Sienna - The Story
View the Sienna 'walk-around' video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-NCan8Kx4Q&t=70s
The Stevens Sienna is a prototype built by Professor Tony Stevens who went on to show his Cipher sports car at NEC Motor Show in 1980. To understand why I now have this rather unusual looking machine in my garage it would be best to share the story and in fact the brains behind it, that may go some way to explain my rather strange/brave/reckless decision to restore the car. Whilst the Sienna is certainly unique it is also rather unattractive and probably not what the designer had in his mind’s eye at the outset; so without wishing to offend the purists we are looking to make some changes. Firstly though, the story of a fascinating engineer whom the title ‘Automotive Maverick’ suits very well. Tony Stevens – Automotive Maverick Pt1 A quiet market town in deepest Kent is home to a man who has been involved with this country’s motor manufacturing from a very young age. Professor Tony Stevens has seen it all, been involved in some amazing projects, had to fight bureaucracy and been let down by short sighted banks; a career of ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’ would have been so different if only the men in suits had enjoyed his vision. Canterbury born and bred Tony spent the war years with grandparents in the relative safety of Dorset and after finishing school secured an apprenticeship at Lockheed, Borg and Beck. It was here an understanding of manufacturing engineering developed and a chance to build the brakes for the BRM Grand Prix Cars. Tony built his first car at 18; an MG rolling chassis cost him £10 from the local taxi company. The rest his own creation and the MG M-type Special was born, a sign of things to come? 1957 and Tony returned to education at Kings College London where three years study resulted with an Honours degree and diploma in Mechanical Engineering. In his final year project at Kings, he designed an original vane-type rotary engine that so impressed Peter Ware, Rootes Group Engineering Director that in 1960 he appointed Tony as his Technical Assistant. By 1961 Tony became Rootes Group Chief Engine Designer resulting in plans for various engine types dependant on vehicle; these included an ‘Inline 4 cylinder’, flat 4, inline 6, V6, V8 (using common parts from inline 4),parallel 8, V12, rotary and diesels power plants. Tony told me of a quiet week and the chance to put some fresh paper on his drawing board and design a Grand Prix V12 engine! The toothed cam belt was just one of the ideas he penned that is still in use today. 1966 came with more responsibility and a promotion to Rootes/Chrysler Product Planning Manager Globally; in charge of the complete medium range for marques Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and Humber; models such as Vogue, Gazelle, Sceptre and Rapier would all cross his desk over the next 2 years. In 1967 Tony saw an opportunity in the Group 6 Le Mans Prototype category and proposed it to the board, they declined on financial grounds so he funded, designed and built it himself. It would be the first glued monocoque construction car all made from 22 gauge soft aluminium; named ‘Desauto’ it would be powered by mating two Hillman Imp engines slightly off parallel into an 8 cylinder featuring an early fuel injection system. The car never saw the French circuit; again Rootes blamed a lack of funds so Tony raced himself at UK tracks and hill climbs. 1968 saw the competition department come under Tony’s planning wing and that included the London-Sydney Marathon. Having little confidence in the project the company only employed a photographer as far as Istanbul; the Hillman Hunter however went on to win the event and they had to rely on their competitors images for the publicity shots. Next episode: The Tony Stevens story comes up to date and continues today as Classiccarmag.net is offered an exclusive look at a design drawing for the all new Cipher. A 21st century sports car that offers a classic driving experience, with the right backing in place this project will happen; in fact it’s already happening. Going back to the beginning we drag the 1970’s Sienna from its decades of slumber, try to make the Reliant motor start and remove the fibre glass body, all with mixed results.
A classic car restorer of note once told me he would always favour an earlier automobile with a separate chassis over the more modern integral construction; ‘providing the chassis is good, the earlier cars can be repaired an infinite number of times whilst once tin worm has done its worst with the monocoque the repair becomes unviable’. Therefore before we threw pointless cash at the Sienna the chassis condition needed to be assessed and that meant body off. Whilst the fibre glass had the usual cracks and the paint finish had gone from ‘Rampant Red’ to ‘Pretty in Pink’, it was generally in good order and Tony Stevens had told me he designed all of his cars to come apart with ease. The bolts they used obviously didn’t conform to this theory as over half were either ground out or if we were lucky broke in half after rusting solid. First we removed the roof (which we are not planning to replace) and gained access to the rear section securing bolts and within an hour we got a look under the skin. Fairly impressed, we foolishly assumed the rest would be as easy, far from it but a couple of hours of bad language resulted in the screen and associated body work, doors and bonnet being dumped outside the garage. One nice part of the design is the front wing and tread plate under the doors is one complete panel supported by out riggers from the chassis itself; unfortunately these were all ‘wafer’ thin and crumbled to the touch. I removed the fibreglass floor from the rear then followed the chassis legs through to the front, it was ‘beer o’clock’ by this time so we celebrated with tin and revelled in the fact the chassis looked solid; a relief for sure.
