Motor Sport visits the seaside home of an individualistic, hand-built British Sports Car
When Martin Lilley, then a director of TVR dealers Barnet Motor Company, rescued TVR from its umpteenth bankruptcy with the help of his father, Arthur, in 1965 there weren’t many outsiders who would have given him much chance of avoiding the financial catastrophies suffered by his predecessors. Yet, ten years later, the little Blackpool Company is throwing sand in the face of the economic crisis, having just landed an order for 250 1976 American specification 2500M series cars worth nearly 1.9 million dollars, more than 50% of the maximum potential total annual production capacity. This seems a fitting climax to the rapid recovery TVR Engineering Ltd. has made from a serious fire which destroyed the main assembly area and stores earlier this year. Ironically, after TVR’s early staccato history, Lilley can now claim that in terms of unbroken length of private ownership his is the second oldest motor manufacturing company in Britain to Morgan, a company for which he has apparent admiration.
When I last visited TVR some six years ago the Company was housed in a series of pokey little sheds out of keeping with the hand-built, performance image of a range which then included the shatteringly quick V8 Tuscan. Though I knew that Lilley had moved his company a mile or so up the road to Bristol Avenue, Blackpool, the shed image stuck in my mind, so the airy spaciousness of the new 40,000 sq. ft. factory, previously a kitchen equipment factory and before that the home of Busman Sidecars, came as a surprise when I went recently to re-acquaint myself with Lilley’s enterprise. Outside, Lilley’s Citroen SM, necessary as a family car, seemed incongruous among a line-up of TVRs, but Lilley’s annual mileage in TVRs is considerably higher than in the Citroen: he road tests personally virtually every European specification car prior to delivery after initial testing by Mike Penny, the Quality Controller. He aims for 100% perfection, as near as possible, and each car is driven as many miles as is necessary to achieve this, untilising the nearby M6.
When TreVoR Wilkinson (who nowadays has a glass-fibre business in Blackpool) started TVR in the mid-’50s, motive power was provided by the side-valve Ford 1,172-c.c. engine and swing axle rear suspension was courtesy of VW. Today’s cars retain a Fibreglass body mounted upon a tubular-steel chassis and a family resemblance enforced by the retention of the familiar, though enlarged, shape of the side window aluminium frames, a TVR trademark as other quality manufacturers keep radiator grilles. That is as far as the original ancestry has percolated through to 1975. Three models are currently manufactured: Ford 1600 GT pushrod-engined 1600M, recently re-introduced, the straight-six, carburetter-fed, Triumph-engined 2500M for the trans-Atlantic market, and the Ford 3-litre V6-engined 3000M.
Lilley believes that more of each TVR is made under the home factory roof than is that of any other car. Actual production is in two distinct parts, steel chassis and Fibreglass body, which come together late in the day upon eight rubber-bushed mounting points, insulating body from chassis. Mike Casale, TVR’s PR agent, who showed me round the factory, believes that they have the only true productionised space-frame chassis jig in the World: designed by Technical Director Mike Bigland and made by his own separate engineering company, it is purpose-made for the current chassis and enables one man to produce two chassis per day. No variation in accuracy is possible upon it, so that: “If a TVR owner anywhere in the World has a smash we can supply another chassis guaranteed to fit on to any body.” Upon this the main construction of 14-gauge main tubes and 16-gauge secondary tubes is argon arc-welded. Various minor lugs are welded on after the chassis has been removed from the jig prior to the spraying of the entire chassis (which has completely sealed tubes saturated internally with an anti-corrosion oil) with a thick, rubberised sealant. The combination of this efficient sealing and the Fibreglass body have enabled TVR to introduce a unique five-year parts and labour, anti-corrosion, chassis guarantee. Neat, rubber-covered bumpers ensure no chrome corrosion either, so it is surprising that TVR have not yet advanced to stainless steel exhaust systems. In view of the protestations we have published recently about the availability of spares for a certain Abingdon sports car, it is comforting to know that this Blackpool Company can continue to supply chassis and most other parts for every TVR model ever made. Factory knowledge of earlier cars in this respect is ensured by Stanley Kilcoyne, in charge of spares, who has stuck with TVR since the Wilkinson days.
Within the chassis shop are fabricated also the cold-drawn, zinc-plated, 12-gauge steel wishbones for the all-round, double wishbone, fully-adjustable, independent suspension and the differential carriers, large ones for the 2500 and 3000Ms, which use the TR6 differential and Triumph 2000 driveshafts, smaller for the Spitfire differential of the 1600M. The rear suspension utilises the Company’s own cast uprights. The suspension, with its coil-springs and Armstrong shock-absorbers, is fitted in the main assembly shop along with the TR6 Girling disc/drum brakes and lines and Alford and Alder steering rack, after which the engine/transmissions are installed.
