Peter Wheeler: Maverick car manufacturer who led TVR for a quarter of a century

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:36

Peter Wheeler, who steered the fortunes of the British sports car mainstay TVR for a quarter of a century, was one of the last great characters of the British car industry.

In 2004, he sold the company he had lovingly nurtured to the 24-year-old Nikolai Smolenski, son of a little-known Russian tycoon, for an undisclosed sum widely reckoned to be about £15m. Enthusiasts were aghast, but Wheeler probably knew the writing was on the wall for TVR; the legislative automotive environment – with which Wheeler's team had wrestled for decades – was closing in. Continuing to make and sell a few thousand raucous sports cars a year might soon become unfeasible, with ever tighter emissions and safety laws. But the baby-faced Smolenski appeared to have more money than sense. Now was the time to call it a day and cash in.

Shortly afterwards, TVR imploded, and the marque now seems parked permanently in the "heritage" (ie: defunct) section of the British motor industry, like so many before it. Fortunately Wheeler, keen on shooting and other country pursuits, was able to enjoy a well-earned retirement before being diagnosed with cancer and dying shortly afterwards in a private hospital not far from the silent TVR factory in Blackpool.

Wheeler attended Sheffield's Abbeydale and subsequently Sutton Coldfield's Bishop Vesey's grammar schools before graduating in chemical engineering at Birmingham University. Within a few years, in 1972, he had formed his own firm, Chemical Engineering Company, with just £200 of start-up capital. Throughout the remainder of the Seventies, he made a fortune by supplying specialist equipment to the North Sea oil industry.

He wasn't the first tycoon to spend some of his wealth on a racy car. But, as he told the author Graham Robson, his enthusiasm went further than most. "I bought a [TVR] Taimar Turbo, had it serviced here in Blackpool, and gradually came to know people and be drawn into the company's activities. I became a major shareholder when I saw that there were problems which I could help to solve".

TVR's beginnings were in a local back street where Trevor Wilkinson (the TVR acronym derived from his Christian name) built sports cars for himself and friends. When they proved capable performers on road and track, with tuned engines and lightweight plastic bodywork, interest from enthusiasts in the UK and the US pushed the nascent TVR Engineering into becoming a carmaker proper.

TVR, however, was constantly in a precarious financial position. Wilkinson bailed out in the early 1960s, and the Lilley family finally stabilised the company in the 1970s, with an output of increasingly competent roadsters and coupés with a distinctive long bonnet/short tail image, excellent handling and plenty of horsepower.

When Wheeler arrived as a major shareholder in 1981, though, TVR was on its knees in a deep recession, having just developed a totally new car, the Tasmin. With even the biggest car manufacturers suffering, there was little demand for the angular Tasmin, even with an economy engine option. But the pragmatic Wheeler set about creating the company's first five-year plan.

He first tackled the company's quality control and manufacturing processes, selling off his chemical interests to concentrate on turning TVR's operations around. But like the many ardent TVR devotees the company had created, Wheeler's penchant was for high-powered sports cars in the traditional, blokeish manner. Within three years, he had returned to the traditional TVR ingredient of powerful V8 engines, and in 1986 he revived the classic, curvaceous TVR shape with the S roadster.

Wheeler bought out minor shareholders in 1987 to take total personal control of TVR. Four years later, he dusted off the Griffith nameplate from the 1960s for a new five-litre two-seater, instantly acclaimed as one of the most handsome roadsters ever.

With Rover under German ownership from 1994 to 2000, TVR could claim to be the biggest carmaker under totally British ownership. The TVR display at British motor shows also began to be the hub of excitement at these often dreary events, as Wheeler's tight-knit team regularly produced the most exciting exhibits – sports cars whose contours rippled with visual energy and through whose monster-like vents and grilles air rushed to cool the powerful beast within. Not all reached the showroom, but those that did, including the Tuscan, Tamora, T350 and Sagaris, were like no other cars on sale.

Wheeler's presence at motor shows, and at Europe's racing circuits, where he was a keen some-time participant, revealed him as a smiling giant, cigarette in hand, beaming benevolently at the attention his products were generating. He was the converse of the car industry clone who talked in tongues and cowered behind a bland corporate façade. Wheeler once claimed that a particularly bold shape on the TVR Chimaera was created when his gundog, Ned, bit a chunk out of the polystyrene design model. With TVR's highly individualistic modus operandi, you could well believe it.

Sales boomed, but Wheeler went further in establishing TVR as a real thoroughbred car than any proprietor before, in 1996 launching the Cerbera, with TVR's first engine. Previously, it bought its power units from Ford and Land Rover; now it could boast its own V8 and straight-six engines that, in performance terms, threatened Queensbury Rules to Porsche and Ferrari.

Keeping the TVR ship sailing was always hard work. Motor racing, so essential for credibility, was costly. TVR's engineers, meanwhile, became crafty at stretching the already lenient parameters governing the production of low-volume cars. But Wheeler loved his maverick status. His rivals were intrigued, but he kept them at arm's length, once declining an offer from Mercedes-Benz to do a month-long "product swap" of their respective products by saying: "When I need a taxi, I'll ring for one".

Giles Chapman

Peter Robert Wheeler, chemical engineer and car manufacturer: born Sheffield 29 February 1944; founder and principal, Chemical Engineering Company, 1972-81; chairman, TVR Engineering, 1981-2005; married twice (three children); died Blackburn 12 June 2009.

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