One of our long-term Undiscovered Classics brethren, Guy Dirkin, has just completed the restoration of his super-rare TVR Tuscan with his friend and co-owner of the car – Paul Guinn. This is definitely not your ordinary TVR, and you’ll learn why in this article. Many years ago, Guy put together a detailed and well-researched history on this car. We’re honored here at Undiscovered Classics to share this 2-part story with you today. Let’s learn more about this car in Guy Dirkin’s words in part 1 of this story below.
Hope you enjoy, and thanks again to Guy Dirkin for sharing this.
The 1970 TVR Tuscan – Part 1
By Guy Dirkin, Ph.D.
In 1995, I purchased a 1970TVR Tuscan. Restoration of the car followed a on again-off again path until about five years ago when Paul Guinn approached me and asked if I wished to sell the car. I declined as it was the car I always wanted when I was a young man. Paul and I compromised, and I sold him a 50% share in the car. Paul had already restored another TVR Tuscan (chassis number MAL 017) and he has spent thousands of hours finishing our car, chassis number MAL 019. Paul’s meticulous restoration has preserved this rare and historically significant car and I cannot thank him enough for his attention to detail and hard work.
The 1970 TVR Tuscan has been called the “wide-body Tuscan”, as the cars body was four inches wider than its predecessor below the waistline. The wide-body Tuscan is the rarest production TVR with a distinct body shell; theoretically the fastest TVR produced in a quarter century, with a potential top speed of over 170 mph and is historically significant in being the design transition between the models of the 1960’s and the successful M-Series of the 1970’s. The wide-body Tuscan body shells were placed upon chassis with the prefix MAL, derived from the initials of Martin Arthur Lilley, the Managing Director of TVR Engineering at the time.
In reviewing the literature and history pertinent to the wide-body Tuscan much misinformation exists about these cars. For example, 22 not 21 cars were built by TVR Engineering; of the 22 MAL chassis prefixed cars that were built, a maximum of 9 were built with the wide body shell; the wide body Tuscan was introduced in 1970 and not at the 1968 New York Motor Show; they did not all have Ford Boss 302 cu. in. These issues will be detailed below.
This is a historical background document that focuses on the wide-body TVR Tuscan, but also, by necessity, examines the business climate facing TVR Engineering prior to and during wide body Tuscan production. Documenting the last of the Lilley era V8 powered cars became a separate project independent of the restoration of our car. It became clear early in the research that to understand the significance of the wide body Tuscan in the evolution of TVR it is also necessary to understand that the TVR products of the 1960’s and 1970’s were inextricably woven together with the business climate of the time. In short, the wide body Tuscan extended and brought closure to the product life cycle of the 1960’s TVR’s and also provided a design bridge to the core product of the 1970’s: the M series TVR.
The wide body Tuscan was built in the critical years during which the Lilleys built the TVR business into a going concern. TVR was founded by Trevor (TreVoR) Wilkinson in 1947. Martin Lilley and his father took over TVR in late 1965. Several authors have referred to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as the “turning point” for TVR as a business. Admittedly, there are many examples of crisis’s and their resolution that left TVR to fight another day. In terms of pivotal turning points, the transition to the M series by the Lilleys and the late 1980’s evolution led by Peter Wheeler are definitely historical business cross roads.
Modern road test writers often spend one or two paragraphs pointing out that Trevor Wilkinson “followed his bliss” and created the TVR marque. (Quotation from interview with Wilkinson by the author in 1990. Wilkinson was responding to a question about what was his initial motivation to build a car. He had heard a radio program in which Joseph Campbell had used the term “follow your bliss” and Wilkinson decided to take the plunge into automobile manufacture).
Journalists then tend to jump to the Wheeler era, completely by-passing or giving brief mention to the Lilley period. Martin Lilley built a specialty sports car company that provided the brand equity base for Peter Wheeler to capitalize upon. The basis of TVRs brand equity was the M Series TVR. The forerunner of the M Series was the wide body Tuscan.
