Own A Piece Of British Le Mans History With This TVR T400R
You can’t help but love the weirdness of TVRsby Michael Fira, on
TVR is known as one of those wacky British manufacturers that, bolstered by a feverish can-do attitude, has been putting out stupendous sports cars for decades. Most of the TVRs that’ve come out since the ’90s are weird, somewhat unreliable, impractical, and that’s why we love them. We love the Tuscan, the Cerbera, the T350, the Chimaera, and the Sagaris all the same and today we’re focusing on the one that last raced at Le Mans, the Tuscan or, as it was called in its latter years, the T440.
As a small manufacturer, TVR never could hope to pump out dozens and dozens of race cars like Porsche and, as such, only six Tuscan-based GT cars were ever made and the first chassis, number 1227, debuted way back in 2001 and had a long and storied career with a final appearance at Le Mans in ’05 followed by a full European Le Mans Series season in ’06. And now you can buy it from the man who’s had it since it was brand-spanking-new.
TVR’s answer to the Ferrari F360 GTC and the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR
Motor racing has been going through a process of uniformization for a few decades now, a process that’s affected all areas of the sport. For the sake of fairness, equality, and, maybe even more importantly, cost management, more series than ever, bit by bit, push for sameness. There’s now a spec tire in most top-level championships, thus eliminating the travails associated with a tire war, there’re spec components in many cars such as spec ECUs or hybrid systems or safety systems, and, with rulebooks getting thicker and thicker, there’s less variety in terms of what cars you can hope to see on the track.
Merely 15 years ago, Lexus outlandishly entered an RX400h SUV in the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring because, A) even SUVs could race, and B) hybrid technology was in its infancy then and you needed something as big as the RX to host all the batteries and stuff. You could also bring a Mini and even Caterham-esque club racers did the legendary 24-hour enduro in the Eifel mountains in the early ’00s but that’s no longer the case now.
The big boys, complaining of perilously big corner speed differences between the pedestrian touring classes and the GTs, have effectively kicked the slow guys out of the show. Moreover, fewer and fewer series allow you to race in your home-made special as safety standards state that everything on a car has to pass strict FIA crash tests and, if your car is frail, you’ll have to be content with doing track days around your local track. I was at the ’Ring last year and, while the car count was down from over 200 to just about 130, the variety was down too: the bulk of the field was made up of Porsche Cup cars, TCR-spec tin tops, BMW M240i Cup cars, GT3 and GT4 cars, and that was about it really.
You may be wondering what’s this all got to do with TVRs and the point I’ve been languishing towards is this: nowadays, small, low-volume manufacturers have a much smaller chance of getting a car homologated to race in the big league than ever before because, frankly, you need the budgets of established automakers to be able to build something that complies with all the rules that are in place. In other words, the sort of thing TVR did in the early-to-mid-’00s, racing the Tuscan-based T400R at Le Mans may not be possible today. Realistically, all that TVR can hope for in the 2020s is that its latest car, the Griffith can be the base for a GT4 car and you can’t race a GT4 car at Le Mans.
TVR, the brand behind the most popular single-make series in the UK
TVR's history in racing is spotty at best.
Back in the ’60s, one Mark Donohue made his debut on the big stage in the 12 Hours of Sebring in a TVR and the likes of the Griffith and the Grantura kept being pummelled at race meetings throughout the ’70s although there was no proper breakthrough moment for TVR in the racing world until much later. As a low-volume manufacturer, TVR never had the funds to go racing in a way that would not be a disservice for the already somewhat shaky image of the brand.
What is more, TVR lacked the Lotus-style racing roots and, as such, there wasn’t that big of a desire from the management to hit the tracks anyway. That all changed in 1981 when Peter R. Wheeler, the moustachioed North Sea oil equipment maker, bought TVR after falling in love with one of the company’s products. Wheeler, described by many of his former colleagues as a "larger-than-life figure," who "always seemed to excel at anything he turned his hand to, despite not always doing things the easy way," began helping out club racers who were already campaigning TVR cars, either of the M series variety or the then-recent Tasmin, in hopes of increasing the brand’s footprint on the British racing scene.
Soon after, the 2.8-liter, V-6 Cologne or the 3.0-liter Essex powerplants usually found under the hoods of race-prepped TVRs began to be phased out in favor of the 3.5-liter Rover V-8 that was part of Wheeler's plan to make both the road and the race cars quicker and more reliable.
