What Ever Happened to Tina, a One-Off, Rear-Engine TVR?

Photography and Story by John Webber

 

The car show crowd gathers around the tiny roadster and speculates. It looks vaguely Italian, but a TVR emblem graces the front, and its engine sits in the rear.

A TVR? Really?

Most spectators are stumped, but that’s understandable. It’s TVR’s one-and-only Tina Spyder, and she’s back in action after a decades-long restoration.

For more than 70 years, TVR, builder of quirky British sports cars, has enjoyed brief periods of success only to falter and go dark. Time and again, the tiny automaker has stumbled, fallen into receivership, and somehow clawed its way back.

Founded in 1946 by Trevor Wilkinson (“TVR” came from his first name), the company has survived manufacturing woes, a factory fire, bankruptcies, restructuring, a revolving cast of managers and a parade of owners, notably a TVR enthusiast with little auto-making experience, a Russian oligarch, and the Welsh government (which still owns a minority interest).

Over the years TVR has produced more than 50 models, gracing them with bewildering names like Jomar, Grantura, Tasmin, Griffith, Chimaera, Typhon, Cerbera and Sagaris.

Despite its checkered past, the marque boasts a small but passionate following of us-against-the-world enthusiasts who have endured the brand’s rollercoaster ride because, they tell us, the cars TVR built–and may yet again build–are fast, agile, distinctive, and rewarding to drive. Quirky, they say, is just fine with them.

The Elusive Tina

Tina represented a radical departure from TVR’s front-engine, tube-framed, fiberglass-bodied models. Only two were built, this Spyder and a lookalike coupe that resides in the United Kingdom. Both were designed to help TVR avoid slipping into the ranks of defunct manufacturers.

In 1965, when TVR dealer and investor Martin Lilley bought the company, it was mired in liquidation and desperately needed a new model with wide appeal. Lilley reasoned that a compact and affordable TVR might woo the masses, especially in the American market, so he commissioned Milan-based coachbuilder Fissore and designer Trevor Fiore, best known for the Geneva Salon TVR Trident, to craft two show cars using the Hillman Imp’s floor pan and running gear.

The prototypes were named after the eldest daughter of Gerry Marshall, a successful TVR racer and business associate of Lilley’s. Completed in a rush–only 12 months from concept to show floor–the Spyder debuted at the 1966 Turin Motor Show, where the alluring design generated an excited buzz, along with a list of potential buyers.

During the event, however, the motoring press questioned whether Tina’s smooth, tapered front end (dubbed a “droop snoot”) would meet American regulations. So TVR returned the Spyder to Fissore, where the coupe was nearing completion. Both were hastily restyled for the 1967 London Motor Show with a more conventional, squared-off nose treatment.

The cars drew a flurry of interest on the stand at Earl’s Court, especially when potential buyers were told that Tina, touted as a 100 mph car capable of 40 mpg, would be selling for 998 British pounds–about $2800–including taxes.

Reality Bites

Hurdles loomed. To sell Tina at that price, TVR needed high-volume production capacity–far greater than the struggling company could generate. So the automaker searched for a partner, first seeking help from the Rootes Group (who owned Hillman), then Jensen and Aston-Martin. For a variety of reasons, including project costs and potential production issues (Tina’s plans called for fiberglass bodies), each of these manufacturers declined to join the venture.

Finally, Lilley was forced to abandon his ambitious, high-volume strategy, write off the project’s expenses, and direct TVR’s resources to building and selling the more familiar Tuscan and Vixen series. The company’s brief fling with the petite, unconventional Tina faded into corporate memory.

Tina’s Travels

After the London Motor Show, both Tina models went into storage at TVR, where they remained for the next few years. The Spyder was first street registered in 1972 and sold to a collector in the U.K. a year later.

In 1978, Norbert McNamara, a U.S. Army officer and avid car collector who loved coach-built Italian cars, acquired Tina. Then stationed in Germany, Norbert took advantage of his world travels to acquire an extraordinary group of collectable cars, many of which he shipped back to the United States.

While in Europe, Norbert enjoyed driving Tina, and she eventually joined his 40-odd collection of rare machinery housed in a Northern California warehouse. When he returned to the States, Norbert devoted his considerable energies to SCCA racing, as well as restoring and showing cars from his collection.

Tina’s current caretaker (and third private owner), a transplanted Brit and avowed gearhead named Jonathon Till, first met Norbert in the 1980s in California. The pair shared a common interest in another obscure British marque, the rare and racy Costin, and became fast friends; Jonathon helped Norbert tune his cars (including Tina), as well as prepare and show examples from the collection.

Norbert’s growing interest in concours led him to Pebble Beach (where he became a judge), and he later received an invitation for Tina to appear in a proposed gathering of Fissore’s designs. So in 1998, with the TVR showing 22,000 miles and the usual wear, Norbert had Tina completely disassembled for a concours restoration and sent her parts to several shops around Modesto.

