Tony Stevens –
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. In 1972 leaving the big companies behind Anthony Stevens Automobiles, Warwick was formed where in 1974 they started limited production of a range of 1920’s style delivery vans using Ford power. Thirty of these unique vehicles were ordered and the same year Tony designed his first sports car. With his ideas and designs in demand the new company brought a wide variety of new innovations to the market place including trailers, an Escort Pick up and VW Camper high top conversions among others. In 1977 the Stevens Sienna sports car was completed, designed as much by the banks demand to show a waiting list before they would invest; Tony went with a traditional Morgan look, it was as he described ‘a superb little car that neither I or the public wanted’ it went no further. Undeterred a small brightly lit stand at the 1980 NEC Motorshow introduced the Stevens Cipher to the world; it was the only small sports car at the show as this market had been ignored by the main stream manufacturers. The days of the British sports car were back, the Spitfire and Midgets may have gone but the market was ready for something new? Great press coverage followed (Motor described the Cipher as ‘exquisitely pretty’) and interest from potential dealers virtually gave the Cipher complete UK coverage; buoyed by the enthusiasm Tony approached the banks. Again they declined; so as before the project would start self-funded with the aim to mass produce the car economically. Reliant got involved, the car powered by the small 4 cylinder ‘Kitten’ engine but ‘in house only prejudice’ didn’t help them move forward. In 1985 The Cipher design was adjusted to accommodate a 1.4 turbo Renault unit and a LWB and 4WD. Cars were produced in full including collaboration between Lada and Stevens in 1989 resulting in Russia’s first sports car. Utilising mostly Samara parts plus Connolly hide interior into Tony’s design the car was on course for mass production in Lithuania just as Glasnost came to be and the Soviet Union broke up; the project collapsed over-night. A coupe was produced using Proton parts with the Mitsubishi 1.8 engine plus a design involving Suzuki/Maruti 1.0 litre in the roadster. Right from the first showing of the original Cipher at the NEC one Japanese manufacturer took a keen interest, they did not need to find a friendly bank manager and in 1981 instructed their design team based in California to build a very similar sports car; the result was the Miata/MX5. Covering just some parts of Tony Steven’s life leads me to conclude he had ‘no fear’ building cars in a time of UK manufacturing decline, alongside scandals such as DeLorean and without any funding assistance; a single minded maverick and a fascinating character.
The Riley Elf as most people know was a BMC idea to produce an upmarket version of the Mini; produced from 1961-1969 alongside its sister model the Wolseley Hornet; this is one of the later versions. A 1968 model affectionately known as “Elfie” resides with Christine McGuire and husband Patrick in Aldwick, actually at the other end of my road. Christine’s maiden name was Riley; now my surname is Ford but unfortunately I don’t have any ties or ancestry with dear old Henry. Christine’s story is however different, she is the great grand-daughter of William Riley known as the ‘Governor’ and the founder of the Riley Cycle Company. Elfie has been with Christine from new; her father Richard Allan Riley believed that the only real Riley cars were those prior to the Nuffield takeover, but that never stopped her mother having several of the marque, the last of which was this Elf; supplied by a dealer in Leamington Spa. This was a shared family runabout that Christine took sole ownership of in 2008 and had restoration work including a re-spray carried out later that same year. She had however enjoyed driving “Elfie” from new. The Riley had been in regular use up until a couple of years ago but after running through unavoidable flood water the interior especially was looking rather sad. Water had got into the car and ruined the carpets and the lovely leather seats had gone from black too brown and started to crack. The battery had long since given up so it was decided that something had to be done, and done soon. With the help of my long suffering friend Alan, Patrick and I man handled ‘Elfie’ up the road and into my garage so I could better assess the situation once the little car was on stands. The Riley Elf was different from the Mini in many ways; most noticeable is the body shape with a lovely chrome grille and its extended rear end with boot. The Elf was rather expensive when new compared to the standard Mini and with this one being the Mark 3 model the buyer got many extras whilst paying a third more over the Mini it was based on; veneer dash to compliment the full leather seating, hydrolastic suspension plus a four speed full synchromesh gearbox and a 998cc Cooper engine. Top quality chrome trim gave the Elf a very ‘upmarket’ look that resulted in nearly 31,000 being sold. First job was to try and coax the engine into starting; fresh fuel and borrowed battery produced nothing but at least it turned over. Without fuel getting through or any life from the ignition this was not a good start however the problem was soon solved by Alan with a full engine service and new fuel pump. Drum brakes do little to inspire confidence at the best of times but when they haven’t been used for years they tend to be next to useless; stripped and cleaned we could at least stop once the car was running correctly. I removed the complete interior and ordered the matching dye colour from a company called ‘Buffalo’. Having used their repair kit before I knew that once repaired the leather would need to be cleared of mildew and totally clean so the colour would take when airbrushed on. The floor both inside and out had suffered; although solid I had to repaint inside and re underseal underneath, a long and messy task that no one would appreciate apart from the MOT tester. Once new underlay and lovely thick moulded carpets were installed the re coloured seats went back in; the car was transformed inside. Alan had got the Cooper engine running beautifully and the final job was to get the suspension pumped up. Younger readers would not have enjoyed the pleasures of a car with hydrolastic suspension as it was invented by engineer Alex Moulton and used on several BMC/British Leyland model cars in the 60s and 70s. A liquid of mainly alcohol and water is pump under pressure lifting the car to the required height, no road springs or shock absorbers here. The biggest problem was finding someone with the machine needed to perform this magic; most garages had thrown theirs away many years ago. Lucky for me I not only found one locally it also came with a man that knew how to operate it! Any Gazette readers facing this dilemma should just email me and I will gladly put you in touch. Suspension pumped up the Elf sat proud and with two new 10in tyres from Taylors of Birdham, now just the dreaded MOT to face. I need not have worried and returned the lovely Elf to Christine with a pass certificate and hopefully many more years on the roads of West Sussex.