THRILL OF THE CHASE
Across Ireland in TVR 350i and Chimaera
Aflippant comment from me over a couple of beers is all it took for Paul Jackson of Bristol-based TVR specialist Amore Autos to commit my willingness to memory. Having been regaled with tales of derring-do from his business partner Mark Cosh’s recent trip to Bulgaria to buy a dark-blue TVR Tuscan, when he cut a futuristic glassfibre swathe through eastern and central Europe back to their base, my reply – “If you ever do anything like that again, give me a shout” – is most definitely now in play.
“Where? When?” I ask. Then: “That soon?” A quick glance at the mounting to-do list on my office wall is followed by: “I’m in.” Of course, the most difficult aspect of any road trip is getting it past my partner, who is already of the mind that “messing around with old cars” barely constitutes working. And as for two days on the road in a sports car… best not to repeat that particular opinion. God loves a trier, though, which is how I find myself the following day at Bristol Airport with a ticket for its Belfast equivalent, and still absolutely no idea as to the identity of our target vehicle – well, aside from one rather big three-lettered clue.
Jackson arrives, proffers a handshake and, reading my mind, states: “350i and Chimaera.” Excellent: an old-school V8 ‘wedge’, plus an even more powerful, curvaceous V8 from the newer wave. “Private sale,” he continues. Great, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, if Cosh’s trip is an indicator. Apparently the Tuscan performed with aplomb, but an insurance mix-up led to the driver being stopped 30 minutes in and bundled into a police van. “We were given incorrect advice not to register the car on the Motor Insurance Database,” says Jackson. “It was within minutes of being impounded, but they couldn’t work out how to get in. During the delay, Mark called me and I was able to get it on the MID immediately. With a bit of persuasion, he was on his way.”
As we descend into the Northern Irish capital, we’re welcomed by a dark, imposing sky. Vendor Ian Hawthorne calls to arrange our pick-up point, but when we arrive there are no cars. Several “we’re here” and “where?” calls later, the penny drops: we’re at different airports. It’s Keystone Cops time, but I booked my flight first – and who knew Belfast had two?
The portents of doom begin to shift upon seeing the TVRS. Fully prepared and ready for the off are two notable milestones of the Peter Wheeler years: a Nightfire Red V8 wedge, in all its short-tailed, pointy-snouted glory, and the second offering of that bold new ’90s era, the Chimaera, here in Cherry Red, its glassfibre moulded sensuously rather than aligned with a set-square. After quick inspections of each, both look to be in fine fettle; the 350i’s colour wins, but I know which I prefer the looks of and unceremoniously grab the Chimaera keys.
The cabin is all leather, brushed aluminium and thick red carpeting, but fire it up and any illusion that this is a luxury car disappears. The chassis reverberates underneath as a second V8 explosion shatters the morning air from the 350i, before it, too, settles into a deep, low rumble. With a quick wave we’re off, destination Rosslare on Ireland’s south coast – route to be decided. Although we’re a wee bit behind schedule, our only real time constraint is making tomorrow morning’s ferry for Pembroke.
As we roar onto the A12, the Chimaera is already impressing with the glorious noise from its aftermarket sports exhaust – it sounds mighty good: one part cannon, one part Snap, Crackle and Pop. A worry when picking up an unknown classic can be the vagaries enacted upon it by previous owners – it’s amazing how positive or negative an effect these can have, even with a car so simple in formula as the Chimaera. As we hit the city centre, roofs down, for a whistle-stop sightseeing tour, there’s huge pleasure to be had from blipping the accelerator at traffic lights. It’s reassuring to see the ‘professional’ in the lane beside me doing exactly the same, as we communicate via our 16 cylinders.
We take in the awe-inspiring Samson and Goliath cranes, and of course Eric Kuhne’s phenomenal, sharp-edged Titanic Belfast building – all from our driving seats. “Did the same lad design your car?” I shout, ignoring my companion’s scoff as we downchange and power out of town: time to get some miles under our wheels. At Lisburn we take the A1 south, flashing past Hillsborough Castle.
