The cars : TVR Tasmin
THE mid- to late-1970s were an exciting time for the British specialist car industry. Following the slump in sales and manufacture following the imposition of VAT on all kit cars in 1973, which shut down a number of well-established sports car companies, and then the general slump that followed in the wake of the energy crisis – a new feeling of optimism was sweeping the remaining players.
Over at Lotus, Colin Chapman had transformed the company from kit-car maker and builder of low cost (and weight) sports cars into a more serious company with the advanced-looking – and far more expensive – Giugiaro/Oliver Winterbottom triumvirate of Éclat, Elite and Esprit. And up in Blackpool, TVR Boss, Martin Lilley wanted to effect the same transformation on his company.
Throughout the ’70s, the M (for Martin) series cars had performed excellently for TVR. Introduced at Earls Court in 1971, the M-Series cars were visually similar to their Grantura/Vixen predecessors, but they were better engineered, more useable, and more effectively screwed together. The cars were revealed on the motor show stand (alongside those memorably nude models) alongside the SM Zanté prototype, a car that looked to an even more exciting future for TVR – and which hinted at a wedgier design language for the company.
Intriguingly, in its contemporary motor show report, CAR magazine commented: ‘its shape is perhaps a little rectangular in plan, and there is an unhappiness about the triangular rear quarter windows, but altogether I was struck by the professionalism of the design both inside and out – so much so that I pressed Lilley hard in an effort to find out who was responsible. “A friend” was all he would say, implying that the friend actually worked for a rival manufacturer. He did reveal however, that the moulds were made by Specialised Mouldings, the Huntingdon firm which was also responsible for Harris Mann’s one-off Leyland Zanda prototype two years ago. Now I come to think of it…’
TVR Tasmin’s unlikely predecessors?
The appearance of the Zanté at Earls Court was a clear statement of intent: Martin Lilley wanted to take TVR upmarket. At the show, hints were dropped that it was about to happen, with CAR stating: ‘Be that as it may, the new TVR is scheduled for production, initially as a supplement to the present range, powered by the fuel injected Triumph six-cylinder engine and selling for about the price of a an Elan Plus Two.’
As it happened, world events and the slow build-up of the M-Series cars were enough to scupper those upward plans, which was probably no bad thing. The M-Series cars would prove popular, and funded a sustained a period of modest but sustained growth at TVR’s Bristol Avenue factory during the mid-1970s. First to go on sale was the Triumph-powered 2500M in 1972, but it was soon followed by the Ford-engined 1600M and 3000M. They also finally saw the end of the kit-car era as, from 1973, it was no longer possible to buy your TVR unless it was fully assembled. The star of the range would prove to be the Ford Essex engined 3000M, combining smooth performance and excellent dynamics.
The range expanded, too. First came the Taimar, which boasted improved practicality thanks to its opening tailgate, and then the Broadspeed engineered Turbo of 1975 was added to the range. It was quick and capable, although not in the same ballistic league as the previous Griffith 200/400 and Tuscan V8 – performance figures of the 230bhp car were a 0-60mph time of 7.2 seconds and a top speed of 139mph – importantly, rather quicker than the Lotus Esprit. The final and most significant M-Series evolution took place in 1978, when it lost the roof to become the 3000S convertible. It was this car – the first open-topped series-production TVR – that was the company’s best-seller as the ’70s drew to a close.
With reasonable sales in the UK and overseas, and a loyal customer base, as well as financial strength – a situation TVR didn’t find itself in very often – Lilley once again turned his attention to the important matter of taking the company upmarket with a much more modern looking car. The arrival at TVR of Stuart Halstead from Jaguar added impetus to the Lilley’s plan to produce something more expensive – he was a talented driver/engineer with bags of enthusiasm for the company. And in August 1977, he and Lilley drew up plans for the brand new car. The name Martin Lilley chose was Tasmin – a combination of Maserati ‘Khamsin’, and a very pretty girl he knew at the time, Tamsin.
The styling and body
Oliver Winterbottom was chosen as the designer to pen the 3000M/Taimar’s replacement. Like Halstead, he was ex-Jaguar, having worked on the XJ6, the stillborn XJ21 and XJ-S, following on from his engineering apprenticeship. After leaving Coventry in 1971, Winterbottom moved to Lotus, and became instrumental in Hethel’s new design direction. He initially cut off the fins from the Europa, then penned the Elite and Éclat, before working with Giorgetto Giugiaro as the liaison engineer between Norfolk and Turin on the Esprit. In 1976, Winterbottom went freelance, and it was then that the relationship with TVR was struck-up… or maybe re-established, as he was also cited as a possible stylist for the SM Zanté (above).