The original chassis drawings show just how heavily modified ours was compared with how it began life. The basis was from a Reliant Kitten and the original metal was in great shape with just light surface corrosion, although anything attached to it was made from 1in box section tubing and that was not so clever. Alan persuaded some poor soul to loan us his Mig welder and I went metal shopping to Kedek in Bognor Regis who supplied all the tubing we would need. With a selection of new wire brushes I was left to remove any surface corrosion and clean up the front end; Alan only likes the ‘glory jobs’, fried breakfasts and beer time. I also purchased a huge tin of rust stopping paint; now I am not sure whether this tinned marvel actually works but it makes a great undercoat for the even larger quantity of Hammerite that would finally be lavished on my chassis and body framework. The front panel/grille is lucky to still be attached to the car as the framework holding that was completely rotten, no thoughts of a repair we would just cut this off completely. Using the old parts as a template we built a new front end in a morning and with a minimum of fuss re attached to good metal; I doubt the rest of the welding will go as smoothly. Starting at our new front end I worked back over a few days and anything totally solid got a clean and a coat of ‘rust convertor’ the rest would be at risk of the angle grinder.
Unfortunately, I am afflicted with the attention span of a ‘Kardashian’ and rarely complete one job at a time, much happier to move to the next part of the restoration than finish a boring job. This time I was determined not to flit but to finish and once the front frame had enjoyed too much attention the terrible condition of the engine bay warranted my time. It has been several months since we ran the Reliant motor and we knew the water pump was ‘binfodder’ so I sought some more advice from Simon Fitch who looks after the Stevens-Cipher Group, the model that followed my Sienna. The power plant, all 850cc of it, is in fact fairly bullet proof, reliable and easy to tune up but it is also susceptible to corrosion from within; regular coolant changes are a must to avoid engine replacement. Our engine hadn’t seen any TLC for decades so Alan fitted a new pump and thermostat, we ran her up complete with two bottles of coolant flush. What came out was shocking but we knew it would be when we found enough debris to require a soup spoon to remove; we have flushed through twice more since and it’s all clearing gradually. Over filling any engine with oil is never good and this one had well over a litre too much which had been ejected via the rocker cover gasket all over the bay and back towards the gearbox; very messy. Whilst in bits I treated the rocker cover to fresh paint and a new gasket then a set of ignition leads went in with a Lucas Sports coil and braided fuel lines. Timing set and the 20k mile engine fired up and ran like new, even the mechanical fuel pump having lain dormant for years worked perfectly. Whilst restoring the coolant system I noticed the poorly painted radiator was actually an original complete with a brass top, far superior to the modern exchange item; this beauty benefitted from a day’s labour and looks perfect with special new hoses from Hyphose in Portsmouth.
Unique to the Sienna, steel tubing had connected the engine via hoses to the radiator and when steel and water get together water always wins and so I replaced the rusty tubes with alloy versions. The electric fan is also bespoke to the Sienna and still works fine but we have opted for switch control and binned the thermostat whilst also cutting the heater box out of the loop. With no roof and only aeroscreens for protection having warm air pumped into the cabin is pointless and this also meant loosing much of the pipe work that cluttered the small engine bay. With winter closing in fast, I was hopeful the worst of the welding would be finalised by Christmas but that didn’t happen; overall things are going well……..so far.
Welding is rarely very exciting but even more boring to read about, thus I will endeavour to keep this part of the story brief; even though it went on for weeks. The ‘outriggers’ attached to the main chassis were additions required to support the small running boards that were part of the original design; 1 inch box section and fairly straight forward to replace. Both sides also had a tube curving, not only upwards but also in towards the chassis; unfortunately both of ours were rotten. Although we had no issues replacing the ‘outriggers with new steel, obtaining the curved shape required some ‘thinking out of the box’; and the wife’s hatchback. We soon realised bending the bar in a vice left it dented and slightly deformed where as supporting one end on various widths of wood then driving over resulted in a smooth curve. The rear support sections for the body were also cut off and used as a template for new ‘rust free’ versions, this was easy enough, just obtaining the precise angles slowed us on refit. The chassis work finally drove my trusty colleague (and welder) to Egypt, strange thing to do at Xmas but his departure forced me to look into the front suspension. Those who know their way around this vintage of Reliant Kitten will recognise the setup, simple yes but also rather sophisticated and its origins have more than a hint of Lotus engineering involved. Mine though had sat for many years and needed more than a little TLC. Stripped out it became apparent I would be playing the ball joints and bushes game but before that it all had to come apart. The front brakes enjoyed leaking cylinders, so I had a chat with Joe Mason who supplies brake disc conversion kits, this will become important later but he also gave some vital advice. The top ball joints had been on the Sienna since ‘The Wurzels’ treated us all to a song about a combine harvester and were most unlikely to release their grip without a fight. He was right and the equipment that did battle included two chisels, one Dremel, one angle grinder and a big hammer; two hours of bad language passed before I could celebrate with a sausage roll. The unusual wheels that came with the car have always been a source of conversation and being 13inch they could also accommodate a disc upgrade.
