Mine had a habit of popping its pop-up headlights when going over bumps

TVR was founded by Trevor Wilkinson in the late 1940s, and has since endured more receiverships, changes in ownership, and near-liquidations than probably any other car company-Lamborghini included. Yet no matter how close to financial ruin the Blackpool, England, firm has veered, TVR has always operated as a low-volume producer of hand-built sports cars. This has resulted in some memorable models, like the mid-1960s Griffith, and the following decade's 2500M. But TVR has also had its share of disasters-which brings us to the 280i.
Initially known as the Tasmin, it was the follow-up to TVR's successful M series. Unfortunately, the 280i's prolonged gestation period meant that by the time it hit the street in the United States in 1983, the wedge styling fad was on its way out and the car looked dated from day one. That in itself wouldn't have been a problem had the 280i not retailed for over $25,000-about the price of a new Corvette. As such, many of these cars sat unsold for two years or longer, and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the factory still has some on its MSO.
Now that we've got 20 years of distance on that dark era of the early '80s, however, I think the TVR is at least as interesting a budget collector car as the early C4. Certainly it's rarer at only about 2,000 built, which is one of the things that attracted me to the 280i when I bought mine. While both it and the Corvette can be had for about the same amount of money today, roughly $7,000-$10,000, and the 'Vette will likely be more reliable and surely offer way more performance, there's something to be said for owning the one with more character.
As per usual TVR practice, the 280i was made from fiberglass laid over a tube chassis. It boasted independent rear suspension and solid chassis engineering by ex-Lotus engineer Oliver Winterbottom. Power was supplied by Ford of Germany's "Cologne" V6, a 2.8-liter unit with Bosch fuel injection that made 145 hp. One would think that would be adequate power in a 2,500-pound car; however, the 280i could only manage 0-60 mph in an unimpressive eleven seconds. At least the top speed was reported as a credible 125 mph.
The 280i is most fun coming out of a second gear corner, when the V6 feels torquey. The fun soon dissipates, though, as the bizarre gearing in the four-speed box leaves a huge gap between second and third, contributing to the 280i's acceleration woes. But the steering is sharp, the car corners flat, and even on its meager 14-inch rubber, the 280i has enough grip to put a smile on your face-a credible handler all around.
While this isn't likely to come as a shock, the build quality was dodgy. Nearly every 280i has a nicely delaminating walnut dash today, leading me to suspect that the factory substituted egg tempera for varnish. Similarly, the grade of leather specified for the 280i has a half-life of about two years, so most interiors are either tired or trashed by now.
On the plus side, every 280i I have seen in the U.S. has air conditioning. If it's properly charged, the system works reasonably well, as does the heater.
I managed to use my 280i as a daily driver for about nine months without a lot of trouble. The power windows acted up occasionally, and the car cooked two coils before I figured out that right over the catalytic converter was not the best place for it to be mounted. My car also had a peculiar habit of popping its pop-up headlights when going over large bumps. Not in unison, mind you, but one right after the other. The good thing was that they'd go down the same way, kind of like a stadium crowd doing "the wave."
When I did need something, I'd contact John Wadman at TVR North America, the former Canadian importer (416.752.7226). He is immensely helpful and still supplies parts for these cars.
When looking for a 280i, be wary of rust and accident-related damage to the tube chassis, and know that the cars can be afflicted with sagging doors and the typical, intermittent British electrical woes. If you're thinking that a Ford drivetrain would mean easy parts availability at NAPA, think again, as the 2.8-liter V6 was a European design that was put to limited use in U.S. models. But Ford lineage does mean you're not going to be suffering exotic car repair bills.
The 280i was available as both a coupe and convertible. The best feature of the convertible is its top, a two-piece affair with a rigid roof section. Simply release the tension on two bars and the rear part folds back, while the lift-off roof stows in the trunk. Or just leave the rear up, stow the roof, and you've got a targa.
To my eyes, the coupe is better looking than the open car, which is somewhat like an origami depiction of a Maserati Khamsin done by an artist who had never actually seen one. Neither model is particularly desirable, nor will they ever be truly collectible. But that doesn't keep the 280i from being an interesting diversion, a neat toy from an era full of downright awful sports cars.
And like your crazy cousin Eddie showing up uninvited at family functions, there seems to be a 280i at nearly every major auction. For such a low- volume model, these frequent appearances should tip off any would-be buyer that, like Eddie, there's only a certain amount of time you can spend with one. But at less than $10,000 for a really great example, it's hard to get hurt too badly.

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