But that’s effectively the production story of TVR throughout the 1980s: it was one of the UK specialist industry’s biggest ever U-turns and, ultimately, the correct commercial course for TVR to take.
When they arrived on the scene in the previous decade, the M-series cars were a huge step in the right direction. Lilley wanted to stamp his own identity on TVR. And at the 1971 Earls Court Motor Show, he did so by unveiling the M series alongside the arresting-looking Zante prototype, while staffing the stand with nude models. TVR attracted a lot of attention on that day.
First to go on sale was the Triumph-powered 2500M in 1972, but it was soon followed by the Ford-engined 1600M and 3000M. And although its styling looked reassuringly familiar, underneath there was an all-new multi-tube frame, both stronger and simpler to repair. Sadly, the Tuscan V8 SE had quietly died in 1970, and wouldn’t be replaced for some time.
It was also the end of the kit-car era as, from 1973, it was no longer possible to buy your TVR in pieces. Lilley was delighted: the production situation simplified considerably, and the big-six-powered 2500M proved the best seller of the lot.
But the 3000M was the star of the range. It was effortlessly quick and smooth, with far nicer steering than the 2500M. It proved a suitable car for further development and by 1976 had sprouted an opening hatchback to become the Taimar. Then it lost its roof in 1978 to become the 3000S convertible. It was this car – the first open-topped series-production TVR – that was the company’s best-seller as the ’70s drew to a close. Times had changed and TVR had grown up.
Driving a Taimar 3.0-litre now, especially one strident in yellow and brown stripes, is great fun. As you would in all TVRs before it, you practically lie back and peer over the near-vertical steering wheel and high scuttle. The Capri V6 engine revs with a granular snarl and delivers effortless acceleration – this is a real grand tourer, and one that feels good in the corners too. For those who wanted Griffith-style speed during the ’70s, only 1975’s Turbo model came close. The Broadspeed-developed car, with its unusual sealed carburettor, pushed out 230bhp to give a maximum speed of 139mph and a 0-60mph time of 7.2sec, but somehow it lacked drama, and clearly missed a V8.
That could probably be said for the Tasmin, too (see right). The exciting new three-car range for the ’80s broke all styling links with what came before and Lilley hoped it would be a more sophisticated choice for a discerning audience that had outgrown the M series. He wanted to emulate Lotus’s move upmarket, and chose to introduce a car that looked like one. The Tasmin stunned and surprised, thanks to its vogueish styling, but, beneath the wedginess, it felt very similar to the Taimar. The styling was too much for TVR fans, though, and sales were crippled.
Power choice was limited to the Ford Cologne V6 (or the 2.0-litre Pinto four) until Peter Wheeler came on board and sorted out the engine supply – it was difficult to sell cars to Arab states with engines bought from an American company. Bad news, as that market was expanding rapidly. So TVR approached Rover for its fuel-injected V8, a hugely popular engine in the specialist car industry because it was light, powerful and straightforward to package. The 350i arrived with a bang in August 1983 and was immediately hailed as the best TVR ever.
With TVR saved, and the wedges on an upward power curve, Wheeler turned his attention to another issue that vexed him: how to sell more cars. His solution was one of genius. There was room for an entry-level TVR, and what better way to offer one than by building a revised version of the old 3000S, priced at around £2000 less than a Tasmin convertible?
Its arrival in 1986 coincided with the classic car boom of the mid-’80s and hit just the right note. Although it looks similar to its 1970s forebear, the 1991 TVR S3 feels rather different to drive, thanks to its more sophisticated semi-trailing arm rear suspension. Scuttle shake is an annoyance, but not excessively so. In the dry, it feels planted and secure, and a lack of ultimate power (150bhp) means you can play in the bends without too much risk of being bitten.
When the V8S model rumbled onto the scene in 1991 – combining V8 power with the classic bodyshell and answering an obvious question – TVR’s course was well and truly mapped. The company would go forward by looking to the past. The 1970s wedge had been put out to pasture, and developments of the new ‘old’ car concept were TVR’s passport to a more spectacular future. Its heyday was on the horizon.
You can see what Martin Lilley was trying to achieve with the Tasmin. In the mid-’70s, Colin Chapman had successfully (or so it seemed) reinvented Lotus with the Elite, Eclat and Esprit, losing its kit-car image in the process. TVR, on the other hand, was still building a car that looked like the last of the Granturas, even if it felt different.
Lilley needed a new design language for his cars and with Oliver Winterbottom – designer of the Lotus Eclat and Elite – he set about creating one. The styling was penned in 1977, a prototype was built in ’78 and by 1980 it was in production – a quick turn-around because, under its glassfibre skin, the Tasmin was closely related to the Taimar.
So-called because Martin Lilley liked the Maserati Khamsin, and knew a lovely girl called Tamsin, the Tasmin was offered as a coupe with a Ford Granada 2.8i engine. The convertible version followed the year after, as did the awkwardly styled Plus Two model
Sadly, Winterbottom’s wedge hit the market just as origami cars were going out of fashion. The cost of developing a new car weakened TVR’s finances, then the car’s poor sales following its launch proved a fatal blow.
The main problem was that existing TVR customers simply didn’t like the styling. Its £12,000 launch price also put it up against stiff opposition that included the Porsche 924 Turbo. The failure led to Peter Wheeler taking control of TVR in ‘81. Although we didn’t know it at the time, that was the best thing that ever happened to the company.
Sure enough, two years later the V8-powered 350i arrived – and looked like a sensational bargain. CAR magazine called it ‘the greatest sports car since the Ferrari 275GTB/4’. Hyperbole? Maybe, but it was seriously sideways hyperbole.
And it was obviously the right direction for TVR. The Granada-engined cars faded away, as did the coupes. The Tasmin-based wedges grew wider, heavier and more powerful. They were a statement of intent from Wheeler, who didn’t build cars for wimps.
Increasingly the wedges were seen as the bad boys of the British car industry – and by the time the 450SEAC appeared in 1986 carrying 340bhp, they also packed a ‘widowmaker’ reputation.
All The TVRs - The Full Story - All The TVRs
Rumours abound that TVR is about to stage a comeback. What better time to recall the past glories of Blackpool's best?
A breakdown of TVR historic milestones.
Grantura Mark lll, Mark lV 1800S - TVR's Grantura Mark lll, Mark lV 1800S
There’s an appealing delicacy about the TVR Grantura that shouts ‘drive me’.
Griffith, Tuscan, Vixen - TVR's Griffith, Tuscan, Vixen
It’s a case of ‘more of the same’ for the next generation of TVRs.
Griffith, Chimaera, Cerbera - TVR's Griffith, Chimaera, Cerbera
It’s time to get controversial.
Sagaris - TVR Sagaris
All of Peter Wheeler’s TVRs were blessed with ferocious acceleration, a glorious soundtrack, and price tags that meant his cars were within the reach of hard-working enthusiasts.
Tuscan Speed Six - TVR Tuscan Speed Six
It must have seemed strange that, when the Tuscan Speed Six went on sale in 2000, its big selling point was its new engine
The Tuscan challenge - TVR The Tuscan challenge
TVR had been actively involved in motor sport pretty much from its inception.
Taimar, Tasmin, TVR S - TVR's Taimar, Tasmin, TVR S
Looking at the Taimar and the S3, it’s difficult to believe that more than a decade separates them – or that they book-end the glorious white 350i that’s thundering around our temporary paddock at the Bruntingthorpe track.
T350, Tamora - TVRs T350, Tamora
After a ten-year production run, the Griffith needed replacement.