Wheely Interesting The Sienna was built with GKN Silverstone wheels. Now to be honest this meant very little to me but it turns out they are not only rare but also very desirable. The 5.5J x 13 fitment on Stevens prototype may not have been the 12in versions fitted to the Mini’s that competed in the 1275GT Challenge race series in the 70s but they are identical apart from the size. Tony Stevens informed me that this set of alloys are as unique as the car; with his contacts back in the day a one off set of 13s came to be and were attached to Stevens prototype. So, after asking my pals at Bedford Tyres in Chichester to de-tyre all five, they then ‘spun them up’ and confirmed none were buckled. My wheels are very light, especially considering they are over 40 years old but they look terrible, so I ventured out for a visit to Penfold Metallising Company in Barnham (small village near Fontwell Racecourse) to check through my options. The boss, Justin Ruddock explained the blasting process which I must confess to being more than slightly vague about; the first thing I learnt was sand is never involved in the metal cleaning process. To understand more I was invited to spend some time with Jed Carter on the shop floor for a tour of the facilities and to watch my wheels being given a new look. Penfold’s are regularly asked to prepare classic car shells for restoration and recently completed an amazing rot-free Mark 1 Cortina from Sweden. Like me, most classic folk require certain parts cleaned and often refinished, whether that be paint or powder coat the job can be completed within these walls. Three blasting cabinets fill one room and these are for smaller items like my wheels, each is controlled via a foot pedal leaving the operator with two free hands. The rubber gloves required are industrial strength, they have to be given the blast ingredient for the wheel is crushed steel; even so they will last no more than a fortnight. Alloy oxide is the option on the second cabinet followed by glass bead; each offers different options for strength of blast and type of finish. With plastics also becoming popular and even walnut shells being used, the most precious engine casings or alloy dash binnacle can be perfectly prepared without the risk of damage. There are several blast rooms for large items and these are big enough to accommodate a car shell or the front of an aircraft, as I found on the day of my visit; a nose section was being prepared for a new life as a simulator. Every classic owner will require the services of companies like Penfold’s and that showed when the variety of parts awaiting the process included a complete rear axle next to a small box of headlight rims. My rims are now like new and I have been enlightened thanks to Penfold’s but it was back to reality with a bang when suspension parts began arriving and I had to finish painting the chassis before Alan returned from the pyramids. Next time: We renovate the oil covered drivetrain and I get told off for the oil coated driveway Head scratching a plenty when Alan reassembles the suspension The engine gets a make-over whilst I raid the kid’s piggy banks for disc brakes.
With the chassis complete I was able to admire the framework finished in gloss black, now able to offer many more decades of motoring, although the vision was somewhat let down by the rear axle covered in years of thick grime; a guilty oil seal was at fault here. Removal was fairly straight forward and the opportunity arose to take out the driveshaft after making location marks at either end. The fuel tank was removed over a year ago when we tested the vinegar and baking soda method of cleaning. Once we had evicted years of solidified fuel, the inside of our tank looked new; to preserve this, a mix of oil and petrol was ‘sloshed’ around and to this day it remains spotless. The suspension has received a makeover and was reassembled with little fuss, apart from when we tightened the new ball joints the steering wheel became very difficult to turn. More than a little worried I bothered all the leading authorities on the Lotus derived Reliant set up. The reaction I received was ‘don’t panic it will be fine once the weight is returned to the wheels’. Really? Once the car is back on the deck the steering should work normally; to be honest I wasn’t convinced and would have to wait to be sure as the wheel refurbishment was still on going. Uprated Stoppers Joe Mason from Reliant Spares obviously carries a wealth of knowledge on anything that originated from the Tamworth factory but also mods and upgrades to improve performance. I was keen to try out the disc brake conversion which should not only improve the Sienna’s ability to stop but also aid handling but first we had to make all fit. The kit arrived and each side consists of a spacer, mounting bracket, disc, caliper and carrier also pads and a wheel spacer plus various bolts. Luckily, I was able to follow a Stevens Cipher owner Dave Corby having recorded the same upgrade in the Reliant Kitten newsletter only a couple of months prior. Once the old drums are removed the stub assembly needs to be cleaned perfectly, the spacers need a perfectly flat surface to sit correctly. Mounting bracket followed and all was going swimmingly and we ground the corners from my original hub so it would fit easily into the VW discs supplied. Whilst Joe’s conversion has been developed over the years, it is worth pointing out that when fitting modern parts to a 40 year old car it is unlikely to just bolt together first time; some re-engineering maybe required. The wheel spacer wouldn’t sit flat over the old hub and the inner edge required grinding back at 45 degrees to accommodate. My caliper carrier looked resplendent in red gloss but much of that needed to be removed for a flat edge plus several edges ground back as they were catching the disc. That said, once the carrier fitted correctly the Ford caliper (I believe they are Fiesta) looks comfortable and we had the minutest of runout, so once new hoses arrive we can bleed the all new system. The original master cylinder was as old as the car, so following some sound advice from Simon Fitch (Cipher owner) I swopped it out for a new single exit MGB version. The rear drums have also enjoyed new shoes and wheel cylinders so whatever else, the Sienna should stop; but first we need to make it go. The Motor Under the bonnet could only be described as grim therefore a degrease of the block was our first task, followed by the removal of oil stains from the driveway after getting ‘told off’ yet again. Alan fitted new hoses after we flushed the system through several times, this followed warnings from various sources of corrosion issues within the Reliant engine if left unused. The rocker cover received fresh paint which offered the opportunity to reset the tappets and check for excessive wear. New ignition leads with coil and a full tidy of the maze of wiring continued to improve the motors presentation and a sexy air filter and braided fuel lines added some bling. Alan took away the carb for its ultrasonic bath and on its return the mirror finish was good enough to shave in. Encouraged by our success the drive shaft and rear axle also enjoyed a degrease (got in trouble for that one too) and several coats of paint to match. New gaskets, seals and bushes courtesy of Phil at Reliant Specialist Brook Hill Garage meant just coolant and Shells X100 oil remained before we could run up and check for leaks. No oil escaped but coolant drips required re tightening of every hose and connection whilst the exhaust chose this moment to give up on the world and blow from several places. The Sienna’s exhaust was ‘homemade’ forty odd years ago, so we will re manufacture a new system losing the rear end exit by fitting a Mini box and bringing the tail pipe out of the side; just prior to the rear wheel. The list of ‘to do’s is still lengthy and whilst the garage is packed with semi prepared parts from the Sienna we had reached the point where it cannot get any worse, the time has arrived to start assembling the car again.
