Those who doubted TVR’s wisdom in installing the 190 bhp Rover Vitesse engine in its Tasmin chassis and who never had the pleasure of driving the resulting car, the 350i, must have shaken their heads at last year’s Motor Show when the Blackpool manufacturer announced the 390SE. A 3.9litre engine with 275 bhp? Ludicrous. 150 mph in a convertible? Crazy. But people are buying them. Even at £19,700. It was exactly a year ago that I tested the 350i and came away impressed by the ride, the chassis behaviour, and the performance. TVR’s confidence in its chassis seemed to be vindicated, for with the V8 the Tasmin, as was, became a star performer, predictable, secure and exhilarating. Agreed, it shuddered on rough roads, the boot was cramped, and ground clearance minimal, but the overall package with its brilliantly simple hood went almost to the top of my list of “desirables”. Nevertheless, I found myself sceptical of the addition of another 85 horsepower, not so much through doubts about the car as about the driveability of the engine in such a state of tune. Now I consider the clutch on my Alfa GTV6 to be a heavy one, but I was not prepared for that on the TVR when it arrived at Standard House. It has of course to cope with the enormous torque (270 lb ft) of the tuned unit, which is prepared by Andy Rouse. Apart from the increase in capacity, different camshafts and larger injectors are fitted, together with modifications to the Lucas electronics as well as that Bullworker clutch. Uprated suspension and revised aerodynamics keep it in contact with the tarmac, while the final drive is through a Thorsen differential. This ingenious device, used on several Formula One cars last year, is supposed to offer the benefits of a limited slip mechanism without the drawbacks. I have to admit, however, that I could not decide whether it was a great improvement or not, as it proved impossible to distinguish wheelspin from body judder in the test car the hard-used, first-ever, 390i. Unlike the 350i, which announced its departure with the shriek of vaporising Goodyear NCT, this car was fitted with 215 / 50 Goodyear Eagles; an American specification tyre which per. formed admirably in eerie silence — nary a chirp even under provocation. Production cars, though, have 225 / 50 Yokohamas on their 15 in alloy wheels.
In one or two other respects this car was not as standard — the SE (for Special Equipment) now has electric locking and boot release, better demisting, and neater door mirror mouldings. Where this prototype did show detail improvements ova previous models was in the centre console, now neater and clearer, and the heating system. The company now makes its own heater housing and controls, using an air-blend system rather than a slow-acting water-valve, but it is not easy to see just what you have actually selected.
The plan was for a tour of the Derbyshire Peak District, and after squashing a weekend’s luggage for two around the “space-saver” spare (a full-size one is optional), the V8 fired up, rather reluctantly, and we joined the queue for the A1. Getting the 390 rolling calls for a certain knack if the wheels are not to spin nor the engine to bog down, and uphill traffic queues are not the place to discover that you have virtually no handbrake. Because of the huge torque, though, the car will creep along at idle if asked, but its width calls for great confidence. Hardly the recipe for a town carriage. But once free of traffic lights, we could settle back at 70 mph in the open air and converse easily, protected by that long screen. The driving position is very natural; with the small instruments in their beautifully finished walnut panel visible through the wheel and minor controls just by the left hand, the feeling is of luxury and complete control, and of impressive stability. A larger (and rather ugly) from spoiler, complete with brake cooling vents., and an under-tail wing combine with a flat undertray to keep the two-seater rock-steady even in cross-winds. During a brief business call near Bedford, it began to get chilly, and in setting off again we made the pleasing discovery that you can drive the car as a targa, with the rear hood erected, but the solid roof panel in the boot. Even at 80 mph, the air rushes over the top and not inside to endanger the plastic rear window. Luckily we put the panel back again before joining the M1 for a supposedly short spell, because we ran straight into a Friday night roadworks plus accident jam of mammoth proportions, which was further hindered by bad signposting giving incorrect information about lane closures. During this leg-straining crawl, it began to rain, but the car has good dipped headlights, and that fast single wiper does a good job of clearing the screen. It does need an intermittent wipe, though.
