Export Drive

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Gordon Cruickshank

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Wlith a history longer than that of Porsche, the small firm of TVR might have been expected to have diluted its product range by now, to have retreated to the safety of “ordinary” cars. But with the enthusiasm of a small section of the sportscar market, and remembering that its most famous Tuscan V8 model was also its fastest, the products of this small factory in Blackpool have displayed an individual devotion to performance which has cheered up the sportscar scene tremendously.

Marketing

M-series cars were sold in a 1600 and a 3-litre form, plus a brief foray into turbocharging with the bigger Ford V6, and to begin with the Tasmin, the ’80s model whose developments we see now, also offered the choice of four or six cylinders, although this time the engines were the 2-litre Ford OHC and the 2.8 litre V6 from the same stable. But with addition of the 350i, which used the Rover V8 engine in Vitesse form with some 200bhp, a change in buying patterns became apparent.

Whereas the appeal of a two-seater with striking looks had been enough to sell the small-engined versions of the M-series, the gradual improvements in trim and refinement pushed the Tasmin, or 200 series as it became, further up-market to where the 2-litre engine was insufficient to satisfy the sort of purchaser who was looking at a TVR. Even the 2.8, an uninspiring slogger, lacked sparkle, so the arrival of the V8, with its bellowing exhausts and huge torque, revitalised the range.

Not only did the four-cylinder car fade out completely, but by the end of 1985 the V6 too was dropped for the UK market. With the bulk of the cost of the car going into assembling the TVR part of the equation, there was little cost difference between the prices of the six-and eight-cylinder models, and not surprisingly most customers opted for the extra power of 3.5-litres.

However, only a proportion of TVR cars are sold at home; export markets have become increasingly important over the last decade or so, and last year, of 521 cars built, only 190 went to British customers. Most of the rest went to the USA, though it was only in 1983 that TVR was able to start sending cars to America, and only with V6 engines which are individually modified by TVR before installation, as federalising the V8 has been a long programme. Revisions to the Electronic Control Unit have produced the results, but the essential catalytic convertors, large, bulky, and temperature-sensitive, are difficult to fit into the tubular steel chassis.

At the same time, Ford’s new 2.9 V6 has already gone on sale in the US, as clean-breathing as Detroit could make it. But TVR is now committed to offering the big-engined cars, because a high-profile sportscar needs to be able to deliver the goods. Hence the importance of the 390 and 420 models — losing 80 or 90bhp to smog equipment does not matter so much on a car of 300 horses, the output in European specification of the 4.2-litre engine.

Although it was Andy Rouse, saloon car champion and tuner, who developed the 3.9 V8 (manufacture subsequently switched for a time to JE Engineering of Coventry), assembly of the big engines is now done at the factory. The alloy Rover blocks are bored out to give 3900cc, while a special stroker crank takes the unit up to 4200cc.

Even this is not the ultimate, however. With the 420 Saloon (shown at the Motor Show last October) some time away from production, the company is gaining glory in the Modified Sportscar race series with a yellow monster called the 420 SEAC. The acronym stands for Special Equipment Aramid Composite, and refers to the Kevlar body, and 14 have so far been delivered at a cost of £29,500 each. In race form, this beast has rose-jointed suspension, a stainless steel chassis, and 330 horsepower, mainly through larger injectors and a modified ECU, and is priced at £35,000.

Production

Twelve cars per week roll out of TVR’s premises in a suburb of the northern holiday resort, and four S models should soon be added to that. With the exception of some sub-contract work, all assembly and most manufacture is now carried out in-house, though like any car company, TVR buys in certain items. These include gearboxes, instruments, switches, handles, and wheels.

GRP (fibreglass) has now lost the stigma once attached to it as a material for car bodies, and new materials such as Kevlar and carbon-fibre have brought new importance to this method of fabrication. The 420 SEAC models have been useful test-beds in this area, and incorporate a variety of materials, including honeycomb sheet which gives rigidity to large flat panels. Kevlar is also quick to lay up, as one or two layers are often used where four or five layers of normal glass matting would normally be required.

Bodyshells are made up of four main elements: top, bottom, and two complete sides, all bonded together before filling, priming, and receiving five coats of paint. However, experiments are going on to see if a complete body side can economically be vacuum-formed, using a layer of stiff thermo-plastic foam sandwiched in Kevlar.