Throughout the ’80s, the S Series models (that replaced the wedge-shaped M Series cars) and, later, the factory-backed SEAC sports car based off of a 350i were amongst the fastest things in the 750 Motor Club’s production sports car category as well as the BARC’s Sports Saloon Challenge. Across both series, the 420 SEAC won 21 events in two seasons before being banned because TVR couldn’t sell 200 road-going units to homologate it.
The ban was seen as an opportunity by Wheeler who was a firm believer of the age-old ’race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ strategy and decided TVR should have its own single-make championship. First shown to the public in 1988, The TVR Tuscan Challenge race car was powered by a 4.4-liter version of the Rover V-8 engine that now developed 400 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, enough for the open-top fiberglass machine to spring from naught to 60 mph in some four seconds.
The first champion of TVR’s single-make series was established BTCC driver Jeff Allam who outpaced the likes of Chris Hodgetts and Gerry Marshall in that maiden 1989 season. Revving all the way up to 7,800 rpm and slipping their tires even in fourth gear, the Tuscans proved to be a hit with both fans and racers and became one of Britain’s most-watched race series even rivaling the BTCC. As such, it wasn’t surprising to see legendary figures have a go in Tuscans and maybe none was more famous than 1992 F1 World Drivers’ Champion Nigel Mansell. Fresh out of a season in CART, Nigel never actually raced the Tuscan after crashing in a BTCC race that same weekend but his presence was proof enough of the Tuscan’s popularity.
Journalist Mark Hales and long-time TVR driver (often cited as the first ’Works’ TVR driver back in the M Series days) Colin Blower were always in the mix in the first few seasons before the likes of Bobby Verdon-Roe or Mike Jordan (father of modern-day BTCC stalwart Andrew Jordan and a well-versed racer himself) propped onto the scene.
Before the Tuscan GT racer came the Cerbera
While the Vitesse/SD1-sourced Rover V-8 was the first choice when it came to powering the Tuscan Challenge, by 1994 TVR began wheeling in an engine of its own device, the 4.5-liter AJP engine that would later trickle down to the road cars as part of the Speed 8 lineup of V-8s that ranged between a 4.2-liter and all the way up to a 4.7-liter unit.
Due to his history with the brand, Mark Hales was given a 4.5-liter AJP V-8 to put in his race-going Cerbera that he debuted in March of 1995 at Silverstone in the British GT. Developing 420 horsepower and weighing less than a Ferrari F40, the Cerbera scored a fourth-place finish in only its second-ever outing at Donington Park. The result would set the tone for the whole year as the Cerbera was outpaced by the nimbler Marcos LM600 cars and the ADA Engineering-developed De Tomaso Pantera that, admittedly, was in a league of its own.
The Cerbera’s international debut came at Silverstone as well, in September of ’95 when Hales and Techspeed TVR (the de facto Works team) entered it in the BPR Global GT Race. In pesky wet-dry-wet-again conditions, the Cerbera was cumbersome and, while other GT2-class cars such as the Porsche of Calderari and Bryner actually threatened for the overall race win battling with McLaren F1s and Ferrari F40s, the TVR finished a lowly 27th overall.
Regardless, Hales and TVR kept improving the Cerbera and it all paid off in July of 1996 when Hales and Phil Andrews drove the car to an overall race win at Snetterton ahead of its perennial rivals from Marcos and a full lap ahead of the lone McLaren F1 that would otherwise dominate the 1996 season of the British GT. After its giant-killing moment, the Cerbera would again show signs of brilliance in the hands of Colin Blower.
The veteran, having returned to the TVR fraternity, began campaigning a Cerbera in 1997 under the banner of Nigel Kemp’s Harrogate Horseless Carriages TVR dealership. Blower’s luck could be described as mixed but he did, admittedly, won once as Jamie Campbell-Walter fondly recalled. "That car had a controversial win [at Donington] when it caught fire causing a red flag just before the pit stop cycle sorted itself out so we won on count-back!" By then, however, the GT game had moved up with the introduction of the silhouette GT1 cars and TVR tried to keep up by sticking a 12-cylinder engine in a bespoke Cerbera chassis.
The resulting Speed 12 was the stuff of dreams (wet ones, of course!) and, under a number of guises, it raced for quite a few seasons in the British GT. Hampered by ever-increasing air restrictors, the Speed 12 never won much but was a sight to behold. To add insult to injury, it never raced internationally as some safety-related rule changes by the FIA made the Speed 12’s roll-cage illegal which was something TVR could never fix due to the shape of the body.
