TVR Vixen S3

Practical Classics August 1990

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The following article appeared in the August 1990 edition of Practical Classics and was written by Richard Hudson-Evans the previous owner of my Vixen.


If you think that restored Minis, MGBs, Spridgets and the once mass-produced sixties machinery have become too popular and are therefore too boring for you, Richard Hudson-Evans suggests some alternatives.

Pictures by Chis Graham

The question I will start by asking is how about supporting one of the many near-forgotten British marques which can offer far more unusual but nonetheless practical transport? In this, the first of a new mini series I, who keep a pair of such 'alternative classics' in my stable, will be assessing the bewildering choice with the help of enthusiastic consumers..... Kicking off with TVR, Berkeley, Turner and Rochdale.

Wrongly dismissed by purists?

It has to be admitted that many of the products of the minnows of the once great and prolific British motor industry were built-up in sheds and on driveways. So, therefore, the purists and auto-snobs are likely to dismiss the results as being a tatty bunch of dreadful DIY specials!

Nevertheless, most of the early products of such established and now considered historic marques as Lotus, Marcos and TVR were home assembled. This was always for one very good reason.. So that their customers could avoid paying the dreaded Purchase Tax which was levied on factory-completed cars.

Unfairly though in my opinion, the stigma of having been built by amateurs has stuck with the breed to this day. Creature comforts were admittedly usually few and far between and, when subjected to everyday driving conditions, reliability was often poor compared to the mass-produced alternatives. At the time, oddball cars cloaked in lightweight glass fibre bodies, which popped out of moulds in tiny backyard firms, were perceived by many to be unsatisfactorily flimsy compared to those using the latest unitary construction shells. But was this really the case?

Less common - more individual

As the merging car makers mass produce competing products, which increasingly look exactly the same, the plastic-bodied and much more interestingly shaped vehicles produced by the nearly forgotten minnows are enjoying a second coming. The other big advantage, of course, is that with their mass-produced and still readily available mechanical parts these refreshingly eccentric alternatives from the mainstream classics are becoming more fashionable than ever they were first time round.

In addition, these quirky alternatives are DIY-friendly, entirely practical and the person next door is unlikely to have one!

TVR Perhaps

The seaside resort of Blackpool is an unlikely location for having become a very significant car making town. Bill Lyons was the first, making Swallow Sidecars which, via SS Cars, eventually moved to Coventry to become Jaguar. Then there was one Trevor Wilkinson - he of the TVR initials. He made his own sports car in 1947 and, because it was post-war and bits and pieces were in short supply, this 23-year-old engineer used an Alvis Firebird chassis on to which he fitted his own aluminium two-seater sports body. Others liked his handy work so much that they asked him to make other TVRs for them too and soon this backyard special builder was on the road to becoming a budding motor manufacturer. By 1949 our Trev was designing his own tubular chassis which excelled in local track events and, in 1955, he even cracked the Unites States sports car market buy supplying rolling chassis which became Jomars there.

The first series production TVR was unveiled at the 1957 New York Auto Show and it was this which became the Grantura The car could be powered by BMC B-series or Coventry Climax motor - just like the much more highly fashionable Lotus Elite. In those days, being well north of Watford, TVR had the reputation of making the poor man's Elite and, to an extent, their product became the Lotus of the north west. In 1962 they even cheekily tried to race a Grantura at Le Mans, albeit without success.

It was the far more potent V8-engined Griffiths and Tuscans, however, which won the marque their race winning reputations on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, some of these models are still taking the chequered flag in historic racing today.

TVR's financial past has certainly been patchy with several near crashes and a fire virtually writing them off Today, though, they would appear to be thriving by offering even more of what they are good at - high power, low weight and phenomenal performance - in bodywork which has its own distinctive identity. For whether they be wedge shaped or rounded, there's no mistaking a TVR. To my biased eye the ultimate TVR styling is the Vixen.

Which TVR?

The very early Granturas with Wilkinson's trailing arm suspension are, quite frankly, best left in the museums. Only consider a 1962 Grantura - or later. In 1962 John Thurner, who came from Rolls-Royce, designed a new and stronger chassis and sorted out the suspension y using double wishbones and coil springs for both front and rear. Thurner also increased the wheelbase by 1 in initially allowing much better access to the cockpit.

Ford Cortina GT power unit plus all-synchro box (you can use first on the move) is worth having too.... Which means it has to be a post-October 1967 Vixen S1 personally, I think the most important production milestone for the marque was when they turned away from the factor bonded-on bodies to detachable ones which can be unbolted to effect a major restoration. However, this didn't happen until after October 1968 with the Vixen S2, when the Grantura's old wheelbase was also usefully increased further by 4.5 in.

