David Hives on TVR’s ups, downs, downs and ups

David Hives on TVR

David Hives. Nobody worked for TVR or its offshoots for longer than this man. Nearly four decades of involvement means he tells a tale of good times, bad times, but never boring times. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Mark Dixon.

He clearly isn’t a man given to easy nostalgia. David Hives is in full flow, recounting a period of TVR history that might charitably be described as turbulent. The 83-year-old spent much of the 1960s with Blackpool’s finest, and remained connected with the firm until his retirement in the late ’90s. He helped keep TVR afloat during serial ownership and more than one bankruptcy, developing new products on a nano-budget while also doing much to establish the marque Stateside. As such, he knows where the bodies are buried.

‘I was born in 1931 and grew up surrounded by cars,’ he says. ‘One way or another, I have been in the motor trade since I was 14. Dad had a garage business in Lytham St Anne’s. It was originally a stable but he converted it. A while later, I spent two years in the Army, where I learned to drive a Centurion tank and fix Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.

‘Once back in Civvy Street, I bought an old MG J2 and took up motor racing. I ended up putting a supercharged Ford sidevalve engine in it and was reasonably competitive. This would be the early ’50s, when one of my rivals was Trevor Wilkinson, who founded TVR. In 1961 Dad lost the lease on the garage. The upshot was that I wasn’t going to be working there anymore; I needed a job, so I went for an interview at TVR. I had already built a few Granturas from kits for customers.’

David Hives on TVR

Below. One of the three works Granturas at Sebring, for the 1962 12 Hours: the start of TVR’s international motor sport programme, following TVR’s acquisition of former Standard-Triumph comps manager Ken Richardson.

Problem was, on arrival he was informed that there were no vacancies. ‘I returned home feeling pretty unhappy, only to be told by my mum that [company director] Bernard Williams had phoned: could I start at 8am the following day? When I got there, they didn’t know what to do with me at first. They then put me on the production line, such as it was, doing impossible tasks like installing heaters when the cars were almost finished. It was a nightmare – so I made special tools and a jig, and then I could fit them before the interiors had gone in. From there, I started looking at the build process and realised that there wasn’t one; not really. I made jigs for all sorts of things, which speeded up the process no end.’

Then TVR developed a case of vaulting ambition. In 1962, it announced an international motor sport programme from an in-house competitions department, pictured top. ‘They brought in Ken Richardson to run it, who had been the competitions manager at Standard-Triumph and with BRM before that. I was transferred over to build three cars for the 1962 Sebring 12 Hours. These were followed by another Grantura Mk2a, which was to be used by Anne Hall and Val Domleo on the Tulip Rally. The big news was that we were then going to do the Le Mans 24 Hours.

‘Anyway, I didn’t go to Sebring, where only one car finished [eighth in class]. On the Tulip we had a new close-ratio ZF ‘box with a diaphragm clutch, which we didn’t have the correct parts for. We managed to get the car to Monte Carlo where I was able to track down a ZF specialist and get the right bits. I spent all night getting the transmission working properly. After leaving Monte Carlo, the girls were fastest in class on the opening stages. Then Anne went off the road and that was the end of her rally.’

By the time June 1962 rolled around, TVR had spent a lot of money it didn’t have. A good result at Le Mans was essential. ‘It was a farce from start to finish,’ David sighs. ‘The first Le Mans Grantura was destroyed during a test drive. I then had to build another racing car. I was peeling off the masking tape for the go-faster stripes – on wet paint – just a few minutes before it was time to leave for France. Then a piece of solder got stuck in the fuel line, which caused one of the two race cars to cut out every few miles. Then Richardson forgot to warm the brakes and went over a roundabout at the end of the Ml. Then we got to France and people started getting lost…

‘Once we finally got to Le Mans, we worked day and night to get the cars ready for scrutineering: for starters, you had to take out the back window just to remove the fuel tank. Only the one Grantura made the start, though, and it was the first car to retire. I had warned Richardson that the radiators we were using weren’t up to the job but, well, I was overruled. Guess what, it overheated.’

The sole TVR in the race completed just three laps, which wasn’t much of a return on the £10,000 invested in the works bid. It helped bring the firm to its knees. ‘TVR was liquidated at the end of ’62 and I worked next door for [former sister company] Grantura Engineering, which made the bodyshells.’ The firm was also making moulds for the Griffith 400, which was conceived by American Jack Griffith who hoped to ‘do a Shelby’ by stuffing a small-block Ford V8 into a Grantura. ‘He was a real gentleman, a nice guy who unfortunately surrounded himself with the wrong people. The car was seriously underdeveloped – the chassis was butchered to get the engine to fit – so I went out to Griffith’s place in Long Island in March 1964 to sort it. While I was there, I also worked with designer Bob Cumberford on the new Griffith 600.’