It has come to light my Sienna was not an ‘only classic child’ there was more than one produced contrary to original thoughts, long gone now but the photographic evidence survives and so does the man who built it. I received a detailed account of the why and wherefores around the Stevens produced cars from Peter Bird who worked on the project back in the late 70s early 80s. He sent an account of how the 2nd version came to be; The second Sienna came about because of a freeze in funds when we were mid the Stevens-Cipher launch. We had presented the Cipher at the 1980 National Motor-Show (the first at the NEC) and to 'the Press', the response was more than encouraging. When DeLorean defrauded the British government out of New Enterprise Funds and then Lord Hesketh's motorcycles also collapsed - the financial market tarred all new vehicle manufacturers with the same brush. The risk suddenly became too great and funds were frozen. I was the only employee (although we had subcontractors) but still Tony had a family to support and he'd used all his own finances in rebuilding his home and to finance the Cipher. Without external funding we were on borrowed time and yet the finance was only frozen while the situation was being considered. As the Mazda MX5 subsequently proved the Cipher had a huge potential. Tony had to sell the second Motor Show car, so we started building another Cipher demonstrator. I don't know where the idea came from but I thought of marketing the Sienna as a kit car. Tony was generous in his encouragement (I was after all little more than his protégé) and so we gave it a try. Although the Cipher and Sienna were both Reliant based - the availability of affordable used four-wheel Kitten or Fox mechanicals was very limited. However, Triumph's aging Herald fitted the bill nicely. It was plentiful and cheap as a donor car. It had a ladder chassis which supported all the suspension parts, and it had an appropriate interior (wooden dashboard & seats) which were re-usable. In an age when alloys were coming into their own the Triumph's wheels, albeit too small for the style, were usable as they had hub-caps appropriate to the 1950's style. Peter built the second Sienna for the Kit Car market with Triumph’s Herald as a base but the model went no further, the idea though continued and after being a partner at Lomax Cars, Peter Bird went onto create Falcon Automotive, utilising 2CV power and often three wheels in his designs. Returning to my garage over three decades after Peter completed his we have almost reached a rolling chassis and via a new master cylinder (single outlet MGB type) we were able to bleed the brakes through, after fitting new rear shoes and wheel cylinders. The original exhaust now resembles that cheese they produce in Switzerland, plenty of holes but light in substance and had to go. We found the down pipe solid so removed the rest and worked the system around that, with one major variation. The original route was to the rear of the car running close to the fuel tank which we had now repositioned more centrally using a rubber mount for further support. It had always been the plan to exit the exhaust out of the side just behind the passenger seat, this required one flexi joint plus a Mini silencer and a 90-degree bend to run the system just behind the chassis. The options were limited as the clearance is minimal but at least we can prevent the first ‘Sleeping Policeman’ ripping all our endeavours from the car. Several hours of preparation took place on the GKN Silverstone wheels, the outer rim was taken back to a shining alloy finish with the rest receiving several coats of black and then lacquered. Alan managed to manufacture centre wheel discs featuring the Stevens logo from the 70s, attaching them to the chrome centre caps offered a nice contrast with chrome plated wheel nuts. Tyres and obtaining the correct size with a period look required some thought, low profile modern ‘boots’ would not work, so I contacted the man who knows about all things rubber. Peter at Bedford Tyres immediately realised what I needed and ordered in a new set of Excelon Touring (offering a more period pattern) but in a tall 165-80-13. Although getting them to seat correctly was a battle, they look correct and will hopefully offer good road holding with such a light car.
Another major obstacle we have overcome was the steering and its extreme angles of turn; on full lock the old tyres ripped at the fibreglass so with the new larger ones something drastic was required. Dave Corby is a Cipher owner who faced the same problem with his 13in rims running close to the bodywork, as Reliant’s excellent turning circle became a hindrance on the Stevens machines. Dave came up with a fantastic solution and posted a pair of small tubes, cut to length with instructions on where they would clip into place once a small section was removed. It worked perfectly and we dropped the car from its stands and rolled it out into the daylight for the first time in months.
Now the car runs and rolls, we were rather excited about having a little run up and down the road; did we have all the gears? would the clutch be ok? and finally, would the new brakes work? But all good things are worth a little wait, so I thought it would be best to at least fit one part of the floor prior to our adventure. The original internal panels are a fibre glass and most were covered in ancient black carpet that was rotten, this was all removed and the panels cleaned down with brake cleaner before both sides enjoyed a matt black finish. The plan always has been to line out the floor with alloy plate or chequered finish but these will sit inside the original panels and contrast with the dark paint. The inner panels would also be required in place before we could confirm our frame repair welding is located in the right place; for example, we replaced the front box section and with the inner panels in place the outers could be fitted. Better to find out now that we have ‘dropped a clanger’ than try and correct it once the panels are painted.
The exhaust is made of various angles and flexi joints plus a Mini silencer no wonder it leaked.