You can spot an S2 by it's upside down Cortina MKII rear tail and indicator lamps, rather than the MKI Cortina's 'CND' rear cluster. You also have what's left of the production run of 438 from which to chose.

Fortunately, my hunt came to an end when an S3 came up at David Gerald of Inkberrow, Worcestershire, who specialise in the earlier TVR's. But, in view of an increasing demand from historic racers, I had to pay 3,850 for it. Since I sorted out the bird's nest wiring job and Will Sparrow cured a serious imbalance at over 60mph by fitting a correctly balanced prop shaft, the car has been trouble-free and fun - so far!

The visual differences with an S3 are the cast alloy wheels, as used on the Tuscan V6 and the Aeroflow grilles from a MKIV Zephyr/Zodiac on the flanks. But with only 168 built in it's 18-month run, S3s have become rare.

More significantly, under the bonnet is a more powerful Ford Capri 1600 crossflow motor, producing 86bhp, which is good for reaching 60mph in about 10 seconds. On a disused runway my budget Lotus Elite/Elan can propel me to a top speed of 110mph - and all for an mpg figure in the high twenties. Only weighing 1600lb, it's quite frankly plenty quick enough.

As with most alternative classics, the bits and pieces came from all sorts of sources. In my car's case, the engine and gearbox are Capri spec., the brake servo and diff are as per a MkIV Spitfire's, the sender unit is Dolomite and a Consul MkII Lowline screen has been used.



Once revolutionary - now extinct

Unlike TVR's, which have somehow survived more than 40 years in the turbulent motor industry, Berkleys failed to last the course. Produced between October 1956 and December 1960 by Berkley Coachworks at their Hitchin Street factory in Biggleswade, lack of funds and credit restrictions at the time combined to bring don what had once also been a highly successful caravan manufacturing concern.

Berkley enthusiast Phil James from Sutton Bonnington, Leicestershire, won prizes with his former 160 three-wheeler at Stafford, as well as at the Quianton and National Microcar Rallies. Now his latest project, a 1959 four-wheeler Sports with 492cc Excelsior triple pot engine, has won the 'Most Interesting Car' award at this year's Bingham Classic Show.

It is amazing to note that of the 2000 or so Berkeley four-wheelers made in Bedfordshire about 1200 were sold in the States. However, very few were like Phil's rarer and much more potent triple-cylinder version.

From basket-case to beauty

Phil, a 38-year-old self-employed joiner, has done all the work himself, turning a wreck discovered in a Bury lock-up into what his wife Sue reckons is "a little beauty". She even uses it for going to work in! As he unearthed it (quite literally) Phil predicted: "Although it was covered in junk, I knew instantly it was going the right car for me"

"But after I had trailered it home I found out just how far gone it was. When I measured it up it had the dreaded Berkeley body sag and was well past a quick restoration job. It needed stripping down into three main sections and starting again" In an attempt to rectify something he feels is inherently flawed on the little sports car from Biggleswade, he beefed-up the folded sheet steel stiffening inside the 'punt' sectioning to increase vital strength and stop chassis flexing and sagging. "Over the years" claims Phil, "the rivets securing the bits of metal to the glass fibre give up the ghost. Vibration set in and can finish the whole car off."

His total restoration has taken seven months. One of the big plus points for working on a car that's only 4ft wide is that the minimum of 'facilities' is needed - a humble shed will do. He remanufactured the pretty aluminium engine bay liners himself but farmed out repairing cracks in the body's gel coat. At 167 it was his largest individual bill. He managed to save the original wiring loom though.

For any ex-motorcyclist working on the air-cooled Excelsior Talisman engine - be it a 328cc twin (18bhp at 5000rpm), a 492cc triple like Phil's (claimed to have double the power!) Or the earlier 322cc Anzani twin (with 15bhp) - should present few problems. Apparently there are still plenty of Excelsior motor parts about. Cliff Wary's CWB Spares in Bury are very helpful, says Phil, as are the Berkeley Enthusiasts Club. Those contemplating this marque, Phil advises, should definitely join the club as their starting point, with the monthly newsletter's handy tips and 'For Sale'. The original equipment really skinny 5.20 x 12 Michelin Super Comforts are hard to find now. But with the car weighing only 6.25cwt, once found they'll perish before wearing out!

The Berkely Sports was Lawrence Bond's concept (he of the even more curious Bond Minicar fame). With it's stressed skin chassis and body made from a combination of glass fibre and moulded-in aluminium bulkhead and crossmembers, it was certainly revolutionary and caused a sensation at the 1957 Earls Court Show. All four wheels were independently sprung, too, by wishbones and coils at the back. A primary chain link engine to an Albion multi-plate clutch in unit with a four-speed and reverse box. A transmission chain then drives a separate differential, which drives the front wheels through universally jointed driveshafts. A compact dyna-start driven off the end of the crank combines generating and starting functions with the electric's being 12V.

