1994 TVR 290 S4
Ask anyone with a passing interest in motor cars to rattle off a few British sports car manufacturers, and it’d be rare for TVR to get a mention — although, at one point, TVR was the third-largest specialized sports car manufacturer in the world. Built in Blackpool in the UK from 1949 right through to bankruptcy in 2006, TVR meant lightweight sports cars, big engines, and brutal performance unmatched by anything mainstream competitors could offer.
Trevor Wilkinson was a specials and one-off car builder who eventually started making cars in greater numbers from his small workshop. The first ‘Wilkinson Special’ took shape in early 1949, but it wasn’t until 1954 that the first TVRbadged model appeared — the name ‘TVR’ having been derived from Wilkinson’s first name — ‘Trevor’.
The new sports car maker was a tiny, ill-equipped enterprise that, in the early years, existed hand-to-mouth in an old wheelwright’s shop. In 1956, the business moved into a disused brickworks at Layton, on the outskirts of Blackpool. Production and sales slowly gathered pace, but it wasn’t until the first Grantura was launched in 1958 that the company became more widely known. Around 500 Granturas — with a variety of engines — were built in
Instead of the big-power options offered with the 350, 390, and 450 SEAC Tasmin models, TVR opted for the 2.9-litre Ford V6
the next four years, while the company’s finances went from crisis to crisis.
By the time the Grantura MKIII was launched in 1962, sales to the US had gathered momentum due to the introduction of the first V8 Griffith despite ongoing financial woes that saw Trevor Wilkinson leave the company in 1962. Grantura Engineering took over TVR but collapsed in 1965, and the remains of the business were bought by Arthur Lilley and his son, Martin.
This proved to be a turning point. TVR went from strength to strength under the Lilleys’ stewardship. Keen to address build quality, reliability issues, and the brand’s kit-car heritage, they ensured that TVRS were no longer available as kits but as factory-built cars. The M Series and Taimar model, along with a very fast turbo, sold well, and even a factory fire in 1975 couldn’t hold back the company. Annual New Zealand Classic Car | themotorhood.com production had climbed to around 350 by the late 1970s. The next generation of TVR, the Tasmin series, penned by ex– Lotus designer Oliver Winterbottom, followed in 1980.
Fast Fords, faster Rovers
Sales and exports slowed, and TVR owner and enthusiast Peter Wheeler took ownership and control in 1982. He relaunched the marque in the US in 1983 and steadily expanded the business. During its production life, the Tasmin design was altered so much that it evolved into a completely different model, with Ford V6, then Rover V8 engines used, which led to the most extreme version, the 450 SEAC.
A return to tradition
TVR had spent time and considerable effort to move upmarket. It was building faster and more expensive cars, but the shift meant a hole had been created in the product range. TVR efficiently filled the void by going back a whole decade, dusting off some moulds lying out back and reintroducing a simple two-seater, the S Series.
Although this TVR had a new backbone tube chassis with semi-trailing arm rear suspension, it was essentially a modernized and widened version of the 3000M convertible with a new windscreen, wind-up windows, lengthened doors, and a more rigid and modern folding soft-top. Instead of the big-power options offered with the 350, 390, and 450 SEAC Tasmin models, TVR opted for the 2.9-litre Ford V6. At just over a ton, with a 50:50 weight distribution
“Beauty and love have no place in Britain. Which is why we are responsible for the most brutal and savage car of all: the TVR” — Jeremy Clarkson
and low centre of gravity, it handled well and had breathtaking acceleration and enormous character. It didn’t take long to become TVR’S bestseller, at which point the team couldn’t resist the temptation to make the S even faster, and shoehorned in a Rover V8. The car kept selling strongly into the 1990s.
Photographer Craig Brown’s TVR 290 S4 featured here was built in 1994 and is one of the last off the line, as TVR soon moved on to produce the second incarnation of the Griffith, plus the mighty Chimaera, named after the monstrous creature of Greek mythology.
While visiting the UK, the original owner — another English photographer — had visited the factory in Blackpool, specified the paint colour and leather, shipped it, and taken delivery of it back in New Zealand.
With Craig’s midlife crisis fast approaching, he started looking at cars that would give a sense of freedom; cars which were something you could really drive. He looked at home-built Lotus Seven–type cars, but some were pretty basic and scary to drive, so the hunt was on for something a little more refined. He had a budget, wanted a convertible that was noisy, with some grunt, and British would be good. Maybe something that most Kiwis wouldn’t have heard of.
After scouring Trade Me for a few months, he saw the TVR S4, and memories came flooding back of seeing Chimaeras when he lived in the UK. “It was a bit of a eureka moment!” he recalls.
Craig and his son first set eyes on the car at a meeting point in Te Kauwhata, with its previous owner, Dan. When the key was turned, the sound was enough to demand attention, and, after a test drive — when he scared himself witless on some country back roads — Craig was hooked.
Before he committed to purchasing the car, he had New Zealand’s very own TVR guru, Jim Gamsby, gave it a good once-over in his Auckland workshop. Apart from some minor issues, the car was declared to be in good health.
In the past couple of years since then, Craig has undertaken a general tidy up. He has had the bonnet off, radiator out, repainted 70 per cent of the chassis, and replaced most of the appropriate nuts and bolts with stainless. He has refurbished the swirl pot, refurbished the wheels, replaced all the rubber door/window seals, got a new windscreen from the UK, and fitted a new set of tyres. He says that as the engine’s a Ford Cologne V6, it’s easy to work on, and most spare parts can be found locally.
TVRS can suffer corrosion, especially on the outriggers, given all the salt that’s laid down on UK roads in winter. The powdercoating applied at the factory didn’t help much to keep the rust bug at bay, either. The chassis on Craig’s S4 was fine aside from a few stone chips, and those were sorted with a lick of paint. “The car has been like a home renovation — once you start improving things, it’s difficult to stop,” Craig says, “but I guess that’s what the winter nights are for!”
The real beauty of TVRS is the close and friendly network of passionate owners from around the world, all with good advice. You can easily get new replacement parts for virtually everything, and, at worst, you might expect a five-day wait for parts from the UK.
An S4 is rare, and this is the only one in New Zealand. Only 32 of this particular Series 4 model were ever made — around 2600 of all S Series TVR variants were built in total over an eight-year period. As New Zealand has around 135 TVRS on the road in all, seeing any of them is a rare thing indeed.
Craig drives his car regularly, but generally only on fine days, and, of course, with the roof off. He says that a perfect drive is from Hamilton to Raglan on a summer evening, to eat fish and chips on the wharf.
Last year, TVR turned 70, and a few owners got together from around the North Island to meet at Hampton Downs, before taking a road trip towards Port Waikato. It was a great day, the weather behaved, and even if you couldn’t see the cars, you could certainly hear them!