 and thundering 450 SE cost from £27,399.04 to £30,764.44 whilst a V8S version of S3 retails at a cost-efficient £22,687.50.
The traditional steel tubular frame construction with rectangular section outriggers supports a Griffith. It is coated in phosphates and polyesters for corrosion protection. As for many of the components within a Griffith, the chassis backbone was taken from the racing Tuscan. The latter also donated the principles of the unequal length wishbone suspension system, which has been revised during the production run to meet criticisms of its bumpy surface handling. Now the equal rating of 600 lb/in for front and rear coil springs has been dropped in favour of 450 lb/in fronts, leaving the original rates at the rear. Incidentally, the racers operate in another zone: 800 lb/in fronts, 400 lb/in rears.
The production car continues to run without a rear roll bar, but a hefty front tube restrains body lean effectively and the Koni dampers have been revalved, also providing replacement bump and rebound settings according to TVR. The unassisted rack and pinion steering has been assaulted by the press as well. Here the factory moved from an original 215 specification to the 205 on our test car, which ran slightly different Bridgestone bandings front to rear, as well as 15 and 16 in rim diameters at either end. The spare is a thin emergency cover that clutters up the generous boot, along with a stowed roof panel.
Brakes are derived from discs employed on the Sierra Cosworth, but without the ABS action of the Ford. The 3.3:1 differential started life as a Ford unit before Tuscan employment on a numerically higher ratio. A Quaife limited slip differential is built in rather than the Ford viscous coupling. Gearbox owes its life, and ratios, to the old Rover SD1 family, whence came the simple alloy V8. Then, it was a 3.5-litre unit. Now, Land Rover supplies specialists like TVR, Morgan and many others with hardware that is employed in 3.9-litre production trim for the UK Range Rover.
In the test car, the standard 3.9-litre bore and stroke is enlarged from 94×71.12 mm to an official 94.04×77 mm to achieve 4280 cc. TVR eschews the 400 bhp/8000 rpm levels that can be released for carburated competition variants and settles on an electronic fuel injection system, with an operating range limited to 6500 revs. Maximum power is reported at 280 bhp, but it feels a conservative rating as the low weight permits such sensational acceleration. Power delivery is biased toward torque, over 300 lb/ft available at 4000 rpm. There is an abundant supply of pulling power almost as soon as the hydraulically activated clutch has been eased home. Judging from the temperature readings achieved, TVR prefers the Rover to run close to 90 deg in traffic. Any further escalation is efficiently blocked by twin fans and a capacious radiator, which is inclined forward of the unique industrial plumbing that sweeps to the front of the V8 to begin its twin pipe run to that individually rounded tail.
You can take it for granted that this machine provides the most memorable driving we have experienced, particularly at its price. The performance figures are outstanding, but initial impressions are dominated by some hostile features that are going to deter anyone used to less full-blooded sporting machinery.
We picked the car up at just short of 10,000 harsh demonstration miles from Henley Heritage in Oxfordshire. The brake pads required replacement, which the dealer did quickly and efficiently. Once bedded in, the TVR system proved to be amongst the very best we have assessed in a road car, and we never did feel the need for ABS, even on thunderstorm-stricken roads, for pedal sensitivity and short travel are to racing standards. Our driver’s 25 years of road and track experience would not have been sufficient to operate the car without the neat Filofax style handbook and the practical guidance offered by TVR sales specialist Louise Spaven. Just to gain access means pressing down on the hidden metallic door handles that defeat many. The interior door handles are equally obscure – and efficient, once their location is learned – mounted on the either side of the transmission tunnel.
Once in, you admire some beautifully executed details. The polished facia wood would not disgrace an English limousine, whilst the use of aluminium for the rear hood support struts and the gear lever knob is both attractive and functional. The optional leather cockpit finish is extraordinarily thorough, extending inside the hoop of the rear hood. Consuming six hides, whose finish and fit was perfect, it was the nicest convertible cockpit we can recall. Unfortunately, summer cockpit heat meant we wished TVR had stuck with the standard cloth/half-hide showroom equipment.
Operationally, you need to master six unmarked push buttons, four of them for vital lighting functions, including the hazard flashers. A fifth controls the boot release. So what? Ah, the fuel filler is in the boot, and you are going to need regular access at the reasonable 20 mpg or so that we recorded. Even experienced staff members were puzzled as to its precise location, because the leading edge obscures an orifice that accepts leaded or unleaded fuels for UK use. Also unmarked are the heater direction and heat buttons, although the heater output button is to be graduated now. These are neat, but had no discernible effect on the roasting received from the near mid-engine bias of the V8 (weight is distributed 51 per cent front, 49 per cent rear).