Yet David was recalled to TVR by tailoring heir Arnold Burton, who had helped revive the marque. David was tasked with completing the Trident prototype in time for the March 1965 Geneva motor show. ‘I had two weeks. Unfortunately, someone broke the driver’s side window just as I was ready to leave. That meant stripping the window to make a Perspex replacement. Then, after driving for a few miles on my way to London, I ground to a halt: there was dirt in the petrol. That was just the start of it. Arnold and I were supposed to fly from London to Geneva but missed our flight. We then drove to Lydd in Kent and flew to Le Touquet before making for Geneva. We arrived the morning the show opened.’

That year saw TVR Cars go pop a second time. ‘In August ’65, Arthur Lilley took over and he approached me to be general manager and senior design and development engineer of what was now TVR Engineering. Lilley Sr came to the factory once a fortnight and would stay for the day. Then, after about six months, a guy called Gill James arrived and informed me that he was to take control. Despite being the general manager, I knew nothing about this. He managed to upset just about everyone and didn’t last long.

‘I took it upon myself to visit hundreds of parts suppliers and convince them to provide us with the bits we needed. That took a lot of effort, believe me, as they had been burned twice before. We eventually got things up and running but cars were only sold via the Barnet Motor Company – which was owned by the Lilley family – as no other dealer would touch us. I flew to New York to see Gerry Sagerman and Jack Griffiths to see if they would take any more cars. Jack declined because his 600 series was nearly complete but did offer me a job. I then got Sagerman interested in becoming the US distributor for TVR. Slowly but surely, we were moving in the right direction.’

One project dear to David’s heart was a small sports car that ultimately became the TVR Tina. ‘Back in 1962, TVR did a car with Frank Costin which was powered by a three-cylinder DKW engine. It was amazing in many ways, but impossible to make in volume. I used it as my daily transport for a while after Arnold Burton got involved in TVR. It got me thinking: what if we built something similar but with Hillman Imp running gear? My idea was to do a scaled-down Trident. I drew up a car, including a multi-tubular chassis, 18 months before Arthur and Martin Lilley got involved with TVR. I even made a Plasticine model. Then, when I got back from seeing Sagerman, I learned that Lilley Jr had gone to Fissore in Italy and a prototype was being built based on an Imp platform. Ultimately two cars were made – a coupe and a spider – with Trevor Fiore changing the styling. I wasn’t happy about what had happened. Martin Lilley and I did not get on very well after that.

‘The upshot was that Brian Rootes became interested in the Tina. I arranged a meeting and went to Coventry along with Arthur and Martin Lilley. Mr Rootes suggested that the Rootes Group should mass- produce the Tina and pay a royalty of five pounds on each car. To me this made absolute sense as it would put TVR on the map. But they weren’t interested and it came to nothing. In 1967, I was told that my services were no longer required. I left Martin Lilley s office and went to see Bernard Williams at Grantura Plastics. He took me on straight away. I went to work on a new sports car – the Gem – for Tommy Entwistle, for whom I’d earlier built a very successful Grantura racer.’

‘David Hives remains a fan of the marque to this day, but cannot hide his frustration at what might have been’

With a degree of predictability, David returned to TVR shortly thereafter. ‘I think it had become apparent to Arthur Lilley that I had taken on a lot of responsibility and there was nobody else there with my experience. On my return, I made a jig for the new long-wheelbase chassis, built the wide-bodied Tuscans, did the 1600s and also the 2.5-litre Ford and Triumph straight-six-engined cars. I also made a new chassis for a prototype called the Zante. I did all the testing at MIRA, made sure the cars passed US Federal Safety regulations and all sorts of stuff besides. Then in March 1971, I left TVR for good as I’d had enough.

‘I went back to America and worked for Sagerman, one of my first jobs being the construction of a special wide-bodied Tuscan V8, before returning to the UK and becoming general manager at Grantura Engineering. I stayed there until 1997, and in many ways life came full circle as we ended up making parts for TVR once again after Peter Wheeler took over.’

David remains a fan of the marque to this day, but cannot hide his frustration at what might have been. ‘I put my heart and soul into making things happen and pushing things forward, but so many opportunities were lost. I don’t think the true story of TVR has ever been told and probably won’t be as long as certain people are alive. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, that’s for sure, but I still love TVR. I always will.

David Hives TVR

Clockwise from top left. The TVR Tina, presented at the 1966 Turin motor show, based on the Hillman lmp; stylist Trevor Fiore’s Tina proposal; the Tina’s bigger sibling went on to become the Trident Clipper.

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