Within a year of starting work on the Tasmin’s styling, Winterbottom moved to Lancashire to establish a brand new design and engineering department at TVR. This was a considerable amount of work on top of overseeing the new car’s styling, but by late-1978, the styling was emerging as exciting, and a complete break from what came before. Lilley and Halstead briefed Winterbottom simply: to produce a modern version of the 3000M – a coupé that could also spawn a convertible should the market conditions prevail – leaving the talented stylist to really exercise his creative impulses. Given his work at Lotus, and a long-established love of the wedge, it was clear that the new car would be similarly influenced.
CAR commented about the Tasmin’s styling: ‘It is different. Light-looking, sharp, modern and excellent from some angles, terribly awkward from others; but when you run an eye and a hand around it, and subject it to close scrutiny, always impressive in the design rather than the styling sense. The pillars, for instance, are thin, even fine and so is the rear body outline. In profile and from the rear, it does little more than enclose glass. Yes, that glass rear panel is inspired by the Espada and the Khamsin. In the TVR it serves to enhance the looks greatly and make vision extremely good.’
The awkward styling had one advantage, though. It was aerodynamic (for its day), with a drag coefficient of 0.36. Job done for Oliver Winterbottom.
The body itself was moulded in two parts, Lotus style. The screen and cant rails were boxed using closed cell foam sections, and marine ply impact beams were integrally moulded into the front and rear. Windscreen, side and rear glass was directly moulded to the body, and the doors were fitted with side-impact beams. And considerable attention was paid to strength in the sills and box sections.
Under the skin
Once again Lilley and Halstead’s brief was simple – the new car would have outstanding ride, handling and roadholding. But more importantly, it should be reliable to assist with sales in those all-important export markets. Like the M-Series cars, it would have a glass fibre body and would be underpinned by a welded-up tubular steel chassis. After all, this was a production method that worked well at Bristol Avenue, so why interfere with a winning system? There were no questions over the engine and gearbox either – it was back to Ford, although with the long-lived Essex 3-litre V6 on its way out (the common wisdom was that it had two- or three-years left, and so it proved), the fuel injected 2.8-litre Cologne V6 took its place.
CAR stated at the launch of the Tasmin: ‘A Rover V8? Nothing like the service network available to the Ford V6 in Europe.’ Ironic, given what was to come.
The chassis was designed by Ian Jones, a former engineer at Team Lotus, who was also partially responsive for the backbone of the Lotus Elan – a model of efficient, stiff design. In the Tasmin it was a welded up tubular steel backbone that forked out at the front, to enclose the engine – and at the rear to accommodate the suspension pick-ups. At its centre, the backbone was effectively a box-section, with pressed steel covering the lower face. Twin perimeter frames span out from the central backbone to support the sills, the hinge-structures and the roll-over bar.
At the front, there was a fabricated sheet metal yoke to carry the suspension, while at the rear there was a triangular frame welded up from square steel tube which supported the differential and the lower suspension links. Like the earlier Lotus, the TVR Tasmin was clearly a considered piece of engineering.
The suspension is a clever mix of off-the-shelf and proprietary engineering. At the front, the uprights, hubs and discs are lifted straight from the Ford Granada, while the lower links and wishbones are from the Cortina, as is the steering rack and spring/damper units (suitably modified by Armstrong for TVR). At the rear things were considerably more exotic, thanks to an arrangement that TVR claimed cost £1000 per car to put together. The Jaguar differential was paired up with a Lotus-esque box-section. Inboard discs were fitted, and assisted reducing sprung masses.
‘You look at all this and think it’s so very different from the old TVR, and wonder if it might just work like a Jaguar-Lotus cross and just how wonderful that might be,’ an unusually effusive CAR magazine commented. Clearly, this was the most thoroughly developed TVR ever produced.
The first production cars rolled out of Bristol Avenue in November 1979, with the official launch at the Brussels Motor Show in January 1980. The Tasmin was the first significant UK car launch of the 1980s, and certainly attracted its fair share of headlines. Again CAR magazine made the running, with the headline that screamed from the cover of its February 1980 issue, ‘All-new! The TVR to make you buy British… and why it outshines even Porsche’s brilliant 924 Turbo’.