The Tuscan GT was TVR’s ticket back to Le Mans
With no chance of racing the Cerbera Speed 12 in the FIA GT and, subsequently, at Le Mans, TVR began looking at other ways of going global but the first steps were taken by a privateer, Rollcentre Racing’s Martin Short. As a graduate of the Tuscan Challenge, Short was able to source a Cerbera (the factory’s pink demonstrator no less) straight from the factory and turn it into a race car, this time around the Speed Six inline-six engine that sat at the bottom of the pile among the engine options for the Cerbera.
Short’s engine choice came about as he decided to race the car in the then-new GT (soon to be rebranded as N-GT by the FIA) class that appeared at once with Porsche’s 996-generation GT3-R, in 1999. At the time, the grand touring racing scene was in shambles after the abrupt collapse of the GT1 class the year before that left only the GT2 machines to duke it out with Viper and Lister at the sharp end of the field.
With a desire to return to the dual-class structure, the FIA soon came up with a ruleset for a category of road-based cars to sit below the GT2 cars that would be known as GT-class cars from ’99 onwards. As mentioned, Porsche was the first to answer the call but TVR was a close second with Short showing up in the Cerbera in 2000.
Powered by a 4.0-liter version of the Speed Six engine, Short proved the car was fast straight out of the box but, despite leading many races, technical maladies played in Porsche’s favor. The seemingly endless run of bad luck ended in late September when, at Spa-Francorchamps, Short and Rob Barff scored a hugely popular victory in the GTO division of the British GT. An invitation to take part in the legendary Spa 24 Hours soon followed but, by the time that happened, in 2002, the Tuscan had already made its debut.
"When the Tuscan R, or T400R, idea came about, we worked with the car’s designer on the first cars, and they used our suspension setups and geometry, anti-roll bars and we even made the rollcage for it to stiffen the chassis," said Short. Seven Tuscan Rs were made in total and the first car, with 400 horsepower sent to the rear wheels and a dry weight equal to that of the Tuscan Challenge cars, was bought by Richard Stanton of Barclays/Dewalt Racing.
A fifth-place finish (in class) at Donington, on a day that the Cerbera Speed 12 came home third overall, was the first satisfying result in the Tuscan’s racing career before a maiden victory was scored at Castle Combe. Stanton, who sold that first car to John Hartshorne in ’02, was keen to move up the ladder and he did so in 2003 when he raced the Tuscan at Le Mans. The Salisbury-based Racesports team entered a pair of 440-horsepower Tuscans (already rebadged as T440Rs by then) in the race in DeWalt colors.
In spite of the strong driver roaster (Stanton shared car #91 with Richard Hay and Rob Barf while Mike Jordan, Michael Caine, and Tim Sugden drove the #92), the cars were out before Sunday morning. The #91 retired after little over 60 minutes of action when Caine was swept off the road by a slower car that steered into the way of the TVR in order to avoid an erratic LMP-900 car.
A propshaft failure put an end to the other car’s outing. The frustrating Le Mans outing wasn’t, however, the first international event in the Tuscan’s career (the Tuscan was renamed T400R and then T440R, to clear any confusion once and for all - but I like how ’Tuscan’ sounds more so I’m just using Tuscan here). Back in 2002, after narrowly missing out on the British GT GTO class title having scored four wins and four podium finishes, Rollcentre took the TVR to Japan where it finished second-in-class in the Suzuka 1,000 Kilometers.
It’s worth noting that the ’03 Le Mans cars (the fourth and fifth chassis made) were i[dated with a series of safety featured mandated by the ACO as well as extra lights. The first outing for the DeWalt cars was actually at Sebring where Stanton & Co. finished an impressive sixth in class. In the British GT, the TVRs were becoming accustomed to winning and finishing on the podium and, impressively, the Tuscans monopolized the podium in the legendary British Empire Trophy at Silverstone. Eclipse Motorsport won ahead of CDL and Peninsula Motorsport.
Future owner of Team LNT (and now of Ginetta) Lawrence Tomlinson joined the freight in 2004 aboard Nigel Greensall’s RSR team (not to be confused with Paul Gentilozzi’s RSR team over in the States) that campaigned a pair of copper cars in British GT. The two DeWalt cars, meanwhile, were passed on to Gareth Evans who run them under the Chamberlain-Synergy banner thus bringing Hugh Chamberlain into the picture. Now featuring a wider track to improve high-speed stability, the cars were shipped to Florida where they did finish, albeit at the tail end of the field.
