Trevor Wilkinson: Originator of the TVR sports car

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The Independent Online

Trevor Wilkinson was a true amateur, both in business and automotive engineering. A Blackpool lad who paid his bills in the 1940s by metal-bashing for local funfair owners, his cars were "bitsas" (bits o' this, bits o' that) that took 10 years to evolve into production-ready form. Although exciting machines, their potential was usually spotted by others, and Wilkinson became a footnote in the convoluted but illustrious history of TVR.

In 1937, as a 14-year-old school-leaver and about to begin a car mechanic's apprenticeship, the young Wilkinson gave no hint of being an achiever. His parents ran a shop selling prams, a business he worked in during the Second World War, and were clearly anxious about his future because they tried – and failed – to dissuade him from opening his own garage in 1946.

First called Trevcar Motors, it was based in an old wheelwright's shop in Beverley Grove, Blackpool. Wilkinson undertook mechanical and accident repair work, buying and selling jalopies as a sideline, and branching out into little metalwork jobs for the local entertainment industry. The latter proved lucrative, and in 1947 he changed his trading name to TVR Engineering (a contraction of his Christian name), and took on a partner, Jack Pickard.

To relieve the drudge of welding waltzers, Wilkinson built himself a sports car – he was too cash-strapped to buy a new one. Over two years of spare time, he created a racy aluminium body on the renovated chassis of an old Alvis. Although lacking formal engineering training, by 1949 he felt confident enough to build a car from scratch, tackling all the chassis and suspension design himself. He used anything that came to hand from other cars, a Ford engine and Morris wheels and back axle – even bits from old dodgem cars. A cousin bought it from him for £325.

Wilkinson immediately began another "special", this time using Austin components, and by 1954 was an ad-hoc carmaker, offering his own sturdy design of chassis to fellow "petrolheads" who could then specify their own engines and bodywork. The first quasi-"production" car was the TVR Sports Saloon in 1954, with an Austin A40 engine and a plastic kit car body. It was exciting if crude, and three were sold at £650 apiece.

Between 1954 and 1958, Wilkinson moved the business to a former brickworks at Hoo Hill. He also designed a new chassis with independent suspension and the mechanical parts packaged inside a tubular steel "backbone" cage so the seats could be set lower and the car made more ground-hugging, boosting road-holding. He was helped along the way by an order from an American, Ray Saidel, who had a chassis delivered to New Hampshire and created a stubby, purposeful body for it to go sports-car racing.

Wilkinson and Pickard took this as their inspiration to finally make their own bodies – from glass fibre. Then Saidel booked space at the 1957 New York Auto Show to display the cars as a legitimate manufacturer, and cajoled Wilkinson to up his game.

By 1958, the TVR Grantura (meaning grand tourer, or GT) was revealed in customer-ready form – a squat and tiny coupé featuring a wide choice of engines, tiny doors and huge wire wheels, with sensational handling.

Saidel drummed up orders aplenty but Wilkinson struggled to cope, and before long the corporate state of TVR Engineering was murky as financiers manoeuvred to both stave off bankruptcy and raise working capital. In the end, Wilkinson felt so sidelined by his various business partners that he left the company in April 1962. Yet TVRs already had a strong reputation for road and race performance – they were credible Lotus rivals, and some 400 sports cars had been sold.

The basic Grantura that Wilkinson evolved formed the basis of all TVR sports cars until 1980. From 1981, the business footing of the company was steadied after millionaire TVR devotee Peter Wheeler took control. He turned TVRs into visceral weekend fun cars, with noisy, powerful engines and look-at-me styling and TVR was – once, and very briefly – Britain's biggest domestically owned car-maker. The former "bitsa" now became the object of desire for city bloods with bonuses.

But ever-tightening safety and emissions legislation made development costs prohibitive and the canny Wheeler, having nurtured TVR's reputation for excitement, sold up in 2004. The ill-advised buyer, Nikolai Smolensky, was the 24-year-old son of a Russian oligarch and, after he had parted with a reputed £15m for the company, TVR rapidly collapsed.

Back in 1962, meanwhile, Wilkinson and Pickard had taken their new-found skills in glass fibre and formed an engineering business in Blackpool, undertaking much plastics sub-contract work for TVR itself. An unobtrusive character always bemused by TVR fanatics' fascination in him, Wilkinson had retired to Minorca by the early 1990s, where he happily sailed his small yacht.

Giles Chapman

Trevor Wilkinson, engineer and car designer: born Blackpool, Lancashire 14 May 1923; founder, Trevcar Motors 1946; founder, TVR Engineering 1947; married; died Minorca, Spain 6 June 2008.