'Baby oligarch' buys British car firm TVR

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The Independent Online

The iconic British sports car maker TVR has been bought by a Russian "baby oligarch", placing it in foreign ownership for the first time.

The iconic British sports car maker TVR has been bought by a Russian "baby oligarch", placing it in foreign ownership for the first time.

Following in the footsteps of his compatriot and friend, the billionaire Roman Abramovich who purchased Chelsea Football Club, Nikolai Smolensky, 24, has bought himself a quintessential part of Britain's culture - using his money earned in Russia.

Known as Russia's youngest millionaire, with a personal fortune of $100m (£55m), Mr Smolensky is rumoured to have paid close to £15m for the Blackpool-based company, using money linked to his father Alexander, a former banker who is among the 100 richest people in Russia.

The surprise move ends almost 60 years of British ownership of TVR and is likely to unsettle fans of the powerful hand-made sports cars, which have a deeply loyal following among British motorsport enthusiasts.

TVR produces fast performance cars with names such as Vixen, Cerbera and Chimaera, designed to appeal to speed-loving male traditionalists.

Founded in 1947 by Trevor Wilkinson, an entrepreneurial engineer whose name the cars bear, the company started as Trevcar Motors and produced its first sports car in 1949. It has changed hands many times, enjoying failures as well as successes.

The outgoing owner Peter Wheeler, a motor racing enthusiast from Yorkshire, will stay on in the company in a consultancy position.

Whereas the likes of Jaguar and Lotus have been wholly or partially bought up by foreign investors TVR had managed to resist such a move and turned a profit of £400,000 in 2002. The company employs about 400 workers at its factory in Bispham, Lancashire, who hand-make up to 1,000 cars a year, at a minimum price tag of £150,000.

Mr Smolensky has visited the TVR factory andmoved to calm workers' fears, issuing a statement promising a bright future and a "hands-on" approach. "Plans for the future are to continue trading, invest heavily in new technology and production methods, and hence enhance the TVR brand to become a global player," he said.

Although Mr Smolensky promised there would be no "large-scale restructuring" he said that new management appointments would be made.

However, fears remain that jobs could be cut. Adrian Domian, owner of Henley Heritage, one of the country's largest TVR dealers, said that he thought that as many as a quarter of the firm's jobs might be scrapped and that part of production would be moved to Russia or Eastern Europe.

Little is known about Mr Smolensky except that he is from Moscow and has a penchant for fast cars and planes. His father, Alexander Smolensky, 49, was estimated to be Russia's 92nd richest man by Forbes magazine this year with a fortune of $230m.

Once Russia's biggest banker his SBS-Agro bank collapsed in the financial crisis of 1998 leaving thousands of embittered ordinary Russians without their savings.

In fact his name is still associated with the misery of that year. Mr Smolensky senior bounced back, however, creating OVK Bank which his son briefly chaired last year before it was sold to another prominent oligarch for $200m (£110m).