What Might Been – The Stevens Cipher and the Mazda Miata

Almost ten years before the Mazda Miata would rekindle the world’s affection for small roadsters, Tony Stevens wanted to produce an affordable alternative to the designs offered by larger manufacturers. Stevens, who had been an engineer at the Rootes Group, working on various Sunbeam, Humber and Hillman designs had already dabbled in the small manufacturer waters with his Sienna, an homage to the MG TF, but wanted to manufacture a proper sports car that could stand on its own without aping the styling of an icon.
His new design, the Stevens Cipher, was based on the rear-wheel drive Reliant Kitten, but used a bespoke chassis of Steven’s own design. Introduced in 1980, looking remarkably modern for the era, the Cipher was displayed at the Birmingham Motor Show to a good response from the public and the press. Featuring much more advanced styling than the aging MGB and the polarizing TR7, the Cipher would have remained fresh throughout the 80s and into the following decade. 

The second prototype built, this car was originally painted silver for the Birmingham Motor Show debut. It was featured on the front cover of Motor magazine in April 1981.

Despite the positive reception, finding money was problematic, as Stevens remembers: “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.” Stevens used the first few developmental mules to meet stringent crash and type approval requirements and allowed the press to drive the prototypes to build publicity.

Apparently the car also caught the eye of potential competitors, as Stevens recalls “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.”

With clean, modern styling the Cipher could have beaten the Miata to the punch by several years

While the MX-5 Miata would meet unrestrained success in 1989, the Cipher would be still born after a handful of prototypes were built after Stevens failed to find funding. Is it possible that the little Cipher could have grown into the car that the Miata became? Possibly, but unlikely, leading one to wonder what might have been. As Stevens wistfully concludes, “The MX-5 has since gone on to sell more than a million cars. That should have been us.”

Images courtesy of Stevens Cars

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