Already it’s clear that the Chimaera is the consummate open GT. The 4-litre V8 is so flexible, pulling from low down in the rev range, yet with instant power always on tap – overtaking is a pleasurable cinch: you see your space, bang, and you’re inhabiting it. The steering is nicely weighted, while the small, short-travel gearlever shifts with a pleasingly mechanical precision and the stiff throttle constantly reminds you of the sheer clout available beneath your right foot. Best of all is the cabin, which lifted the quality of the marque’s interiors to new heights.
‘The chassis reverberates underneath as a second V8 explosion shatters the morning air, before settling to a deep rumble’
Just south of Newry, we pass effortlessly into the Republic of Ireland – something that would have been impossible during the 350i’s production life and even at the start of the Chimaera’s. The clouds, which had started breaking some 15 miles north, are now much more sparse and warm sunshine floods the land. As Jackson and I spar with each other, giving rapid bursts of acceleration before tucking in and allowing the other to barrel through, I’m aware of two things: just how good the 350i sounds, and a slight but distinct warming to its origami looks.
In no time we’re on the M50 circumventing Dublin, amid heavy traffic that materialised seemingly out of nowhere. However, all’s not well with the Chimaera – ah, the dreaded TVR reliability demons, but it feels more like a tyre issue. I gesticulate to Jackson and we pull over to confirm a flat tyre. The spacesaver spare is fitted quickly, redundant wheel lumped into the passenger seat – where else? – and after locating the nearest tyre shop, it’s soon having a new one fitted while we grab some lunch.
After I’ve eulogised about the Chimaera driving experience, Jackson offers his perspective. “They’re our bread-and-butter,” he explains. “The model accounts for more than half of all TVR production. Year-on-year they’ve gone up 10% in value, for the past four or five, yet you can still get a decent runner from £10,000. Below that you’re looking at a project, and chassis outriggers, interior trim, paint or engine work can each cost around £2k. There’s also choice in terms of engine size: most are 4-litres, but the ‘big daddy’ – a late Mk3 5-litre – will cost £25k or more. Get a good example of any and the running costs are reasonable – as with the 350i, you can usually budget less than £1000 a year.”
We swap cars and head south off the main thoroughfare on to the R115. As we climb into the Wicklow Mountains National Park, it’s time also for a change of environment to find out how good the TVRS are on the tight and twisties. The first thoughts on the wedge are that the cabin is certainly of its era – lost somewhere between the walnut dash and piped-leather seats of the previous generation, and the move upmarket of the next. Throw in some vivid red leather, and a centre console that looks like afterthought, and it all gets a touch confused.
The chassis feels more crude than that of the later car, and crashes a little over imperfections in the road, sending a judder through the thick glassfibre body. However, it’s a long way from the shake, rattle and roll of earlier TVRS, and the suspension remains compliant on all but the worst surfaces. That’s a good thing, because matters are beginning to get decidedly choppy, and as we hit a healthy-sized bump I’m glad I’m in this car and not the lower Chimaera. Many sporty V8s would flounder on roads such as these, but enter a tight corner in the 350i and the steering loads up, feeding a flow of information to your fingertips. Don’t get on the throttle too early, but once the wheels are straight, power on with a blare from the big-bore exhausts. There’s a lot of fun to be had here.
As the mountains echo to the crackling exertions of twin TVRS, my confidence builds. With 197bhp and 220lb ft torque, however, I’m occasionally reminded to take care by a rear-end twitch. It’s amazing to think that the company stumbled on its strident V8 formula by default, choosing to replace Ford V6 with Rover V8 to remove the American link for the political minefield of the wealthy Gulf States.
With evening threatening, we join the M11 at Junction 20 and from there it’s foot to the floor until we hit Rosslare at dusk. The cars are quickly deposited at the hotel and I’m persuaded to have a pint of Guinness. I wouldn’t normally touch it back in the UK, but this is delicious – suggesting that they’re keeping the good stuff for themselves. A quick bite to eat and it’s off to bed, eardrums throbbing, to sleep the sleep of the contented petrolhead.
