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Thursday 8th December

Is TVR cursed? A Top Gear investigation

Trying to jumpstart TVR, or build a hairy-chested rival sports car, often ends in disaster. Why?

  • Ahh, the wonderfully bonkers TVR Sagaris...

    TVR is a legend in the sports car world. Unfortunately, like most legends, it’s been dead a long time. And instead of leaving it cold and underground, people keep trying to bring it back.

    Things looked rosy after its Russian buyout in 2004, but since the umpteenth bankruptcy in 2006, TVR hasn’t made a new car. Old Sagaris models have been re-engineered with American V8s, and there’s been a revival attempt featuring a new Griffith, and a factory that doesn’t exist. But nothing fresh you can actually buy. Yet.

    Every few years, a carmaker plunges headlong into this void with its own relatively affordable, hairy-chested, no-nonsense sports car, promising to harness the TVR magic but avoid the pesky financial oblivion. And in almost every case, it’s tanked. Bombed. Sunk without trace in Porsche-infested waters.

    Why is that? Why does anything that tries to do a TVR’s job – even TVR itself – dissolve on contact with the public? Let’s investigate the candidates.

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  • Jensen S-V8

    In production: 2001-2002
    Cost when new: £34,650
    Where are they now? The Jensen marque has been dissolved, but Jensen International Automotive carries out stunning restomods of the classic V8 Interceptor. 

    This is quite possibly the quintessential story of a British sports car revival. It’s got the lot: respected name, open-top styling, American power… and not enough money. Or customers.

    Reviving the name of the classic British manufacturer that’d survived from 1922-1976, the Jensen S-V8 was revealed at the 1998 British motor show, following a £10million investment that included funding from the UK government and Liverpool City Council. 

    Think of it as a Mazda MX-5 on ‘roids. Capable of 0-60mph in under five seconds, the S-V8 was lobbed down the road by a hulking 4.6-litre Ford Mustang V8. The back-to-basics roadster sparked enough interest to snare 110 orders, but reputedly only 10 or 20 cars ever left the factory before the money ran out. Still, probably a better use of taxpayer cash than Boris Johnson’s riot control water cannon.

  • MG XPower SV

    In production: 2003-2005
    Cost when new: £65,000
    Where are they now? Bought out by the Chinese. They’ll sell you a bargain-basement supermini, or a surprisingly not-bad electric Nissan Qashqai copycat, but no nitrous-injected coupes.

    Fabulous tale, this. The SV’s brutally handsome bodywork was styled by British car design royalty Peter Stevens, who sketched the McLaren F1, Jaguar XJR-15 and, get this, the Rover 75 estate. Never have Fiat Punto headlights looked so good. 

    After buying out Italian sports car start-up Qvale, MG set about cooking up a new sports car flagship based on the Qvale Mangusta, which itself was already the reheated leftovers of a failed attempt to resurrect DeTomaso. The plan was to cloak an US-approved Ford Mustang V8 in lightweight composite body panels, then sell the result to gung-ho Brits after a road-going Spitfire, and enthusiastic Americans chasing some British pedigree instead of a Corvette. 

    The base model cost £65k and served up 320bhp. An uprated £83,000 version took that to 400bhp, at a time when 400bhp was what you got from Ferrari’s latest supercar, the 360 Modena. And then, as a range-topper, MG planned to fit a nitrous-injection system, to deliver 1,000bhp. Heck.

    Problem was, this simple sports car was complicated to make. The basic carbon fibre was made in the UK, then shipped to Turin to be made into a body panel, then taken back to the UK to be put on the car itself. And at a time when MG Rover was teetering on the brink, it really couldn’t afford its V8 gamble to fail. Which it did. Only 82 SVs were ever built (including prototypes), and apparently as few as nine were sold before MG Rover went bust in 2005.  Why hasn't this been made into a movie yet?

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  • Marcos TSO

    In production: 2004-2007
    Cost when new: £49,950
    Where are they now? Very dead. So expect a rendering of a new Marcos electric hypercar any day now.

    Spotting a theme of lightweight two-seaters with big American V8s yet?

