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Griffith, Tuscan, Vixen - TVR's Griffith, Tuscan, Vixen

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It’s a case of ‘more of the same’ for the next generation of TVRs.

The big news here is that the Vixen and Tuscan were the first new models launched under Martin Lilley, TVR’s owner since 1965. Even so, you’d have been completely forgiven for missing their arrival as new cars had you visited the TVR stand at the 1967 Earls Court Motor Show. The Manx-tail styling continued and was altered only in detail.
 
But don’t underestimate the Ford crossflow-powered Vixen. Visually, the Vixen was almost identical to the Mark IV 1800S (and the V8-powered Griffith 400 – see right), but the arrival of Ford power changed the driving experience completely. As for the Tuscan
V8, its role in life was as a reputation restorer following the Griffith’s troubled run. Its arrival also marked the first point in TVR’s history where the company offered two Blackpool-built series-production ranges in parallel, with the Tuscan being the company’s V8-powered giant-killer.

The Vixen S1’s engine comes from the Cortina GT and, with its Cosworth-profiled camshaft, improved manifold, bigger valves and twin-choke Weber carburettor, it puts out a very healthy 88bhp. Although slightly down on power compared with the MGB engine used in the Grantura, Ford’s Kent engine is lighter – resulting in improved handling balance – and far revvier. More importantly, there were more tuning options back then, even if that’s not entirely the case now.

The difference in power units certainly manifests itself today, as the characters of the Vixen and Grantura are vastly different. The Vixen feels lighter on its feet and encourages you to drive like a committed sports car driver should – you hang onto the gears longer, enjoy each gearchange just a little more and  generally involve yourself in the experience. It’s much less of a low-rev slogger, but few owners were heard to complain.

Like the Grantura, the Vixen underwent regular updates, culminating in 1972’s S4, but the car fundamentally changed little, even if it was improved rather a lot. Longer doors arrived in  October 1968, much to the relief of taller TVR fans, and build quality generally continued to improve.

But it’s the Cobra-powered icons that generated the most interest when new, and continue to do so today. Hearing the Tuscan V8 and Griffith 400 on track is a real treat – and Martin Cliffe, owner of the earlier car, warns us of its foibles: ‘Not much roadholding, vastly inadequate brakes, gets much too hot in the cabin, flawed suspension geometry and massive steering kickback.’

He’s not wrong – and despite respecting the slow-in, fast-out rule in the bends, it kicks and twitches like a skittish stallion a long way short of being broken-in. Although, with 271bhp on tap, the Griffith is far from the most powerful TVR produced, it’s blindingly fast in a straight line – and that’s down to it having a fabulous power-to-weight ratio borne of its 865kg kerbweight. Once you’re travelling at more than 130mph, the front end lightens disconcertingly and, in deference to the Griffith’s hair-trigger handling, we reserve full-throttle moments for Bruntingthorpe test track’s two-mile straight, where it feels every bit as quick as any of the newer TVRs.
 
Its (slightly) more refined replacement, the wide-bodied Tuscan V8, is also shatteringly quick. We weren’t able to strap timing gear to it, but Motor magazine’s comments are telling: ‘The 4.7-litre Tuscan will reach 100mph with two up and test kit in a mere 13.8 seconds – our fastest ever from a production car; with one up it will do 0-100-0mph in 18.5sec.’ To put it into context, that’s quicker than the original Lamborghini Countach – and considerably scarier.

Yet, despite the power disparity between the Vixen and the Tuscan V8, it’s the slower car that surprises the most. The Vixen’s steering is lighter, its handling better balanced, and it’s a lot cooler in the cabin. The majority of TVRs sold during the resurgence and growth of the company at the end of the 1960s were these appealing four-pots or, from 1968 onwards, the Capri-powered 3.0-litre Tuscan V6. But it’s the V8 models that make the biggest impression – and that went on to be the inspiration for the wilder TVRs of the 1980s and ’90s.

Blackpool's Cobra: the V8s

The Griffith V8 began as a racer’s spark of inspiration. In 1962 works TVR drivers Gerry Sagerman and Mark Donohue were having their own cars serviced at TVR importer Jack Griffith’s workshop in New York. Donohue owned an AC Cobra; Sagerman owned a TVR Grantura. The story goes that one day – and just for fun – the workshop’s mechanics came up with the idea of slotting Donohue’s engine into Sagerman’s car. It didn’t fit, of course, but it was food for thought for Griffith.

Griffith became obsessed with the idea and, in 1964, carried out his own installation of a 427ci V8 into a Grantura Mark III. There were handling issues with the first car, but the potential was plain to see. Fired up by the programme, TVR’s North American distributor, Dick Monnich, brought the car to Grantura Engineering in Blackpool for evaluation. Series production of the TVR Griffith followed later that year, with the majority of the cars heading Stateside, where they were marketed simply as ‘Griffith’.

The cars were actually shipped to the USA without their drivetrains, so that Griffith could fit them at his premises. There were a number of mechanical issues, most notably a propensity to overheat.
 
Technical changes over the Grantura (engine aside) were limited:
suspension pick-up points were beefed up, spring and damping rates were altered, and a large bonnet bulge was added. The V8 was offered in two states of tune: 195bhp and  271bhp. The 200  (1963-’64) had a rounded tail like the early Grantura’s; the 400 (1964-’66) had the Manx tail.

They were incredibly fast cars, but the Griffith’s reputation for shoddy build and unreliability was a major contribution to Grantura Engineering’s collapse. Griffith got it in the neck from his customers about their cars’ poor quality, and he piled pressure on the factory to improve. He failed. Around 250 were built before the Griffith was succeeded by the Tuscan V8 in 1967. It’s a legend, if a flawed one.


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