MOTORING / Blackpool's rival to Porsche: Despite the slump, TVR is going flat out to meet demand. Matthew Gwyther meets the man behind its success

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The Independent Culture
HEN'S teeth are ten-a-penny compared to success stories in the car business at the moment. Just when the industry thought it had supped full of horrors came last week's grim news that new car sales were down a further 16 per cent in September. Ford and Rolls-Royce sacked 2,500 more UK workers in response. Fast cars are faring worse than most: Porsche, for example, which sold 53,000 cars in 1985/86, will be lucky to hit 20,000 this year.

By happy contrast, in a converted Blackpool laundry and dairy TVR's workforce of 200 is going flat out at the moment, making very fast cars. Two production-line workers who used to work at Rolls-Royce's home in Crewe now travel the 80 miles each day to TVR's factory. Not a single worker has been made redundant in the last 10 years and overtime shifts are now being added. The chief designer has not taken a day off in 18 months and the order book for TVR's star model, the Griffith, is currently closed.

Prospects have not always been so rosy. Since the first TVR sports car was built in Blackpool in 1947, the company has been down as often as it has been up. In the early 1980s, the outlook was looking particularly tricky. TVR had made the bold step of launching the wedge-shaped Tasmin upon a following of drivers who were regrettably unenthusiastic about wedge-shaped cars. Sales plummeted. TVR's saviour came along in the implausible form of a lanky chemical engineer from Yorkshire called Peter Wheeler. Wheeler had made his millions in the petrochemical industry and also owned a rare TVR Taimar turbo. He liked the cars, so he bought the company.

In an industry currently dominated by huge multi-nationals run by committees or grey marketing men feeding information into computers, which in turn give production orders to robots, TVR is joyfully out of step. Wheeler is a proprietor in the old- fashioned sense of the word. TVR revolves around him and Wheeler has an eye on everything from wing- mirror design to sales in Japan. 'For the Griffith I did the styling with John Ravenscroft (his 29-year-old chief engineer). We don't draw, we cut foam. We just knocked off the bits we didn't like, so it's basically a sculpture.' Ravenscroft and Wheeler are able to sculpt at will in this fashion because the car is supported by its tubular chassis - the glass- fibre body does not have to be load- bearing. 'It probably costs Ford over pounds 500m to tool up for a new model made by robots. You've got to sell an awful lot of cars to get that back. We do everything by hand. Our workforce is far more skilled than in the average modern car factory. No one just pushes a button, everybody creates something with their hands.' (Wheeler's non-union workforce also earns less than is paid by Ford at Dagenham or Vauxhall at Luton, the compensation being that their job satisfaction is probably greater.)

TVR also makes a product that, despite its success, remains rare. 'I see a very strong movement towards buying cars that you don't see on every street corner,' Wheeler says. Although TVR is small - it will produce around 850 cars this year - it does not simply assemble other people's parts to keep costs down. In fact, it is moving in the opposite direction, making large numbers of components itself to ensure high quality. Although engines and gearboxes are bought in from Rover and Ford, they are so substantially modified as to make them almost TVR's own. Once turned upside down, the rear light cluster of a Vauxhall Cavalier looks as if it was made specially for the TVR Griffith.

The most successful man in the British car industry has yet to blow any of his cash on image consultants. (Nor should he.) Crammed into a chair, Wheeler chainsmokes while his German Pointer puppy Ned snores loudly from the other side of the well-worn office. The carpet is stained with oil and spilled coffee. Wheeler looks grey and exhausted. When he is not at the factory he is racing his own cars on circuits around the country. 'This business has turned me into a workaholic,' he says. 'I never used to behave as I do now. I intended to retire at 40.' He has no family - 'I couldn't behave as I did if I had a family. That's one reason I haven't got one.'

In these times of ecological awareness the success of the Griffith strikes many as odd. The car is a beautiful brute that is able to send you from 0-60mph, like a sling shot, in about 4.2 seconds. The pleasing curves are continued inside with the dashboard. It feels like a quality car, light years away from some of the old rattle-bag kit cars the company used to produce. There is a clever and elegant door-opening system which makes the car as secure as a soft top could be. If you are careful you may get 20 miles to the gallon from its 4.3-litre 280bhp engine. The racket produced by its drainpipe-like twin 2 3/4 -inch exhaust pipes is so raucous that it fails the noise regulations in Switzerland. It is surprising Friends of the Earth do not have a permanent picket stationed outside Wheeler's premises.

One of the reasons the Griffith has sold so rapidly (they took an order every eight minutes when the first prototype appeared at the NEC in Birmingham) is its price: pounds 27,000. 'We probably sell it far too cheaply,' Peter Wheeler says. 'But there is a recession on. We'll probably outsell Porsche in the UK this year as a result.' And Wheeler has yet more up his sleeve. There is a new model soon to be shown and TVR will shortly announce a major expansion into 'components for other people', according to Wheeler. 'My ambition,' he says, 'is to make the name world- famous for sports cars.'

Few people know the origin of the company name and TVR representatives tend to fall silent or stare at the factory floor if you enquire. Does TVR stand for Terrific Vehicles for the Road or even transport vitesse rapide, perhaps? No, like Porsche and Ferrari, currently the most fashionable four-wheeled means of transport is named after the company's founder - Mr T Wilkinson. The 'T' stands for Trevor. 'Would you fancy a spin in my high-powered Trevor?' Not a convincing come-on line - but with the sexy-sounding abbreviation . . . So TVR it became and successfully remains.-

(Photograph omitted)