    Good. Welcome to the Marcos TSO. Now, Marcos is a name with a long and storied history in British motoring, and motorsport, with its often-quirky-looking cars, and names like ‘Mantis’, ‘Mantula’ and ‘Mantara’. ‘TSO’ doesn’t really inspire, does it?

    Under the long bonnet, it featured a 5.7-litre Chevrolet V8, with up to 400bhp. Under the wheels was handling set up by Prodrive. Initially, it was announced to be exclusive to the Australian market, but by 2006 Marcos was promising a European debut – just as TVR had gone bang –  and an £8,000 Performance Pack option. This took power to 460bhp, added bigger brakes, stiffer suspension, and promised 0-100mph in 8.1 seconds. Perfect for the gap in the sports-car-that-wants-to-kill-you market, then.

    However, administration kneecapped the TSO by the end of 2007, with only a handful of cars ever completed. Yep, definitely spotting a theme there.

  • Weismann MF3

    In production: 2005
    Cost when new: £60,000
    Where are they now? Went bust in 2014, been promising a comeback since 2019 with BMW-powered ‘Project Gecko’

    See, it’s not just the British who have a go at making a vindictively powerful, health-and-safety-phobic sports car only for it to spit fuel in their face. The Germans have been burned too.

    Weismann, it’s fair to say, wasn’t your average industrial estate bodge job. Its cars were built in a factory shaped like a giant gecko, using BMW M Division mechanicals and almost Pagani-spec attention to material detail. They were basically like what Morgan would be, if Germany had won the war. “Look vot we haff here, a retro schports car for ze powersliding into der hedgerow.”

    The entry-level MF3 was in fact an E46 BMW M3 wearing streamlined, art-deco fancy dress. Reviews at the time lauded its balance, performance and comfort, and it looked like the Germans had ‘done a TVR’ better than TVR ever could. But then they ‘did a TVR’ by going into administration, though Weismann lasted longer than most and has made noises about a return to the sports car fray. Here’s hoping. We need more cars called ‘MF’.

  • BMW Z4M

    In production: 2006-2008
    Cost when new: £42,750
    Where are they now? Well, there’s been no proper M Division Z4 since 2008, but BMW seems to be doing alright. It sold 2.5 million cars in 2019.

    Yep, even BMW couldn’t help itself. It had to have a go at the classic TVR recipe, of a big straight six slung out front, two seats perched over the rear axle, and a manual gearbox. The Z4M promised the world. You even got a choice of bodystyles: classic soft-top, or the edgy, cooler Z4M Coupe. The best Bangle design ever? Quite possibly. 

    How could it fail? Well, BMW does tend to get rather confused when it builds a sporting flagship, whether it be the Z8… or the M8… and even the i8. It can never seem to make its mind up what it wants the car to actually be.

    With the Z4M, it clearly wanted a super-sharp sports car that would pull a Porsche Boxster’s trousers down, then vomit in them and laugh. So, it fitted the 338bhp two-seater with extremely firm suspension. It was so stiff, it had a reputation for a being a real handful, not helped by the numb, overly quick steering.

    Then there was enemy within: the M3. The Z4M shared BMW M’s range with the soon-to-be-killed-off E46 M3, which had the same engine, twice as many seats, a bigger boot and only weighed 60kg more. Plus, it didn’t vaporise your skeleton every time it went over a pothole. As a result, the Z4M never stepped out from the Boxster/Cayman shadow, and then when the E92 M3 V8 came along, it was quietly axed. The modern Z4 M40i is easily quicker, but it’s no thriller. 

  • Bristol Bullet

    In production: Forget it.
    Cost when new: ‘under £250,000’
    Where are they now? RIP

    Bristol’s one of the most eccentric British car marques ever to have existed, but it was hardly known for a high turnover of new models. Back in 2016, a shiny new revival was promised, spearhead by the Bullet roadster. 

    Fine, with a mooted price tag of around a quarter of a million quid, this was nothing like as affordable as a TVR. But hey, it’s British, it’s as weatherproof as newspaper umbrella, and there’s no airbag. It’s a TVR that married into the royal family. 

    Earmarked for construction in Chichester, weighing in at 1,100kg thanks to carbon fibre panels, and powered by a 4.8-litre BMW V8 (though electric models were being mooted as a follow-up), the 370bhp Bullet was reputedly good for 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds and billed as “a unique speedster [that] sets the tone for the future of Bristol Cars – with a focus on luxury, performance and elegance”.

