Curbside Classic: 1998 TVR Cerbera Speed Eight 4.5 – The Budget Supercar

It’s amazing how few TVRs have graced CC by their presence, for a marque that died comparatively recently. But then, it’s amazing how little TVR exported their products to the world beyond the British Isles, especially by the ‘90s. Fortunately, it seems at least one made it all the way to japan, that most Anglophile of countries, for your viewing pleasure.

Clockwise from top-left: 1963 Grantura MkIII, 1971 Tuscan, mid-‘70s 3000M, 1981 Tasmin, 1990 S3C, 1993 Griffith 500


For most of their history, TVRs were usually small, light, plastic-bodied sports cars powered by a variety of potent 4-, 6- and 8-cyl. engines bought from other marques, such as Coventry-Climax, Ford, MG, Triumph or Rover. The Blackpool-based company, founded by Trevor Wilkinson just after the Second World War, went through a very turbulent couple of decades making racers and kit cars. TVR went bankrupt and was bought by father and son Arthur and Martin Lilley, who moved to full-fledged sports coupés and convertibles, usually using Ford V6 engines. In 1981, the company was bought by Peter Wheeler, who continued the policy of his predecessors but switched to Rover V8 power.

By the early ‘90s, TVR seemed to be doing well enough for Wheeler to entertain taking the ultimate step towards complete independence from outside suppliers. Work started on a completely new home-grown V8 engine, the AJP8, originally with a view to return to racing. However, Wheeler soon figured that the V8 could be modified for civilian use. For road cars, the fuel-injected 75° V8 used a single OHC per cylinder bank and two valves per cylinder – nothing too complex, compared to some. The engine was entirely made of light alloy and weighed in at only 121kg (267 lbs.) Once the AJP8 was worked out, a DOHC 24-valve straight-6 was also designed.

Broadly speaking, the Cerbera looked like a tin-top version of the TVR Chimaera (above), which had debuted in 1991, powered by TVR-improved Rover V8s going from 4 to 5 litres. But under the skin, the Cerbera was all new. The prototype shown at the 1993 London Motor Show was still slated to have a Rover V8, but TVR put the car on hold until they were ready to launch it with their home-grown motor.

The finalized car was launched in 1996 with the new TVR engines: a 360hp 4.2 litre V8 was used for the Speed Eight initially, but it was very soon joined by a 420hp 4.5 litre variant. The 350hp 4-litre Speed Six was sold as the “gentleman’s GT” of the breed, with softer suspension settings and more comfort. All cars came with a Borg-Warner 5-speed manual, save for a few racing specials such as the mythical Speed Twelve. The AJP8 engine was only ever used on the Cerbera – all other TVRs that came after it used the 6-cyl. engine, barring a handful of V12 prototypes.

Compared to the Chimaera, the Cerbera’s wheelbase was stretched by 11 inches, turning the car into a (cramped) four-seater – something TVR had not done in a long while. Despite the added length, the Cerbera was just as light as the TVRs that preceded it – a little over 1100kg. The all-independent suspension was also new. The combination of a light car, all-analog RWD and a great big V8 made for quite an entertaining ride.

In the UK, these new big TVRs were something of a hit. I lived in London on the late ‘90s and I vividly remember seeing quite a few of these prowling the pavement of the West End, sometimes wearing an unlikely hue such as purple or gold. It’s fair to say that the TVRs of the late ‘90s were the ultimate poseur’s sports car, kind of like what Jaguars were originally. They cost a fraction of what Lamborghinis or Ferraris did, were very loud and blindingly quick (a top speed: 195 mph; 0-60 in 3.9 seconds), swathed in leather inside and sitting lower on the ground than anything but the Tube.

As far as ‘90s sports cars go, the original Cerbera was pretty decent-looking. I’m not at all keen on this era of automotive design, but this unlikely marriage of rounded shapes over an elongated frame kind of work for me. The roof in particular evokes French or Italian late ‘30s coupés, as well as post-war Jaguars. The front and rear styling are a bit less interesting, but not overtly offensive. Certainly, this early version of the Cerbera is better than the post-2000 facelift ones (above), which traded the big round headlamps for an acne-like infestation of LEDs.

The Cerbera lasted until 2003. A year later, Wheeler sold the company to Nikolay Smolensky, a young Russian oligarch, who proceeded to run the company into the ground. Production more or less stopped by 2007 and Smolensky sold the remaining assets (the name and a few blueprints, I imagine) in 2013. Rumours of a new model have circulated for some time and the Welsh government apparently bought a stake in the firm to bring the factory there. So yeah, it’s dead. This post could be turned into a chapter of the British Deadly Sins.

I jest. The Cerbera is not a Deadly Sin, as far as I know. It sold quite well and, aside from the 6-cyl. cars (which were notoriously unreliable, at least initially), no major vices appear to have tarnished their stint in TVR’s range. These will soon be available for import in the US under the 25-year rule, so I’m guessing prices are going to go up in the next few years.

Buyers beware, however: the plastic body often hides a corroded tubular chassis, and “hand-made” English cars can present interesting challenges. Regardless, the TVR Cerbera will probably retain its title as the cheapest supercar of the late ‘90s. What was it they said about getting the smallest house in the nicest neighbourhood?