1994 TVR 290 S4


New Zealand Classic Car - - CONTENTS - Words: Mark Tate Pho­tos: Craig Brown

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.

Found­ing fa­ther

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.

Gath­er­ing strength

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.

Get­ting reac­quainted

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!

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