On the road, the magazine certainly believed it was a class-leading sports car. In terms of handling, it fizzed: ‘This is a car of tremendous capability and it gives you so much of its capability so that you can motor so very quickly so very close to its ultimate limits for such a lot of time.’ In conclusion, CAR continued on the same theme. ‘And there is no mind in our minds that TVR has achieved something worth shouting very loudly about in this new £12,800 car. It goes and handles like a pure sports car; it has the aplomb and the comfort of a grand tourer. And that in our estimation, is a highly desirable combination.’ High praise indeed.
The interior looked more inviting than the outgoing M-Series car, too – no doubt to please the US market, for which this car was so clearly aimed at. But inside, AROnline readers will be glad to hear that there was a huge amount of BL and Ford parts-bin fixtures and fittings. Steering column and stalks were straight from the Princess, while the exterior door handles and rear lamp clusters were from the Capri MkIII.
The problem was that performance expectations were rapidly rising on the market, and the 160bhp Tasmin wasn’t as quick as its price rivals. The fuel-injected Cologne might have facilitated pan-European servicing, but it wasn’t really capable of delivering scorching figures. The 0-60mph time of 8.0 seconds and 125mph maximum speed were acceptable but hardly earth shattering. ‘What you end up with is another element of seemingly imperturbable character,’ is how CAR politely described it. Hardly the stuff of dreams, and not what TVR owners and enthusiasts were expecting.
Ten months later, the convertible and 2+2 models were announced at the NEC Motor Show in Birmingham. Although these derivatives were developed in parallel with the coupé, their introduction was delayed while the 100-strong workforce fully familiarised itself with the production of the new car. When it appeared, the 2+2 model was the most interesting because although it sat on the same wheelbase as the two-seat car, there was more room at the rear, thanks to a shorter nose and longer tail, shuffling the interior room accordingly thanks to a re-located petrol tank and reprofiled roof. Style-wise, it ‘benefited’ from the addition of flared arches and skirts.
But it was the convertible model that truly captured the buyers’ imaginations – in a roadster-starved market. It was – and is – disarmingly handsome, with one of the most elegant hood mechanisms yet devised. There’s stiff targa roof panel, which was held in place by a folding rear hood. But in the wake of the 1979 oil shock, and spiralling fuel prices that severely stunted the sales of all luxury and performance cars, the Tasmin’s sales proved disappointing, despite the addition of these new models. In the USA, where the Tasmin was expected to do well, there had been an import problem which saw a consignment of cars to be snatched by the Feds before they ever reached their customers – and the combination of both factors, along with the high development costs of the Tasmin, proved too much for Lilley.
Out with Lilley, in with Wheeler… and the V8s
The creditors began to close in, as bills went unpaid, and just before he was forced to throw in the towel, Lilley handed the company to Peter Wheeler, TVR fan and existing customer with more than enough money in hand to turn around the customer’s fortunes. Few people remember this, but the first car to be launched after Wheeler took control in 1981 was the Tasmin 200, a two-litre Ford Pinto powered version, punching out 100bhp. It might have seemed like the ideal car for a post-fuel shock economy, but the TVR 200 failed to find popularity, selling a mere 61 copies before being phased out in 1984.
All that was to change, though. Wheeler wanted more performance and was soon looking at ways of making the Tasmin go quicker. After trying a turbocharged V6 (two prototypes were built) he settled on Rover’s all-aluminum 3.5-litre V8, that had performed so well for Morgan as well as BL’s Rover and Land Rover products. In fuel injected form, the ex-Buick power unit pushed out a far more agreeable 190bhp at 5280rpm, and when installed in the lightweight TVR, it was capable of delivering electrifying performance. There was a political undertone for the decision to go with Rover, too – Middle Eastern markets were resistant to using US-badged engines, ironic given the heritage of Rover’s power unit.
Despite limited visual changes, the Tasmin underwent significant changes under the skin in its transformation into the V8 powered 350i. The spaceframe was widened by 1.5in, a change overseen by chief development engineer, John Box. Alongside this, the anti-roll bar was relocated, and the suspension was stiffened considerably.
When the 350i hit the market in August 1983, the now renamed 280i continued to be sold alongside, but it didn’t remain in production for long – UK and European demand died-up almost immediately as the world fell in love with the the new more powerful sports car. Roger Bell, writing for CAR magazine’s September 1983 issue was suitably impressed. He said, ‘Acceleration is fierce, if not supercar fierce – though maybe it would be with full house power. With its experimental exhaust, the test car not only sounded like a dragster, it took off like one.’