    None of the 70 production cars were ever built or sold, as far as we can tell, and the whole company fell into administration in early 2020. And another (pricey) TVR might’ve-been got the erm, Bullet. Sorry.

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  • TVR Griffith

    In production: Not yet. Tick-tock…
    Cost when new: £90,000
    Where are they now? Waiting to refurbish the derelict factory after it was damaged by an illegal rave. Really. 

    Yep, even TVR itself has slipped on the dreaded comeback banana skin. That’s TVR Automotive, the rejuvenated face of the brand rising from the ashes of its ill-fated oligarch buyout in 2004. The new Griffith has promised Gordon Murray-designed carbon construction, a 5.0-litre Ford V8, a 200mph top speed and a return to motorsport, all for £90,000, for the launch editions. And they were supposed to, well, launch, by early 2019. And then 2020.

    There’s a lot of skin in this game. The Welsh government has invested £2million in the project and owns a 3 per cent stake in the business – useful for funding the revamp of the proposed Ebbw Vale factory, but bad for getting caught up in EU red tape. 

    As of early 2020 the factory was still a wreck, due to what TVR called “the need to clarify a number of unknowns within the building such as the discovery of some harmful and unusual substances, and the condition of the main roof and the fire system’s water storage tanks”. The BBC reported the site had been damaged by an illegal rave in 2018. Whoops.

    Way back in 2016, boss Les Edgar was telling that “TVRs are about wheelspin outside the local pub”. Four years on, that barrel is still empty. He also told us you have to be ‘bonkers’ to set up a British sports car company. Fancy that.

  • Jaguar F-Type R

    In production: 2013-present
    Cost when new: from £50k (4cyl)
    Where are they now? Jaguar’s financial results have been none too healthy of late, but the F-Type’s just had a facelift and a suite of new engines. Surely the curse can’t strike here?

    Here’s the thing about the TVR Griffith comeback – why not just buy a Jag F-Type? The burly Jag is the closest modern equivalent to a TVR: it’s muscular yet pretty, it’s got two seats, it comes with or without a roof, and the early V8 rear-drive versions had so little traction they left more smoke in their wake than the Red Arrows. And more noise. Even the V6 F-Type was a hooligan. For the 575bhp SVR version, Jaguar gave it four-wheel drive to rein in the mayhem. 

    Plus, because Jaguar is a proper car company, the F-Type inherits the tricky bits most sports car companies can’t be bothered with. Sure, the touchscreen is patchy, but do you seriously think Bristol or Jensen or even TVR could do better? The air-con cools, the doors seal, and – in Top Gear’s experience of road testing them since 2013, at least – F-Types don’t break down. 

    Sure, it’s way too heavy, the steering’s short on feel but big on sensitivity, and you’ve seen Hot Wheels cars with bigger boots. But we’re glad the F-Type exists. Existing is something few cars that can claim to be a modern TVR actually manage…

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  • Mulholland Legend 480

    In production: Hopefully soon
    Cost when new: £90,000
    Where are they now? Give them a chance, the car was only announced this week. 

    And so to the new kid on the big block. Yep, it’s 2020, and still the new, wannabe TVRs are a-comin’. And this contender ain’t shy about its inspiration. Founder Graham Mulholland was a friend of the late TVR boss Peter Wheeler, and says the Legend is “the true successor for TVR” – a fast as hell, brutally pure… analogue experience”. It’s even been styled by a previous TVR designer. 

    Mulholland isn’t just a Twitter account and some bravado – it has pedigree in supplying motorsport teams with lightweight componentry. It’s based in Derby, but don’t hold that against them. It already has a factory lined up – and reckons it can have its carbon chassis ready to be filled with 480bhp of LS V8 in a little over a month. Ambitious stuff. 

    So, can Mulholland pull it off where so many others have fallen? Can it bring the low-weight, low-tech, big-power and bigger heart sports coupe back to life – before TVR itself – and end the dreaded curse? It seems to have the expertise, the production network, and the passion, but others have talked a good game before. Watch this space.

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