At last the TVR escapes and that engine is able to stretch itself. A series of sinuous bends prove that traction and grip are excellent, and, what is more, that the ride is too. But best of all is the sheer thrust of the engine, accompanied by a penetrating bark from the exhausts. The Rover 5-speed box is easy to use, but is displaying an alarming tendency to jump out of fourth just as you are holding your breath to squeeze past a truck on a short straight. Rumbling down through Matlock Bath and Matlock itself brings us to our night halt, where we unpack in the rain and discover that the boot needs several attempts to make it latch shut, a trait I recall from the 350i. Next morning the car proves to have consumed a lot of oil, something which over our eventual 750 miles is to cost £10 for five litres of Shell’s expensive synthetic Gemini. It also takes several minutes to start and get all eight cylinders to chime in, and along the narrow lanes we catch the exhaust several times on humps. So it is not all good news. The hood stays up in deference to the wet morning, but as we gain the A6 the sun breaks through and it is the work of a minute to have the top down again to enioy the craggy scenery and the crisp morning air on a road which suits the TVR perfectly the bends arrive thick and fast and are disposed of with the gentlest of movements on the wheel. It really is so well balanced — accelerate hard through a corner and the attitude does not change. The car merely catapults forwards with increasing sideways forces until the next straight when the servo-assisted vented disc brakes obediently haul it back to the chosen entry speed ready for a blip on the responsive throttle, another gear, and away again. The Derbyshire roads are empty and the corners are open so that hazards are obvious from a long way off, and the Eagle tyres seem to cope well with damp and mud, for such wide covers. Friends point us in the direction of a good lunch at the Red Lion in Litton (mineral water for driver and navigator), and then we leave the peaks of Mam Tor and Kinder Scout to our left and enter Snake Pass. More traffic here, but the car makes passing opportunities out of the shortest of stretches, and soars up the slopes without noticing them, leaving behind the lovely River Ashop, skirting Featherbed Top and burbling down towards Glossop, before turning east again through Longendale. But here this particular car’s handicap appears with a vengeance. There is a certain sort of undulation which pitches the TVR high on its suspension and then smashes it down on its exhausts as the road suddenly climbs ahead of you. These critical combinations of bump and hollow are not visible in advance, so that we are soon flinching instinctively over every crest and have to hack off to a pace that a 2CV might maintain. Later we learn that production cars have an extra 1./2 in clearance underneath, but this one ought to have taller bump-stops to stop it bottoming. Turning south onto flatter roads we tackle some very steep climbs in and out of valleys, mostly in fourth gear. The disadvantage of all this torque, though, is that on any gravelly junction it is impossible to pull away smartly without wheelspin (or was it chassis shake?) and a shower of stones peppering the rear wing. In some light rain we ignore the hood, trusting to our forward motion to keep us dry, but more warm sunshine has us turning the heater off, even though it is still March. Buxton is our goal after a figure-of-eight approach, where we have great difficulty in finding a meal of any sort before putting up for the night.
More oil goes in next morning after we find a little puddle of the stuff under the car, and again it takes several minutes to start up. Yet once going it never rnisses a beat, so we set off gently, watching the (non-standard) oil temperature gauge by the driver’s left knee before opening up. This vehicle is not as rigid as others I have tried – its hard life is catching up with it. Another pleasant sunny morning sees us down through Staffordshire towards a lunch-time appointment in Solihull, but being back in suburban traffic makes having this engine seem a waste. It is like owning a private plane and desperately taxiing around looking for somewhere to take off. To someone who lived within easy reach of empty roads it could be bliss, but in the overcrowded south of the country it would seem to be a misuse of Mr Rouse’s talents. It is a good engine as tuned engines go, but I feel it may have gone too far. Greasy roads require intense concentration when pulling out of junctions, and while the composure of the chassis when sliding is a delight, the composure of other motorists is likely to evaporate when faced with this snarling beast slithering towards them. For my money, the 350i is the better package, in which the skilled driver can use more of the potential more of the time.
Since only about twelve 390s will be assembled this year, the choice is not one which will concern many people, and the whole project is probably a cost-effective way of giving TVR an exclusive flagship, rather than radically increasing its profits. There is, too, the fact that it can now race 3.9-litre cars in the Production Sportscar Championship, and a factory racer is now being built with a Kevlar body and 350 bhp. . . .
I remain most impressed with the current TVRs, particularly the dropheads, and still cannot see a direct rival. The forthcoming Lotus rag-top is a smaller car altogether, Porsche’s 944 Cabrio has yet to appear, and the soft-top 911 is £6,000 more than a 390SE, while to improve on standards of luxury would mean an Aston or Bristol, which is another market entirely.
With the final fuel figure for the weekend averaging 18.9 mpg, the 390SE is no economy runabout, but its pleasures lie elsewhere. A viceless chassis, that simple weatherproof hood, and a comfortable interior do, broadly speaking, offset the disadvantages of the state of tune, but these assets are available with the Ford V6 for £13,900, or the 3.5 V8 for £15,500. My ideal would be a milder tune on the 3.5 say about 230 bhp. I wonder if Mr Rouse is busy over the next few weeks? G.C.