He continued: ‘There are quicker accelerating rivals like the Lotus Esprit Turbo for instance, but few get the adrenaline flowing quite so freely. Off the line, the Blackpool Bomber is sheer dynamite. Figures alone tell half the story.’ But it was also the flexibility that impressed, ‘Floor the throttle when waffling in fifth at 700rpm, and the rumbling growl of the exhaust hardens but doesn’t falter. As the pace quickens, more rapidly than the lazy beat suggests, there’s nothing so rude as snatch or vibration to deter such apparent abuse.’
Bell concluded, ‘Imperfect it may be, the £14,800 350i gave me more undiluted motoring entertainment than any car I’ve driven since a Ferrari 275GTB/4 over a decade ago. Kinked wings? Who cares?’
The power race
In late 1984, the 390SE with 275bhp was unveiled, and the supercar establishment really did begin to look inwards. With a price tag of around £20,000, it was little more than the cost of a fully-specced Porsche 944, and yet with its new Andy Rouse-tuned 3905cc V8, the 390SE was capable of 0-60mph in 5.0secs and could top out (if you were brave) at around 150mph. The TorSen differential and uprated four-pot calipers did their best to harness the surfeit of power, as did the new sticky Yokohama rubber, but this was a car for skilled drivers – and limited sales clearly proved this.
But the 390SE was the mere entree, because less than two years on, the 420SEAC took the TVR maxim for ultimate power and excitement to new heights. The car, which was so specialist in nature it had its own area of the factory, was developed in house during 1986 by TVR development engineer, Chris Schirle. In case you’re wondering, SEAC means ‘Special Edition Aramid Composite’, and denotes that this car has a composite for additional lightness and strength, even if the first 20 cars were made from Kevlar, with the final 20 being made from regular glass fibre.
CAR magazine’s Steve Cropley described the SEAC’s styling politely: ‘To our eyes it looks tasteless and overdressed, yet it doesn’t miss being stylish by very much. Without the awful rear wing and more subtle, better integrated side skirts, the car could look very good indeed. Even beautiful. It certainly improves on the angularities of the standard wedge body. The TVR is certainly noticed and most people you meet are glad it’s British. But many don’t consider it grown up enough to justify its £30,000 tag.’
But it was actually the way it went that really created the headlines for TVR. Cropley again: ‘The sheer thrust of the engine is breathtaking. You want to overtake someone? You just do it. Almost any gap is enough. As long as the engine is turning over 2500rpm, any gear is fine. Just 2000rpm is enough if you’re in any gear below fourth. Accelerate with 4000rpm on the clock and your spine is thrust so far back into the seat that it threatens to fuse the sponge rubber solid.
‘The SEAC, which has very good traction rushes way past 40mph in first, powers to nearly 70mph in second (having shattered 5.0secs for 0-60mph) reaches precisely 100mph in third, will show 140mph in fourth and (TVR says) can do 165mph in top. That bit we must take on trust – this is a privately owned car. Zero to 100mph times of 12.0sec (not much slower than the AC Cobra 427′s time of 10.8secs) seem within this car’s province. But it delivers Ferrari speed and performance in a truly relaxed fashion.’
At the same time the SEAC made its first public appearance in 1986, TVR unveiled the 420 Sports Saloon prototype. It was a clear development of the Tasmin, but extended into a 2+2 tourer – with rather unhappy styling. Peter Wheeler was never one not to listen to his customers, so when they gave it a thumbs down at the Birmingham Motor Show, he left the car as a one-off…
But the Tasmin Wedge wasn’t finished yet, even if the SEAC was too fast to race, and Peter Wheeler’s own White Elephant prototype one-off showed that there was life in the body. And even if the Holden powered monster never made it into production, many of the styling tweaks that were introduced on it made it into production as part of the 400SE/450SE restyle from 1988. Under the freshly rounded nose, its V8 was increased in size to 3948cc, and performance was just as vivid as before, but with improved high speed stability.
In 1989, the larger engined 450SE appeared, boasting an extra 45bhp to take the total up to 320bhp for supercar slaying acceleration. It was these later high powered V8s that truly filled the gap left by those Griffiths and Tuscans from the 1960s, but also establishing the unfortunate ‘widowmaker’ reputation that would dog TVR to the end…
But these were legendary cars – and although the Tasmin line would end in 1991, to be replaced by the retro powered S roadster, and then the Griffith (undoubtedly the best-looking British sports car ever made), its standing among TVR enthusiasts remains undimmed. And even though it looked distinctly rocky following the promising launch, Peter Wheeler’s astute creation of the V8 engined car, rates alongside the creation of the AC Cobra as one of those truly special moments in British sports car history.