Problems, problems Our new exhaust system had a small blow, an easy fix but the leak from the rear of the gearbox presented a major issue. I had the correct rubber seal to stop the drip, our problem was that in its distant past someone had tightened the main securing bolt into place with an air gun but without the correct washer in place. The nut had chewed into the sprung spacer and was totally locked into place. Several hours with air guns, breaker bars and lots of bad language failed to make any impression on the nut. The leak wouldn’t stop without a new seal and the nut was offering no signs of budging; choices now involved either an engineering shop or a new gearbox, both guaranteed hours of extra labour. Alan brought his super airgun along and we adjusted the compressor to give max output for our do or die last attempt. Third rattle from the gun and the nut surrendered and with the old extremely brittle and broken seal replaced we went for a celebration fry up.
Summer is arriving and after six months working most weekends on the Sienna we are ‘all restored out’ so we will put her away until the winter and hopefully begin again around October with a freshly painted body. With the prospect of having to move the car to another location we thought it wise to fit the seats, making it easier to drive and gets them out of the way. The bases were both seized and covered in corrosion, so required gallons of WD40 and grease to release and allow for adjustment. Once we had movement Alan took the chance to weld in an additional support we could use to secure the base, then several hours cleaning up before primer and black top coat sealed in our good work. The bases were then re attached to the seats followed by the arduous task of fitting into position, one of those jobs that should require an hour but took most of the day.
The driver’s side inner panel will require a lot of modification to allow my giant ‘size ten plates of meat’ to operate the pedals, the space only allows for a very small ballerina to drive this car. This problem became apparent immediately, as I found jumping on the brake also involved the accelerator or stamping on my other foot, neither ideal. The pedals are too close together, so to increase the width a large section of the fibreglass was cut away to be replaced with reshaped alloy plate; for the road test we omitted to fit the inner panel. With almost all the internal fibreglass fitted we began to adjust the outer ones, getting them into place and checking for fit. Where the original framework had not been replaced, all matched up correctly and only minor adjustments were going to take place fitting over new metal. Our calculations had been pretty exact and the front wings sat square on the frame whilst the doors went into their required gaps; at least now we could expect all parts to fit back together roughly where they should.
Alan’s surprise at the way the Sienna went up the road was apparent but even considering the weight of its body would certainly slow the car somewhat, it still impressed. The clutch is light and the brakes although still to ‘bed in’ stop our weightless machine very well and our fears of the disc conversion ‘locking up’ at every opportunity proved unfounded. The gearbox has stopped leaking but selection is far from precise with too much gearstick contributing to its vague feel finding the next gear; this we can address later. We found our throaty homemade exhaust wasn’t loud enough to annoy the neighbours but offered enough, although repositioning will be necessary as it runs too close to the rear tyre. All fixable without breaking the bank, so we hope those who have followed this rebuild have enjoyed our trials and tribulations and you will look out for the continuation later this year.
It was eight months ago when the Sienna finally drove for the first time in decades and it was an opportunity to park her up for the summer. Back now we face another winter of restoration. Lifted onto the stands, it is time to face the body work with all that entails plus the final assembly, although on writing this, that is weeks away. It happens rarely but when they arrive it gives us enthusiasts fresh impetus to continue onwards; I am referring to that perfect day in the garage. Eight hours where nothing goes wrong, everything fits and works, first time. I decided to abandon the 1970s trailer board lighting that illuminated the Stevens Sienna and chase a more mature look with a set of Land Rover round lights. Britpart was the name on the box and the quality is really impressive, solid units with plenty of wiring attached, they even came with bulbs fitted. Stop and tail, indicators front and rear with side lights for a mere £25.00 delivered. The dash on our Reliant Kitten based sportster was a mess, it wasn’t a pretty sight from new but after 40 years it has become embarrassing. Duct tape secured it to the body panels,
Refitted, the brush stainless cut to shape fits perfectly and the original switches work well with the fighter pilot toggle starter
so the first job was to clean up and mask up; repainted, I then set about the steering wheel and boss. The finish on both had begun to peel but after an afternoon prep and paint they could be reattached with shiny stainless fittings. We removed the old dash front and decided on a radical transformation that included replacing the ignition switch and key with a toggle switch; all very ‘Top Gun’. The original lighting, fan and hazard switches were then incorporated into a brush stainless panel with our new fighter switch and push button start. Whilst I normally prefer originality, the in-car appearance is vastly improved and the best part about the process is that our wiring all slotted into place and the 850cc engine turned over. After a triumphant day with the electrics it’s a return to the bodywork for me, eliminating defects the best I can and cutting holes for those splendid new lights.
It has been fairly busy in the garage over the past month. The bodywork on the Stevens Sienna has taken priority as I endeavour to get the panels in paint before the worst of winter arrives; hence the arrival of ‘Spraying Bob’ to discuss colour choice plus my below average bodywork, it was fortunate the mysterious veteran restorer arrived when he did. We took time to test fit the fibreglass panels and found that the rear section was distorted once in place. This was due to a miscalculation of about half an inch when we replaced the rear frame; basically, we got the angles wrong and the stress will cause the panel to crack once bolted into place. After that large step backwards we cut holes to accommodate more suitable lighting which came via a Land Rover specialist. Bob assisted in the preparation work, including removing the many imperfections that adorns the 40-year-old fibreglass panels. Those experienced in non-metal car bodies will be aware that removing every blemish is time consuming, whilst eliminating cracking is a thankless task as it tends to reappear not long after paint is applied. The n/s rear wheel arch was also trimmed allowing for the exhaust to exit but we could go no further; not without modifying the rear frame and for that I asked Alan to return with the Mig welder. The Sienna was designed with just eight body panels in total. The rear section from the rear of the driver’s door to the passenger’s side is one piece without a boot opening. The frame that supports it is all one-inch box section steel and unfortunately we cut the frame too long and then attached it at the wrong angle; oops. Alan cut away his previous welds, repositioned and tacked in the correct position. Much test fitting ensued before the rear panel sat comfortably, following this cover plates were attached hiding our misdemeanour.
