It was big, brash, British and incredibly fast. Phil James looks at the life of the extraordinary TVR Cerbera...
TVR Cerbera 4.5
Fifteen years ago at the British Motor Show, TVR wheeled out a high-roofed coupe that looked a little like a Chimaera saloon. What visitors were looking at was the new Rover V8-powered TVR Cerbera, its lofty stance due to the use of a Chimaera windscreen. Long-standing TVR dealer Giles Cooper took orders for 29 of them. The definitive Cerbera shape appeared two years later (1995 Motor Show), in Pearl White. Its distinctive 'chopped' roof and letterbox windscreen, reminiscent of classic leadsleds, had vexed TVR's stylists for months - it was Damian McTaggart who finally penned, or rather carved, the signature shape.
The Cerbera features one of the most outlandish
'That spaceship thing...'
and wildly sculpted interiors ever. The dashboard was conceived by Nick Coughlan and almost didn't see the light of day. The design was initially dismissed by Peter Wheeler when he first saw the sketches, but the next day Nick was asked ‘where's that spaceship thing?’ The design of the dashboard meant everything is at your fingertips and it’s an example of TVR's free-spirited lateral thinking at its very best. There is the sheer theatre of popping open the long door with its concealed button, slumping into the sculpted seat, and dropping your hands on to your thighs to thumb the starter button.
But it wasn’t the dash that cemented the Cerbera’s place in history. The car introduced the first of TVR's own engines, the AJP8. This compact V8 had debuted earlier in 1995 with half
Early sketch of interior
a dozen of them in TVR's one-make racing series, the Tuscan Challenge. There were initially two versions of the AJP8 engine, the dry sump 4.5 litre in the racing cars and the wet sump 4.2 litre in the Cerbera, although there is some debate as to whether TVR got confused between the two in the early Cerbera press cars. The first time I saw a Cerbera on the move was at a Silverstone trackday in 1996. Peter Wheeler was in the original pink press car, and I was distinctly underwhelmed and confused by its peculiar exhaust note. It doesn't sound like any other V8 - or indeed any other car.
The reason is its use of a flat-plane crank, combined with an unusual 75 degree angle between the two banks of four cylinders. The 75 degree bank angle is a legacy of a modular engine idea that TVR had harboured to enable a future compact V12 with common components - 75 degrees being a compromise between the 'ideals' of 90 degrees for an eight and 60 degrees for a twelve. Flat plane cranks are often used in racing engines for improved exhaust scavenging (for power) and exhaust packaging (for space and weight). Ferrari's V8s also use flat plane cranks, but with a 90 degree bank angle, the characteristic wail is entirely different from that of a Cerbera's angry bark.
'Chimaera saloon' takes shape
Which brings us to its name. It is derived from 'Cerberus', the mythological three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell, but Cerbera is also a colloquial Italian word for a ‘wild woman'. And wild the Cerbera was. ‘0-60 in 4 seconds flat! The giant killer is here’ shouted the front cover of Autocar in June 1996. 0-100 came up in just 9.1 seconds. Then there was that classic Clarkson drag race where the Cerbera vanquished all comers with a standing mile in 31.2 seconds. That was 12 years ago, but even now little can match that kind of performance.
The main reason a Cerbera boxes above its weight is that the engine has so little inertia - every millimetre of throttle movement has
Final preparations for the '95 Motor Show
an instant effect on the car's speed. The engine is a bit harsh in the grand scheme of things but for pure effectiveness it ranks as one of the greatest V8s ever. Just over a year after the launch of the 4.2 litre Cerbera, TVR announced it would produce an even hotter model to be called the Cerbera GT. When the car arrived, the GT name had been dropped in favour of ‘4.5’. Some reviews questioned why the Cerbera needed any more power but when Autocar first tested a 4.5, it recorded slower times than the 4.2 - despite having a claimed 420bhp.
In 1999, the Cerbera was the first TVR model to be offered with the new Speed Six 4.0 litre engine. With its lighter clutch action, softer suspension and slightly slower steering rack, the smoother six cylinder Cerbera revealed another side to the Cerbera's character, just as compelling but utterly different from the V8 bruisers. The Cerbera Speed Six is like a modern-day E-Type coupé or Aston DB6. In this guise, the Cerbera as 'family car' proposition looked slightly less comedic than those with the bonkers AJP8. Despite being the 'softer' Cerbera, outright performance was not that far behind the hard core V8s.
Wheeler often tested Cerberas at trackdays
In a Top Gear magazine road test a journalist driving a Lamborghini Murciélago in a group test was taken aback that his colleague in a Cerbera 4.5 ‘Red Rose’ (an option introduced with bigger brakes and a claimed 440bhp) could not be shaken off at 150mph. Top Gear advised ‘if you are disgustingly rich, if you've already managed to acquire any or all of the other exotica driven here, and if one day you see an uncommonly green, long-snouted coupé hurtling towards your backside, best avoid trouble and step out of its way...’
Cerberas often performed less well in handling contests. At all sensible road speeds a Cerbera handles very well indeed and it is a fantastic grand tourer in which huge distances can be covered in comfort and with ease. It is at higher speeds and near its grip/traction limits that things can get interesting. Your grasp of physics, driving skill and nerve will be tested, and therein lies the challenge of the Cerbera. A Cerbera has plenty of power, strong brakes, fast steering and honest feedback. You have to figure out how to use them to make a Cerbera dance to your tune. Get it right and there is
Smolenski's final Pepper White car
nothing more satisfying. But get it wrong and the consequences may feel like the heads of all three dogs have sunk their teeth into you.
The last Cerbera built was a Pepper White car that new owner Nikolai Smolenski built for himself, then auctioned (although bids failed to meet the reserve). This car disappeared after the auction then resurfaced when TVR collapsed just before Christmas 2006. It briefly appeared on sale for over £80,000 at a London showroom before being sold for rather less from a northern TVR dealer some months later.
The TVR Cerbera was and probably always will be an enigma. The marriage of a rabid racing engine with a billing as ‘family car’ could only have happened in Blackpool. The often-
The end of a Cerb-era...
underrated Cerbera Speed Six is perhaps the best all-rounder the company ever made and the more common, and generally preferred, V8s are the fastest cars the company ever retailed. The Cerbera’s ability to not just embarrass but to convincingly crush considerably more expensive opposition (in 1996 you needed to spend ten times the price of a Cerbera to access similar performance) is unlikely to be seen again, ever. Yet TVR boss Peter Wheeler, high priest of the purple brotherhood, regarded the Cerbera as one of his biggest mistakes. Go figure.
PH Hero Rating: 9/10