It is said that in their final moments, most people have more regrets about the things they did not do, than regrets about the things they did. The moral of the story? Carpe Diem, Seize the Day.
Perhaps I should have done that, and perhaps there was a reason I didn’t. Either way, there is a car that I have wanted to own from the first time I saw one, and once I drove it, I was convinced that one had to be mine at some point… but for a number of reasons, I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. Maybe the timing wasn’t right? Maybe at that time I just wasn’t a good enough driver to have one and fate intervened. Or maybe I was stupid and should have done it.
Love it or hate it – the TVR Chimaera 500 is the best and worst car I’ve ever driven.
The Best Car I’ve Ever Driven
The Chimaera was supposed to be TVR’s softer, more friendly, GT version of the bonkers wild child known as the Griffith. Chimaera had a bigger boot, slightly softer ride and a bit more space in the cabin, but ultimately, if you take the fiber glass bodies off them, they are exactly the same car. I’ve always preferred the styling of the Chimaera though, especially around the rear.
TVR, being a very small volume manufacturer, had to be masters of digging through the parts bins of other cars to make up various bits. For example, the tail lights on the Chimaera are from a Ford Fiesta, turned upside down. The indicator stalks and ignition barrel (and therefore keys) are from a Vauxhall Vectra, as are some of the electrics. The ashtrays in the doors were from an Austin Maxi, the wing mirrors from a Citroen CX, fuel pump from BMW, interior lights from Ford Escort and rear view mirror from a Peugeot 205! But their designers were very good at making everything look like it was just supposed to be that way. It all came together to create a car that looks not only unique, but distinctly TVR. It never feels like a parts bin special.
There are loads of bespoke parts too though, like the lovely machined gearknob and door opener, as well as the aluminium ventilation and AC controls.
The engine started life as a Rover V8, which was of course “borrowed” from a Chrysler design that never really saw the light of day in Chrysler form. Rover bought the rights to build the engines under license and the Rover V8 became one of those legendary engines that everyone wanted to have! TVR used them in a number of their cars, and in the Chimaera you could have a 400 version, 400HC, 450 or the full fat 500 (there was also briefly a 4.3 version). The 400 was basically a standard Rover V8 off the shelf. The HC version had a slightly higher compression ratio. The 450 was slightly breathed on by TVR techs and bored out to a 4.5l displacement. The 500 was the daddy. With loads of bespoke TVR go-faster bits bolted to it and a displacement of 5.0l, it was a complete monster.
With only 340 horsepower, even the 500 would seem tame by today’s standards, but let’s not forget that the Chimaera is a lightweight fiber glass car. It has no ABS, no airbags, no traction control, no stability management, no clever electronic diff, and didn’t even have particularly wide tyres. All of that torque and so little traction meant this thing is lively. You have to drive it at all times, and never ever assume that the car will help you out of a jam.
How lively you ask? Well put it this way, the first time I drove one I was stuck behind a car doing around 60kph in third. When I pulled out to overtake, I didn’t even poke it particularly hard, but the rear broke traction for a few seconds whilst my brain was trying to figure out what just happened. The Chimaera 500 is ludicrously over-powered, and it just makes the most fantastic noise you can possibly imagine. Yes it’s lively, and yes you have to be awake and keep your wits about you to drive it without crashing, but this car handles beautifully!
Most modern sports cars are designed to grip really hard, but once the grip runs out, they are very difficult to control. And of course because they grip so hard, by the time they lose traction, you are already going very very fast. On the other hand, the TVR doesn’t grip that well, but it handles superbly once the grip runs out. You can dance with it and feel the car move around underneath you.
The steering feels so direct that if you drive over a packet of gum, you could probably tell what flavour it was. The Borg Warner T5 gearbox with a short shift linkage is perfect, the engine pulls hard from any revs, the nose darts exactly where you point it – in terms of the driving experience, it is pretty much as close to perfection as I have ever experienced.
The Worst Car I’ve Ever Driven
Type TVR into any search engine and the first 50-100 pages that come up are bound to be about fixing your broken TVR. Whilst Trevor was apparently brilliant at building a fun to drive car, he was not great at making said car start on the button every day. The Chimaera specifically was not the worst of the TVR’s but it does have a long list of weak points that are prone to failure. These include having to replace the entire chassis due to rust. Or how about the fact that they are virtually impossible to start when the engine is hot. Various electrical problems have also been sited. Also because of the extensive modifications to the otherwise bulletproof Rover V8, the 500 version is generally considered to be the least reliable, with troubles in the cylinder heads and overheating or gasket failure not considered “uncommon”.
Then there is the rather delicate question of resale values. In the UK, TVR enjoy an almost cult-like following, however here in SA, most people don’t know what the hell it is. This means that come sales-time, you are going to be aiming for a very tiny segment of a very small subsection of a very small market. Essentially, if a buyer knocks on your door, sell it for whatever he offers you, because he might be the ONLY TVR buyer in the country at that time.
Of course you can also point out that TVR have never really understood what build quality means. Panel gaps are hopeless and bits of the interior will fall off periodically, but you will most likely be having far too much fun to notice.
And finally, there is the reason why I haven’t owned a TVR myself. You see there was a Chimaera 500 in Cape Town many years ago. When it went up for sale, I went to drive it, fell in love with it, but just couldn’t bring myself to commit, owing to the reliability issues and other TVR horror stories. Having missed out on owning it, I was ecstatic to see the same car go up for sale again about 2 years later. I immediately made a plan to go see it at the dealership where it was being advertised on the following Monday morning. However, when I got there, the car was nowhere to be seen…
I asked the salesman about the car and he told me that the owner of the car had placed it with them on consignment. He then decided to take it home for the weekend and bring it back on the Monday. However, on his way back to the dealership, earlier that morning, he lost control of the beast and smashed it into the pavement – destroying the bodywork and front suspension in the process. The car was a write-off.
You see TVR’s do not suffer fools gladly. It’s part of the reason why I love them, but also why I am ever so slightly scared of them. They have a fearsome reputation for teaching their drivers a very harsh lesson in vehicle dynamics, earning them the rather sombre nickname of “Death-Sled”. You really have to know how to drive a car properly before getting into a TVR, because there is no learning curve when the monster bites.
But you know what? It was my birthday just the other day – I’m getting older now and I’ve had a good run…. perhaps the time is finally right for me to live out my dreams behind the wheel of the mythical Chimaera.
Extra Bonus – Quirks and Features of the Chimaera:
- Once inside, you may struggle to open the doors since there are no door handles. They are opened by a large aluminium knob on top of the trans tunnel. Twist it in the direction of the door you want to open.
- Some new Chimaera owners complain that the lights in their gauges don’t work. This is not the case. For some reason there is a switch on the dashboard you can use to turn off most of the lights on the dash when your headlights are turned on.
- The backlight on the speedo was only half as bright as the other instruments, since TVR said speed isn’t as important as all the other information.
- TVR built around 6000 Chimaeras of which only 600 were the high powered 500 versions.
- The Chimaera 500’s had their rocker covers painted purple.
- Trying to fill up with petrol? Well the Chimaera’s filler cap was inside the boot!
- For some reason, in the Chimaera the Borg Warner T5 gearbox required that you go into 5th gear before going into reverse to avoid the gears crunching horribly.
- The Chimaera has no external door handles either. Earlier cars opened by pushing a big round button just behind the door, whilst later cars had buttons hidden under the wing mirrors.