TVR Cerbera | PH Used Buying Guide

Not for the faint-hearted or the shallow pocketed, the Cerbera was a rock star. Here's how to buy one now

By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, January 31, 2021 / Loading comments

Key considerations

  • Available from £19,000
  • 4.2 or 4.5 V8 or 4.0 straight six, rear-wheel drive
  • Rabid performance, no driver aids
  • Vaguely practical with four seats and a boot
  • Most current cars will have had early issues sorted
  • Watch out for chassis corrosion though

Search for a TVR Cebera here

OVERVIEW

Automotive heritage has been a thing for a very long time. Internet heritage isn't big yet, but it will be. Websites that have been around since the 20th century will at some point proudly boast 'Online Since 1993', or whatever. 

PistonHeads will be one of those 20th century heritage sites, and if any one car company can be said to be at least partly responsible for that it's TVR. PH founder Dave Edmonston (aka PetrolTed) was a TVR fan. Like many of his TVR-owning mates in the late 1990s he was a self-confessed IT nerd. He created PH to offer a smoother alternative to the dial-up email discussion groups that TVR owners had been obliged to use before proper forums came along.

Today, TVR is one of only two marques to get their own heading in the Forums drop-down menu on the PH homepage. Relative to the number of cars built, the TVR knowledge base is dauntingly large and the bar for a Buying Guide on any of the Blackpool bruisers is high. Still, we're going to give it a shot on the Cerbera. With only three hundred or so PH members registered as Cerbera owners, what can possibly go wrong?

The Cerbera debuted at the 1993 London Motor Show but cars weren't on sale before 1996. It was the third TVR of owner Peter Wheeler's stewardship, his first fixed-head coupe, and his first model with rear seats (sort of). Like the Chimaera two-seat roadster that preceded it in 1992, the Cerbera was named after a fearsome mythical beast. Wheeler's first car, the 1991 Griffith roadster, had been named after the Griffith Series 200 conceived and built by US TVR importer Jack Griffith in 1964 after a willy-waving chat with Carroll Shelby. It was a shame that Jack's surname wasn't Griffin because that would have been a neat starting point for the 'mythical beast' names, but in any case a Ford 289 stuffed into a modified fibreglass-bodied Grantura ticked the 'fearsome' box as emphatically as Shelby's Cobra did.

The Griffith Series 200 was lively. After driving one at over 150mph, British car journo John Bolster advised anyone attempting the same feat to 'either choose a still day or risk becoming one of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines'. Race-ready 200s still come up for sale at £85,000-£100,000. That first Griffith 200 and later the 3000S established the lairy template for every TVR produced during Peter Wheeler's 23-year spell in charge: a glassfibre body and a mad engine sitting on a tubular steel chassis.

In the eyes of those who wanted a high degree of predictability in their sports motoring, Wheeler was a dangerous maverick. For those who preferred the simple pleasures of raw speed, bum-tightening road manners and home-brewed imperfection, Wheeler was – and still is – a folk hero. When he died in 2009, top motor-noter Colin Goodwin penned this description of his influence. 'TVR was barely on the radar when Wheeler bought the company in 1980 but pretty soon he turned it around with a range of dramatic cars that looked like no other and had performance to match. They broke down a lot but when they were going they provided a unique experience.'

Clearly nobody had told Wheeler that you needed a huge development budget to build your own engine. The 1993 Cerbera was the first TVR to have an in-house motor, the Al Melling-designed all-alloy 4.2 litre flat-plane crank AJP V8 producing 360hp and 320lb ft. Although that first Cerbera came with a limited slip diff as standard (or a viscous-coupling Hydratrak diff as an option), there were no automatic gearboxes or traction control systems available. If you were up to the task of working the beefy five-speed Borg Warner T5 manual and balancing back-end grip with a power curve that didn't peak until 6,500rpm, a low four-second 0-60 time and a 180mph top speed were both possible.

Somebody at TVR thought that 360hp was a bit pathetic, even in a car weighing just 1,100kg, so in 1997 a 4.5-litre Cerbera arrived with 420hp and 380lb ft. These 4.5 Cerberas had Hydratrak as standard and, for those with the skills and courage respectively, a 0-60 time of 3.9sec and a 185mph top end, with the 0-150mph achieved in 17.9sec. 

Two years later, Wheeler again confounded accepted automotive logic by launching another in-house engine, a 3.6 (or stroked 4.0) dry-sump straight six. The 4.0-litre unit that was put into the Cerbera Speed Six shrugged off its two-cylinder disadvantage relative to the old 360hp 4.2 AJP-V8 (or Speed Eight as it was by then known) with 350hp at 6,800rpm, rising to over 400hp in later Tuscan S, Sagaris and Typhon models. It was the most powerful naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine ever to appear in a production car, humbling more expensively developed motors such as the BMW M3 on the numbers, admittedly with a more random reliability factor.