Roof easily raised, the TVR delivers a mobile sauna bath, a 158 mph sweat shop that compliments the punishment delivered by animated steering and a transmission that needs a firm foot on the clutch and a strong wrist to release its full capability. The seat belts are slow to retract and the hood panel is a scraping fit within the boot, but such petty annoyances fade when 4.3 litres are activated. The exhaust note is simply fabulous, demanding money with menaces at tickover and searching out the soul of sports car driving at 6000 rpm.
It is often the case that such a brash display is accompanied by distinctly average performance, particularly where a tuner seeks to disguise a lack of improvement by a loud exhaust. Yet the TVR is the genuine article. For road use, it is the pulling performance that is outstanding. Right from 1750 rpm in fifth there is torque enough to ease by routine traffic. We will treasure the memory of a fourth and fifth gear Leicestershire morning sortie to obtain fuel. The TVR ascending, turning and snuffling through the lanes with hatchback speed, minimal driver effort and that supreme fresh air feeling.
The statistics tell you that this is one of the supreme overtaking machines, as handily packaged as a 911, but appreciably faster at pulling through the high gears in the 50-70 mph band. In public road terms that means you have resources close to that of a 600 plus cc motorcycle with which to overtake. You may plan to overhaul a single car, but the TVR will put a four-car bunch behind it without raising a sweat (unless the roof panel is fitted, in which case perspiring is the duty of the overheated driver). If such manoeuvres are carried out without the full shock of the exhausts being released on the victims, usually holding a higher gear than you would in something like a Lotus 7. the Griffith is socially acceptable.
Using less than 2500 rpm for the best of standing starts, to tap torque versus considerable traction, allowed us to leap from rest to 60 mph in fractionally over 4.7s. Our test track runs to 100 mph did show that having the hood down costs about one second in the 0-100 mph sprint, compared to roof raised. It was simply so enioyable with the hood down that only the maximum speed performance persuaded us to erect the simply operated soft rear roof and self-standing roof panel. At nearly 160 mph the TVR tracked around Millbrook banking with a distinct rocking movement. Mark Hughes, at the wheel, summarised: “It is moving about a bit, but the steering stayed accurate. Although you could feel the suspension working, and working hard, the car had no lack of directional stability.”
Courtesy of Mazda and Donington Circuits we were able to investigate the handling at lower speeds with equal vigour, employing the GP circuit loop whilst the new RX-7s pounded round the shorter circuit. Driving the 237 bhp rotary coupe and the TVR back-to-back was rather like swapping employment from Attila the Hun’s roving retinue to become conductor of a compliant orchestra. Over smooth surfaces the TVR exhibits enormous grip with a lot of initial understeer to load up the steering. Press harder on the throttle and the expected tail slide develops, rapidly. However, TVR has given you the means to countersteer equally swiftly. The steering lightens the moment that tyres start to slip and the well-geared rack (under three turns lock-to-lock) catches all but egocentric efforts made in the cause of photographic overkill.
Such workouts highlight the strange variations in steering load at the rim. Immediately you get the broad Bridgestones moving above parking speeds, the effort drops from ridiculous to perfectly acceptable. On race tracks, or well kept A-roads, you then get a feedback that is unmatched outside the wriggle of an old 911. The only setback appears to be a hard patch encountered when sweeping through a full lock turn at moderate speeds.
Now try to preserve some of this TVR excellence on a B-road…
It all goes to pieces.
You find yourself with the original automotive bucking bronco. Allow some acclimatisation and you find that white knuckles are not necessary. As MPH commented of that maximum speed run, the TVR feels worse than it actually is, maintaining directional control when — according to the steering and seat inputs — the good ship Griffith is about to cease terrestrial contact and fly off at a painful tangent.
The suspicion dawns that the Griffith is this way because that is the way chairman Peter Wheeler likes it. There were plenty of diehard sports car men to agree with him in our loan period. The writer’s personal opinion is that the car could be just as satisfying without inflicting quite so much physical evidence that it is being conducted rapidly. At the far end of this handling spectrum is the recently deceased Elan, so I can understand TVR wanting to veer as far away from that numbly efficient progress as possible in their bulldog of a sports car. Technically it must be possible for that independent rear end to absorb bumps without fuss and for the steering to tell you what is going on with linear variations in rim load, rather than animalistic antics. I do not believe that the fundamental problem is re-rating the dampers, or springs. I can understand that TVR is a smaller manufacturer and that dealing with an order book that presently stretches to October stretches their undoubted talents.
Such reservations should not mask our deep respect for what TVR has already achieved. The Griffith is an amazing product of underlying quality that we would be proud to own, one which would stimulate the senses on every outing.
Flawed, but magnificent. J W
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