TVR 350SE road test. It’s excitement that truly makes the TVR’s case’. Sam Dawson, news editor. When the Motor tested the new TVR Tasmin 350i convertible in August 1983 its meticulous, mathematically minded road-testers had no hesitation in selecting the rivals to pitch it against.
The Lotus Esprit S3, Lamborghini Jalpa and newly launched Porsche 911SC Cabriolet were considered fair opposition even though the £14,800 TVR undercut them all by thousands. The new 350i obliterated the Esprit’s 0-60 time with a six-second dash, and continued to snap at the 911’s heels as they neared top speed. And all the while it bellowed, growled and crackled, and clung to the road on its stocky 205/60 R15 tyres in a way that made the 911 seem decidedly tricky.
Today that price difference is somewhat steeper. A decent Rover V8-engined ‘wedge’ TVR can be yours for rubber-bumper MGB-money if you look around. Decent early Tasmin V8 coupes can be had for as little as £2500. We suggest you go looking for a 350i but our test car happens to be a 350SE, the rare run-out model with the 390SE’s 275bhp 3.9-litre V8 rather than the usual 3.5 unit. Even so it cost its owner a mere £4k. A £4k Esprit may not have a chassis. If you went looking for a £4k Porsche 911SC 964, you’d come back with a reconditioned engine block, but no car.
The life of a secondhand performance car can be tough. On its journey to classic status it must weather unfavourable comparisons with increasingly dull modern cars (the point where a former supercar is outgunned by an upcoming generation of hot hatches being particularly painful), falling out of fashion and unsympathetic owners unwilling to lavish the right amount of care.
For some reason the TVR has suffered more heavily than any of its rivals. Maybe it’s the unglamorous Rover engine, but in the classic car world that isn’t such a disadvantage – especially because, unlike later TVRs, the 350/390 units avoided the expensive Cosworth pistons and Coscast bespoke bore-and-stroke dimensions of the later 400SE and 420/450 SEACs.
This means more palatable bills, even if the Rover V8 is no longer a breaker’s-yard regular. ‘If the bores and crank bearings need machining it’ll cost more, but if it’s a straightforward case of new shells and pistons, a rebuild will be around £l 100,’ says Brian Hatton of Rover V8 specialist BH Engineering. ‘They do suffer camshaft and rocker gear wear, but it’s a very forgiving engine that’s so smooth-running it’ll wear its camshaft bearings down to copper and still seem fine. It’s reliable compared to, say, a Lotus slant-four – that’s a fickle engine.’ He’s right. Roy Bury of Lotus specialist Paul Matty Sportscars says Esprit engine rebuilds start at £6k. It clearly pays to share your engine with most of the world’s Range Rovers.
The chassis was plastic-coated when new, and is longer-lasting even than those on Nineties TVRs. ‘They subcontracted it, and it’s the most corrosion-resistant of all TVR chassis,’ says Doug Elwood of David Gerald Sportscars. ‘They sometimes go rusty in the outriggers, and this can spread down the sill, but this isn’t the drama it is in other TVRs because there’s a separate, removable glassfibre sill panel running down the side so you can get to them. You don’t even need to lift the body off a 350i to replace the outriggers, and they rust from the outside in rather than the inside out – road dirt flicks up and lifts the powder coating.
‘It’s about £1600 for replacement outriggers, against £3500 for a new chassis,’ says Gareth Milner of Selby TVR. ‘Electrics are pretty good too – they were only really a big problem when TVR started making their own, and the early Cerberas suffered with faulty ECUs. The 350i’s electrics were adapted from Vauxhall and are reliable and straightforward to repair. Sadly, the Cerbera broadened TVR’s popularity so the reputation for dodgy electrics stuck.’
It’s excitement that truly makes the TVR’s case. Most similarly priced sports cars are tame, friendly little things; but with its V8 roar, weighty gearchange, mighty brakes and the urgent way it changes direction, the 350i is a genuine Eighties junior supercar.
The uncompromising styling will continue to divide opinion. But whatever your own view, consider this – you could no longer build a car like it. Those sheer lines, from the jutting front bumper and flat windscreen to the pop-up headlights and starkly lined leather interior, have long been overtaken by the combined forces of legislation and aerodynamics.
TVR styling provides as much drama inside as out.
However, the styling helps to set the car firmly within a bygone era that increasingly generates nostalgic pangs, and possesses an alien drama that the homely MGB could only ever dream of.
Run-out 350SE has Rover 3.9 V8; regular 350i has the 3.5 version.
Wedge for not much wedge: dramatically styled 350 is almost unfairly cheap.
Quentin on the 350i
I know the build quality is lousy and the looks are an acquired taste but well-kept, historied 350is with fewer than 60,000 miles can be bought for as little as five grand now (our 3.9-engined test car cost £4000) and that’s just daft. The 350i is a striking V8 convertible that’s surprisingly quick and sounds wonderful. Everything may feel raw and unfinished – the Blackpool factory never understood quality control – but the Rover V8 gives 135mph and a 0-60 dash in just six seconds (as long as you don’t mind the scuttle shake). Values have always been held back by TVR’s woeful reputation but the 350i can’t fall any further: surely prices have reached a plateau.
Affordability and easy parts supply are big plus points but only buy the best examples: forking out big bills for chassis rust and crazed glassfibre won’t pay. Always inspect the body and underside first before you crank up the V8 – or you’ll buy on the engine note alone. See the TVR 350i for what it is – a compellingly cheap V8 classic roadster that may not make you money but will definitely make you smile.
|Car||1991 TVR 350SE|
3905cc V8, ohv, Lucas L electronic fuel injection
275bhp @ 5500rpm
270lb ft @ 3500rpm
|Steering||Rack and pinion|
|Brakes||independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic clampers, anti-roll bar|
independent, lateral links, trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Discs front and rear
|Price new||£23,050 (1991)|
|Value now||£4000 (2014)|