TVR Tasmin 350i Convertible

When the TVR Tasmin was introduced in 1980, it followed its predecessors, the 3000M and Taimar, in using a Ford V6 engine in its steel backbone chassis, though the unit was the 2.8i rather than the earlier 3-litre Essex block. This model was designated the 280i, when TVR decided to offer the 2-litre Ford ohc engine in a cheaper model, that was called the 200. To anyone who has cracked the code, therefore, the discreet “350i” badges on the Blackpool company’s latest version of the angular Tasmin are an indication of yet more power, even without “V8” symbols to enlighten observers.

For it is the venerable Rover 3.5-litre V8 which has found its way into another small-production sports car. This all alloy unit, dropped by Buick when new manufacturing methods enabled them to build light-weight blocks in iron rather than costly alloy, has enjoyed a new lease of life in this country since being taken up by Rover, and has been developed continuously up to the current top-line specification for the Rover Vitesse. Like Morgan, another Rover customer, TVR have elected to buy the engine in Vitesse tune with Lucas electronic injection, but in their case the switch of engine was prompted by political attitudes in the Middle East.

While sales potential of Tasmin models in the wealthy Gulf States was felt to be high, the importation of Ford products there is banned because of the American connection. It was therefore necessary to offer an “acceptable” package, hence the Rover engine. It is, however, an almost entirely beneficial change, increasing the available power from 160 bhp to 190 bhp and significantly improving the flexibility both through better torque and by including the Rover five-speed gearbox. There have been other changes too, but all are under the skin, hidden beneath that distinctive, angular GRP body, which was designed by Oliver Winterbottom, who also shaped the Lotus Elite and Eclat. Though spoiled by that uncomfortable angle over the front wheels, the car as a whole is attractive, in an aggressive way, and has been given better visual balance by the addition of the sills and valances front and rear. The front spoiler, however, makes parking difficult due to its low position and long overhang. The convertible also loses out in parking to its coupé brother which has a glazed rear panel giving excellent low-level vision, instead, the door line kicks up sharply to a high rear deck with a conventional boot-lid in it.

This means that the hood is very shallow, which has allowed TVR to design probably the simplest, most convenient, and most draught proof hood any drop-head has ever boasted. It is in two parts – a solid GRP panel, covered in hood fabric and lined to match the interior trim, which fits over the occupants or can be stored in the boot, and a rail to which the rear window and folding part of the hood are attached. This lies in the shallow well behind the seats when the top is down, and is simply pulled up to the vertical position to meet the top panel and locked in place by two simple stays which press rubber seals firmly against top and window edges. Frameless windows mean that the car is truly “open” when required, yet becomes in less than a minute a snug and weather-proof coupé.

Of course, there is always compromise in car design, and the Tasmin convertible’s weakness is luggage space. While the coupé has a useful load deck above the rear axle, and the soft-top’s boot lid opens, via a cable-release behind the driver’s right shoulder, to reveal a capacious boot filled with a very large spare wheel. Any luggage has to be soft bags to fit around the full-size 205/60 x 15 tyre. The cabin shelf behind the seats is useful for keeping things to hand, but allowed them to slide off under braking.

What makes it difficult to relocate the spare is the backbone chassis which forks front and rear like that of the Elan to contain the engine and suspension, separating driver and passenger by a wide and high transmission tunnel which seems to accentuate the low level of the seats. The driving position is very natural, although the very short gear-stick is a little too far back, and the main instruments, that is speedometer, rev-counter, oil and water gauges, are quite visible through the small wheel, unlike the fuel-gauge and voltmeter which are hidden by the driver’s hands. Trim quality is good, the round gauges fitted into walnut veneer panels and the carefully stitched leather cloth trim combining to give an impression of crafted luxury. Most of the controls are mounted in a secondary binnacle on the tunnel where they are not particularly easy to identify, but are at least within easy reach. BL is the source for the slide switches which operate the rapid electric pop-up light pods and for the two stalks controlling wipers and indicators, the latter unfortunately including that fiddly horn-push with which BL continues to saddle its cars, while door handles as well as the crude heater are borrowed from Ford.

