TVR Sports Cars

The TVR Griffith followed the familiar Shelby formula for making super-charged sports cars.

TVR was founded in 1954 by Trevor (TreVoR) Wilkinson, and soon partnered with nearby Grantura Plastics to build cars off a small assembly line. The following pages will take you through TVR’s history, beginning with the TVR Griffith.

The TVR Griffith began as another model, called the Grantura, which enjoyed moderate race success. But when New York workshop owner Jack Griffith decided to try mounting Ford’s V-8 engine into a Grantura (the same engine used in Carroll Shelby’s legendary Shelby-Cobra), the TVR Griffith was born. A lightweight body and powerful engine propelled the Griffith to speeds of up to 155 mph, but quality issues (and a lengthy dockworkers’ strike) eventually sank the model.


The Griffith was replaced a few years later by the TVR Tuscan, though its sales weren’t good: less than 200 over four years. It, too, was scrapped.

In the years since its founding, TVR changed hands or was refinanced no fewer than five times, experiencing varying degrees of success. We'll begin our history of TVR on the next page with a profile of the TVR Griffith.

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The TVR Griffith is a re-imagining of a previous TVR coupe, the Grantura, coupled with a Ford V-8 engine and a slick new look. See more pictures of TVR sports cars.

The story of the TVR Griffith begins with the story of TVR itself. TVR is one of those tiny British automakers that’s managed to survive its own checkered history. Established by Trevor (TreVoR) Wilkinson in 1954, it quickly turned from kit cars to an odd-looking fiberglass-bodied coupe, the Grantura. Also sold fully assembled, the Grantura had a multi-tube backbone chassis designed to accept a variety of proprietary engines and suspension components. But sales were difficult, and TVR was reorganized no fewer than three times by the early ’60s.

Then, a break. Three Granturas ran at Sebring in 1962, and two of the drivers happened to maintain their personal cars -- a Grantura and a Shelby Cobra -- at the New York shops of Jack Griffith. Griffith’s crew wondered if the Cobra’s 289 Ford V-8 fit the TVR. It did. Seeing the potential, Griffith asked TVR to supply Granturas for Stateside installation of the Cobra drivetrain. Desperate for cash, TVR agreed, and the TVR Griffith went on sale in 1963.

The Cobra V-8 added much-needed power to the TVR Griffith, making it a serious contender in the American auto market.

Drivetrain apart, the new model was a Mark 3 Grantura with stronger, wider wire wheels. The hood was bulged to clear the V-8, which Griffith offered in stock 195-hp form or 271-hp “Hi Performance” tune. The only gearbox was a Ford-built four-speed. Like all early TVRs, the Griffith had little cockpit or luggage space, a very hard ride, and typically casual “cottage” workmanship. The original 200 model also tended to overheat, but a better-engineered 400 replaced it in spring 1964, bringing twin thermostatic cooling fans that addressed the problem but didn’t entirely cure it. The 400 also introduced the sharply cropped tail and big rear window that would persist at TVR through the end of the ’70s.

The 400 was well received, and TVR was soon shipping five engine-less cars per week. High power and low weight meant vivid performance, but nose-heavy balance could make it a handling nightmare. The Griffith, said British auto writer Roger Bell, “has too much power for its own good in less than perfect conditions. That’s what makes it so exciting. . . .”

The cozy interior of the TVR Griffith betrayed its European origins: it was slightly cramped with an impressive instrument array.

The car was soon done in by its own quality problems and, more seriously, a prolonged U.S. dockworkers strike. Jack Griffith gave up after 1965, thus shattering TVR’s fragile finances and forcing the Blackpool concern into liquidation. While there’d be many more TVRs to come, none were quite as hairy as the original TVR Griffith.

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The TVR Tuscan line had trouble escaping the poor opinion of its ancestor, the Griffith.

The Tuscan, one of TVR's first truly successful automobiles, came about as a result of one of TVR's many restructurings as a company.

As a result of its 1965 liquidation, TVR was acquired by Martin Lilley and his father Arthur, who reconstituted the firm as TVR Engineering, Ltd., and set it on a path to prosperity. Among the assets they inherited was a sound basic chassis that could accept MG four-cylinder and Ford V-8 engines. Martin decided to develop this further, and over the next four years created several variations on the original model theme.

For a time, Blackpool concentrated solely on the MGB-powered Grantura 1800S, for which demand remained steady in Britain. Compared with cars built under the previous, rather discredited regime, it had distinctly higher-quality fittings, especially the “Mark IV” model that took over in the autumn of ’66.

The following year, Lilley revived the Griffith 400 in spirit, if not name, with the Mark IV as a starring point. Called Tuscan V-8, it was newly distributed in the U.S. by Gerry Sagerman but couldn’t escape the Griffith’s poor reputation. Only 28 were built, some with the 195-horsepower Ford 289, some with the “hi-po” 271-bhp engine. All but four were sold in America.

The V-6 Tuscan fared best out of all of the Tuscan models, though only a few made it to America.

