How the Mazda MX-5 could have been a British success story

Stevens Cipher in green parked-large

The Cipher was the brainchild of British engineer Tony Stevens / Photo: Dave Corby

THE Mazda MX-5 is rightly credited with reviving the affordable sports car, but it could all have been very different if a small British firm had been given more support.

Tony Stevens is the designer of the Cipher, a two-seat convertible which predated the MX-5 by almost a decade, and an automotive engineer who made his name at the Rootes Group, where he developed Hillman, Humber, Singer and Sunbeam models.

By the late 1970s, Stevens was frustrated at the hysteria surrounding Ralph Nader’s car safety campaign in the US, which was encouraging most car makers to abandon open-top cars. As a toe in the water, Stevens built the Sienna, a pastiche of the Fifties MG TF. However, his real dream was to develop a thoroughly modern two-seat, convertible sports car.

Stevens explains: “I sought help from the banks, but they were useless because they wanted to see a waiting list first. That’s why I made the Sienna, to gain funding for the Cipher, the car I really wanted to build.”
Searching for a simple, rear-wheel-drive platform to base the Cipher on, Stevens opted for the Reliant Kitten. Its lightweight engine and drivetrain were ideal and were mounted in a chassis of his own design.

Next, Stevens set about proving his Cipher could pass all of the safety and Type Approval tests required of cars in the late Seventies, before taking a stand at the 1980 Birmingham motor show and allowing journalists to drive the car.

It received many positive reviews, but Stevens thinks it wasn’t just the press that saw the potential. “Lots of Japanese engineers spent almost the whole of press day studying the Cipher,” he says. “Little did I know then that the mission statement for the MX-5 would be very similar to our original press release.”

Mazda MX-5 Mk1-large

Mazda has sold more than a million MX-5s since the first-generation version went on sale in 1989

Indeed, Mazda had been thinking along the same lines since 1976, when American motoring journalist Bob Hall mooted the idea to senior executives at the comany, but it would be 1989 before the finished MX-5 was unveiled. “The MX-5 has since gone on to sell more than a million cars. That should have been us,” says Stevens.
Sadly, having initially offered support, Reliant then had second thoughts. And while Stevens worked with others to try and get the Cipher into production, talks with the Chinese government ultimately came to nothing, and a Russian deal only resulted in a single, Lada-powered Cipher. A coupé version developed in the 1990s with the help of a Malaysian business also ultimately failed.

That should have been the end of the Cipher’s story. However, Stevens still hasn’t given up. “We are working towards starting limited production in 2016 using Ford engines,” he says. “The car will remain light, with an all-up weight of about 850kg, so a 180bhp version would be capable of 0-62mph in 6sec and a 140mph top speed.”

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