Red, hot and Dutch

DSCF0004_49510b9fb5284-lightbox I first drove a Chimaera in the spring of 1999 in the early months of my career as a car hack, and I was smitten from the moment I took place in the sumptuous, enveloping leather-lined interior. With ample space for my 6’2.5″ frame and instinctively resting my elbow on the big transmission tunnel with the stubby gearstick within perfect reach, it felt like tailor made. Then I started the engine…

Unlike the Morgan 4/4 we also had with us on that Saturday photoshoot at Calais, the TVR made immediate sense to me. There was nothing intimidating or akward about its ergonomics, it was snug and warm inside on this cold and windy early April day, and yet it brought just about the richest blend of motoring sensations I’ve experienced in cars of any price before or after – all the controls had erm, ‘manly’ weighting and a pleasing, mechanical feel about them, it felt tight and balanced, yet supple at the same time, the engine provided oodles of torque in any gear, and that noise. God, that noise… That it was just about the most gorgeous automotive sculpture I had seen was merely a bonus.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s when depreciation and a side gig in automotive translations for a major UK aftermarket supplier of lubricants and coolants meant the gap between my savings (hitherto raided more than once by the ongoing bonkers modified Saab project, but that’s another story…) and the market prices of early Chimaeras was shrinking rapidly enough for me to start getting serious about getting one. Sure enough, I bought the first one I saw. Not wanting to fall into the trap of the ‘sunny Sundays only’ low mileage minter with all the foibles a lack of “user-development” example would entail, I went to see an early car with 106,000 miles on the odo (and the asking price set accordingly), a stack of bills – most of them from well known TVR main dealers – and crucially, a fairly recent chassis Waxoyl. What separated this one from other advertised cars, however, was it being the fairly rare 4.3 litre version, which has a reputation of being the sweetest engine in the range.

What can I say – I went to look at the car, it was obviously a ‘well-used but not abused’ car which boded well, as did the fact that it covered a whopping 18,000 miles between the last two MOTs – if it were as unreliable as people think TVRs to be – there would’ve been no chance of doing that sort of miles in a mere 12 months! I looked underneath with a lamp and although the outriggers were in need of another coat of sticky rustproofing substance, they looked and felt solid to me. Then I tentatively took it out in the driving rain and noted that in addition to making all the right noises and no wrong ones, it didn’t try to kill me, which is always a good thing with TVRs! I wasn’t really looking for a fire-engine red car either, but the OZ split rims (which admittedly needed -and still need- a refurb) did set it apart from similar cars and I wholeheartedly decided I liked the overall effect. I left a few hundred quid as a deposit, and got on the boat from the Hoek to Harwich two weeks later on the day before Christmas Eve with an envelope stuffed with poundage. Met seller who kindly agreed to drive the car to the ferry terminal, counted bank notes, got back on the boat with a Chimaera, got lucky on the other side that I didn’t meet a Customs officer for passport control but a police offcier who didn’t seem at all bothered that I was driving a UK-registered car (which is seen as tax evasion in The Netherlands), drove to my parents’ home, put car in their garage, got into their Citroën C5 to fetch them from the airport and enjoy Christmas. Sorted.

Or so I thought. As I did not have the funds yet to pay for the Dutch registration tax, I restricted myself to some polishing and general tidying of the car over the weekends at my parents’ and the odd clandestine outing (the insurance even issued a green card with the UK reg!) on the small country roads in the neighborhood. Until I got home with the car on a flatbed trailer, that is. Even though the temp gauge didn’t get much past 90 degrees, thick white clouds coming from the distinctive bonnet ‘slashes’ spelled trouble while oil pressure had dropped periliously close to zero while sat at the last set of traffic lights, too. Time to call the Dutch AA equivalent, then – while muttering ‘welcome to TVR ownership’ to myself…

As the seller of the car happened to be an engine builder specialising in Jaguar V12s, I thought it a good idea to enquire with him. “I don’t think you wrecked the engine, Eric”, he said. “If you can get it to somewhere where they can remove the engine cheaply and get it here somehow, I’ll sort it out for you at nominal cost. Don’t worry, you’ll be driving again before the summer.” Phew. Pity he didn’t mention which summer, though…

Next port of call was the Dutch TVR importer’s workshop – after all they offer a nation-wide pick up service… Two weeks later, the car was picked up and transported to their Vianen workshop but it would be another four weeks before they had the time to have a closer look at the car… The verdict was: no coolant whatsoever left in the system due to a leaky radiator and even leakier water pump, both head gaskets and one exhaust manifold gasket blown. In addition the technician compiled a list of other things wrong with the car – brake pads completely worn on one end and not much life left on the others; loose rear torsion bar drop links, no washers on the front wishbone bushings, cracked exhaust Y-piece (which had been welded up before at some point) – in short, nowt too dramatic for an older car.