By chance I found the Sienna had been road tested by Autocar magazine back in May 1977 and via the worldwide web I located a copy. The issue featured the Chrysler Avenger Estate and the 320 BMW alongside my Reliant based Stevens that the road tester described as quality, economy and fun; well it was the 1970s. Looking resplendent in black and white, the images show a young mum with two small children in the back, strange as the Sienna never had rear seats or belts, how times have changed. The stars must have been aligned, for it was at the same time I located some replacement headlights. Towards the end of last summer I was trying to source a pair of original sealed beam headlights for my Mark 2 Jaguar, I solved this by stealing them from the Sienna and now the hunt was on for a replacement set; accomplished by the power of the internet at Bowers Automotive. A really nice set of 7-inch Halogen conversions with crystal lens and flat glass, purchased minus pilot light holes for a mere £27.00. Add on a couple of bulbs and new rubber seals/gaskets for a smooth wing attachment and I should light up the countryside for under £50.00.
It was in April 2015 I boasted to have cured the lack of information offered by the fuel gauge with some deft work involving my soldering iron, well that lasted no time at all before failing again. This sender unit is typical too Reliant and whilst I was unable to locate a new version a used one arrived and was installed; this didn’t operate either. Could there be something more sinister at work here? Alan tested the wiring through to the tank, all seemed fine, and when the unit received a direct earth the needle rose to full. We decided to take the units apart as I for one had never seen how they work and consider anything electrical little more than ‘witchcraft’. Inside this tiny box of trickery is something similar to a musical harp with ultra-thin wires getting smaller and smaller. As the float rises, a thin metal strip in contact with the wires moves up and the resistance results in a rising fuel gauge; according to someone much cleverer than I. We had a broken wire somewhere and on the used unit I acquired we could see it was from the rear of the post our earth wire attached. A single sliver of wire was removed from a cable and after much delicate prodding it was attached to the ‘harp’ and then soldered to both that and the post. Refitted and brilliant I had gained nearly half a tank; hopefully this fix lasts but given my track record with such repairs I will continue my search for a new one.
Originally, the floor sections were bathed in black carpet which after 4 decades enjoyed its own eco-system, rotting away happily and the smell wasn’t too friendly either. An early decision was to remove the offending covering and paint the floor panels black but prior to securing into place insert aluminium chequer plate, then screw all parties to the frame. With one large cardboard box, two grown adults would spend an hour bickering about how to make a pair of ‘templates’ from which the alloy will be cut. One error made by yours truly was to buy a 6ft x 3ft sheet of 2mm thick chequer plate which wasn’t easy to either cut or install on an uneven surface; never mind, worry about that later, the first task was cutting cardboard. Once fitted we stood back and admired our handy work before utilising out templates to mark out the shape. We fitted aluminium cutting discs to the angle grinder, these offer a thin cut without melting the metal and created two new floor sections. Obviously, they failed to fit first time but after an hour of adjustment we had a waterproof and study platform installed. Once the front floor panels were screwed down I decided on 1.2 alloy sheet for the rear compartment; these were originally designed as seating but would unlikely to be legal 40 years on, originally just moulded GRP with carpet covering.
With 60s patina the cap springs open with a button press did you guess what this cap fitted to in the day
The Sienna is really a micro-sports car and under the bonnet the small four-cylinder Reliant engine fills the space with the battery (lawn mower size) restricting access enough to require its relocation. The boot area is accessible from the rear panel thus was chosen and rather than drill holes in the flooring we came up with a novel solution. Using marine battery cables we chose to run the wiring through the car via a cut-off switch mounted on the windscreen panel; as with all of the modifications we install, returning the car to its original spec is just a case of removal. Another decision taken is to remove the soft top mechanism with windows and screen panel and replace with leatherette trimming akin to Jaguars XK120 roadster plus a pair of Brooklands Aero-screens; once again returning the Sienna to its factory finish would be a straightforward replacement.
All of that is for the future but for now replacing the extremely heavy scaffold pole bumpers with something ‘in period’ but lighter was the challenge and a British Leyland enthusiast offered a solution. A pair of tired bumpers from a very 70’s Allegro changed hands and once cut to shape these would face the blaster for de-chroming and several coats of gloss black then lacquer. Whilst we are playing ‘name that part’ our friend ‘Spraying Bob’ came up with a lovely flip top petrol filler cap, from where he can’t remember but it is certainly 1960s (turned out to be a TR5a) and will look great once we have modified the pipe to fit. Where the fuel pipe exits the body a rubber trim will be needed for a snug fit and a tidy appearance; what I really wanted was a huge 7cm grommet that could locate into the 3mm panel. The internet came up with Grommets Ltd in Henfield, one phone call and £4.00 plus postage, the perfect fitting rubber solution arrived in the post two days later.
