Motoring: TVR at the crossroads

The sports car maverick is playing for high stakes with its new V8. By Richard Feast

Conventional wisdom says that TVR Engineering, the Blackpool company which makes the new Cerbera, should have gone belly-up years ago. In fact, it is Britain's most consistently successful, least known car company.

Now that success is shortly to be challenged by a series of new roadsters and coupes from companies with much greater clout. They will raise standards and broaden consumer choice. Cerbera, with their new AJP V8 engine, have to meet that challenge. If they don't, 15 years of hard graft could be in jeopardy.

TVR's present high standing owes everything to the vision of Peter Wheeler. In the early 1980s, he was a chemical engineer who happened to own a TVR. The outcome seemed inevitable: another sucker buying a company because he liked the products. Wheeler wasn't the first person to try to make a go of troublesome TVR, and most people expected him to be the last. The 52-year-old, chain-smoking bachelor became the company's saviour, however, by following his gut feelings and avoiding all car business conventions.

Not for TVR the market researchers and product planners. There are no secret pre-launch car clinics to determine whether the company is on the right track. Neither are there test tracks, engineering laboratories or computer-aided design and manufacturing facilities. TVR employs real people to make its cars by hand. Design and production systems are canoe- level technology. It hardly ever advertises.

These methods are crucial to every other car maker. The TVR approach is almost anarchistic by comparison. And yet, so far, it has worked. As sole proprietor of what he says is a debt-free company, Wheeler calls the shots. That eliminates the need for tiresome board meetings and obstreperous executives.

An example of the unconventional approach came soon after Wheeler bought the company. Uninhibited by car industry lore, he pensioned off the latest model, an angular coupe called the Tasmin, and put the curvy S, its predecessor, back into production.

The car industry had seen nothing like it - and probably never will again. The move was indicative of Wheeler's understanding of his customers. If they weren't buying the new Tasmin, he would give them the old S instead. This intuition places him in the car industry pantheon alongside the likes of Cecil Kimber at MG, William Lyons at Jaguar and Colin Chapman at Lotus. Each knew instinctively what would appeal to his customers, and to hell with market research. In TVR's case, the formula is fast, noisy and rather brutal sports cars. The cars may be handsome, but they are not for the faint-hearted.

The cars are styled by cutting away at blocks of foam until they look right. It is not the practice elsewhere in the industry. In one famous instance, Ned, Wheeler's ever-present pointer, contributed to the look of the then-new Chimaera by biting a chunk out of the front air dam. Wheeler thought it such an improvement that he ordered the change into production.

Cars are tested for stability and handling on the highway, and for reliability and longevity on the track. Wheeler regularly wins club events in his own TVR.

The formula is winning in the market place as well. Sales began to climb after the S went back into production, and haven't stopped. Neither was there any let-up when it was replaced by the Griffith and Chimaera. TVR will sell almost 1,500 cars this year. That will be a record, twice the level of the late 1980s and 10 times the number when Wheeler bought in.

Where Porsches and BMWs once reigned supreme with the bright young things around south Kensington and the City, TVRs are now almost commonplace. That would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

TVR's growth, it must be remembered, happened during a period which saw two major slumps in demand and terrible travails at more famous companies. Bugatti went bust. Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Lotus and Maserati had to be taken over. Porsche and Rolls-Royce found themselves staring into the abyss a few years ago. Now Cerbera takes TVR to the most important crossroads in its history. What TVR does not know - because it has no research - is whether it will merely detract from sales of the Griffith and Chimaera. That would nullify all the expense and effort of developing a third car line and a new engine.

And expensive it was. It is highly unusual for a company of TVR's size to design and develop its own power unit. Making any engine comply with emissions and noise regulations these days is a huge undertaking, even more so with a complex, high-output unit like AJP.

A high-volume maker can spread those costs over thousands, even millions, of engines. AJP output will be counted in hundreds. Thus most boutique manufacturers buy engines from larger companies - Rover has supplied V8s to TVR for years, for example.

So AJP represents a significant change of philosophy. It was prompted in part by the anticipated arrival of newcomers like the Jaguar XK8, Mercedes Benz SLK, BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster. Wheeler is convinced that to compete with them head-on, TVR, with its origins in the do-it-yourself kit-car industry, needs the credibility of its own engine. He also has to safeguard future engine supplies; a BMW-owned Rover may not be prepared to sell to a competitor for ever.

But producing engines is not the only risk facing TVR. There are other concerns as well. While TVR sells every seventh car in Japan, its strength is highly dependent on the UK. Its touch so far has been sure. But if any new model, or the AJP engine, falters in this country, TVR would be in real trouble.

This is why Wheeler recently agreed a deal to have TVRs made in Malaysia, to supply Pacific Rim customers. The first car will be delivered in a couple of months. He also acknowledges the need for a presence in Germany, Europe's biggest sports car market. TVR plan to return there with the Cerbera.

That was another reason for commissioning the V8. While technophiles would scorn TVR's old-fashioned Rover engine, they might appreciate a modern race-developed, high-performance V8. There is only one simple requirement: the car has to be every bit as strong and reliable as the domestic rivals. For TVR, then, there is a great deal riding on Cerbera and AJP.

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