A three-months’ supply of engines and gearboxes is stocked, when supply allows, to defeat the suppliers’ strike syndrome. Talking of which, TVR have never had a strike„ even if they do admit to the occasional row! All Ford engines, with gearboxes, are delivered in wooden crates from Williams Power, the Ford industrial engine distributors for the North-West. Little work has to be done to prepare the engines for installation except for the fitting of chrome rocker boxes on the V6. Prop-shaft length and space problems preclude the use of an overdrive unit with the Triumph engine/transmission unit.
Every single Fibreglass body component — some 20 in all — is produced from raw matting by a simple “laying-up” process in the separate body shop across a yard from the assembly hall. The main body assembly, excluding the one-piece, front-hinged bonnet, is laid-up in two parts, the floor-pan and the upper structure. To join them, the moulds containing the two parts are bolted together, the sills are fitted and the parts are bonded together. Once removed from the mould all the apertures in the now TVR-like Fibreglass are trimmed and the body mounted on a slave chassis, which includes a jig for lining up the footwells and other minor items, bonded in at this stage. Slave Fibreglass screens are fitted to prevent distortion, hinge box holes cut out and the boxes fitted, straps for the 12-gallon tank bonded in and flexible rubberised sealant laid within the wheel arches. Body production is facilitated by the asymmetrical design, which means that to produce right or left-hand drive cars from a standard shell requires merely the cutting out of pedal and heater holes.
Once the doors have been hung, each body is placed in an oven at 140° F to assist curing and to ensure that all air bubbles are removed from the Fibreglass — a TVR owner would hardly like to see his sparkling new car pockmarked with holes the first time it was parked in the sun. Keen eyes spot the air-holes, which are filled with glass-fibre paste, after each of three sessions in the oven. Bonnets, for which the adjustable hinges are fitted later, go through the same process.
Although the main body structure is built in one section, it is emphasised that separate smaller sections are available for accident repair. Holes for the optional Weathershield sun-roofs are cut before spraying.
Just prior to my visit a changeover had been made in the paint spray shop from cellulose to acrylic synthetic paint; as there were new cars with both finishes present it was easy to see the benefits of acrylic paint, most obviously a better gloss. It is harder, has better colour retention properties, polishes more easily, and because it lies on top instead of sinking into the bodywork it does not show up tiny marks in the body surface. This paint is sprayed and air dried in a DeVilbiss spray booth. In preparation for final-finish spraying the Fibreglass is etched with a polyurethane filler and catalyst rubbed on with a cloth. Three coats of primer, a stopper and then wet-flatting by hand follow, then another two coats of primer, a stopper and final wet flatting before application of the acrylic finish. Every coat of primer or finish takes 1 to 2-litres of paint. Roofs of cars to be trimmed with the optional vinyl finish are left bare for a better adhesive key. The outcome of all this attention to detail is an excellent paint finish indeed.
Still seated on trolleys, the painted shells (two completed ones can be produced per day) are wheeled to the assembly hall, where most of the trim, windows, servo, heater, wiring loom, wipers, washer bottle, sound deadening and the LCP Trim Ltd. seats are added before or after the body has been attached to the chassis — such hand-building, non-assembly line production allowing flexibility in the System. Front wheel arches and bonnets are fitted and the cars are ready for final inspection and road test.
Current TVR production stands at six cars per week produced by a total of 45 employees, a production/employee ratio which Lilley claims to be the most efficient in Britain. The aim is for 75 employees (there were 73 until the fire) and 10 cars per week. Production has risen gradually over the years — 380 in 1972, 390 in 1973 and 420 last year — spoiled this year by the fire, but Lilley has no over-ambitious plans to exceed 10 cars per week. To do so would reduce exclusivity, efficiency and attention to detail in production, he feels. The workers, who are on production bonuses, set their own work pace and are prepared and able to help out in different sections of the works.
Lilley makes the point that it is easier at this moment to buy a TVR in Britain than ever before, delivery to dealers currently being quoted at eight or nine weeks, depending upon verification. The fire stifled production of the 1975 US specification car (the 2500Ms currently in production are for Canada), releasing production for other markets. The recent US order for 1976 cars will soon change this. Nevertheless, Lilley, whose roles in the company include design and development, airing with Mike Bigland, as well as overall administrative responsibility, wants to develop a more solid home market, to which end a whole new generation of British dealers is being appointed, 30 so far, rising to 50 ultimately. But it was the strong export market whuch gave TVR the lifeblood to survive when VAT killed their kit cars, made for the British market only, and today there are few countries in the world without at least one TVR. Panama City was the recipient of one recently, while Japan’s appetite for TVRs is proving remarkable.
I left TVR in Blackpool thoroughly impressed by the quality of manufacture of this totally hand-built motor car and thankful to see them surviving and thriving in these precarious times for motor manufacturers. They remain one of the enthusiast’s few rays of hope in the future for a source of individualistically stylish, exclusive yet inexpensive performance sports cars. — C.R.