No doubt the Sienna was designed to accommodate a pilot enjoying a slight physique and whilst I will confess to have added a few pounds over the years, I am no Tinkerbelle either. Even with size tens wrapped in size eight trainers pressing the gas pedal along with the brakes was an issue we needed to resolve. The foot well is so narrow it needed widening, this allowed for the required pedal separation and this is where GRP panels offer a real bonus. By removing an area of the original inner panel we gained about six inches of ‘foot room’ thus adjustment of the pedal gap was straightforward but the gas pedal base now caught the bodywork in operation. The solution involved a large sheet of rather thick aluminium, one days fiddling and a pack of rivets. The result means an emergency stop won’t result in our rushing towards an accident; we hope.
A 1970s fibre glass body with more chips than Harry Ramsden and a bonnet that someone has dropped a bowling ball on from an aeroplane was Spraying Bob’s conclusion. Sure enough it would take weeks to achieve even a reasonable finish but to be honest it is somewhat irrelevant when spiders web cracks appear at random after little use, this I know having owned a Reliant Scimitar in my youth. The original bonnet catch and piano hinge would enjoy a refurb followed by several coats of black but the door handles were in a poor condition and didn’t lock anyway. We decided not to refit, instead clean lines could be achieved when Bob manufactured a couple of plates before a glass fibre fill and top ‘Metalix’ skim provided a great finish. Several coats of high build primer took out many of the blemishes followed by a tube of fine filler called Finissage, highly recommended for small imperfections and easy to flat away. The next stage is colour and the kind folk at Mountspace paint suppliers near Goodwood mixed 4 litres of a red which we hope is extremely close to Professor Tony Stevens original choice for the Sienna.
I visualised exactly the shade of red required to make the Sienna offer the promise of performance without actually being able to deliver; packing a mere 850cc. After reviewing the colour charts at suppliers Mountspace Chichester (01243 789191) the decision was made and 3 litres of their finest was made up and once collected I headed home to compare against the car, certain in my choice. The next day I would return with can in hand to ask (well grovel really) could they make it darker; please. Not being much larger than a Mini the paint costs were within budget and compared to other restorations we have endured positively reasonable but I still managed to dent the credit card to the tune of £200.00. That did include two litres of primer, tape, thinners, tack cloths and flatting paper as well as 3 litres of colour which rapidly became four as my indecision on shade required a remix. Top tip is to take the colour charts into the day light when selecting your hue as the red I chose became orange once mixed; my fault. ‘Spraying Bob’ applied heavy primer coats for me to flat down with 50 sheets of 1500 grit plus one bar of the wife’s Dove soap and a weeks’ worth of patience. Applying the primers coat is less weather dependant than the colour but with some extra light, heat and extraction Bob got the finish right at the first attempt. After allowing 48 hours drying time the next two days were more flatting and hand polishing, we have a mop machine but I can’t be trusted with it; the results speak for themselves.
My long suffering pal Alan is always keen to ‘crack on’ once we begin reapplying the bright work that makes such a transformation to any restoration, we call them the glory jobs; Although the first would test my patience somewhat. Two years ago we decided to replace the roof, side windows and windscreen with a full ‘open to the elements’ experience, this included a splendid set of Brooklands Aeroscreens plus some post war car designs. This had to be done carefully as our future plan is to restore its tatty soft top and original screen; refitting in the autumn thus extending the classic season a couple of months for our little roadster. Stealing the idea from the XK120 roadster which enjoyed soft trimming on the tops of the doors we decided to carry that theme around the car which had the added attraction of tidying up the area were the folding roof once frequented. This required a large board of marine ply, cut to shape then a trip to Falcon Fabrics near Chichester (01243 839850) where I acquired enough foam and black leatherette material for the task ahead. Not your normal venue for the average restoration enthusiast maybe but they display a variety of classic car material, from E Type to commercial and yards of choice for the pillows or curtains in your VW camper van. With the board and material just under £100 was spent, mostly on the wood from the local DIY outlet and luckily I purchased a large sheet because my first attempt ended in failure. Meanwhile the vintage screens were bolted into place with an extendable rear view mirror, in period but a copy from an online auction site, this would look great but offer little in the way of backward vision. Previously the joint between the dash and screen panel was finished with some ‘gaffer’ tape, not acceptable after this much effort but the internet saved the day again. Seals + Direct Hampshire (01425 617722) offer every size and shape of trim the average classic car saviour could need and purchased 2 metres of ‘T’ trim in black rubber for £21.42 delivered.
Alan does enjoy getting his hands on the wiring especially when he can wrap and hide all traces of his visit whilst replacing the original ‘trailer board’ style lamps with individual round Land Rover types. The battery has transferred to a small boot area where Alan constructed a clever securing platform with alloy brackets and a set of universal battery clamps; plumbed in everything worked first time of asking. It’s a shame the same couldn’t be said for refitting the doors, why is it whenever the openings that worked perfectly well on removal will not do so when refitted? Half a day spent adjusting locks fitting shims and testing all the time desperate not to chip the fresh paint. Meanwhile my tasks included designing the mounts for the tops of the doors, matching the rear section with padded leatherette this required more marine ply and alloy plate all shaped to fit.
Finally, I managed to obtain a copy of Don Pither’s brilliant book on Reliant Sports Cars which includes the well-known Sabre and Scimitar models plus several pages on the Sienna. Reliant’s involvement in the project is detailed and acknowledged as both good and bad but the images from 1976 don’t include any of their celebrity customers such as Princess Anne or Noel Edmonds alongside our little red roadster; both preferring the V6 Essex engine of the Scimitar. Next time; MOT and on the road, or at least that was the plan. Like all the best plans it went very ‘Pete Tong’ as the Reliant motor got hotter and hotter but just couldn’t cool down and I find the bargain of the century to solve the problem.