Given the mileage and the oil pressure being marginal we decided to take up the seller on his offer and remove the engine. A few weeks later I picked the engine up, had it put in the back of the Saab with the help of a forklift truck and got on the Eurotunnel next day to transport the lump to deepest rural Suffolk. Oh, did I mention said Saab – 295 bhp, 339 lbs/ft, around 1,275 kg – had developed a quirk which prevented me from driving relatively slowly for any length of time? Let’s just say I arrived at my destination over two hours early, carrying 200-odd kgs of TVR V8 in the boot…

Meanwhile, our man had done ‘a bit of research’ and was adamant he’d build an engine that he’d never have to see again in his workshop. Oh, and it would have a bit more grunt than TVR Power delivered originally, too, with torque all over the rev range. Most of the parts were to be bespoke and from the United States, and the heads would get a serious rework. It wasn’t before long before we were talking throttle bodies and aftermarket engine management systems…

There were several setbacks though – which eventually stretched an expected three week turnaround time into a nine month ordeal. Apparently my engine ended up making a tour through Europe before returning to Harwich. At long last I decided to fetch the engine myself – if there actually was still an engine (all I’d seen so far were a few pics of admittedly shiny parts)…

“OK, I hope you’re going to like what I’m about to show you – if not I’m going to walk of in a huff”, Rich told me just after I climbed out of my Saab. He hadn’t needed to fear – what was sitting on a stand was simply the most beautiful Rover V8 I had seen – sump and rocker covers resplendent in red matching the car, fuel rail, brackets and all bolts had been replated, everything looking better than new. I was shown the camshaft that came out of the lump – sure enough, two of the lobes were rounded off completely as you’d expect from a 100,000+ mile RV8. All I can say is TVR Power apparently built some pretty strong 7 cylinder engines as I hadn’t noticed anything awry before. Apparently, apart from the forged pistons and the big valves, I also got a big journal crank with matching rods; “we’ll use yours in a Range Rover!”

After I delivered the engine at the workshop, things were progressing slowly. One setback was the rubber of the original crank pulley being torn – something that only came to light when trying to set the ignition timing. After consulting with Richard a replacement was ordered from a reputable Rover V8 specialist after sending a picture to identify the right version – what we got sent, though, was something that apparently got found in a skip and ‘tidied’ using a spray can! We ended up rebuilding a pulley using parts of both, and having to send it out for rebalancing. The radiator was to be replaced with an uprated core version – which didn’t fit because of this being an early car so the one that was in the car was sent out to be rebuilt with a bigger core. When that arrived, it still turned out to be a few millimetres wider than it was before -millimetres that they engine bay couldn’t really spare…

The first attempt to start the engine resulted in fuel spraying everywhere – after that mishap the car was rolled out of the workshop into the adjacent warehouse again and wouldn’t come out until two weeks after. They ended up taking the complete intake manifolding off to get to the offending parts – in the meantime I had taken a spare plenum and trumpet base – the first I sent out to Eliot at mez.co.uk to have it bored out and an enlarged throttle plate fitted while I was ‘blending’ the trumpet base in my living room using a Dremel tool, after I removed the trumpets.

The setbacks and mishaps did have their impact on the final bill, too. While I ended up paying less than cost for the engine parts, the workshop invoice featured a whopping 66 hours of labour. The amount in the bottom right corner exceeded the original purchase price of the car at the current sterling/Euro exchange rate. Even before the ordeal, my credit card wouldn’t have stretched that far so my parents came to the rescue by loaning me the money. So much for my principle of buying cars only if I can pay for them outright…

Was it worth the trouble, time and expense? Every single bit of it, but I’ll save that for my next instalment…

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Eric van Spelde