The goal of this review is to provide a synopsis of the last of the first generation V8 Tuscan cars and how these cars were melded into the evolution of TVR as a company. Hopefully, this synopsis will be of interest and use to anyone interested in the TVR marque. As I do not want to be the next writer to be guilty of misrepresenting the facts, I would be grateful for any substantiated information that could be added to this record. Please contact me at email@example.com.
A note to the reader. I do not wish to cover general information about the history of the TVR. I am assuming that the reader is reasonably familiar with the basic books and articles on the TVR marque. Please refer to the main TVR literature sources if you would like to expand upon, confirm or reinterpret some or all of the information presented here.
The Business Climate at TVR Engineering Prior To And During
The Development And Sale Of The Wide Body Tuscan
After Martin and Arthur Lilley bought the TVR business in November 1965, it is well documented that the first eighteen months or so of their management saw only modest changes to the core TVR product. The Grantura evolved into the Vixen SI, moving from 1800 cc. MGB power to 1500 cc Ford power, in part as a response to the drying up of engines willingly supplied by British Leyland.
The body shell of the short wheel base Tuscan and Vixen S 1 was virtually identical to the Griffith 400 and Grantura Mark IV 1800S. Both cars had the same 7ft. 1 1/2 in wheelbase chassis, designed by John Thurner and used on production cars since 196The Griffith 400 was renamed Tuscan in an effort to disassociate the new company from the reputation for poor build quality that had grown around the Griffith in the important US market These initiatives enabled TVR to continue to sell cars and begin to plan and test new products in a precariously unstable financial environment.
The importance of the United States market, was much more than disguising the Griffith under a new name. From the early 1960’s until the mid 1980’s between 50 and 75% of all TVR’s were sold in the US market, US regulations and consumer preferences were very influential in the evolution of TVR. The US specialty car buying public likes individuality but was only prepared to put up with so many quirks in their cars, ultimately requiring them to run relatively trouble free. The United States had a consistent influence on product development decisions and planning at TVR Engineering.
Merging Product Cycles: Juggling the Present with the Future
It was challenging to think of a framework that could organize events and provide a rationale for the timing and factors that influenced decisions at TVR Engineering in the late 1960’s. The concept of the overlap between product life cycles provides such a framework. At TVR two product cycles can be delineated by the two chassis used in production cars between 1962 and 1980. The first chassis was the round tube 16 gauge chassis designed by Thurner and used, with minor changes, between 1962 and 1971 and, second, the combination round tube (14 and 16 gauge) and square section chassis designed by Mike Bigland and used from 1972-1980.
Most products have a life cycle from launch to peak growth, to the point when the product is upgraded or replaced. Usually, consumer fads like the hula hoop have a short life cycle. As a plastic hoop does not require the same investment in tools and manufacturing plant as a car, such consumer fads can still be profitable. A car, on the other hand, even one produced by hand in a cottage industry setting like the TVR in the early years, takes time to pay back the invested dollars. The auto manufacturing giants have become very good at rebodying and/or manipulating power plants to extract out some revenue in the last years of the products life to pay for the tooling up of an all new car.
When the Lilley’s took over TVR Engineering I am sure they had aspirations to build interesting sports cars. Gerry Sagerman, at the helm of TVR Cars of America from the mid 1960’s to 1980, said that he and Martin Lilley were primarily enthusiasts. Probably the kind of sports cars that Lilley and Sagerman had in mind were a little on the hairy side! The trick, however, was to figure out how to stay in business long enough to have the chance to build the type of car that an enthusiast would be proud of.
Resolving this chicken and egg scenario depended on selling cars, produced in the existing plant, maximizing production efficiency and minimizing production and marketing expenses. The revenue could then be used to leverage time, money and resources to make the necessary investment to build new cars. By extending the product life cycle of the existing TVR cars, the company was able to survive long enough to develop the M series car that served as the basis for the economic stability and the value of the company as a going concern. The wide body Tuscan was significant in being the last extension of the product life cycle inherited by the Lilley’s, yet provided the style design bridge to the emerging M series product to be built on the all new chassis designed by Mike Bigland in 1971.
