A car called Trevor: According to Bryan Appleyard, the star of the London Motor Show comes not from Maranello or Munich, but from Blackpool

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The TVR factory just outside Blackpool is a dump. A drab collection of low, grimy sheds and a reception area from your nightmares carpet squares, half-dead greenery, a dingy display case, bamboo furniture circa 1975, a hideously stained coffee machine and the alarming sound of a big, angry dog. Beyond, it gets worse antique tools, incomprehensibly confused production lines, amputated bits of cars, appalling, irretrievable mess. This surely is what is wrong with British manufacturing industry.

Well, actually, no. TVR is one British producer that never even felt the recession and the roaring fibreglass demons that emerge from this chaos can reasonably claim to be among the finest drivers' cars on earth.

Driving any TVR and, I confess, I do is automotive bliss, a condition of machine ecstasy. Give a friend a lift in a BMW, Ford or Volkswagen, and they will thank you for the ride; drive them in a Griffith or Chimaera and they will scream, babble and grin like a baby.

TVR is now the undisputed keeper of the flame of the British sports car. This strange automotive genre, now copied by the Japanese with the Mazda MX-5 and by the Americans with the Dodge Viper, is based on discomfort, noise, stupendous handling, high performance and fear. It offends against every principle of big company car design.

TVRs go fast the slowest you can buy does 0-60 in 6.8 seconds and the quickest in 4.1 seconds and their restroked Range Rover engines make a wonderful rumbling noise that rises to a terrible apocalyptic scream. The suspension transmits every ripple in the road through your arms and spine, the heating systems are weird and unworkable, at speed you can barely hear the radio and the sensitivity and precision of the chassis is such that every yard demands fierce concentration from the driver. These cars are, as TVR's boss, Peter Wheeler, puts it, 'a bit scary'.

Mr Wheeler IS TVR. He is 6ft 6in, 49 and a Yorkshireman, awkward with either suspicion or shyness. 'There's a lot of northern modesty about this place,' is how he explains the distressed, low-key feel of TVR HQ. He is divorced, a heavy smoker of Marlboro Reds and the owner of a low-IQ German pointer called Ned that lopes about the factory damaging things. Once Ned took a bite out of the polystyrene dummy for the Chimaera. Mr Wheeler approved, took a matching chunk out of the other side and Ned's bite made it into production.

Mr Wheeler had been meaning to retire, having made his fortune by creating and then selling a chemical engineering company. But he had always driven British sports cars, his favourite being a TVR Tamar Turbo that he brought back to Blackpool to be serviced. He bought the company in 1981.

TVR employed about 70 people in those days. It had lurched along since 1947 making fast, eccentric, unreliable and frequently brilliant cars. Trevor Wilkinson had founded the company and christened it with three of the four consonants in his first name. 'If only,' murmurs Mr Wheeler, 'he had been called Lamborghini or Ferrari or something anything.'

He began the 10-year process of digging it out of a hole. The key was to stick to the essential formula: big engine, massive tubular steel chassis and a lightweight body, styled (this is emphatically not the right word) in-house. In fact, Mr Wheeler didn't really care about the styling. 'As long as a car has enough grunt,' he says, 'then it's OK.'

Then, in 1990, the Griffith was unveiled at the motor show. It was, at that stage, no more than the previous model, the S, with an extraordinary body rounded, carved and hunched but it took off. Orders at the show were taken at the rate of one every eight minutes.

'It was a revelation to me,' says Mr Wheeler. 'It was all because of the shape and I'd never been very interested in the shape. I just talk to engineers and I'd put together the Griffith shape with an engineer John Ravenscroft but it worked.'

Eighteen months later the Griffith emerged with a new chassis. It was agreed to be either the greatest British sports car since the E-Type Jaguar or the greatest ever. It goes like a bomb, clings to dry roads as if glued and draws applause yes, applause from pedestrians and other drivers. While parked in my Griffith I've been asked by policemen and Americans to turn the engine on just so they can listen. At stop lights people nod, grin and clap. An immensely tall blond Sloane once peered down at me, announced abruptly, 'I'm getting one of those' and stalked off. Drive a Porsche and you can be spat at; drive a Griffith and you make friends.

The Griffith transformed TVR. The company was a specialist, now it was a star. Bursting with confidence, it produced the slightly cheaper and less pretty Chimaera. And today, at the London Motor Show, in an unbelievable act of hubris, it unveils the Cerbera, a TVR with four seats.

I suggest at this point that we pretend I am from the Guardian. How does he feel about producing these absurdly fast machines that can kill people and destroy the environment? 'There is so much nonsense talked about safety. Air-bags are only fashionable because the Americans didn't dare make seat-belts compulsory. Side-impact bars have to be made out of high-tensile steel, so people are being cut out of crashes with oxy-acetylene, with all that fuel running around.

'People say our cars aren't safe because of the fibreglass bodies. But it's the chassis that's the point. If you ran into a Volvo head on in a Griffith, the Volvo would come off worse. And the closest I've ever got to being killed was when I was nearly hit by a Honda that I didn't hear coming. You'll always hear a TVR coming.

'And our cars are very green. The only meaningful environmental test there should be is weight. Building two-ton Mercedes is what is really bad for the environment. Our cars have big engines but they are light, so they need lower revs, and we don't use all that steel.'

I need to believe this and so does he, so it's true.

There are no design committees, there is only Mr Wheeler. He puts together the chassis and the engine for maximum performance, fits in heating systems and then hacks away at a car-sized lump of polystyrene until he has a shape he likes. This is then produced at Blackpool with utterly basic engineering tools, the fibreglass body being laid up by hand.

The process is insanely labour-intensive but requires negligible capital commitment. Anything in the production process can be changed at once and every car is potentially unique. Customers frequently visit the factory to mix their own paint colour.

Mr Wheeler sold 950 cars last year and he will sell almost 1,000 this. He could sell 50 per cent more, but he likes a margin between production and demand. 'I don't want to expand too quickly. If I did and there was a downturn I'd have to make somebody redundant. I've never made anybody redundant. That to me would be a total personal and business failure.'

Oddly enough, the workforce of 300 may not know this. Mr Wheeler finds it impossible to talk to them except in the most functional terms. He admits that this probably means that they still don't quite trust him. He cannot speak in public, claiming to be paralysed with shyness. When not at TVR, he vanishes into the Gloucestershire countryside to ride and shoot grouse.

He insists that he has no plans to sell the company, though with the precedents of Jaguar, Lotus and Aston Martin, the car world might reasonably remain anxious. Independence is best for the keepers of the flame. Because the British sports car part skinhead, part aesthete really is an ideal: a funny, politically incorrect, head-banging, thrilling aspiration to show that movement is fun and scary and to celebrate engineering for what it once was, an art as human as any other.

The London Motor Show opens today at Earls Court and runs until 31 October.

(Photograph omitted)

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