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Exclusive: The Wheeler Interview

Sunday 18th April 2004

Ted quizzes TVR's Chairman on ABS, airbags and safety

TVR's Chairman Peter Wheeler puts his faith in TVR's engineering every time he races

If you spend enough time around TVR owners you begin to appreciate simply from anecdotal evidence, just how safe their cars can be in the event of serious accidents. If however, you read the article in the Telegraph on Saturday about TVR’s T350T, you’d be forgiven for thinking that TVR were throwing cars together with little thought for safety.

Journalist Andrew English obviously has a chip on his shoulder with regard to TVR, but his comments on safety issues will have left many with a highly innacurate perception of Blackpool engineering.

It’s common practice these days for journalists to round off any review of a TVR by pointing out the lack of ‘active’ safety devices in TVRs.  Invariably it’s portrayed as TVR’s desire to build red-blooded sportscars without any namby-pamby safety devices getting in the way of enjoyment.

Looking Deeper

I had the chance to quiz TVR's Chairman Peter Wheeler today about TVR’s attitude to safety. The reality is very much at odds with the lackadaisical attitude assumed by many.

Wheeler has a passionate dislike for both airbags and antilock brakes. Not as I thought because they might interfere with the driving experience or present tedious packaging problems but because he believes his cars are safer without them.

T350's come with full tubular steel roll cage

On anti-lock brakes Wheeler happily pointed out that a car with anti-lock brakes will always take longer to stop than a car without, as demonstrated by Autocar’s 0-100-0 challenge in previous years. “The only purpose of ABS is to allow steering in wet conditions ,” he maintained, adding that in extreme situations “most modern cars understeer anyway ”.  The systems don’t help panicking drivers he claimed. What was interesting was that his views didn’t come across as bloody-mindedness, but very much a belief that to add ABS wouldn’t help drivers of his cars more seriously could worsen a critical situation.

His attitude to airbags is driven by the same desire to engineer the safest car possible. It’s not driven by a hatred of new technology as has often been suggested. The latest range of TVRs are built with either full roll cages or in the case of the open top cars, a windscreen surround that is an integral part of the chassis and provides roll over protection.

Despite all the legislation that manufacturers have to conform to these days, roll over protection remains a weak point in most saloons. Despite this Wheeler ensures his latest cars are designed to be “relatively safe upside down ” - “proven by customers, ” he quipped. 

The use of an airbag in a convertible fills him with horror. In the event of a roll or even the car simply tipping over slowly the driver can at least make some effort at self preservation – an airbag inflating simply pops the head up into the danger zone he told me.

The Philosophy

It was at this point that I began to understand where he was coming from. Being the owner and figurehead of TVR, Wheeler feels a unique sense of responsibility for the cars built by his company. He knows that his cars will be driven hard and fast and he has a conscience to wrestle with. “If someone crashes one of my cars and it’s their fault then I can live with myself. If we were to put an airbag in one of our cars and it ended up killing someone, I couldn’t live with that ”.

It’s that attitude that drives his whole approach to safety these days. The backbone chassis and GRP body may seem like a simple – even cheap – way to engineer a car, but it’s a formula that Wheeler believes provides a perfect balance of strength and safety. He wants his cars to stay in one piece in the event of an accident rather than break in two – “it’s safer to be attached to the body of the car than to be flung off on a fragment,” he told me.

The steel chassis have demonstrated their strength on many occasions but the lack of ‘crumple zones’ concerns many people. Where a monocoque car will compress its chassis and bodywork in the event of an impact - via its crumple zones – a TVR will absorb a huge amount of energy in the glass fibre before the chassis takes any impact.

It ain't pretty but it works

Take a look at any crashed TVR and you’ll often find relatively minor damage to the chassis yet many of the panels will be shredded, mashed or shattered - it’s that behaviour that Wheeler takes such comfort from.

Stunning Curves

Whilst some will joke about the plastic cars from Blackpool and assume that there’s no strength in the flexing bodywork, the opposite is in fact the case. TVR’s stunningly curvaceous bodies provide both good looks and strength. The engineer in Wheeler came out again at this point as he explained the construction methods. “A curved panel is stronger than a flat panel – that’s why our cars don’t have any flat panels ”, he told me.

Whilst TVR don’t have to subject their range of cars to crash testing – due to the low volume of production – they did subject a Tuscan Speed 6 to an offset impact test. The car not only passed with flying colours but was fixed up with some new body panels and new wishbones and then crashed again! The car proved both its strength and its ability to absorb energy whilst leaving the passenger cell intact.

Having spent half an hour with the Chairman I left buoyed by his positive attitude to the issue of safety. Contrary to what I’d been led to believe over the years, safety isn’t an option box they’re leaving unticked, but as ever TVR have found a different way of doing things which they’ve proved works extremely well – even some of us close to their products don’t always appreciate the logic, reason and above all belief that goes into the design decisions.

Omitting active safety features on TVRs isn’t an omission by Wheeler, it’s a positive statement that he believes his cars are safer with his safety features than adopting mainstream thinking for the sake of it.

PW pic courtesy of Deb Morgan

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