Sadly, he was then diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the restoration stalled. Eventually Norbert became unable to continue his hobby, and when he died in 2010, work on Tina’s restoration stopped completely. Her future looked bleak.

What Are Friends For?

That’s when Jonathon stepped in. “I’ve always been interested in oddball cars,” he says. We believe him, because when we visited his Florida shop, we found three Costin Amigos (of only eight built) in various stages of reconstruction, along with a pristine Jaguar XJ13 replica.

Despite his passion for obscure cars, Jonathon admits that he was not initially drawn to Tina. “Norbert loved the designs and coachwork of Fiore and Fissore, and that’s what led him to the car,” he says. “I was impressed with its history, of course, but I was just not that interested.”

Over time, however, circumstances and his affection for his friend were to change his thinking. After Norbert’s death, Jonathon began to fret about what might happen to Tina, whose pieces were scattered among restoration shops.

“I was afraid she would fall into the wrong hands and be scrapped,” he says. Recalling Norbert’s keen anticipation for showing Tina at Pebble Beach, Jonathon felt compelled to act. He contacted his friend’s estate, helped track down Tina’s parts (unfortunately, some had been lost) and bought her remains.

“That was the least I could do,” he says. “I felt that Norbert, who was a real gentleman, deserved to have this restoration finished.” That completion would have to wait, though: Jonathan, deep into projects of his own, was unable to start another. So Tina, mostly in boxes, went into storage.

As restorations often do, this one again turned into a lengthy, start-and-stop marathon, made more difficult by Tina’s rarity and lost bits. After she spent years in storage, Jonathon moved Tina to his home garage and restarted the assembly. Life intervened. Time passed. Finally he commissioned a California shop to complete the job.

Adding to the drama, Jonathon and his family (and car collection) made an arduous cross-country move, leaving Tina behind. After nearly two years in the restoration shop, she arrived at her new Florida home late in 2018. Since then Jonathon has been busy refining and sorting to his satisfaction. “I’m getting reacquainted with Tina,” he says, “and I enjoy her company.”

Jonathon tells us he’s pleased with all the attention his car receives, drawing honks, appreciative waves and thumbs up–not to mention what is it? queries at every stop.

Despite the long, difficult effort and unexpected delays, he reports that restoring Tina was a rewarding experience. “I’m really happy I was able to do this,” he says. He’s also enriched by knowing that his pal Norbert would be delighted with the results.

As for Tina, it’s 1967 all over again. She’s back in the show.

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn Dork
12/17/19 6:48 p.m.

The Imp had a good a feature and a bad one.  The good one was a Climax designed SOHC 875 cc engine derived from a water pump engine of even smaller displacement.  The bad one was the whole suspensions, swing arms and all.  I have owned three of these little beasts, two Sunbeam and one RHD Hillman. If you had put a decent suspension under them and the rally Imp 998 cc engine, you would have had a viable alternative to the Fiat 850. As it was, the TVR Tina kept the bad parts and added styling arguaby inferior to the original Imp. 

Not a winning combination.

Impish
Impish New Reader
12/23/19 1:46 p.m.

The Hillman Imp engine was not designed by Climax, it was designed by Peter Ware, Leo Kuzmicki and Craig Miller who all worked for the Rootes Group.

After various design requirements for the Hillman Imp were settled, a number of small engines were studied and compared to these requirements. One of these engines was the Coventry Climax 750cc engine. Rootes already had close relationships with Coventry Climax and after close analysis, found that many of the features of the Climax engine coincided with the Rootes requirements. This, combined with the existing relationships, allowed Rootes to design and develop a new engine using extremely valuable advice and help from Coventry Climax, but this was a Rootes designed engine.

The Hillman Imp was launched in 1963 and by 1964 (by popular demand) Rootes launched a  homologation special called the Rally Imp. In 1965 they managed to secure 1st and 2nd overall in the Tulip Rally, they were also campaigned successfully in motor racing, particularly the British Touring Car Championship which was won by an Imp in 1970, 1971, and 1972 - seems the suspension, "swing arms and all" worked out OK for these guys.  

Rootes developed a wide range of models based on the original design of the Hillman Imp - at least 20 Variants, all with very different styling. Your comments with regard to the TVR Tina  which "kept the bad parts" shows a certain level of ignorance - when the car was shown at various world car expo's, it drew huge crowds that loved the little car, it also garnered acclaim from the motoring press, and many potential buyers placed deposits at the shows. You may not like the car but I would suggest that you are in the minority and don't seem to know much about it.

 

 

 

wspohn
wspohn Dork
12/24/19 12:50 p.m.

Are you suggesting that the Imp suspension wasn't...challenging?

I have to go by what a friend who raced them in  England back in the day has told me. He switched to a space frame Imp powered car in frustration.  I defer to you on how much of the engines were Climax and how much elaborated upon by Rootes.

I was probably one of the few who ever bought an Imp new from the dealers in Canada - they weren't good sellers here. They wre marketed beside the Alpine (by then a rebadged Rapier) that also languished on the sales floor.

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