Raw Enjoyment

It is nearly three years since MOTORSPORT last tried a TVR for size; the impression left from the high-speed tour of the Peak District which that car, a 390SE, was put to was of outrageous acceleration, fine handling, and desperately inadequate ground clearance.

In those three years, the convertible has become the main strength of the TVR fleet, outselling the fastback coupe by a huge ratio, while the motive power has steadily grown in capacity and horses until its latest embodiment is a 4.2-litre bruiser of 300 bhp.

Minor changes have accompanied this progression, notably in mid-1985, when an exterior clean-up brought more rounded lines to bumpers, spoilers and sills, a smoother bonnet, and new rear light clusters. A new adjustable steering column, revised roof seals, and more veneer kept the passengers happy while, most needed of all, the bottom rails of the tubular backbone were raised allowing the exhaust pipes to be moved out of harm’s way.

All these improvements appeared first on the top model, at that time the 390SE (Special Equipment), before percolating down to the cheaper, smaller-engined, but otherwise identical versions. This pattern has been repeated since, when in early 1986 the Granada semi-trailing arms which located the rear hubs of the 390SE made way for specially-fabricated wide-based lower wishbones with a torque reaction rod. This prevented the rear hubs moving during clutch-dropping starts and stressing the drive-shafts, which act as the link in the system. All models now have this feature, down to the V6 sold abroad.

I did not expect the white 350i arrived at Standard House early in December to feel very different to the previous and slipping into the low car it all came back. The narrow leather seats, small wheel, tiny instruments seem at variance with the huge screen and that bonnet stretching in front like the Ark Royal’s flight deck. Nor is it a narrow vehicle, but the slab sides make it simple to thread amongst traffic. After ten minutes in town, though, the driver’s ankle crying out for a clutch-foot rest in between stabs at the heavy but quick clutch; unfortunately the width of the backbone where it cradles the engine rules this out. Pedal/wheel relationship is comfortable, but support under the thighs is skimpy; the high-mounted handbrake is a little close for comfort, but the short, sunken gear lever is ideally placed. I find the square veneered instrument panel rather attractive, though the small figures are difficult to read day or night; at least these new Veglia units are brighter than the previous Smiths dials. Electric door mirrors are standard, but much too small, and the minor controls in a row on the centre console can be confused easily.

The big V8 is slow to fire, but its pulling power is obvious even trickling along at 1500 rpm — press the accelerator and the exhaust rumble expands without hesitation to strident roar which is as anti-social as it is exciting. Although the unit will rev easily over 6000 rpm, one tends to flick the notchy lever up a gear at middling revs just to avoid drawing too much attention. Even then, things can be overtaken with adequate despatch — after all, this plastic bolide will break 60 mph in just six seconds if pressed.

It has a few things to learn about deportment, though: at motorway speeds, each joint in the tarmac is clearly felt; 30 mph line and one soon learns to shy away from potholes as keenly as any cyclist, it is just the unforgiving impact — there is also a good deal of noise as the uprated springs bite back. In defence, the structure feels solid enough, with only the quickest shudder hitting a hole, but perhaps the lessons learned with the 330 bhp 420SEAC racer have been carried further than need be for a road car.

Heavy steering was another penalty of this car on its 205/60 Bridgestone tyres; parking it was an effort, although from 40 mph up it became pleasant, taut and responsive, and proved that the dynamic abilities of this fresh-air sportster are as impressive as ever. Once the driver has learned to allow for the rather dull and insensitive brakes, the TVR will follow fast corners with great precision, even light throttle dispelling the initial understeer, while those stiff springs keep everything level. Should a patch of gravel break the excellent adhesion, the rack is fast enough to catch the resulting slide and the torque enough to maintain it— not the fastest way around a bend, but undoubtedly fun.

Ride apart, passenger comfort is in a league of its own for a convertible: shielded by that long windscreen which stops mere inches from the occupants’ hair, they can snuggle down, electric windows up, heater struggling manfully with December frosts, and smile indulgently at those who have only a sunroof to play with. True, I found myself wearing gloves and scarf, but who wants the top up, weathertight though it is?

Not being an out-and-out vintagement, I relented during one evening of pouring rain, flipping up the simple hood-rail and slotting in the targa panel (stored in the boot, along with the spare wheel, it turns the space from awkward to negligible); this proved that the demisting is poor, but TVR says that a third vent has now been added to improve things.

Likewise the mysterious heat/vent controls are to be made plainer; it would be a blessing if the noisy fan could be quietened too. One feature irritated me intensely: the pushbutton electric boot release only operates with the key in the ignition. Security is the aim, but as the thing is hidden in the door jamb, locking the door would have the same effect without the drawback. Also, a continuing annoyance with every TVR I have driven is that the boot is difficult to close.

Such petty grumbles are inherent in running this sort of car. The trouble is that this, the “base” model, costs £18,000— the price of a Jaguar XJ6, a junior Porsche, or a BMW 325i Convertible, all of which put to shame the vintage ride, and more particularly the cheap BL switches and stalks. Now, it is unrealistic to imagine that a company this size could afford to make its own minor components, but the market in which the cars are being sold has become a steadily richer one, and the details are falling behind. GC

Model: 350i.

Maker: TVR Engineering Ltd. Bristol Avenue, Blackpool.

Type: Two-seater convertible.

Engine: Front-mounted V8 (Rover Vitesse). 3528cc (88.9×77.12mm). Single central cam, hydraulic tappets,cr 9.75:1. 197 bhp at 5280 rpm. 220 lb ft torque at 4000 rpm. Lucas electronic fuel injection.

Transmission: Rear wheel drive. Five speed manual gearbox, single dry-plate clutch, limited slip differential.

Suspension: (front) Lower transverse arm and leading link, upper wishbone. coil spring and telescopic damper, anti-roll bar, (rear) lower wishbone with torque reaction arm, fixed-length driveshaft acting as upper link. Coil spring and telescopic damper.

Brakes: (front) 10.6 in outboard discs, (rear) 10.9 in inboard discs. Vacuum servo, split circuit.

Steering: Rack and pinion, adjustable column. Power assistance optional.

Wheels and tyres: light alloy 73×15 wheels with 205/60 VS 15 tyres.

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 sec. Max speed, 140 mph.

Price: £17,865.

Summary: Minor improvements continue, but price has overtaken refinement. Blistering performance, excellent handling, and top-rate targa/soft top offset by unforgiving ride, noisy suspension and cheap detailing.