Peter Wheeler brought us some of the most dramatic cars ever built, but he was more than a successful car builder and businessman. For my generation he was our Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman or Ferrucio Lamborghini; a maverick who did things his own way.
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.
Anyone born in the early Sixties grew up dreaming of E-Types, Cobras and Ferrari Daytonas. Big, powerful, front engined cars that were before our time and that we never got to experience when they were new. Then Wheeler produced the Griffith. It did everything a sportscar should do and was an enormous hit. It was the Cobra for the baby boomers. Rugged, pretty, fast, scary and loud. It defined a decade.
Peter Wheeler was a quiet, laconic man. You’d bump into him at motorshows at which there was often a dramatic new TVR on the stand. Wheeler would field awkward questions from hacks like ‘When is it going into production and when can we test drive it?’ with a non committal answer and a hint of a grin.
A private man, I got to know him a little bit during a three day drive in the then new Cerbera. We took it from Blackpool up to Scotland. Few journalists had spent that much time with him so I was a bit nervous. He turned out to be fantastic company, puffing away on Marlboros, talking about ex girlfriends, the cars he’d owned and his favourite subject: how dreadful 911s are. We drove together until the Cerbera’s engine went bang. Wheeler almost exploded himself. It wasn’t that it had gone wrong in front of a journalist, he was furious that it wasn’t working properly.
Many years later a Tuscan that I was driving blew up in France. Several days later Wheeler rang me on my mobile. I panicked thinking that the ECU had been telling tales and that Wheeler was going to tear me off for driving the Tuscan for hours at 150mph, but no, he simply wanted to know what had gone wrong because he was determined to sort out the problem.
Nowhere was Peter Wheeler’s dry sense of humour better displayed than at a race circuit. He competed in virtually every round of the wonderful Tuscan Challenge series. Nobody minded that sometimes Wheeler’s car would have a ‘development’ engine or some special chassis parts that no one else had. He was there and he was taking part. And he wasn’t slow.
At Thruxton in 2001 Wheeler was driving a gorgeous Tuscan painted in hugely expensive flip-flop paint (like Nissan used on various models). I hit him up the chuff at the last chicane with my car and destroyed the back of his Tuscan. Mortified, I came up to Wheeler after the race grovelling and scraping. He wasn’t overly concerned, just made some accurate comments about my driving and that was it.
To meet Wheeler at the races was to see him at his best. Surrounded by his young family and lovely wife Vicki (who collected us in a Land Rover after the Cerbera had detonated in Scotland), enjoying his racing and the technical challenge it presented.
Peter Wheeler continued to enjoy racing, in the last few years with a lightweight Aston Martin DB4. It was at Donington last summer that he realised he wasn’t well. Right up until the last few weeks of his life Wheeler was living life to the full, passionately involed in a new car project called Scamander, which was to be a Rapid Response Vehicle (RRV).
The man and his cars were unique. No one who has ever driven a Griffith or had the pleasure of arguing about car handling or design with its creator will ever forget either.