Special variants are not unusual in this factory, and sitting near the SEAC racer during my visit was the huge form of a very special engine — the heart of what will be the first and possibly the only 660 SEAC. No, it is not Rover-based, even though it is a V8; this 6.6-litre mill is built in the USA and is based on a Donovan aluminium Chevrolet block.

Output is claimed to peak at 572 bhp, and the Swedish TVR importer who commissioned it intends to drive it on the road.

Future plans

Initially, 3-series cars appeared as coupes, with the convertible following later in 1981, but now only some 4% of production is of closed cars. Towards the end of this year, though, the new saloon will be launched. Eight inches longer, and using a similar steel backbone chassis with a 2in length increase, the body style is a simplified and smoother variation on the existing cars. More accurately a 2+2, it will be followed by a convertible model, broadening the market to those who have to justify the car for business use.

Both 350 and 420 engines will be available, and five saloons have already been ordered, at around £25,000 apiece.

Before this, though, another project is occupying the workshops. At the recent Motor Show, a two-seater open car, simply called the S, aroused a great deal of interest; priced at £13,000, it pitches for that neglected area, the cheap(ish) open sportscar. Reliant is in there with the SS1, and Toyota’s T-bar MR2 must also be considered, but, while Lotus continues to postpone X100, there is little else to tempt the younger driver.

Motive power for the S will be the Ford V6, and the chassis will look very similar to its bigger brother, a backbone design with wishbones and coil-springs all round. The money saving is said to come in the body, which is intended to be simpler and quicker to mould than the existing designs. However, the Motor Show car was a special made up of several different sections, and while the new moulds are being made, it has been dismantled and lies in a corner covered in dust.

Its styling owes a lot to the previous M-series cars, but, as company spokesman Noel Palmer was careful to point out during my visit, almost everything is new, on or under the skin. Headlamps which stand proud if the bonnet line have been nicely blended with a modern spoiler, and during my visit a clay buck of the removeable hard-top was being worked on.

One of the constraints of the new chassis is that it should be able to take either the 2.8 or 2.9 engine. Overall dimensions of the block are not too different, but the newer unit carries ancilliaries (power steering and air conditioning pumps, anti-smog air pump and alternator) low down, two per side, which makes for a wide installation. A small company relying on a skilled workforce can accommodate changes during production, but standardisation has obvious advantages. Currently under development, therefore, is a new chassis for 350/420 cars which will accommodate all normal variations: 2.8, 2.9, 3.5 and 4.2-litre engines, with or without catalytic converters, power steering and air-conditioning, and equipped with mounts to take new suspension components which will finally be all-TVR.

Until recently, Granada suspension arms supported both ends of a TVR, but last year the semi-trailing rear units, which had just about reached their comfortable limits of loading with the 390SE, were replaced by wide-bored lower wishbones mounted alongside the differential. Such changes do not happen all at once, however, and USA cars will not have this improvement until the spring. Cabin space will be improved by narrowing the centre spine of the car, too. Power steering is now standard on 390 and 420, while all models now have a PowerLock differential, courtesy of Jaguar — since the new XJ6 has outboard discs, TVR customers get the XJS unit.

The announcement of the S gives the Blackpool company a wider sales base, with a car which will presumably feel rather similar to the 3/4 series, as it will adhere to the tubular steel backbone chassis, but at a price at which detailing is not significant. But the proposed 420 Sports Saloon, already attracting deposits on a £24,500 tag, will demand altogether higher standards of refinement, facing as it does that most urbane of rivals, Jaguar’s XJS.

Deliveries of the saloon are scheduled to begin towards the end of 1987, but at the moment putting the S into the showroom and developing a new all-market 3/4-series chassis are absorbing all the factory’s attention.

Given that TVRs are essentially handmade, the investment in a new model is relatively small compared to any sort of mechanical production line, and the profit margin on the pricier models can easily be increased to recover the unit cost of manufacture. ln other words, each car should break even, rather than having to sell, say, 100 to recover costs. Thus the company can boast a flagship which does not need to be a major seller.

But while the company stresses individuality as its strong suit, and justifiably so, small-scale production remains an asset. GC

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