Surprising sporting success

Their very light weight, brakes which never faded, aerodynamic shape and, thanks to front-wheel-drive, their leech-like road holding, made the establishment sit up and take notice. The pinnacle of the marque's sporting achievements was provided by Count Johnny Lurani's team of 492cc racers winning awards at Verona, Monza and in the famous Mille Miglia. Although no synchromesh was used, fortunately the inertia of the multi-plate clutch is small and, with the clutch-box unit running at less than half engine speed, the dog-engaged ratios can be selected neatly - but only once you have the knack! Compared to most cars they're quite different to drive. If you're not fresh off a motorcycle you have to learn to master the change. You cannot tarry on the clutch pedal, there's absolutely no engine breaking and you must always remember the motor is air-cooled.

Phil uses a 16:1 petrol mixture, which is "a bit smokey to start with" and he swears by NGKs. He can average around 40 mpg on a run although as low as 26mpg is possible, he says, if the 80mph top speed is exploited. Three or four-wheeler Berkeley rebuild projects can be acquired for between 400 and 500. Phil values his machine at 2,800. An even rarer though far less reliable four-stroke Royal Enfield-powered B95, which I once owned (still vastly underestimated by collectors), is likely to be over 3,000 in whatever state.

Phil and Sue, who don't approve of people putting Mini engines into Berkeley's, believing that they should be kept as original as possible, are nuts about their Berkeley. "It's a totally different... True alternative... And, as long as you treat it like something that was produced in 1959, it's terrific. You either love 'em or hate 'em. We love ours."

No! Not a Sprite

Jack Turner switched from making the odd racing car to sports car manufacturing in 1954 at Pendeford Airfield, Wolverhampton. His brave but under financed enterprise survived until 1966 and, from 1955 to 1957, Turner produced 90 of what was his first real production two-seater sports car, available in kit form or ready built. Consisting of his own tubular chassis, with trailing arms and torsion bars at the rear, engine, gearbox and front suspension were Austin A30. This A30 Sports certainly handled better than most Specials and, with glassfibre bodywork and little weight, it went extremely rapidly for the day - at 80mph and all for 45mpg or so. The 950 Sports came next, which used mainly the larger and more powerful A35 engine - although some were Coventry Climax FWE-equiped.

Between 1957 and 1959 Turner produced 170 of these, mainly for export. However, what transformed the image of this Black Country marque was a restyled body which arrived in 1959 with the MkI Sports. Some 160 of these were made in the next two years and the odd-looking fins had gone - it looked right. With twin-carb Sprite motor it went well too. The front disc brake option made it's brakes very effective and Turner handling was also becoming legendary. They mopped up awards on the track in Production Sports Car races and this is what the sports car buyers of the day followed closely.

This was when I, as a spectating cyclist, first encountered what Turner could really do. I used to marvel at the late Bob Gerard winning at Mallory Park in a BMC A-engined car - blowing all the Sprites into the weeds. Then a couple of seasons later, Phil Ferguson became a hero too. He hooked me forever, performing giant-killing act in the infamous 'Tatty Turner Climax' which could stay with, and beat, exotic machinery costing many times more.

RHE 614

Thirty years later I have a Turner of my own, It's a BMC 948cc A-engined 1961 MkII, 150 of which were made between 1960 and 1963 with Ford engines. I spotted mine in a small ad and paid Alan Baillie 2,950 for what was a tatty but complete runner - apart from the non-original registration number and period looking but pseudo Minilites. It has taken about six months to complete what only needed to be a 'body-on' restoration. The chassis, all the internal steel panelling and some of the interior trim (including period radio) were sound fortunately. To eliminate all the cracks in the body and achieve a smooth and glossy finish, however, did occupy many man hours - as did recovering the dash and doing a rewire. The old Lockheed drum brakes, A35 front suspension (some later cars and the 90 Mk III's produced before closure used Triumph Herald components), lever shockers and modified Herald steering rack, all required overhauling. But apart from having to rebush a rear lever arm, the torsion bar rear end was found to be in good order.

As the silted-up BMC A type wouldn't even pull the skin off a rice pudding, it was totally rebuild, rebored for +60 Powermax forged pistons, had the crank reground and balanced, a 731 cam installed, the head cleaned up and polished - with new valves and springs - the 1 in SUs overhauled an a modified Sprite three-branch fitted. The tired clutch was renewed - but the gearbox seemed OK so it's internals were left undisturbed. With about 75bhp to play with on the road it seems quicker than a tweaked Sprite and it's cornering speeds are higher too.

