“The engine had seized. The only way I could get the pistons out was to smash them with a heavy bar” Meet the tweaked and tuned TVR 2500 that proved the silver lining to a lost first love Words Mick Walsh. Photography John Bradshaw/Jm Photography.
The TVR 2500 that was reborn to race
There’s always a special attachment to our formative cars. The excitement of early motoring freedom and subsequent adventures live long in the memory. That nostalgia often stimulates a yearning to rediscover those memorable times through ownership renewal and dedicated restoration of that original machine. Mark ‘Hank’ Hankins’ first car, a Triumph Spitfire, was stolen after a few unforgettable early years, but its replacement, a 1971 TVR 2500 bought from his brother with the insurance money, was driven until it broke. He then pushed it into a barn in Cornwall, promising to one day restore it.
The link with Triumphs and Triumph-powered cars started with his father. “Dad had a TR4 with a Surrey Top and with my brother and sister we’d all squeeze in for trips,” recalls Hankins. “My Spitfire 1500, which I bought from my brother John, was very rusty and I ended up stripping it down before I could drive. It was great to work on and by the time I was 17 it was a really nice car. I owned it for five years and took it to art school in Falmouth. The student loan for my final year paid for a respray.”
The escapades with the Spitfire continued with Hankins’ first job in Italy: “I drove it to Montebelluna, just north of Venice, with a friend in his MG Midget. There were three Ferrari F40s in the town and I’ll never forget one pulling up alongside me at the traffic lights; everyone was more interested in my Spitfire! We had some great trips driving around the Dolomites, but coming back down from the mountains with a suspect master cylinder was nerve wracking.”
“I decided on a tentative trip to Box Hill to start running-in, but the car went so well I continued on to the south coast and back”
The Spitfire was eventually driven back to England: “It only had second, third and overdrive. No reverse or fourth. The car was loaded with all my luggage, and the GT6 wheels kept scraping the arches. It was stolen from outside my parents’ house. It was registered LOT 15R; I’d love to know what happened to it.”
The insurance money of £1700 was exactly what his brother wanted for his TVR 2500. “It was really rough, but I liked it and used it for several years,” says Hank. “The dark-blue metallic paintwork had flaked, the sunroof leaked and the interior was awful and ripped to shreds.
I used to commute in it from Blackheath to Bermondsey, but the starter was really dodgy and required a heavy hit with a hammer or someone to bump-start it. I remember asking a girl at work to sit in while I pushed; she took one look inside and said she’d rather push. The engine also suffered from petrol vaporisation in traffic – the fuel lines were all around the engine – and would leave me stranded. I remember pushing it around Hyde Park Corner in rush hour.”
After running the 2500 as his daily car for a few years, Hankins eventually took it off the road with the intention of just rebuilding the brakes and suspension: “I took it back to Cornwall in 1994 and rented a garage with a plan to work on it at weekends. Life in London became too busy and the TVR moved around various garages and barns as other cars absorbed my time. It was going to be my retirement project.”
Automotive distractions included a Renault Clio Williams, a Daimler Dart and a Porsche 928S, as well as various motorbikes ranging from a Sunbeam S7 Deluxe to MV Agustas. A Daimler Sovereign was enlisted to tow his kart, which with a friend Hankins raced in 4½-hour enduro events. “Karting was great fun but it became too expensive and we stopped in 2010,” he explains. “At that time my cousin needed the space where the TVR was stored, so I rented another garage in Cornwall with plans to start restoring the car.
I took out the engine and brought it back to London in my Mercedes CLK with the passenger seat removed. My boss, Chris Pring, lent me his engine stand and I started rebuilding it in a rented underground garage beneath my flat. It had no electricity and during the winter it was cold and damp, with the wind whistling through. I used to look like the Michelin man, with several layers on when working on the car. I had always maintained my cars but I’d never done anything on that level. As a result I was bit obsessive and bagged everything I could with labels.”
Removing the pistons was the first challenge: “The engine had completely seized. The only way I could get them out was using a heavy bar to smash them, and they eventually disintegrated. Revington TR wasn’t cheap but was always very helpful. Eventually I handed the block over to them for the machining.”
While the engine was away, Hankins made trips back to the south west to further strip the TVR and bring parts – brakes and suspension – back to London to rebuild: “My mate Pete Jordan was invaluable. He became my mobile mechanical helpline because my calls for advice were constant. I’d describe an issue and he always knew the answer.”
Back in Cornwall, the body was removed from the chassis and hung from the ceiling. “Although the main tubes were okay, the outriggers were completely rotten,” he recalls. “David Gerald TVR quoted £1500 to repair it but also offered a new one for £1800. A customer had backed out and the deal was too good to refuse. The original had been brazed but this was MIG-welded and better protected. I didn’t want it powder-coated because it’s impossible to patch if damaged, so I opted to paint it myself. I went for POR15, a rust-preventive paint, which is hideous stuff. You have to mix it in small batches because it dries hard in 15 minutes. In mid-winter over a weekend I started at one end before flipping it over to paint the other side with undercoat and then repeated with two paint layers. My lighting was battery-powered, but to see more I rolled it out between the garages. Once it was painted I started the reassembly with the help of friends James Mitchell and Ross Sharp. Ross was working for Pace Engineering and would get components powder-coated at work on the cheap. The engine was rebuilt with a Stage 2 head and over-sized valves. The bills came to about £15,000 even with me doing most of the assembly. John Leyland, a mechanic friend of James’, came round to check the timing and wouldn’t take any money for the work.”
