TVR 420SE takes on Porsche Carrera 3.2
Both these sports cars are known for their edginess on the road, but will it be Britain or Germany that emerges with the driving edge?
Words Chris Chilton Photography Laurens Parsons
Porsche carrera 3.2
Maximum speed: 151mph
Fuel consumption: 19-29mpg
Transmission: RWD, five-speed manual
HOW MANY LEFT? 500 (est, UK)
WHAT TO PAY?
Evolved from the 1978-83 era 3.0 SC, the Carrera was available in basic and Sport versions. Standard cars ditched the SC’s cookie cutter wheels for now rarely seen 928-style teledials and retained the natural spoiler-free look. Sports got the slim whaletail, a matching chin spoiler and a set of Fuchs rims kept under control by four Bilstein dampers. With its contrasting black rim centres the car looks sensational, the white and black combo only reinforcing the no-nonsense German-ness of it all.
Old 911s feel so mechanical compared to modern cars, like some perfectly crafted piece of Edwardian engineering. You’re aware of it from the moment you reach for the door handle and tug the little catch behind it. Drop behind the wheel and the experience is equally ancient. The windscreen seems impossibly close, the arc of the floor-hinged pedals and the brake’s slack take time to get used to, and the ergonomics, with random switches added over the years hidden all over the place, are a bad joke.
I’ve driven a few of these and owned one myself from 2007 to 2008, but still don’t understand how to operate the heater. I sold it for £15,000 in an 'I-turned-down-the-Beatles' moment when the price uplift that was surely due didn’t come, and I thought the most sensible thing for a responsible new dad to do would be to stop frittering away money on cars. The most responsible thing would have been to hang on to it and ensure a more secure financial future so the little fella didn’t have to go down the pits at nine: the same car would be worth well over £40k today.
At least the driving experience still makes me smile. First there’s the churn of the flat-six, and the little shimmy as it jumps into action when you twist the key. Then there's the knuckly feel of the long spindly gear change. Early cars still made do with the old 915 ‘box, which gives that authentic old Porsche (read: knackered old Beetle) sensation of stirring the leg of an OAP desperately in need of a hip-operation. But from 1987 onwards, 911s featured the much more modern G50 transmission. We’re not talking Mazda MX-5 levels of shift nirvana, but you’ve got a better chance of getting the gear you want, and of buying a car with working synchromesh.
Keeping the SC’s 95mm bore but using the longer stroke of the Turbo engine helped lift power from 204bhp to 231bhp for the Carrera. It’s a massively useable engine that pulls in one long surge, and the newer Bosch L Jetronic injection ensures reliability, but it’s not as revvy or characterful as the older SC (although a decent sports exhaust definitely helps level the playing field). It’s Schwarzenegger’s coolly measured T800 to Robert Patrick’s frenzied T1000 from Terminator 2: it’ll win the fight, but it’s more stoic than heroic.
Where it does excite is in the performance (6.3 seconds to 62mph said Porsche, 5.4 seconds to 60mph said Autocar). The handling is also refreshing and plays against the 911 stereotype. With those fat back tyres and all that weight over the rear end, you’re far more likely to feel the front end wash out than the back, and the lovely unassisted steering – weighty at parking speed, but just about perfect everywhere else – will give you plenty of warning of that while you watch through the incredible Cinemascope glasshouse. The A-pillars are so slim they’re barely there at all. Which means parking is a cinch. As is piling in your shopping. Or your kids.
Practical, fun, appealingly different from pretty much every other car on the road, effortlessly cool and a rock-solid investment: this Porsche really does it all.
Maximum speed: 165mph
Fuel consumption: 12-21mpg
Transmission: RWD, five-speed manual
HOW MANY LEFT? 7 (UK)
WHAT TO PAY?
As 1980s as a bubble perm and 'tache combo, and to your average man in the street in 2017, quite possibly about as visually appealing, a TVR 'wedge' is a time capsule. While the Porsche’s datedness seems to have morphed into vintage cool, the wedge is trapped forever in the decade where excess meant success.
This super rare 420SE certainly has a handle on excess. Maybe not as much of a handle as the expensive part-Kevlar SEAC cars with their wraparound front bumpers and whaletail spoilers, but the 'cow catcher' protruding from the under-bumper recess, the side skirts, glitzy polished wheels and dubious-looking rear diffuser lift the car way above the meek looking 1979 Tasmin that sired it.
The shovel nose wasn’t a TVR trademark, of course. Back when this car first appeared as the Tasmin and through to the dawn of the 1990s, wedges were everywhere in car design. Never mind that popping up those headlights ruined the aerodynamics like throwing up a McLaren’s airbrake, they looked so cool. James Bond drove a wedge, a Lotus Esprit. Lamborghini sold them too, though only the Italian sounds anything like as good as this 420SE. It is evil, plain and simple, rugga-chugga-rugga-chugging through its pipes as it idles in the cold Birmingham night air.