Lilley’s next salvage effort was a stretched, 90-inch-wheelbase TVR Tuscan, achieved by lengthening the floorpan to make all the extra space available inside. Identified by different taillamps (from the British Ford Cortina Mk II) and a revised hood, this Tuscan V-8 SE was built in 1967-68 and fared even worse than its predecessor: just 24 built, half of which went to the States.

Undaunted, Lilley announced yet another TVR Tuscan at the 1968 New York Auto Show. This time, however, the familiar chassis was covered with a longer, wider, and much smoother body, a step toward the definitive M-Series design of 1972. Alas, it sold no better than previous Tuscans: a mere 21 were built between April 1968 and August 1970 (two had right hand drive). At this point, TVR belatedly gave up on a Ford V-8 model.

Somewhat more successful was an “in-between” TVR that neatly bridged the price-and-performance gap between the V-8s and the Cortina-powered Vixen. Introduced in October 1969 as the Tuscan V-6, it was basically a Vixen with Ford Britain’s fine 60-degree 3.0-liter “Essex” V-6 and 4-speed gearbox (a drivetrain already seen in such diverse places as the British Ford Capri “ponycar” and Zephyr/Zodiac sedans, the Reliant Scimitar GTE sportswagon, and the odd-looking Marcos GT). The V-6 delivered 136 bhp (versus the Vixen’s 88) and had a very lusty torque curve.

Still, there must have been something about these vee-engine TVRs that turned off potential buyers, for the V-6 didn’t sell as well as it deserved. Yet magazine road tests showed a top speed of near 125 mph, brisk acceleration, and surprising fuel economy (about 28 mpg U.S.). Nevertheless, production stopped in early 1971 at just 101 units, most of which remained in Britain.

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The versatile new TVR chassis gave birth to a variety of distinct models.

Six years after the Lilleys rescued it, TVR introduced a completely new chassis, its first basic design change since 1962 and only the third distinct platform in TVR history. With it came a new generation that would continue all the way to 1980, and would include the 2500M, the 3000M, and the Taimar.

As with past TVR chassis, this new one was designed to accept a variety of proprietary engines to suit the legislative requirements and price classes of various markets. However, it would be the first to carry more than one body style, as a convertible and hatchback coupe would eventually complement the familiar TVR fastback, though this wasn’t planned when the chassis was designed.

It was superficially like the old Tuscan SE chassis in that both were 90-inch-wheelbase affairs made of small-diameter tubes, with a strong central backbone, coil-spring all-independent suspension, front-disc/rear-drum brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering. The difference is that the new one was a “space frame” rather than a simple platform design, strode wider tracks (53.75 inches front and rear), and employed a mixture of square and circular tubing.

Called M-Series, the new TVR was visually similar to the short-lived “wide-body” Tuscan V-8 SE, with a longer nose and tail than on the old Vixen/Griffith models but the same characteristic TVR look. Seating remained strictly for two, and there was still no external trunk access. As in the V-8 Tuscans, engines mounted behind the front-wheel centerline in “front mid-engine” position, which left sufficient room for stowing the spare ahead, just above the radiator.

This chassis would carry the following engines during its eight-year life, all with overhead valves: 1.3-liter Triumph Spitfire four, Ford Britain’s crossflow 1.6-liter “Kent” four-cylinder, the 2.5-liter Triumph straight six from the TR6, and Ford’s 3.0-liter “Essex” V-6 as used in the British Capri and TVR’s own Tuscan. The last was also turbocharged but rarely seen here.

In addition to body styles, TVR's 1970s chassis supported a variety of engine types, from 1.6 all the way up to 3.0-liters.

The best-sellers in the new range were the 1.6-liter 1600M, 2.5-liter 2500M, and 3.0-liter 3000M. The last was treated to a simple hatchback conversion in late 1976 and renamed Taimar. A companion ragtop, prosaically called Convertible, was issued two years later and -- lo and behold -- it had a proper trunk with lid.

There was also a “pre-M” 1971 model simply called 2500. Devised especially for the U.S., it was basically the old V-6 Tuscan fitted with the American-spec TR6 engine. Exactly 289 were built in less than a year, along with 96 examples of another “cocktail” model, this one with the old-style bodywork atop the M-Series chassis.

The M-Series dashboard was one of the few things mostly unchanged by TVR, though it was updated in the interest of safety.

But the definitive TR6-powered model was the 2500M, almost all of which were sold in the U.S. Production ended in 1977 because British Leyland had cancelled the TR6 the previous year and engine supplies soon dried up. As it weighed about the same as the Triumph, the 2500M naturally had similar performance, with a top speed of about 110 mph.

The 3000M, always available in Britain, then took over for the U.S. 2500M, with sales continuing through 1979. It was basically the same car, of course, except for its British Ford V-6, which had been improved since Tuscan days (and should not be confused with Ford’s 2.8-liter German-designed V-6 of this period). In U.S. trim, the 3000M could reach close to 115 mph. The Taimar and Convertible were a tad slower owing to the higher weight of their extra equipment.

