How cars built out of austerity became the most wanted beasts in the City

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A TVR is the testosterone-fuelled ambition of every young blade in the City - a growling, rubber-burning two-seater sports car which can lap up an end-of-year bonus and then start lapping Brands Hatch the very next weekend.

A TVR is the testosterone-fuelled ambition of every young blade in the City - a growling, rubber-burning two-seater sports car which can lap up an end-of-year bonus and then start lapping Brands Hatch the very next weekend.

All of which is far removed from the prospects facing Trevor Wilkinson in 1937, a Lancashire lad who left school in Blackpool that year aged 14 with not a qualification to his, as yet, unremarkable name. He was no shirker, however, and soon buckled down to an apprenticeship with a local garage, before taking the bold move to set up his own workshop in a scruffy wheelwright's shed.

Trevcar Motors was little different from any other backstreet garage but, in 1947, Wilkinson stripped down a knackered old Alvis and built himself a sports car from its remains. A year later, he renamed his company TVR Engineering, taking three consonants from his Christian name for the acronym. A further year on and Wilkinson had built his first car from scratch. Throughout the 1950s, he built more, aimed at the weekend racing enthusiast, while paying the bills by fixing fairground machinery, of which there was plenty, in Blackpool.

Wilkinson's big break came in 1956 when, out of the blue, an American car fanatic asked him to produce a "backbone"-type chassis for American sports car racing. A Coventry Climax engine gave the power while a cheap kit car body was modified to give the long bonnet/short tail image the buyer wanted.

This prototype led to the TVR Grantura production car in 1958. Although by the standards of Alfa Romeo and Porsche it was crude and homemade, the TVR was a rapid machine and, because it used parts culled from other cars, it was much more affordable to British enthusiasts still penny-pinching after the Second World War. By mid-1960s, Trevor sold his 100th car and, no doubt, enjoyed a light ale in celebration.

He was, however, obviously not cut out to be a sports car tycoon. The company lurched from one crisis to another and, after disagreeing with his fellow directors, Trevor Wilkinson left in 1962 and never had anything else to do with the car that carried - just about - his name.

It was a shame, really, because TVR's glory days were still to come. An American car distributor, Jack Griffith, reckoned the TVR Grantura, by now using a 1.8-litre MG engine, could handle more horsepower, and built a version sporting a fire-breathing Ford V8.

Some 500 of these fast TVR Griffiths were made; many say they are the greatest classic TVRs ever, and they helped make TVR's styling a popular subject for schoolboys' bedroom walls.

More changes of ownership occurred in 1971 when father-and-son Arthur and Martin Lilley bought the company. Almost immediately they caused a storm with their stand at the 1971 London motor show, where completely naked models cavorted on the new 2500M model on press day. In 1975, TVR launched the first turbocharged production car built in Britain and then, in 1980, it unveiled the Tasmin, a two-seater.

A concurrent sharp economic downturn seemed to spell doom for the company but then one of its customers, a successful 37-year old chemical engineer, Peter Wheeler, stepped in and became TVR's new owner in 1982. Within three years he'd returned to the traditional TVR ingredient of V8 engines, and in 1986 revived the curvy TVR shape of old with the S roadster. In 1990, he dusted off the Griffith name for a new 5-litre two-seater that instantly won acclaim as one of the most beautiful sports cars of all time. Sales soared, but Wheeler went further. In 1996, he launched the Cerbera, with TVR's first engine. The company's V8 and straight-six engines, in performance terms, were a match for anything from Porsche, Lotus or Ferrari. Wheeler allowed his young development team, headed by John Ravenscroft, to produce one theatrically styled sports car after another.

For a time during the past 10 years, TVR was the largest all-British-owned carmaker; certainly the impact the cars made was a rare brightspot at increasingly dismal British motor shows. As far as TVR enthusiasts are concerned, Wheeler must surely deserve to relax and enjoy the financial rewards coming his way from Moscow.


Aston Martin: , maker of arguably the most stylish British-built car, was bought a decade ago by the US-based Premier Automotive Group, the parent company of Ford, Volvo, Mazda and Jaguar. For Aston Martin, the deal provided the financial backing to boost US sales.

Rolls Royce: was sold in 1998 to BMW. A state-of-the-art factory was opened two years ago at Goodwood dedicated to the production of the Phantom. Although it is under German ownership, much of the car's design, build and finish is unaffected.

Bentley: was sold to the Volkswagen Audi Group in 1998. The Bentley range is still manufactured in Crewe and sales of £103,000 GT Convertible, launched two years ago, have surged in the past 12 months.

Lotus: was bought in 1996 by Proton, the Malaysian manufacturer of small and medium-sized family cars. The deal gave financial stability to the Norfolk-based Lotus company and benefited Proton by adding expertise in handling and chassis design. UK sales of the Lotus Elise and Exige remain steady at about 500 a year.


Morgan: has remained resolutely English. The 90-year-old company, based in Worcestershire, now has a range of five classic sports cars for the road, plus one for racing.