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TVR Tasmin/200-450 (1980 - 1991)

Last updated 21 October 2013

 
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Model Timeline

August 1977
TVR boss 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. Oliver Winterbottom was chosen as the designer to pen the 3000M/Taimar’s replacement. 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.

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.

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.

January 1979
TVR Tasmin technical package takes shape

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.

TVR Tasmin's tubular backbone chassis was surprisingly sophisticated

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.

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.

November 1979
First TVR Tasmins were built

January 1980
TVR Tasmin launched at the Brussels motor show

The Tasmin was the first significant UK car launch of the 1980s. 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 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.

October 1980
Convertible and 2+2 models announced at the Birmingham motor show

TVR Tasmin +2

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.

June 1983
Rover V8 installed to create the 350i

TVR 350i

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?’

October 1984
390SE launched

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.

August 1986
TVR 420 and 450SEAC launched

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.

TVR 420SEAC
October 1986
420 Sports Saloon concept unveiled. It never made production

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…

TVR 420 Sports Saloon TVR White elephant

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.

November 1988
TVR 400 and 450SE launched

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.

TVR SEAC

October 1991
TVR Wedge production ended

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