The 280i coupé we tested last year suffered from a number of drawbacks on the ride and handling front, and particularly from unpleasant kick-back through the steering. The 350i convertible, on the other hand, exhibited exceptionally smooth ride qualities on good roads particularly at speed, and the steering is now more than acceptable, achieving a good blend of feedback and response. Having settled into the well-shaped seats and adjusted the twin electric door mirrors which come as standard, a single twist of the extremely inaccessibly-sited key fires up the big engine with that immediate response characteristic of injection engines. The resulting noise is probably one of the car’s strongest selling points, a throaty snarl which turns heads before the car arrives and emphasises that the average TVR buyer is no shrinking violet. It is appreciably louder than on the Vitesse itself, due to the silencer system which leads to a single large-bore tail-pipe. The company had some difficulty in getting an appropriate exhaust system made up, and they have not yet fully solved this, because the ground clearance below the pipe where it ducks round the rear drive-shaft is quite inadequate, grounding frequently with two up even at everyday speeds on anything but flat roads.

Alloy wheels shod with Goodyear NCT tyres provide the grip, and are easily made to squeal under the tremendous torque of acceleration, but combined with the firm but comfortable suspension offer terrific cornering ability. In fact the whole blend of handling, grip, and power makes this one of those cars in which the driver does not want to arrive at his destination, and takes long-cuts to prolong the fun. That push in the back after every gearshift, the solid feeling as it hunkers down under braking, and the lateral pull as it rockets towards the apex of bend after bend with little effort needed through the steering wheel are the sensations which lift the sports car above the level of mere transport and make the enthusiast commit large sums of money to its purchase.

For there is no denying that this is an expensive car at £14,800, almost on a par with Porsche’s 944, or the Lotus Excel, both models currently the ones to beat outside the supercar bracket. Does it compare? I would say yes – with reservations. Good as its steel tube chassis is, it inevitably gives away rigidity to a steel monocoque. This is presumably accentuated by the lack of a roof, and the result is that rough or potholed roads slow the Tasmin more than expected as the scuttle shudders and the dampers get a little behindhand in their job. Not that the car is going to spring any surprises – what makes the driver ease off is partly mechanical sympathy and partly that under-slung exhaust.

On the other hand, the traditional interior is much more appealing than the efficient but bland, even spartan, layout of the 944. The TVR feels like a luxury car to sit in, with electric windows (one of which failed on our test) giving a lavish touch to a convertible which they do not to a saloon.

That such an angular shape should make such a relaxed rag-top is surprising, but with the windows up and the top down, conversation is not difficult even at high motorway speeds, and there is none of the blast on the back of the neck that usually assails “topless” cars. This is presumably thanks to the steep rake on the long screen, which reaches fully half-way along the doors, and incidentally provides with its visors good protection from distracting overhead sun. Put up the roof and it is even quieter, the reverse of normal convertibles, although the window-lifts have trouble working against the effective rubber seals. Because of the proximity of the plastic rear window to the driver, visibility is good, even in the three-quarter area, the supporting struts keeping the flexible section taut.

Installing this sort of power in a small-production car often highlights any inadequacies in the chassis, but the rerated suspension copes comfortably (all independent, wishbones at the front, trailing arms and lateral links at the rear) and there was never any complaint from the all disc brakes. These are servo-assisted, and inboard at the rear because it is a Jaguar differential, but they are sensitive enough to tell the driver when the rear wheels are about to lock, something which happens easily. Making use of this tendency by “trail braking” into a corner will kill the mild basic understeer, and while it would be easy to slide out of a bend, a gentler application of throttle results in an even faster and almost neutral exit, seemingly propelled by the bark of the V8’s exhaust. The Tasmin is at its exciting best on a tight B-road, but it is easy to handle in rush-hour traffic too, when the 220 lb/ft of torque and gentle clutch permit lazy gearchanges, and the driver has time to reply to the questions of interested passers-by.

Although not fitted to our test car, loaned by Huntsworth Garages, TVR’s London sales outlet, options such as air-conditioning, central locking and automatic transmission are all available, but seem a little irrelevant to this gutsy two-seater whose strength is in it dynamic qualities – unless of course it is “boulevard value” one is after. It has that too.

Until Porsche produce a 944 Cabriolet, it is difficult to see direct rival to the 350i, very few open cars can approach its 135 mph top speed and 0-60 time of 6.9s. It is rather wide in traffic, and lacks mass-production flourish in its minor controls and under the bonnet, but the external and internal finish are excellent, and above all it has rarity value. Most curious passers-by are surprised to hear that it is British, and walk away with a pleased smile. I did too. – G.C.