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TVR Cerbera 4.0 | The Brave Pill

The cheapest example of one of TVR's most exciting cars is a four-wheeled custard test for courage

By Mike Duff / Saturday, March 14, 2020

Your first reaction to a bright yellow Cerbera Speed Six being sold by a non-specialist dealer for a lowish price and with a minimally detailed advert will reveal your position on the optimist-pessimist scale. Those of a gloomier disposition will hold that the only real debate is how high the hill you should head for needs to be, and whether to run or sprint. Those with sunnier temperaments, or a more tolerant approach to risk, are likely to concentrate more on the near unbeatable amount of performance-per-pound offered by an 18 grand Cerbera.

Not only is our Pill the cheapest example currently listed in the classifieds, it also has one of the lowest odometer readings - having covered just 19,000 miles in the last 21 years. That would often be a sign that a car has spent a substantial amount of time off the road, but - despite obscured number plates - we've sneaked a peak at the MOT history which shows continuous certification from 2007, although the car has often only covered a few hundred miles between tests. Nor is there anything scary in the official record. The most recent pass included advisories for an oil leak and a handbrake that only just made the grade, or stopped the car from rolling down one. (The angle of the handle in the pictures suggests this hasn't been sorted yet.) The last MOT also ran out in October 2018, suggesting this Cerbera has been either SORN or in dealer stock for a while - but the next owner will doubtless get a full 12-months from the dealer selling it.

No question, any Cerbera is a very serious thing. Launched in 1996, this was the car that carried TVR into new territory. The Griffith and Chimera had already created plenty of stir as Peter Wheeler took the brand out of its wedge era, but as they still used Rover sourced V8s many cynics continued to view them as being only one step up from kit cars. The Cerbera was radically different and unarguably proper. It was bigger and more expensive, but it also had a fixed roof and the boost in practicality of a plus-two seating layout.

The big change was under the lengthy bonnet, with the arrival of a home-grown engine. At launch that meant a 4.2-litre V8 with 75 degrees between its cylinder banks, designed by the near-legendary Al Melling after Wheeler had decided he wanted to move performance to an altogether higher level. Officially the 4.2 made 360hp, but in truth that was only an intermediate step on its way to a considerably loftier peak, certainly in the factory demonstrator.

A brawnier 4.5-litre V8 followed, with the ultimate 'Red Rose' power packing boosting the output of this to 440hp, at a time when the Porsche 911 Turbo required a pair of compressors to make 420hp. With the Cerbera's steel frame and fibreglass bodywork giving it a 1,100kg kerb weight, the result was supercar-baiting performance: Autocar ran the 4.5 through the 0-60mph benchmark in 4.1 seconds, and from 0-100mph in just 8.9. For a measure of just how extraordinary those numbers were, consider both were in a tenth of the times the magazine extracted from the Ferrari 360 for the same increments.

Next, Wheeler determined to broaden the range by also offering the company's new home-grown Speed Six engine, a 4.0-litre 350hp version offered in the Cerbera from 1999. This was meant to understudy the V8, but many actually preferred its thanks to its more compliant suspension and a less frantically fast steering rack. I never got to drive a V8 Cerbera - at least not outside the original Gran Turismo. But I did get to try the Speed Six just after its introduction, and it was the quickest and lairiest thing I had experience up to that point. Memories of chasing a BMW Z3M Coupe around Lancashire in one included the hot leathery smell of the TVR's cabin, the engine's seemingly insatiable appetite for revs and the beautiful action of the gear lever marooned in the middle of the vast centre console. On the straights it had the BMW easily beaten, in corners the situation was reversed, and even by the more laid-back standards of the late 20th century, the lack of electronic safeguards took some getting used to - especially as I didn't realise the Cerbera lacked ABS until a spectacularly smoky lock-up somewhere in the Trough of Bowland.

Road testers and early owners might have loved it but, like its Tuscan sister, the Cerbera Speed Six soon developed a reputation for mechanical meltdowns and the sort of resulting bills that left vast, smoking craters in the ground. Many early buyers discovered that the natty new engine had a marked tendency for the sort of catastrophic failures that look like grenade explosion, mostly due to under-spec valvegear. But even when motors were swapped or rebuilt under warranty, it wasn't uncommon for the replacements to give up as well. The AJP V8 wasn't a paragon of reliability itself, but for the sort of brave souls who buy Cerberas later versions of the bigger engine are now regarded as the more sensible choice, a risk that the market seems to have reflected with (generally) lower prices for the six-cylinder.

All of the above makes the question of how well our Pill has been looked after a critically important one. The advert's promise of a full service history is reassuring, but is one that would need to be investigated in much greater detail by anyone seriously considering a purchase. The dealer also promises the car's next owner will enjoy the reassurance of a six-month warranty, which could turn out to be an expensive commitment on its part.

Cerbera prices have been rising slowly but steadily for some time and now any car under 20 grand looks cheap. It's not that long since it was possible to pick up less-loved versions for under half of that, but even at current valuations it's hard to think of anything that gets close to this Cerbera's quantity of bang per buck.


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