Peter R. Wheeler, the former owner of the quirky sports-car maker TVR and a maverick of Britain’s car industry, died June 11 in England. He was 65. His death, after a struggle with cancer, was confirmed by Ben Samuelson, a friend of Wheeler’s family and a former TVR employee.
In 1981, when Wheeler bought TVR, a maker of fast and relatively inexpensive sports cars with a passionate fan club, the only thing that linked him with TVR was that he drove one.
Wheeler, a chemical engineer from Sheffield, England, with no experience in the car industry who had made his money supplying specialized equipment to the North Sea oil industry, started designing and overseeing the production of several car models, including the Tuscan and the Chimaera, which were known for their finely tuned engines and extra-light bodywork.
The company then operated from a property in a residential area of Blackpool. Wheeler’s aim was to shed the image of “plastic cars from Blackpool” and take on the likes of Porsche and Ferrari by improving his vehicles’ engineering and using his keen intuition about the preferences of sports-car buyers.
TVR was founded in the late 1940s by Trevor Wilkinson, who used three letters from his own first name for the company’s moniker. Though such rivals as Aston Martin were bought by larger carmakers, TVR survived as the last independent British carmaker that largely made its own components.
But the business never really flourished until Wheeler took over, building about 40 cars a week by 1998 and making an annual profit of about $4.3 million.
Samuelson, who worked at TVR for 11 years, until 2004, described Wheeler as “one of the last great innovators and mavericks of the British car industry.”
“He was the last person who was able to say, ‘I will design the car like I want to,'” Samuelson said. Legend has it that Wheeler’s dog unwittingly did some of the designing. The shape of the Chimaera was said to be based on the results when Wheeler’s dog bit off part of the front of a foam model.
Wheeler was proud of his designs. Samuelson remembers how Wheeler sent some TVR cars to Warner Brothers after Daffy Duck was drawn driving one in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Warner Brothers joked that TVR should change the color of the black leather seats so that Daffy’s black feathers would not disappear into them. Wheeler replied there was no way he would change the car.
“Change the duck,” he said.
A TVR also starred in the 2001 movie Swordfish, driven by John Travolta’s character, a spy who steals billions of dollars from the government.
Wheeler pulled out of the American market in 1986.
In 2004, Wheeler realized that new safety and environmental regulation and increasing competition would make business for his niche race cars increasingly difficult.
He opposed such laws, calling controls on carbon-dioxide emissions “nonsense” and air bags “dangerous,” and in 2004 he sold the company to Nikolai Smolenski, a son of a Russian industrialist, who was then in his 20s. Smolenski lost control in 2006 when the company was taken over by bankruptcy administrators and production stopped.
The sale of his company left Wheeler with enough money to allow him to pursue his passions of car racing and shooting. Even in his 60s, Wheeler was taking part in racing competitions, often beating other drivers 40 years his junior.
He is survived by his wife, Vicky, and three children.