An all-British muscle car
22 February 2022
One of the great sports car shapes, evocative of its uncompromising power, the TVR is one for the purists. It’s rare and it’s British, with most of the pluses and few of the drawbacks that entails.
By Patrick Harlow
To tell the Griffith story, we need first to look at the Cobra. The AC Cobra is possibly one of the best-known cars in the world. It has featured on many TV shows and movies. Due to its simplicity, it has also been endlessly copied. Many people have built their own versions of this car through the replicas available in New Zealand and worldwide. Considering it is such a well-known and recognisable car, it’s surprising to realise the Cobra had a fairly short production run from 1962 to ’68, producing somewhere between 1000 and 1500 cars being built in the UK and the US.
- The concept that initiated the Cobra project was simple:
- Find a rich American citizen.
- Get them to take your small British sports car, give it a bit of a facelift, and make enough room to ...
- Stick an American V8 into it. Oh, and it had to have an awesome name, like Tiger (from the Rootes group), or Interceptor (by Jensen), or Cobra.
I drive a Trevcar
By the mid-’70s, most of these cars were gone, perhaps partly due to being such blatant gas guzzlers during an oil crisis. At the time, there was no obvious successor. However, British sportscar manufacturer Trevor Wilkinson was still around. He had started building cars in the late ’40s. Being an inventive sort of chap, he called his company Trevcar Motors. Happily, this name did not transfer to the cars he built. He had enough imagination to consider an owner in a pub being asked what sort of car they drove, and having to answer ‘a Trevcar’. So he further abbreviated his name and badged his cars TVRs. Having exhausted his marketing creativity, and highlighting the severe imbalance between this and his engineering creativity, he called his first three cars the TVR One, Two, and Three. These were followed by a mass-produced kit-set car called the ‘Sports Saloon’. The company was later renamed TVR Engineering and thanks to fibreglass and Wilkinson’s chassis design and building nous, TVR started to carve out a brand in its own right. All it needed now was a cool name, a US citizen, and an American V8.
Then in 1962, a US citizen by the name of Jack Griffith bought a TVR Grantura to race in the US at the Sebring circuit. He loved the car and believed that the addition of a V8 would make it even better. One account states that during a dinner Griffith declared to one of the guests by the name of Carroll Shelby — the gentleman responsible for the previously mentioned Cobra — that he could build a car that could outperform the Cobra. Shortly after, the Grantura chassis was widened slightly to allow the fitment of a new V8, with a few changes made to the bonnet, such as a bulge with three Ferrari GTO-like vents to provide additional cooling and, of course, a new name.
Enter the Griffith
In 1964, the TVR Griffith was born and about 260 examples rolled off the production line. With its Ford 4.7-litre V8 engine, it was a bit of a beast, and its short wheelbase and tricky handling meant that it could easily bite the unwary driver. Griffith, sounding a bit gruff, was coolish too.
In 1962, TVR went bankrupt for the first time and re-emerged as Grantura Engineering.
In 1965, Martin Lilly bought the company along with his father Arthur, and he focussed more on V6-powered TVRs and introduced the UK to the TVR Tasmin, or ‘Wedge’ as it was affectionately known. It was a shape that was either admired or ridiculed. By 1981, the almost bankrupt company was bought by TVR enthusiast Peter Wheeler. He realised that he had to sell the car in markets outside the UK to survive. Rather than looking to the US for a solution, he decided to fit the famous Rover V8 into the wedge-shaped car and called it the Tasmin/350i. Between 1984 and 1991, more than 1000 variations of this car were built. TVR was back in the black and it was time to reintroduce an old name on a new car. This new car was introduced during a worldwide recession by the end of which TVR would be the largest wholly British car manufacturer still in business.
At the 1990 Motor Show, on the TVR stand, sitting beside what would be the Wedge’s last hurrah — the Speed Eight — was a cartoonishly stylish car called the Griffith. During the show, Wheeler was happy with the 32 orders he received for the Speed Eight, but he was caught off guard by more than 300 orders he received for the Griffith.
A whopping 600 Griffiths were sold in its first year. For TVR, the Griffith heralded the kind of new beginning Wheeler had hoped for. It even helped the small company to survive the tumultuous financial times of the 1990s.
