Andrew Frankel: ‘Peter Wheeler did great things for TVR but was brusque’

Maverick Peter Wheeler did great things for TVR but could be cutting

Last month marked 15 years since the passing of Peter Wheeler, the man who took over TVR and turned it from a manufacturer of quite pleasant but unevenly constructed sports cars into a constructor renowned for making some of the most fearsome and feared machines made legal for the public road.

I had an up-and-down relationship with both Wheeler and the cars he constructed. I never got to know him well but on the few occasions we met he was brusque at times and really quite cutting at others. I’m told he was shy but gave the impression of thinking me quite stupid, if he thought about me at all, which I really rather doubt.

But some of the cars created on his watch deserve to be thought of as minor classics today. Any Griffith with the Rover-Buick V8 engine, for example, but especially those with the rare 4.3-litre iteration. The Chimaera today looks fantastic value as a surprising practical weekend smoke-about, and those who fear their reputation for bits falling off should take some comfort from the fact that any poorly assembled part will have failed years and probably decades ago and hopefully put back by someone with a little more care.

“What is needed is a new generation of small and effective EVs”

No doubt Wheeler did great things for TVR and our fondness for it today is, in my estimation, almost entirely down to him. He was a true maverick who did what he did in an era when you could, just, get away with it. But we must also remember that by trying to push the brand further upmarket than it cared to go, commissioning his own series of engines and building far too many versions of what were, underneath, very similar products, then taking the money and selling the company to someone who never gave the impression of having a clear and realistic plan for the future, so too was Wheeler in large part responsible for its downfall. Of course TVR is nominally alive today and under new ownership, but with the grand total of one new Griffith seen in public over the last seven years, a return to its glory days seems less likely today than ever.

I’ve been in the new Porsche 911, the revised version of the ‘992’, so of course I should tell you what it’s like. I can inform you that the one I was in was the new GTS and that it has a brand new 3.6-litre engine, is the first 911 to have a hybrid drive attached and, thanks to the instant torque it supplies, plus the fact its turbocharger is powered not only by exhaust gases in the conventional way, but electricity too, throttle response is instantaneous. Indeed it is so fast out of the blocks it will keep up with an old Turbo S, and lap the Nürburgring even faster. And that despite the fact it has now just one, rather than two turbos.

It felt incredible. So fast around Porsche’s Weissach test track it makes me wonder what on earth the new Turbo will be like. But in fact I’ll leave my observations there. Because this was one of those gigs where the hack only gets to ride in the car, not actually drive it. Behind the wheel was serial Le Mans class winner Jörg Bergmeister and, in a car he helped develop, on a track he’s known from not far beyond the cradle, I’m confident he could make a milk float feel impressive here. Much more than that I don’t really feel qualified to say. The good news is that by this time next month I’d have been back on track in the car, and on the public road and with a steering wheel in my hands. I look forward to telling you more.

By the time you read this, the EU will likely be applying huge import duties on Chinese EVs in an attempt to stem their hitherto inexorable rise across the continent. It claims subsidies given to manufacturers like SAIC (which owns MG), Geely (Lotus, Volvo and Polestar) and BYD make them able to unfairly undercut European competition. Duty rates of between 20-38% look likely to spike the prices of Chinese-built EVs sold in the bloc by many thousands.

It is not yet clear what the UK’s response – if any – is likely to be, and it will be down to the new government to determine whether or not to follow suit. I hope it does not. First, price is one of the prime reasons EV retail sales are stalling both here and in the EU, so making them more expensive seems hardly likely to help the situation. Second, the Chinese will doubtless respond in kind, making life for European manufacturers in one of the world’s largest export markets doubly difficult. And I can’t see that doing much good either.

What’s the answer? The Chinese have one: companies like SAIC, Dongfeng, Chery and BYD are all eyeing sites in Europe where they can either build their own factories, or employ companies like Magna Steyr in Austria to make their cars in Europe for them and avoid the duty that way. If the EU is to compete it seems that it must at least back European manufacturers to help them regain the competitive edge.

But ultimately what is needed is a new generation of small, affordable and effective EVs. If the traditional European brands can produce them, their brand recognition and reputation should ensure their success. If not, slapping duty on Chinese EVs sold in Europe may slow their flow, but it will not stop it, and may end up doing more harm than good.

A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery
Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew_Frankel