Wheeler trumped that in the following year (2000) by confirming that the Speed Twelve concept that had first wowed show crowds in 1996 was going to be produced. Powered by a 7.7 litre V12 made from two Speed Six blocks, the Twelve was presented as a GT1 class endurance racer and, by the way, as the world's highest performance road car. Like every other Cerbera (and TVRs in general of this era) its claimed weight was around 1,100kg. The exact weight was a moot point with a nominal 800hp on hand and enough grunt when provoked to smash TVR's 1000hp-rated dyno.

With double the power to weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron and none of the traction control or even anti-lock braking measures you'd find on a Ford Focus, the Speed Twelve was (and still is) a strong contender for the title of most evil road car ever built. In 2000 the price was set at £188,000, making it the most expensive TVR by far, but Wheeler sealed its place in motoring legend in a different way by canning it before it went into production, partly because somebody changed the GT1 race regs but mainly because he reckoned it was too berserk to be driven on the public road – and Wheeler was no duffer behind the wheel. All deposits were returned.

Still, a single Speed Twelve prototype was registered for the road on the plate W112 BHG, using one of the GT racer bodyshells. In 2003 it was sold to a buyer who had been heavily vetted by Wheeler. As far as we can ascertain it's still running under that same reg number, having been sold at least once since.

The dust from the Speed Twelve announcement in 2000 had hardly settled when TVR released a Red Rose option pack for the 4.5 Cerbera, hoisting its power to 440hp and with a button on the dash to alter the mapping. A 'Lightweight' Cerbera 4.5 version arrived featuring different seats, lights, doors, bonnet, boot lid, A-pillar and rear screen trims and a thinner-gauge roll cage. It reportedly added up to a 40kg reduction, though the thinner roll cage was probably more useful for aiding visibility than saving weight, and the loss of the sun visors was an annoying gimmick.

New Cerberas remained available until TVR shut its doors in 2006, two years after the fresh-faced Russian oligarch Nikolai Smolensky took the firm on. Let's give you the spec of the 4.5 Cerbera and then take a look at the fun in prospect for the owner of one of these, or of a Speed Six.

SPECIFICATION | TVR CERBERA 4.5 (1997-2006)

Engine: 4,475cc, 32v V8
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],750rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],500rpm
0-62mph: 4.1 secs
Top speed: 180mph
Weight: 1,100kg
MPG (official combined): 18.8
CO2: 355g/km
Wheels: 18in
Tyres: 225/35 (f), 255/35 (r)
On sale: 1997 – 2006
Price new: £46,500
Price now: from £19,000

Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive. 


ENGINE AND GEARBOX

Before we start, a quick word to say that for general advice on TVR purchases you could do a lot worse than contact Str8 Six, run by Jason Clegg who used to work in the TVR factory. Andy of APM Automotive in Liphook also has an excellent reputation as does Paul Glynn, ex-TMS service manager, who set up his own TVR specialist business Prestige Performance Cars in 2005. PPS also owns Leven Tech who do some lovely TVR bits. Forum posters will doubtless put forward their own recommendations. Talking of forums, the Cerbera has its own on cerbera.co.uk.

Whether you're driving a six or an eight, Al Melling's background in F1 and motorcycle engine design meant that the TVR engines were a long way away from slugging American V8s or big-chested Jaguar sixes. Anyone remembering Gran Turismo in the 2000s will know that Cerberas are all about high energy. In place of complicated electronic traction control systems you got a long-travel throttle pedal and, if you were sensible, a pair driving galoshes with soles fashioned from a thin laminate of butterfly wings.

Some informed insiders believe that the Cerbera 4.5 was set up for a torquey mid range hit at around 4,500rpm and that the intake manifold tubes were too long for efficient performance at higher revs. A short induction kit in conjunction with a remap was developed by the aftermarket to improve that, albeit at the cost of some responsiveness at very low rpm. 

Cerberas have plenty of instruments to look at. They're not just decorative either. Early 4.2s and pre-2002 six-pot motors did have teething troubles, quite a few needing factory rebuilds in the first 20,000 miles. The 4.2s had small main bearings that could allow the crankshaft to flex and snap. Most of these engines were rebuilt with the 4.5's larger bearings.

Keep an eye not just on the temperature of the coolant or the pressure of the oil, but also on the amount and condition of both those liquids. Coolant loss can be the result of a weeping radiator, rusted and lost hose clips, or hoses split by overtightened clips.