Any classic returning to the road after a long layoff tends to present a series of ‘lack of use’ faults and the Sienna is no different after 25 years in hiding. Gaskets and seals were the first to show their failings with oil escaping from the sump and rear axle half-shafts, both eager to offer drips onto the garage floor after just a few miles of testing. The speedo cable gave up on the second road test, mainly due to the fact that we routed it at right angles offering little chance of survival. The half-shaft seals have failed due to remaining in one position for 2 ½ decades and those were delivered for just a few pounds from Phil at Brook Road Garage 01737761875; our biggest issue will be removing the rear hubs without causing too much damage. Reliant Parts World (Nigel) 01543431941 stocked the speedo cable at just £16.00 and one item that often fails on the 850cc engine, the £25.00 thermostat housing. ‘We keep them on the shelf’ Nigel explained, due to the fact they can crack (as has mine), the leak becoming apparent after a few miles as the coolant temperatures rise.
Returning to Pagham Service Station (01243 262 943) for a nervous wait whilst Ian carried out my re-test, having failed the first attempt with binding rear brakes and emissions. The brakes were new and just required adjustment, whilst the carbon dioxide mix leaving the exhaust would take a little longer to correct. This confirms the benefit of using a classic friendly garage and a tester that understands the workings of the SU carb and is willing to put in the time to get it right. So, with MOT in hand, surely I should be one happy enthusiast? Well no, not really, when the return journey home showed up another problem of long term lack of use; overheating.
Replacing the sump gasket revealed an engine that has had little use but also minimum attention over several decades. A new gasket stopped the leak and several coats of red paint improved the look but the sludge evicted from inside the sump proved to be the biggest bonus and worth the price of a gasket. We also believe the lack of coolant replacement is our prime suspect for this engine getting very hot once on the move. The Reliant motor warms normally and only when drives did the needle rise towards the ‘H’, our problem was it doesn’t return towards ‘Cold’. It just gets hotter until you switch it off and wait, pointing towards a flow problem or blockage, either way, to prove this the cylinder head needed to come off; just what I need now it’s ready to enjoy the summer.
I found ‘gasketsforclassics’ on a well-known auction site and was supplied a complete head-set for only £19.00 and it worked perfectly. At the same time, we replaced the engine mounts because it was convenient but the real drama occurred when I took the pressure washer to the water jackets around the block. The debris and brown corrosion was unbelievable and certainly could not have been left. Alan removed then stripped the cylinder head and a de-choke followed and finally the valves were lapped in with a fine paste, the whole job cost less than £50. Reliant parts are as cheap as chips! Things still weren’t perfect, after all that effort the needle still failed to settle and the original radiator looked the likely culprit. Too small, old and most likely full of engine sewage. The area it occupied was only half that available and armed with the measurements I trawled the world-wide web to secure the bargain of the century.
If you ever need a new ‘rad’ checkout ‘huayu2016’ on Ebay, the unit that matched my requirements was from a Hyundai Atoz and this brand new, fully packaged radiator, complete with cap was delivered to my door for an all-inclusive….£5.99 total! That’s right six quid. To test prior to fitting Alan very cleverly devised a ‘quickfit’ securing system to drive the car with the radiator outside of the body; it worked perfectly. One piece of box section frame was removed making space for a pair of base brackets, fabricated with holes to accept the plastic positioning lugs. With the top secured by a similar steel plate, longer hoses were sourced along with fresh alloy tubing. Plumbed in, fresh coolant plus a final oil change and four months behind schedule she is done and runs like a dream; its only taken three and a half years since I first found it languishing at the back of Professor Anthony Stevens unit in Kent.
What’s it like to drive? Well the first thing of note is 40hp doesn’t count for much even if does weigh less than a catwalk model. Acceleration is fine until the higher revs are reached, then she just runs out of puff; that though can be fixed. A larger SU and new free flowing exhaust manifold should help and a driver’s diet programme for me and my mate is the next best option. Over 50mph it’s like sitting in a hurricane but through the country lanes, its honestly such a blast, is it legal to have so much fun with any automobile? The ‘go-kart’ steering is exact and takes a while to adjust your style, point and go whilst it sticks like you know what! Encouraging the hooligan in the pilot because the momentum needs to be maintained, the brakes offer total confidence and whilst some of my design may need altering, the Sienna is the most fun I have had sat behind a wheel for years.
Thanks to Professor Stevens for trusting me with his first prototype and ‘Spraying Bob’ who created the lovely finish on my not so perfect panel work. Obviously also a big ‘cheers’ to the engineering skills of my long suffering mate Alan, his efforts have ensured this strange little car with the DNA of Mazda’s MX5 survives today; bringing forth interest and questions from all age groups, mainly ‘what the hell is that’? For those that have followed this saga, a big thanks for bothering and to my credit card company, ‘yes I know but I will pay it off eventually’. This elderly piece of British motoring history offers more smiles per mile than I thought possible and will endeavour not to hold up traffic on ‘A’ roads and dual carriageways of the south. Although, given the opportunity, combined with additional bravery from its pilot this odd rarity can disappear on the twisty bits; hopefully for years to come. For those who care to endure my pathetic film making abilities, the Sienna is on the move in a 2-minute clip on; https://youtu.be/npsbdKrh6Zs