Having failed to discuss the 350i’s merits the night before – blame the black stuff, the craic and fatigue – we do so on the top deck of the ferry. It’s a glorious day, and bodes well for Wales. “The 350i is the car that got me in to TVRS,” explains Jackson. “And today it still gives you the best bang for your buck. The pre-cat sound is
‘Throw in some vivid red leather and a centre console that looks like an afterthought, and it all gets a touch confused’
glorious, but the styling is completely Marmite – loved and hated in equal measure. I think of them as in-between cars – they’re undervalued and playing catch-up, both dynamically and in terms of looks. You do get the full TVR experience, though, and if you’re easy on the throttle it’ll return 30mpg – plus they are fantastic value: £4500-8000 for a decent runner, and £10-12k for the best, although we sold a 420SEAC for three times that amount recently. It’s also easier to see the rot on a wedge, because the body doesn’t hide the chassis outriggers like the Chimaera.”
That’s got me thinking, so at Pembroke I keep the keys to the 350i for the journey to Pendine Sands, where we stop for an ice cream and, with the museum closed, visualise the ghost of Parry Thomas and ‘Babs’ tearing along the sand. I get it now, the 350i. It’s the founding father of the modern breed, even the looks are growing on me – and, for a Scot, the price helps, too…
‘There’s prodigious grip – just don’t put the power down too soon, or you’ll be pointing back the way you came’
I’d still have the Chimaera 400, though. Compared to the mechanically identical Griffith, it’s still affordable. And there’s time for one final blast in the glorious Brecon Beacons; we roar up through Carmarthen to Llandovery, then dive headlong into our playground. Jackson and Cosh regularly guide TVR Car Club driving tours here, so I’m in safe hands. Hot on the 350i’s heels, the Chimaera is proving just as adept, but it strikes me that both cars are endowed with a slight ‘sledgehammer trying to crack a shelled peanut’ approach to cornering.
The steering is sharp and, while it lacks a hot hatch’s poise in bends, it’s taut and planted at speed, with prodigious grip from its wide rear tyres – just don’t put the throttle down too soon, or you’ll be pointing back the way you came. That, of course, is the very essence of TVR: a frisson of danger, created by a complete lack of safety aids and a barrel-load of power.
Crossing the Severn Bridge heralds the beginning of the end of our journey, and in 15 minutes we’re back at Amore Autos’ workshop, where we’re greeted by Cosh. “Pretty epic,” says the man who knows a thing or two about marathon drives. Having completed nearly 600 miles in a day and a half, through four countries – and with the roof down – that’s exactly how these two windswept and sun-kissed heroes feel.
Our two TVRS have performed without fault, and there’s no doubt that either offers a firstclass entry into Peter Wheeler’s world of big, brutal V8s, with both being perfect fare for either a lenghty road trip or a B-road blast. This duo is a vital reminder of the Blackpool firm’s transition from the world of the traditional to that of the modern classic.
From top: Blackpool duo at the dramatic Titanic Belfast building; vendor Hawthorne with Jackson in the shadow of the Harland & Wolffe Samson and Goliath cranes; Cerbera chases its ancestor – both wear non-standard alloys
From top: Chimaera interior marked a big step forward in quality – knob between the seats opens the doors; 400 has Rover V8 in 3950cc, 240bhp form; TVR duo feels wide on narrow lanes at the foot of the Wicklow mountains
Above: wedge at rest on Rosslare beach – brightred additions lift the angular interior, but the glovebox lid was originally veneered. Right: the Buickderived, all-aluminium Rover V8 makes 197bhp in 3.5-litre form for the 350i
Clockwise, from right: rumbling on to the ferry at Rosslare harbour; Jackson changes Chimaera wheel on the M50 outside Dublin; driving into the low sun across the Irish border; parked among the palm trees at Rosslare beach