Attractively cheap-looking servicing packages in the £300-£400 range are unlikely to include everything that needs doing. The sixteen tappets on the 75 degree V8 should be reshimmed every 12,000 miles, which is not a quick job, to the extent that some non-reputable specialists invoiced for it without actually doing it. Throttle setup isn't a matter of moments either. The engine is not known for burning oil but it might leak some from the front cover.

The 'slant' Speed Six had its own top-end issues. Valve clearance is an easier job on these than it is on the V8 but if you delay adjustment until the noise become noticeable you might be too late. The six also had problems with its head gaskets, with the cam lobes' hardened faces being worn by the finger followers, and with the valves pulling into the head. Marque experts have suggested that the six's dry sump design required the oil to travel too far to the bits that needed quick lubrication from a cold start. Occasional rather than daily use would make matters worse by allowing those parts to 'dry out'. It's also been said that some of the oilways designed into the block by Al Melling were deleted on production engines.

Don't worry too much though because third party development will have resolved most if not all of these problems on surviving cars. Just check the paperwork carefully with a knowledge of what you're looking for. There might not necessarily be any paperwork for factory engine rebuilds as TVR wasn't great on the admin side.

Many cars will have had sports exhausts fitted and/or been de-catted, which will mean checking with circuit noise requirements for track days because these are not quiet cars even as standard. Cat internals can dissolve if a car's throttle potentiometers are on the way out and the engine is over-fuelling.

The Borg-Warner T5 transmission is difficult to destroy, but wear can occur on the synchros for second and fifth gears on cars with 80,000 miles or more. The main transmission weak point is the clutch, not the plates themselves (these should last for around 25,000 miles) so much as the pressure plate's diaphragm spring fingers. Again, most if not all of these will have been sorted by now. Obviously it's low-mileage cars you need to be wary of. Fluid can leak from the joint between the clutch and the bell housing and there were a few warranty claims on the clutch slave cylinders too.

From a purist driving perspective (and a value perspective, for those in the know) cars with the regular friction diffs are generally preferred to those with the less nuanced Hydratrak setup. Changing the diff oil on a regular basis is a good idea. The filler is half way up on the right hand side of the diff directly above the driveshaft and is not the easiest thing to access.

Hot starting can be a problem. Sometimes this would be down to the clutch bellhousing losing a shim, but replacing the stock starter with a Denso high-torque WOSP item has turned out to be a very popular and successful mod, albeit an expensive one at around £400 a go. Electrics were never TVR's strong point, but the good thing about broken Cerbera lights, dip switches, wipers, electric door-opening buttons, immobilisers, boot locks, clocks and the windows is that they're all fixable at not great cost. As noted, there is a wealth of TVR info on PH. This link will take you to a list of Cerbera-specific DIY home spannering tips.

INTERIOR

With a maelstrom of swooping dash surfaces and TVR-bespoke dials hanging from a pod below the steering wheel, the interior of a Cerbera will delight, shock, amaze, or befuddle, or all four at once. One thing it won't do is leave you unmoved.

The passenger seat was designed to move forward further than the driver's seat to give one rear seat passenger something approaching tolerable legroom. Did the demands of seatbelt design prohibit a sideways seating position? That would have been a novel and somehow very TVR-ish solution.

Cerbera leather can bag up over time, particularly on the driver's seat bolster, handbrake gaiter and centre console armrest. Water can leak past the door seals. As a TVR aside rather than as a specific Cerbera thing, early Wheeler-era cars were prone to cabin mould. Once your car had it, it was like Covid-19 for cars – tough to get rid of.

CHASSIS

Peeling chassis powdercoating was a problem on 1998 and 1999 Cerberas, and burnt-off powdercoating was a thing on early Speed Sixes until an exhaust heat shield was fitted. Better coatings were brought in for 2001-on cars, but you still need to be aware of the potential for rust in the top rail and the outriggers, especially the mud-trap ones behind the front wheelarches, because corrosion anywhere in this area is going to be an expensive MOT fail. Chassis access is a bit pants, so any fix generally entails lifting the body off.

The power steering needs 2.4 turns to go from lock to lock on the sixes, but only two turns on the V8s. That sort of sharpness can take a bit of getting used to. The power steering system can leak, while clonking over bumps usually means worn bushes. Poly replacements do the usual job of curing that and honing the handling, but the ride quality can suffer.

The areas of suspension and braking are largely trouble free. This will seem like good news when you read the personal note from Peter Wheeler in the Cerbera owners' manual which stated that the Cerbera had 'unusually effective in-gear performance (which) on early acquaintance can lead to the approaching of obstacles at higher speeds than imagined… we suggest you observe the old racing adage of 'slow in, quick out'.' Drat those fast-approaching obstacles!

BODYWORK

Glassfibre was a good choice for small volume performance car builders in the 1990s because it was relatively light, didn't rust and was a lot cheaper than the carbonfibre that's largely supplanted it these days. The main downsides to it were getting the panels to fit together nicely and its tendency to degrade over time.