Bad points are the petrol filler being within the boot area which means that any luggage stinks of 'gas'! You must also treat even the smallest pothole with the greatest respect if you want to avoid the suspension thumping and crashing. The leading edge of the straight-through box grounds out on crested lanes very easily too. Top speed is 92mph (calculated on the Aerospace Rover track at Gaydon on the Norwich Union. During which 28mph was averaged).

A heap of Turner bits would cost you 1,000, a runner 3,000-4,000 and a fully restored example 6,000-plus. Climax-engined cars are now fetching over 10,000 with the famous 'Tatty' recently changing hands for 17,500.


One-piece monocoque in glassfibre

Rochdale Motor Panels were set up in 1949 by Harry Smith and Frank Butterworth in, yes, Rochdale, to make aluminium bodies for Austin Sevens. To reduce costs they switched to glassfibre bodies for the new 'specials' craze, mainly for Ford E93As. By the mid-1950s their fixed-head 242GT body became very popular and an open Riviera was offered in 1959. However, in 1960 little Rochdale launched something which was advanced at the time - a glassfibre monocoque one-piece bodyshell!

This was the Olympic and, having experimented with Morris Minor bits, most production Olympic kits were equipped with Riley 1.5 mechanicals. Although 45 could be saved by specifying Ford 105E or Minor components, 25 less for a 109E 1340cc or 25 more was charged if a 1622cc MGA engine was preferred. With the Phase 2 hatchbacks of 1963 the options were either Riley 1.5 again or a lightly tuned Ford 116E 1498cc - this Cortina GT spec motor was soon the standard issue. Even after complete kits were no longer available, Olympic glassfibre shells could still be acquired for 328 in the early seventies. By this time their distinctive shape and impressive performance in the rough and tumble of autocross had earned them classic status. It's thought that around 600 shells were moulded.

Olympic talk

Fifty-two-year-old Sydney Burnham, whose company install aluminium window frames in factories, lives in Austin country at Northfield. With an 'E' type at home, his favourite form of transport is a Rochdale Olympic. His love affair started when he spotted an ad for a 1963 Phase 2 for sale in Hartlepool. Although taxed and MOT'd, it was a bit of wreck and, after buying it, Sydney was surprised that it made the trip back to Brum under it's own steam.

It has taken him three years to transform it into its present state. The original Ford 1500cc engine was swapped for a home prepared 1600cc crossflow which has given no trouble after much thrashing. A Ford D type four-speed box is fitted together with a modified head, cam, balancing and a pair of twin 40s. He says that 0-60mph takes around 10 seconds and adds that 100mph would be easy. What's more, mpg works out at between 25 (around town) and 30 (on a longer journey).

The front suspension is still Spitfire but the Riley 1.5 rear axle has been changed for a Ford Escort MkII unit so that a greater range of wheel centres could be used. Front brakes are Spitfire and the rear brakes Ford. Before the new motor went in he refurbished the engine compartment with glassfibre resin but with pigment added. This came up so well that he experimented by using the same technique when refettling the body. First, using and angle grinder, he ground out all the stress cracks that are the bugbear with plastic bodied cars. He then applied glassfibre resin and pigment, sanding it back with different grades of cutting paste until a glossy finish was achieved.

After this he had intended to repaint the car but decided to wait for any more stress cracks to appear first. They didn't and, as you can see in the photographs, the finish is so good that spraying the car would be unnecessary.

Some mods will shock

No doubt some traditionalists will eat their deerstalkers in horror when they see what modifications have been carried out to this car's standard shape. For starters, the wheel arches have been cut away across their tops. Front and rear have been fashioned out of Chrysler Alpine ones by cutting, shutting, bending and using additional glassfibre. The rear wing is home brewed - but very well done.

To eliminate a large and badly patched up crack in the front (a legacy of a previous owner's accident) and, as an aid to increase cooling (the new bumper now goes across the original aperture), two grilles have been cut into the front.

The interior is non-standard too - if one can determine anymore what 'standard' might have been. Sydney trimmed it out as he wanted it to be and that has included non-period electric windows and central locking! "Sure I've modernised the car," says an unrepentant Sydney, "but I've kept basically the same rounded shape of the period which is what I most like about the car. The mods are my own ideas which makes the car that much more individual. This is surely what specialist cars are all about anyway. After all these days most of them are unique anyway!" The Rochdale owner considers that his car is worth 3000 but, of course, this would never compensate him adequately for the number of hours he has put into the project.