But it wasn’t always that way. The first wedges had simple Ford V6s and there was even a eunuch 2.0 Pinto version. But in 1983 Wheeler struck gold with the genius idea of subbing Rover’s ex-Buick V8 in to recapture some of the sprit of the original '60s' Griff.
The 350i made 190bhp, which could be pushed right up to 275bhp in the 390i courtesy of a 400cc capacity hike, gas-flowed heads and a hotter cam, while seven TVR owners, including this one, went further still, requesting a swept volume stretch to 4228cc and power to 300bhp by ticking the box marked ‘420SE’.
That much poke in a glassfibre-over-steel package weighing just 1150kg (the 231bhp Porsche weighs around 1210kg) predictably makes for performance as sizzling as any Blackpool summer. We don’t have any exact numbers for the 420SE, but contemporary issues of Car magazine suggest 5.1 seconds to 62mph for the 20bhp weaker 390SE. As you can see, our midnight battle took place under heavy weather – a big V8, a short wheelbase, rear-wheel drive and, well, it's a TVR... a scary prospect?
In fact it’s surprisingly easy to drive. Not unlike a Toyota Supra or a Porsche 944 or any other relatively sane front-engined, rear-wheel drive car you could have bought at the time. There’s a stretch to the gearlever, and a slightly undefined gate to deal with. You need to tickle the revs too, as you ease out the clutch, or the V8 dies away.
However, the power steering is weighted just right and with 290lb-ft of torque, it’s impressively tractable prowling around town. And that’s despite the hilly cam buried in the bowels of the aluminium block. Sometimes V8s can feel as flat as a 12th century globe. All torque and tug, and no reason to rev them out to a redline that would be a disgrace for an asthmatic diesel.
Sometimes they go the other way, sacrificing all the bottom end they’re famed for in the pursuit of top end thrills. But this one is as right as baby bear’s porridge. It doesn’t idle like it’s about to shake itself to pieces or fall in a hole when you ask it to deliver with less than 4000rpm on the dial. But it’s definitely got an appetite for revs.
Bystanders get the best deal when it comes to engine noise, but it still sounds pretty epic inside. Doesn’t look that impressive, mind. This was a time when fuddy-duddy wood was considered OK for the under-70s car buyer, before TVR had started playing with modern curvy dashes, and started making its own handsome aluminium switchgear and covering the bits it did pinch, like indicator stalks, in natty clothes. Yes, it looks old in here, and not in a cool 1960s' chrome and Bakelite way. But maybe, like the wedgy styling, that’s part of the appeal.
As is sniffing out the source of all those pilfered parts. The boot hinges are from an Imp, in case you were wondering, and the rear lamps… apparently they’re Renault Fuego. Ah, the great pleasures denied drivers of ordinary mass-market sports cars.
The Modern Classics view
TVR wedges are more niche interest than the recent revelation that Crain Communications has merged Plastics News Europe and Plastics and Rubber Weekly (in case you didn’t know). A big deal for a few, but for most, about as on the radar as a stealth fighter in a fake nose and glasses disguise. Unfortunately, despite being feted when new, the V8 wedges live under the shadow of the sexier, less dated cars that followed – the Griffith, Chimaera, Tuscan and Cerbera. And that’s a shame because the wedges deliver a similar driving experience, are much rarer, and when it comes to boring mates in the pub, telling them that your car is reputed to be the first model ever to have a bonded windscreen is unlikely to be bettered.
They also cost buttons, in relative terms. Glen’s SE, one of only seven produced, remember, would have cost something over £25k when new, but today, despite having been lavished with care to bring it back to its former glory, is likely worth at most £15k.
For £15k you’d struggled to buy a viable project 911 in even the most undesirable spec ever built. Well, OK, maybe a Sahara Beige 2.7 Sportomatic Targa might be available, but one of those makes a TVR wedge look universally loved. Costing just under £40k when new in the late 1980s, the 911 was always considerably more expensive than even the unhinged TVR SEACs, but now has streaked ahead in value of cars like our 420SE, meaning you’d need at least £30k for anything decent, and more like £40k+ for a car similar to Alan’s with the right spec and in decent condition.
That being the case you’re less likely to be cross-shopping now than you would have been in 1988, but speaking hypothetically, which would you rather have? The TVR’s a curio, raw and exciting; the Porsche predictable, but just so effortlessly cool, usable and reliable enough that you’d never think twice about jumping in it and heading off for that notional trip to the Alps.
I’d still take the 911, just as I did when I bought mine. I look and I look at the TVR's angular shape and fussy spoilers again and again, but I don’t think I could ever truly love it. But Glen does, more than any of the umpteen more modern TVRs he’s owned. For people like him, cars like the 420SE are proper undiscovered treasures.