The chassis slowly came together with further upgrades, including a quick steering rack, AP Racing four-pot front calipers, Alfin rear drums and AVO adjustable dampers, while a new close-ratio gearbox came from Enginuity. Other modifications included a Stag layshaft for stronger bearings and an overdrive: “The upgrades often became a challenge because not everything fitted or the new part had a knock-on effect with other problems.”
While the chassis progressed, Hankins returned to Cornwall to collect the body: “I hired a tail-lift van and with Pete’s help we drove it up to Blackpool one August Bank Holiday. The traffic was a nightmare, but it felt good taking it back to the old Bristol Avenue factory, where Surface & Design is now based. They are former TVR people and did a fantastic job. The sunroof was filled in, and old accident damage repaired. They also rebuilt all of the hinges, fitted window frames, and made footwell modifications so I could fit a third carburettor. The bill eventually came to £12,000.”
For the colour, Hankins wanted to include an element of the original yellow found under the blue paint, and the Ecurie Nationale Belge scheme on a Ferrari 250GTO became the inspiration. “I didn’t want a metallic silver, and Surface & Design kept sending me swatches but it was hard to judge,” Hankins says. “In the end I went for Rover Toga White with the contrasting yellow stripe done in vinyl.” With the body painted, and with the help of Mitchell and Sharp, the chassis was completed and taken up to Blackpool to fit the body: “The cars are notorious for not being symmetrical, but this one went together okay. My 2500’s body is bolted on but the later cars were bonded, which would have been a nightmare.”
With chassis and body finally back together, the project headed back to London for final finishing and detailing: “Electrics are my weak point, and because a loom wasn’t available I sent it to a specialist to be wired. They also fitted the rollbar, which was a nice and snug fit, but I wasn’t impressed with the welding and a few other things. I then took it to Classic and Race near Gatwick and within a couple of hours it was transformed with extra horsepower found.” Finally, after nearly five years’ work, came the first drive. “I decided on a tentative trip to Box Hill to start running-in,” he says. “It was winter and I didn’t have a heater, but the car went so well I continued on to the south coast, along to Beachy Head, through Kent and back to London. The Tillett carbon seat is so comfortable I could drive all day.
“The plan had always been to sprint the TVR, and before entering the VSCC’s Pomeroy Trophy it went back to Classic and Race for fine-tuning and setting up the suspension. I knew I’d lost before starting because the suitcases and the spare wouldn’t fit in the back [an event requirement] due to the rollbar. The 2500 is heavy, at 920kg, and with only 124bhp it’s not that competitive – particularly because I was running on the original wheels. The 40-minute high-speed trial was held on the full Grand Prix circuit and I had a good dice with a pair of MX-5s.”
From that enjoyable debut, Hankins campaigned the 2500 regularly in the TVR and Classic Marques series of hillclimbs and sprints, in which he took his first class win at Lydden Hill: “It’s a really friendly group with lots of banter about excuses. For double headers we camp and eat together. Shelsley Walsh seems to be an unlucky event for me, though; when my master cylinder failed, fellow competitor Steve Dennis generously lent me his road car to go to Coventry to get a seal repair kit. He also helped fit it and I just made the first afternoon runs.” More serious was a fire on the Shelsley startline caused by a flooded foam air filter: “Suddenly the car was fully alight and I had to set off the fire extinguisher, which is so corrosive. Immediately the engine bay looked 10 years older. Another competitor trailered me to a local garage and the AA Relay trip home took 14 hours. Shelsley is a lovely place but the course isn’t very rewarding. Sprinting is addictive and you’re shaking at the end of run, particularly at Gurston Down where I’m on the ragged edge.” For his second Pomeroy Trophy, in 2018, the 2500 returned more sorted, with new wheels and tyres and a much stiffer suspension set-up. “The car felt transformed,” he says. “I had a good battle with an E-type and then a Porsche 944 turbo until he spun off.”
But the highlight was a return to Cornwall last year when the Truro Motor Club revived the historic hillclimb up Watergate Bay: “It was a great weekend, and all my family and friends came out to watch. I’d driven the hill a thousand times and cockily didn’t walk the course for once, but on the first run I discovered they’d put in a chicane with hay bales. Against an Atom and quick Caterhams I didn’t think I had a chance, but at the prizegiving they called me up as class winner. I thought they’d made a mistake.”
Unfortunately, Hankins’ pal Pete Jordan was away and missed the memorable return. “Running in the TVR championship against a group of Griffiths, Cerberas and Chimaeras,” he reflects, “I sometimes regret that I didn’t start with a more competitive car, such as a lighter Vixen with a 1600 crossflow. But people are always coming up and saying how glorious the ‘six’ sounds. The engine is very torquey and the handling is really neutral. I’ve never driven anything that handles so well, you can really chuck it around. My brother jokes about wanting it back but I tell him he’ll have to pay all the bills, too. There are no regrets now.”
Clockwise from main: race-ready interior, but it’s very comfortable on the road; TR6-derived engine has been fettled by Classic and Race; Watergate Bay Speed Hillclimb’s ‘surprise’ chicane; 385 2500s left TVR’s factory; little TVR measures just 3683mm.
Clockwise from main: yellow stripe takes its inspiration from Ecurie Nationale Belge; TVR before its wholesale restoration; wheels on for the first time; Surface & Design hard at work; Shelsley Walsh fire was a setback; rolling chassis takes shape; stripped down to reveal all. New wheels and revised suspension transformed the 2500 both on the road and track, to which Hankins doesn’t trailer his racer – he drives it to each competitive event.