The 3.0-liter Turbo was a rare but rapid bird. Top speed was 140 mph and 0-60 mph acceleration took just 5.8 seconds. Just 63 were built, though that encompassed all three body styles.

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The TVR Tasmin had a sleek 80's look, setting it apart from TVRs of the past.

Tiny TVR entered the 1980s with a new and very dramatic-looking replacement for the M-Series/Taimar, the Tasmin. In the eight years since, its chassis has carried Rover and Ford Europe engines, manual and automatic transmissions, and convertible, coupe, and 2 + 2 body styles. Add in interim facelifts and model-name changes and you have a complex story. U.S. models are much easier to track; so far, all have had a German Ford 2.8-liter V-6, and most have been ragtops.

Despite the different variations and their differences from previous models, all these TVRs share two traits. First, they’re hairy-chested sports cars in the great British tradition. Second, they’re the most thoroughly sorted and best-built TVRs ever.

The first of the breed appeared in January 1980: a wedgy two-seat hatchback coupe called the TVR Tasmin. The derivative 2 + 2 and convertible appeared within a year on the same 94-inch wheelbase.

Though its engineering was new, the TVR Tasmin hewed to TVR’s usual design philosophy and layout. Despite the longer wheelbase, its chassis was basically the same “space frame” used on the M-Series/Taimar, made up of small-diameter tubes, some round in section, some square. All-independent coil-spring suspension and rack-and-pinion steering were also inherited, but disc brakes were now used at the rear as well as at the front. As before, bodies were built up from fiberglass moldings, and major components like engines, transmissions, and differentials were purchased from volume automakers.

Styling was where the TVR Tasmin most obviously broke rank. Here was the first TVR that could honestly be called pretty instead of just “distinctive” (often the motoring journalist’s synonym for ugly). Contours were of the “folded paper” school popularized by Giugiaro, perhaps a little dated for the “aero-look” Eighties but a vast improvement on previous TVRs.

In front three-quarter view the TVR Tasmin was quite reminiscent of the Lotus Excel, but an unusually long hood (necessary for the favored “front mid-engine” positioning) gave it an entirely unique profile. The “anteater” nose, sloped down ahead of the hood and from a breakline above the front wheelarches, looked a bit odd, as did the quite lengthy front overhang and abbreviated rear overhang. Aside from fattish B-pillars, coupe roofs seemed almost delicate.

The coupes were difficult to distinguish at a glance, but their proportions differed in detail. Since the 2 + 2 shared the two-seater’s wheelbase, its back seats were a tight fit and thus a token gesture for all but the smallest living beings. Happily, the convertible pretended to be nothing but a two-seater, and its fold-away Targa-style hoop was a novel idea welcomed by fresh-air fiends.

The principal engine during the TVR Tasmin’s first four years was the fuel-injected version of Ford Cologne’s 2.8-liter ohv V-6, familiar on both sides of the Atlantic from the early Seventies through its 1987 phaseout (in favor of a reengineered 2.9-liter evolution). It had already been desmogged, which allowed TVR to resume U.S. sales in 1983 after an absence of several years. With about 145 SAE net horsepower, the federal Tasmin could see 125 mph all out.

Though ride was still quite hard by most any standard, the TVR Tasmin was far more modern and integrated than any previous TVR, with eager handling and thoroughbred road manners, plus those striking looks. Unfortunately, it also cost a lot more to build. TVR tried to recoup with a detrimmed price-leader powered by Ford Britain’s 2.0-liter “Pinto” four, but sold only 61 in three years.

Meantime, TVR changed hands again, with Peter Wheeler taking over from Martin Lilley in 1981-82. Wheeler wanted more performance and, like TVR’s previous owners, began dabbling with engine swaps. After trying a turbo V-6 (two prototypes were built) he settled on Rover’s all-aluminum 3.5-liter V-8, basically the early-Sixties Buick unit that had since gone into the Triumph TR8 and Morgan Plus 8 (see entries) and still powers the luxury Range Rover four-wheel-drive wagon. In its latest fuel-injected form it delivered 190 bhp.

By 1984, the V-6 TVR Tasmin had been renamed 280i and the new V-8, called 350i, was on the road. The latter was rumbly and muscular, a true supercar, with top speeds in the 135-140 mph range and acceleration to match.

But it was only a first step. Late ’84 brought the 390SE, a bored-out 3.9-liter limited edition that could “outdrag a Porsche Turbo,” according to one British magazine. Styling was smoothed out a little for 1986, when the even hotter 420SEAC arrived, boasting no less than 300 bhp from a newly enlarged 4.2-liter V-8, plus swoopy rocker-panel skirts and full color-matched exterior.

With a top speed in excess of 150 mph and a British-market price of around $45,000, it’s a long way from early TVRs, and a welcome addition to the growing ranks of high-performance cars that will take us into the Nineties.

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