Sun, Jun 03, 2007 - Page 19 News List

TVR is back on the road

What could be more quirky than a vintage TVR sprots car?

By Rob Sass  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sagaris, TVR's new flagship vehicle.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Like the mythical Monty Python castle built on a swamp, which sank three times only to be rebuilt three times, one of Britain's last sports car makers has risen again after several near-death experiences and ownership changes.

The company, TVR, would fit neatly in the comedic Python world, where cheese shops have no cheese to sell and hyper-litigious businessmen accidentally sue themselves. Consider its recent history: Its third owner since 1981 was a 20-something Russian who actually owned the company twice in three years.

The latest owners are two Florida men, Adam Burdette and Jean-Michel Santacreu, who took control of TVR in February.

Although neither man has run an auto company, they have already lined up suppliers and made plans to sell the cars in the US beginning in 2008. Their flagship model is an evil-looking 380-horsepower car that the previous owner had introduced.

Like its corporate history, TVR's models were always a little odd, but they were often exciting hand-built sports cars. The company, which was based in Blackpool, England, took its name from three letters in the first name of its founder, Trevor Wilkinson.

The first TVR was built in 1947. A small number of club racing specials came in the next decade, but production did not really begin until the late 1950s when TVR hit on this formula: a light fiberglass body mounted on an even lighter tubular space frame.

Early TVRs were sold in two forms, as finished cars and as kits. But even the factory-built cars resembled kit cars, with fit and finish reminiscent of a high school shop project. It scarcely mattered because most early TVRs became racecars anyway.

The most exciting early TVR was created by Jack Griffith, a Long Island car dealer. Having seen what Carroll Shelby did with the Cobra, he put a Ford small-block V-8 into the TVR Grantura. At just 839kg and with up to 271 horsepower, the car was sensationally fast.

Unfortunately, with a wheelbase of just 217cm and suspension, brakes and rear end scarcely changed from the four-cylinder car, the Griffith 200 was badly balanced and hard to control. To make matters worse, the cars overheated and the tremendous torque of their engines often broke axles, causing wheels to fly off. Even with all four wheels attached, Griffiths were nearly uncontrollable.

In 1965, Martin Lilley, who was 23 at the time, bought TVR after a dock strike in New York nearly bankrupted the company. Lilley discontinued the Griffith, but not before trying to tame the car, renaming the new version the Tuscan V-8. Road & Track magazine still called the car "a ferret with an oversupply of Y chromosomes."

Lilley's 16-year stewardship of TVR was quite positive. In 1972, he introduced what would become the most popular model up to then, the 2500M.

Along with Lilley, Gerry Sagerman, the US distributor from 1966 to 1980, set up a network of more than 30 dealers and was selling around 75 percent of TVR's total production. Sales usually totaled 500 to 600 cars a year, mainly the 2500M.

The American effort was hindered, Sagerman said, because the factory could not make enough cars to meet demand and the company was unable to get emission certification in California, which should have been TVR's largest American market.

Along with the Taimar Turbo, the pretty 3000S roadster is also quite collectible. Essentially a convertible Taimar, the 3000S had no rollup windows, instead using removable side curtains like the MGA and other vintage British sports cars.

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