No clutter please, we’re British
The Griffith had a curvaceous body that rigorously resisted clutter. Shut lines for the doors and bonnet, often a weak point of fibreglass designs, were cleverly hidden by recesses and line breaks. The bonnet opened forwards after first being pulled backwards, and a front recess just in front of the bonnet allowed hot air from the radiator to escape over the car. To avoid breaking up the smooth rear shape, the fuel filler cap was hidden under the boot lid. Similarly, the interior continued the car’s quirky nature with more swooping curves. Door handles were unconventional if not perversely quirky. New owners had to remember to fiddle about under the dashboard to find them, on either side of the centre console. Normality returns in the fascia. It simply wouldn’t be an upmarket British sports car without wood veneer to set off the instruments.
This new Griffith was a modern version of everything the Cobra had been almost three decades earlier. Unlike the Cobra, it had luxury items such as windows that went up and down, a heater, and roof that kept most of the weather out but, most like the Cobra, it was totally bonkers. All the cars came standard with a five-speed manual and had a modern Rover V8 under the bonnet. Initially displacing four litres, by the end of the decade it had been increased to five litres and was producing 254kW (340hp) with a 0–100 kph time of 4.1 seconds. Items like ABS, traction control, and airbags were not part of the TVR recipe for a raw muscle car.
The Griffith grabbed the world’s attention as a sports car for purists and turned TVR from being just another maker of fibreglass sports cars into an iconic performance marque. The attention the company put into the small details like door knobs and switches, which were for some reason unlabelled, helped to keep the Griffith in a class by itself. At half the price of its foreign rivals, the Griffith was a beautiful, British-built car with serious performance, enough to embarrass most supercars.
Geoff Kelly, the owner of our feature car would know. Previous cars he has owned that fit into this niche was a C3 Corvette, which was followed by an Almac 427SC (a NZ-built replica of the AC Cobra). But by 2000, both of these cars were old school. He was looking for something more modern. He had seen an article on the launch of the TVR Griffith and it fitted the bill but TVRs were very thin on the ground. Fast Forward Motors in Auckland was one of the official importers of TVR in New Zealand and Geoff met Glyn Jones, the CEO, who was demonstrating a TVR Griffith at a Wings and Wheels day. Glyn let Geoff take the car for a drive. This demonstrator was a tweaked ex-Whittaker racing car. It was just too wild and woolly to be safe as an everyday car. Keen for a sale, Glyn let Geoff go for a drive in the Griffith’s twin sister, a Chimera. That was enough to convince Geoff. The next day, his Cobra was put on the market.
When he heard that another Auckland car company, Monaco Prestige Cars, had a 1998 TVR Griffith 500 (5-litre Rover V8), he took his Cobra out for a drive to check out the TVR and to discuss a possible trade. It was a yellow Griffith with leather interior. Once again, he found himself talking to another CEO who, coincidentally, had been searching for a Cobra for some time, and Geoff had just parked an excellent example on his forecourt. After some haggling over prices, the cars changed hands, with both owners believing they had the better deal.
Shortly after Geoff bought his car, new government legislation of cars meant that TVRs were no longer compliant, and no further TVRs were imported into the country unless they were at least 20 years old.
To date, Geoff has driven his TVR regularly and currently it takes the mantle for being the best car that he has ever owned. During his 20-plus years of ownership, the car has only required routine servicing. Geoff believes that the Rover V8 is still capable of its factory 320 horses. If it had been a dry day when I visited, he would have put all of them through their paces. Sadly, that will have to wait for another time.
When production of the Griffith finished in 2001, more than 2500 cars had rolled off the Blackpool production line. In 2006, six years after Geoff purchased his Griffith, TVR closed its doors. The marque went into limbo. Fortunately, the story did not finish because, after years of speculation and rumour, an all-new Griffith was revealed to the public in 2017, with deliveries due to start 18 months later.
It is now three years later, but at this stage no new cars have been delivered to customers. The TVR factory is now based in Wales and hopefully, one day soon, the TVR nameplate will once again be flashing about on the empty Welsh backroads on a brand new version of one of the world’s best British sports cars.
Classic Car: Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine. Read more New Zealand Classic Car content here on themotorhood.com.
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