THRILL OF THE CHASE

Across Ire­land in TVR 350i and Chi­maera

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS ROSS ALKUREISHI PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JAMES MANN

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

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