The Fast & The Forbidden: 1995-2003 TVR Cerbera
By the time the 1990s were well and truly underway, true independence and vertical integration within the automotive realm were things reserved for firmly established, decades-old (if not centuries-old) nameplates. Small, boutique nameplates were expected to sustain themselves by paying the big dogs for the privilege of licking the lighting, suspension, powertrain and other subsystem crumbs off their plates, for what were they but unwashed serfs just barely a fraction of a step above *insert audible sneer* kit car manufacturers? Yet it was during this time – and for the magical (and all-too-short) decade or so that followed – that TVR, one of the last remaining mom-and-pop marques in Britain, or anywhere else for that matter, decided to be the master of its own destiny. And its statement of intent was called the Cerbera.
To understand what makes the Cerbera so special, we must first wind the clock back to December 1981. It was then that Peter Wheeler, a Yorkshireman who made a rather large fortune supplying oil exploration and extraction equipment to rigs in the bountiful North Sea, purchased the plucky sports car label. As the ‘80s progressed, TVR began moving away from using V6 engines and toward tuned versions of Rover’s Buick-birthed overhead valve aluminum V8. But in 1994, the Rover Group was purchased by BMW, and Wheeler knew that it was only a matter of time before the suits in Munich would decree the long-serving alloy workhorse be taken behind the barn and given a noggin full of buckshot; that, of course, would severely inhibit TVR’s ability to build cars that would appeal to anyone not living in the town of Bedrock. But instead of just looking for another major OEM to feed its horsepower habit, Wheeler decided TVR should produce its own engines.
Enter ace race engine designer Al Melling. The brief he received from Wheeler was, um, brief, yet also quite ambitious: The new engine should be a naturally-aspirated V8 with track-bred attributes, yet civilized enough for street use. Oh, and make it something that might appeal to other manufacturers, thereby creating an additional revenue stream for TVR. The engine that Melling came up with – the Speed Eight, known internally as the AJP8 (for the first names of Melling, TVR collaborator John Ravenscroft and Wheeler) – was, quite simply, a gem. The initial 4.2L powerhouse featured SOHC, two-valve-per-cylinder heads, a flat-plane crankshaft, and a 75° V-angle, with a rated output of 360 horsepower and 320 lb.-ft of torque. Better still, it had a dry weight of just 267 lbs., which would give just about any vehicle the company chose to put it in exceptional balance. The question was, what would that vehicle be?
Well, at the time, TVR was without either a fixed-roof coupe model or a model with more than two seats, so Wheeler and company decided to make the Cerbera – whose name is derived from Cerberus, the three-headed dog of ancient Greek mythology – a 2+2 coupe. Although its exterior styling was heavily influenced by that of the existing Chimaera (a soft, touring-oriented roadster), the Cerbera was very much its own beast, with a wheelbase nearly 11” longer and an overall length about 10” greater. Usually, such a substantial stretch makes for quite clumsy proportions, but the Cerbera’s long, low and arching roof and lack of rear quarter glass (the designers having instead opted for looong doors and door glass, a la the second-gen Camaro and Firebird) gifted the car with a substantial yet still immensely sensual presence; while we would never stoop to calling it the Iskra Lawrence of automobiles (and certainly not Iskra Lawrence the TVR Cerbera of humans), both are Blighty-bred irrefutable proof that the phrase “more-to-love body type” needn’t be a means of damnation via faint praise. As for the interior, the extra length allowed for the fitment of a pair of legroom-deficient (in the grand British grand tourer tradition, old boy!) rear buckets, while the dashboard’s swooping buttresses and loud colors to match TVR’s even louder exterior color palette conspired to create an environment that would probably drive Dali himself to remark upon entering, “I’m tripping balls, amigo!”
Of course, that rumbling V8 under the hood delivers the sort of performance that will leave you in an altered state. And in case the original 4.2L version of the Speed Eight wasn’t brawny enough, a 4.5L version followed a short time later; however, if you craved still more muscle, you could check the box to have the 4.5L engine fitted with the “Red Rose” package, which increased peak outputs by 20 horsepower and 22 lb.-ft of torque to 440 and 402, respectively, lowered the 0-60 mph time to 3.9 seconds, and boosted top speed to 193 mph. At the other end of the spectrum, and around the same time the Cerbera received a facelift that gave it insectoid, multi-element headlights, TVR added its new Speed Six engine (another Al Melling design) to the menu. The DOHC, 24-valve inline-six displaced 4.0L and was rated at 350 horsepower and 330 lb.-ft of torque, or right in the same ballpark as the 4.2L V8. Alas, reliability woes on early Speed Sixes soured many on this otherwise outstanding lump which, like all Cerberas, interfaced with the rear diff through a 5-speed manual transmission.
TVR ended Cerbera production in 2003 after building 1,490 V8s and an unknown number of Speed Sixes. One year after that, Wheeler (who died in 2009) sold the company to Russian billionaire Nikolai Smolensky, who proceeded to make a series of questionable decisions that ultimately drove the brand into a dormant state (and a subsequent change of ownership that put it back into British hands) from which it has yet to emerge. That being said, we imagine many of you here in America consider the fact that it will be about another four years before you can legally import a first-year example of this cure for the common grand tourer to be even more depressing than what’s happened to its maker for the last decade or so. At least, that’s how we feel…