During the years of the Thurner chassis based products, embryonic steps towards the M Series began almost immediately after the Lilley purchase of TVR in late 1965. The road to the M series has milestones containing amongst others the Tina(s); the wide body Tuscan; the Zante and peripheral design efforts such as the Gem: These prototypes (technically the wide body Tuscan had a marginal production run) were built in parallel with tweaking (and stretching) of the existing 1960’s cars currently being sold to generate revenue.
Behind the scenes at TVR, which may appear somewhat chaotic at first glance, was a managed effort to move ahead systematically. TVR Engineering was not moving forward by any text book standards of product development, but progress was being made. Admittedly, this progress would be interspersed by managing the immediate crisis of the day, week or month but the success of the 1970’s happened because of steps taken, and experienced gained years earlier.
Initially, the Lilley’s invested in the development of the Hilman Imp based, Fiore designed, TVR Tina. The Tina prototypes indicated that TVR was capable of managing the design and building of a product that would sell, as orders were received based solely on the display model at the 1967 London Motor Show. Years later the second-generation Griffith and the Cerbera followed the same “if people tell us they want to buy it, we will build it” marketing and product development strategy.
The primary difference, however, between the two marketing eras was that in the late 1980’s TVR had the necessary funds to produce cars in volume and actually fill orders. The construction of the Tina in any kind of volume to meet demand was not possible given the state of the company’s finances in late 1967. While TVR Engineering was enjoying confidence, buoyed by the reception of the Tina, the stark business reality looming over the enthusiasm was that the company lost a lot of money, relative to its assets. Filby, in his book Success Against the Odds, indicated that the year end loss in 1967 was £47,000.
The Lilley management plan for 1968, considered a make or break year, was to build cars, sell cars and keep overhead to a bare minimum. Although enthusiasm is important in growing a business, businesses are generally based upon a solid core product. The sane approach was to move the business forward with small positive steps, rather than shooting for the moon with the Tina. It was relatively simple to stretch the chassis (from 85 1/2-90 inches) to counteract a well voiced criticism that the short wheel base cars were difficult to get in and out of.
The Tina body shell on the Hillman Imp floor-pan would have meant a significant deviation in production methodology and/or a significant management challenge to control outsourced production, even if the company had had the funds to follow through. It is worth noting that the backbone chassis and moulded body shells are still the construction signature of TVR. By massaging the current core product and running the proverbial tight ship, a profitable level of production of four cars per week was gradually achieved on a consistent basis during 1968. Robson in The TVR’s:
Grantura to Tasmin noted that TVR claimed 75 detail changes between the Vixen S 1 and S2, launched with the long wheel base chassis in 1968. These detail improvements provide a good example of a company pointing out to the public that progress is indeed made in small positive steps. The public, however, tends to view only the three or four main positive and negative features in passing judgment over a product.
There comes a point when small steps are just not enough. Filby noted that in a road test report of the Vixen S I by Autocar the test summary stated: “The basic shape has altered little in ten years”*). Change to the core product would be necessary if TVR expected to grow its business (*Actually, the statement was “The basic TVR shape has remained largely unchanged for years ….. ” and the test car was a Vixen S2, discussed in a road test report in the June 26, 1969 edition of Autocar.).
The Lilley’s recognized that the current TVR products were becoming dated and they were ready to add their personal interpretation to the TVR marque. The Gem, built by TVR associate Tommy Entwistle, was a new shell built on the old chassis. The significance of the Gem is two fold. First the car was a tangible step in the process of “see and feel” car building. The current development of modern TVR under the management of Peter Wheeler relies heavily on design work based upon shaping a body from polystyrene rather than from design sketches. The Gem, as did several other prototypes, served as a design baseline from which the path to the future was guided. The second significant value of the Gem was that the rear of the car contained the design elements for the rear of the wide body Tuscan.