The Cerbera's glassfibre body is generally strong and smooth. Cracks and any evidence of filler in the body need to be looked at hard as proper repairs are a specialist job, Some of the panels, especially the roof, can suffer from lacquer peel. A roof respray will cost about £1,000 and a full body respray about five times that.

One quirk of small volume car manufacture is that the ancillary parts tend to be gathered in from a wide variety of sources, some of them unexpected. This was very much the case with the Cerbera. AP Racing supplied the brake calipers –  so far so normal – but you're off down a rabbit hole after that. Rumour has it that the mirror switches came from a Mondeo, the mirrors from a Corrado, the coolant tank from another VW, the radiator from Land Rover, the screen wiper motor from a Mini, the wheel nuts and front hubs from a Jeep Cherokee, the rear lights from a Fiesta, the front indicators from an Alvis Scorpion light tank/recce vehicle and the boot latch from a Bailey Pageant Magenta caravan.

PH VERDICT

After driving a Cerbera, Clarkson announced that TVR had 'put wheels on a thunderstorm', which wasn't a bad shout. Ten years ago you could get one for under £10,000 (a Cerbera, that is). Today you'll have to pay getting on for twice that to join the club, but even £19,000-£20,000 doesn't seem all that bonkers for a handbuilt, limited-numbers, rear-wheel drive British sports coupe with standout cabin design, rear seats for a (small) family, and racer performance for the road from a normally-aspirated V8 or hyper straight six.

It's hard to see these entry prices getting any lower, which should at the very worst mean rock-solid values and very probably potential for growth if you're interested in the investment angle. In our research for this story we saw a low mile 2004 4.5 Lightweight advertised for a fiver short of £50,000.

Which Cerbera model is best though? That will partly depend on the engine format you prefer, V8 or straight six, but the golden rule really is to buy on condition, almost to the exclusion of engine type (remembering that the flat-plane V8 doesn't sound like a normal V8). The Cerbera Speed Six had slightly softer suspension and higher profile tyres for a more comfortable ride and less road noise, so if you're more into grand touring than banzai lunacy you might prefer it. You should always buy the best car you can, ideally one with a history from a reputable dealer or specialist, because the Cerbera that hasn't been looked after will bring no joy to your life.

If you make your buying decision on nothing more scientific than a 'safety in numbers' basis, and you believe what the internet says about the number of cars around, you'd go for the 4.2 V8 with just over 400 of those registered in the UK. Having said that, two-thirds of those 4.2s are off the road, whereas only half of the 260-odd UK-registered 4.5 V8s are SORN'd. Read into that what you will. If you can't decide, go to an owner's club meet, chat to them and ask for rides.

Once you've bought a car there will be running costs, not all of them predictable. Set aside a £3,000 annual war chest for that if you can, but don't be too put off by TVR's reliability reputation or even by the fact that David Beckham had a Cerbera with a child seat fitted. Most of the good cars running around now will long since have had their endemic problems sorted. The last time we looked spares availability was excellent with some ex-TVR employees having set themselves up as body and trim part fabricators. If you do run into trouble you'll have no bother finding enthusiasts and specialists prepared to offer help, support and possibly counselling. Many of them live here on PH. You'll make a lot of new friends tapping into that resource, and the knowledge you'll be able to access will come in especially handy before you buy a car.

Without wishing to blow the PH Classifieds trumpet too hard, the longstanding connection between this website and the TVR community means that the widest selection of decent Cerberas up for grabs will very likely be found right here. At the time of writing there were twice as many of them on sale here than there were on the two big-name car selling sites put together.

At the cheap end here's an £18,995 4.2 from Amore in Gloucestershire. At first sight you might want to shy away from this Cat D car of unknown mileage. Read the detailed ad though and you might change your mind. Sellers Amore haven't been going for that long, but Paul and Mark are genuine TVR enthusiasts who have quickly built up an excellent reputation. This Cerbera has been independently inspected and comes with a 6 month warranty.

For the exact same money but with a confirmable mileage of 111,000 you could have this 4.5 in green The private owner who has had it for the last six years has spent plenty on it and got it through last August's MOT with no advisories. Now he's selling it at a range of prices beginning at £18,995 depending on whether you'd like any repainting done or not. At £24,995 here's a 2001 Speed Six. It's done 90,000 miles but it's just had a fullStr8six engine rebuild. 

As a final note, in 2006 TVR held an online auction for 'the last Cerbera', a one-off right-hand drive 4.5 LW in Pepper white with Prussian blue leather. It didn't hit its reserve price but sold anyway to the highest bid which was less than £45,000  or around £55,500 with fees and VAT added.


Search for a TVR Cebera here

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