Seeing as the cars were catching much of a break internationally, Wheeler suggested that his boys should even resort to cheating but the enthusiastic CEO’s ideas were never really employed as Chamberlain-Synergy didn’t want to be on bad terms with the ACO upon returning to Le Mans. "Peter was truly special, a bit mad, a really wonderful megalomaniac," further pointed out Martin Short, as if to bring reasons to the former TVR boss’ quirky ideas of achieving victory. With legal cars, TVR didn’t win at Le Mans but both Chamberlain machines finished the race.
That year, the TVRs would also compete in the FIA GT (a lone outing in the G2 nationally-homologated class at Donington) and the maiden season of the European Le Mans Series. RSR and Chamberlain would share expertise and it all seemed to come good at Spa until Pierre Kaffer spun and took with him one of the Chamberlain cars that was at the time fighting for class honors.
TVR got its revenge one year later at Spa when Tomlinson’s Team LNT, now the main TVR team in the ELMS, scored a popular 1-2 victory in the GT2 class with Warren Hughes and future Bentley Boy Jonny Kane taking first place. That same day, a third TVR took to the grid, namely the Peninsula car of Hartshorne. This was, in fact, the same car that Peninsula had been racing since 2002, namely the first Tuscan ever made.
A veteran of the psychic wars
As detailed already, chassis #1 (the full VIN no. is SDLGA18A11B001227) enjoyed a long racing career spanning six seasons. Hartshorne and Piers Johnson drove it throughout 2002 with little success (a fifth-place finish overall was the standout result that year in that famous race at Silverstone). In ’03, the car faired significantly better with a runner-up finish overall at Silverstone (Hartshorne was partnered by Graeme Mundy this time). That year, the car raced in the first Spa 1,000 Kilometers race to take place in the 21st century, an event featuring a mishmash grid consisting of British GT regulars (the race was on the British GT calendar) and FIA Sportscar LM prototypes (racing in the FIA Sportscar Championship, a short-lived wannabe replacement for the World Sportscar Championship concocted by John Mangoletsi).
With results failing to come in 2004, Hartshorne decided to have some fun and do the full ELMS season 2005 and, subsequently, enter selected rounds in ’06 as well. First owner Richard Stanton returned to the cockpit of the Tuscan in 2005 but the car proved severely outpaced by a bevy of Porsches and Ferraris, as well as Tomlinson’s own TVRs.
However, the effort did yield one proud moment for Hartshorne: the last (to date) appearance of a TVR at Le Mans. "It was my first time there as a competitor, at the age of 48, and I was really emotional before the start," remembered Hartshorne. "Standing there I suddenly realized how big this race was. The support of the British fans was incredible. Even at night, you could see signs and flags supporting the British drivers and TVR. I was in the car when we took the finish and that was also hugely emotional. Especially after a long day and a bit in sweltering heat… These were the days before air-con in race cars!"
"I loved driving the Tuscan for a few reasons," John went on to detail. "Firstly its smile-per-mile value is superb. Our budgets were nowhere near those of the Ferraris or Porsches, yet we did the same job. We’d normally run the engine at a lower RPM to protect it, and the noise was just superb. The T400R was also very confidence-inspiring. It spurred you on to push and was easy to recover any mistakes and it rarely tried to spit you off. The key to getting more out of the car was patience mid-corner, it tends to have a mid-corner understeer balance, and if you wait for the front grip to return, suddenly you find a chunk of lap time, without even trying."
In its last year of period competition, Hartshorne shared the car with RSR’s Nigel Greensall and Iain Dockerill. They were always at the back of the pack but fun was had and, apparently, the car just needed better tires. After retiring it from competition, Hartshorne stored it away and rarely drove it, making a rare appearance at last year’s Silverstone Classic where, on modern rubber, it kept up with a Red Bull-liveried 996 GT3-RSR under my own eyes. Back in the day, the Porsche would’ve left the TVR for dead.
Admittedly, the car was driven at Silverstone by Ollie Hancock who’s now handling the sale of what is, according to Hartshorne, the only car in period spec left with the package being "literally everything we raced with lastly in 2006 during the Le Mans Series." How much is that package, you ask? Well, if you’ve read it all, I can disclose the price for you: £349,500 or $442,701.
Whether or not that’s too much is up for debate but an RSR can cost anywhere between $200,000 and as much as half a million depending on its history.
Source: Ollie Hancock