When Mike Bigland designed a replacement for the chassis in current production in 1971, the chassis was designed independently of what body shell would ultimately end up on the frame. The new chassis solved several practical problems which were critical priorities to company growth. The chassis was easier to build reducing production time and was stronger than the chassis in current production. The Zante was the first prototype shell designed to fit the new (M series to be) chassis. The Zante was definitely a new look and it should be noted had an opening rear gate. These projects underscore that aside from the hectic requirements of building cars to sell as soon as possible, work activity within TVR was also spent planning and developing the next generation of TVR’s.
The 1970 TVR Tuscan as M Series TVR Prototype
During the same period that the M Series frame was being designed and constructed the first-generation design for the M series body style was the wide body Tuscan shell. By fitting this shell to the Thurner chassis currently in production, public reaction could be gauged and the cars could actually generate revenue within a reasonable time frame. As is well known, the wide body Tuscan was very similar to the M Series car. On page 77 of John Tipler’s book TVR: The Complete Story there is a photograph with the following caption: “A sultry model poses with the Taimar in 1978. Bonnet lines are by now uncluttered with extra air intakes.” The car in the picture was in fact a wide-body Tuscan indicating just how similar the late 1969 design actually was to the M-Series car! Given that the wide body Tuscan received favorable reviews, according to Filby, from the automotive press and specialty car buying public, why wasn’t the wide body Tuscan the M series shell?
The explanation for the failure of the wide body Tuscan to be used as the M Series body shell (with a modified floor pan) once again reflects a myriad of factors and the juggling of old and new products. Even though the automotive press was becoming critical of the long in the tooth body style of the Vixen, Gerry Sagerman noted that the 2500 Vixen was beginning to sell in the US. Ironically, the increased demand for the Thurner chassis-based cars came at a time when the manufacturing life of the car was coming to a close.
Sagerman: ” It was time for new production molds existing molds were “hatching” poor quality shells which required excessive hand labor to finish the cost of a new or old shape was the same”. The wide body Tuscan rear clip had been pulled from modified versions of the same molds that were showing signs of age in general production. In addition, the wide body Tuscan “needed more development i.e. hardware (hinges, latches, etc. needed re-sourcing to cope with lager mass, window frames and window mechanisms were very expensive and supply was limited) and to do it properly would have taken time and money” (Sagerman, pc, November 1996). Lilley (quoted in Filby pp 146) agreed: “If of course I’d been prepared to spend another year losing money, I could have stuck at it and developed that car into very good TVR. But there wasn’t the time or the money and I’d been through it all before”.
The new shell and the production of new molds, that Sagerman referred to above, were not under discussion/or the M Series during 1970 and 1971. Martin Lilley’s management focus, money and hope for the future of TVR was invested in the Zante. It has been reported elsewhere (e.g. Filby) that Sagerman did not think the Zante would sell in the important US market. Sagerman: “He (Martin) wanted a “properly designed” body with a new shape and paid to have a wind tunnel tested, model shape designed by the same people who did McLaren race cars. Unfortunately, the end result, although aerodynamically correct, was an ergonomic mess. I personally put over 1000 miles on the prototype after the New York show, made all kinds of seating etc. changes, to no avail. I think Martin experienced the same in the UK.” (Sagerman pc. November 1996).
The M Series, then, arose from a multiplicity of factors, some going back over several years. The transition from the wide body Tuscan to the M Series, rather than the Tuscan to the Zante, was a much more logical growth step: feeding the demand for the type of TVR’s that were beginning to sell in the United States. The step forward to the M series was less risky than gambling upon a production version of the Zante. We know that after M series production was halted that the era of the wedge-shaped cars of the 1980’s almost killed TVR. Martin Lilley indicated that any resemblance to the Zante, as an early wedge style car was purely coincidental (pc February 1997).
Gerry Sagerman underscored that the course of TVR was affected more and more by compliance to US federal regulations, as well as the US customer. Regulations led to the selection of the detoxed, easy to service, six cylinder Triumph engine for the US market and the M Series frame would perform better under the mandatory crash tests.
