I recently had the opportunity to drive a car few people on this continent have ever seen. It was a 2001 TVR Tuscan, and it was painted the same color as the Cookie Monster.
Here’s what happened. Every so often, I get an email from a reader asking if I want to drive his car for a review. I usually say yes and then schedule it a month or two in the future, when I’m not so busy. Then I got an email from Ken, who lives in Canada, asking if I wanted to drive his freshly imported TVR Tuscan.
The next weekend, I was sitting at the Canadian border crossing in Buffalo, New York, attempting to tell a surly border guard why I was driving 600 miles to meet a man from the Internet.
For those of you who don’t know anything about the TVR Tuscan, allow me to explain: It is insane. With a 370-horsepower 6-cylinder engine and a mandatory 6-speed manual transmission, it’s essentially a European take on the Dodge Viper, which means it’s just as fast, just as loud and just as eye-catching — but far lighter and considerably more dangerous. My previous experience with it came from the Gran Turismo video game series, where the Tuscan is so difficult to control that it was the leading cause of Doug DeMuro temper tantrums in 1999. And now, I would be driving it in person.
“How exactly is that possible?” you might be asking. Well, you can thank the Canadian government. While U.S. laws say a car must be 25 years old before it can be legally imported without modification, Canadian laws have set that number at 15 years. That means the TVR Tuscan is completely legal in Canada — though it takes a certain kind of crazy person to actually bring one in. Ken is just that person. He says his car is one of just five or six in the whole country, which probably means it’s one of five or six in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Now, before I get into how it drives, I need to explain something: This car is absolutely ridiculous in every way. For example, there’s no exterior door handle. To get inside, you push a button hidden under the mirror and wait for the window to roll down halfway. Then the door opens. There’s no interior door handle, either. To get out, you push an unlabeled button next to the stereo. The windows roll down at intervals chosen only by them. The hood comes bolted shut from the factory. And the rear turn signals are mounted — I swear this is true — above the rear window.
You can learn all this stuff in my video about the car, but I’ve saved my thoughts on the Tuscan’s driving experience for this column. And my primary thought when I pushed down the gas pedal for the first time was, “Oh my God, my parents are going to have to figure out how to bring my body back from Canada.”
Over the next hour, I discovered the Tuscan isn’t really that scary, but it seems like it is when you first get behind the wheel. This is a car with no airbags, no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, no stability control and a curb weight that’s a thousand pounds shy of a Toyota Camry. Imagine getting hit by a semi truck in this thing. They’ll find your fingernails in the next county.
The Tuscan also consistently operates at the same decibel level as an industrial-strength chainsaw, which makes that first stab of the accelerator pedal especially daunting. But stab I did, all the way down to the floor, which is an incredible distance unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any car I’ve ever driven before. Ken refers to the long pedal travel as “one of the Tuscan’s only safety features.” (Ken also repeatedly tells me to “give it some beans!” whenever we reach a straightaway.)
With the accelerator floored, the thing absolutely comes to life — and I instantly had flashbacks to my Gran Turismo days, where a smash of the accelerator button would send the Tuscan careening at full-speed into a retaining wall, from which it would emerge (because this is how video games were back then) completely unscathed.
But the actual Tuscan isn’t really that scary. In fact, it feels — dare I say — a bit stable at high speeds. I once owned a Lotus Elise, and to me, that car felt a lot twitchier, more uncertain and more “if I crash into a goose at 70 miles per hour, the goose might be the only survivor.” Not the Tuscan. The Tuscan has more weight behind it, as well as more width. Sure, it’s no Porsche 911, but it also has an 800-pound advantage on one. And it’s built by men called Angus, in a factory where the motto was probably something like, “Eh, close enough.”
In fact, at low speeds, the Tuscan behaves so well that you’d actually be forgiven for thinking it was a normal car — until, you know, you look down at the gas gauge and discover it’s just a silver piece of plastic that disappears as you burn through fuel. I swear this is true.
I will say, however, that Gran Turismo got one thing right: the Tuscan’s handling. Even a slight movement of the wheel makes for a seriously quick turn. So quick that you’d better be sure you want to be going that way, because before you can do anything about it, you will be. As I told Ken, this is not a car that lets you text and drive — not that you would. There’s no on-center vagueness to the steering, like there is in most cars. You’re looking for the right emoji, you tap the wheel ever so slightly, and 6 hours later, “TVR Crash in Canada” becomes a trending video on YouTube.
Probably the most fun I had in the Tuscan came when I got in the passenger seat and Ken climbed behind the wheel, as his additional time with the car meant that my experience level (If we die, are my emergency contact numbers in my phone?) paled in comparison to his (80 percent throttle while casually showing off a scenic overlook). Even though he hadn’t owned it long, Ken knew the car’s limits, and he had no qualms about jamming down the throttle or steering heartily into a corner. Each time, the Tuscan rewarded him, doing exactly as told with no problems, issues or wild, uncontrollable tailspins that would’ve caused 12-year-old me to hurl my video game controller at the fireplace.
The best way to explain this car, I think, is as a cross between a Dodge Viper and a Lotus Elise. From the Elise, you have the lightness, the lack of safety equipment and the inherent Britishness of the whole thing. From the Viper, you have the immense power, the sound and the “you know you love it” styling. And from both cars, you have a sense of occasion, excitement and uniqueness that few modern cars can match. Maybe if I had told all this to the border guard, he would’ve been more understanding.
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