Several other factors are worth noting regarding the cessation of wide body Tuscan production. The distance at the back of the body behind the rear window was not long enough to cope with an opening rear hatch, which was a design requirement years before the Taimar actually made an opening rear hatch a reality (Sagerman pc 1996). Filby mentions that the Ford 1600 engine (the 1600 M would ultimately fill the void left by the Vixen for those interested in fuel economy which was becoming a worldwide concern at the time) looked too small within the engine bay of the wide body Tuscan.
Personally, I would not weight this issue very heavily as the top frame rails of the M series frame are wider than on the Thurner designed frame, equalizing the scale under the bonnet between metal and fiberglass. The wide body Tuscan cars were also taking up to three times as long to build as a Vixen, taking resources away from production that could more easily generate sales. These issues and those relating to the production molds and the Zante project, began to add up. The wide body Tuscan shell just wasn’t going to work. Wide body Tuscan production was cut by autumn of 1970, although final assembly and sales ran into 1971.
Producing the wide body Tuscan shell was valuable in several ways beside the exercise in design. First, the work force at TVR Engineering and production plant management, were able to gain valuable experience in body buck shaping, mold making and fiber glass shell production. Prior to the wide-body Tuscan, body shell production was sub-contracted to Grantura Plastics. Sub-contractor price mark-up adds cost to the finished product that can be saved, over time, if production can be brought in house.
There is also the ever-present risk of supply problems from the sub-contractor, potentially causing primary product production to cease. (In the case of TVR, Grantura Plastics, under Bernard Williams, actually influenced the survival of TVR during the down times by promoting TVR to investors, which in turn kept a valuable customer for Grantura Plastics). By not having to rely for production continuity from a sub-contractor, added security to TVR’s ability to manage its business. Long term cost savings of in-house body production would directly influence margins in the 1970’s if production volume goals were met. Producing the wide-body Tuscan assisted TVR in moving into an era of greater independence and production autonomy.
I mentioned above that each wide body Tuscan lost money and that building the cars were fraught with fit and finish problems. If the car is viewed as a prototype and production exercise, then a financial loss would be more usual. Such is the price of progress. When sold, the pricing of the wide body Tuscan was in the range of an E- Type which was certainly ambitious, but was probably necessary given the need to recover as high a percentage of the money invested in development as possible. As a realistic price point it was too high: another lesson learned.
Summary: Part 1
The wide-body Tuscan was a significant development exercise in the business history and evolution of TVR. The body shell was the prototype for the M-Series cars. The M-Series cars stabilized the TVR business for almost a decade in the 1970? s and built the business to a sufficient critical mass that the Wheeler era was able to evolve into a model of specialty manufacturing by the end of the 1980’s.
When production of the last Tuscan V8 was completed in 1970-71 it also reflected the retreat of the enthusiast element of Lilley and Sagerman in favor of more sound and Federally compliant business practices. TVR Engineering was rewarded with the opportunity to produce in volume, and sell, the practical and drivable M-Series: and make money. The V8 TVR’s, and particularly the theoretical configuration of the Boss 302 cu. in. powered wide-body Tuscan, perhaps represented the end of TVR’s adolescence as a car company.
The post Lilley V8 years certainly witnessed a new maturity, but like the recollections of our own adolescence which are passionately burned into one’s memory, the raging excess of “big engine small car” I am sure did not pass without a drop of remorse. It perhaps underscores the personal taste of Lilley and Sagerman that the two wide body shelled cars that were built for their personal use had, or at least were intended to have, the Boss 302 cu. in. motor.
The passing of the early V8 TVR’s does not mean that their essence will ever fade. Today, TVR’s are once again powered by V8 engines. Power to weight ratio is important to the creation of the current demand for modem TVR sports cars. Even the exhaust note of the Rover/Buick based engine is contrasted and discussed as a driver satisfaction variable when compared to the higher technology AJP V8 engine.
The legacy of the early V8 cars certainly lives on.
Guy Dirkin, Ph.D.
Great thanks to Guy Dirkin for sharing this story.
We’ll post part 2 next so those of you interested can read, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.” And for those of you who want to learn more about Guy’s background and interest in cars, you can click on the following link to his “Personality Profile” on our website:
The adventure continues here at Undiscovered Classics.
Part 2 of the story is now available: