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The Strada survivor
The story of Suffolk’s stillborn mid-engined sports car, and two brothers keeping the only road-going Strada alive.
Brothers Nigel and Neal Davis weren’t quite sure what they were getting when they gathered up the scattered remains of a car from a Norfolk garden.
They knew that it was unusual and built in Saxmundham, Suffolk, and that’s about it.
“Three separate parts of the body were lying in the garden, and the rolling chassis was stuck in a hedge,” says Nigel at his workshop south of Norwich.
“The seats had been almost completely eaten away by rats, and the interior trim was also badly damaged.
“It was only when we were given a magazine article by the lady who owned the car did we realise that it’s a very rare beast.”
What they had unearthed – the land had begun to reclaim parts of the body – was a Strada 4/88, the first of just three examples made of a mid-engined, two-seater sports car dreamed up by a Suffolk carpet seller in the early 1970s.
If that sounds an unlikely recipe for a successful new production car, there was plenty of sense behind the idea and, but for a combination of bad luck, global economics and financial issues, the Strada might just have made it.
John Hillier, the carpet seller, and engineer John Brighty met in the late 1960s while the latter was working at Trident Cars in Woodbridge.
Hillier had sold Wilton carpets for use in the Trident and fell in love with the cars, spending hours at the firm’s workshops.
It was a period when anything seemed possible in the motoring world, when Britain was home to a plethora of low-volume car companies hoping to follow in the wheel-tracks of success stories like Lotus and TVR.
Before long, the two Johns had hatched a plan to join them, to manufacture, from scratch, a fully-fledged, ready-to-buy production car using parts from the big car makers and based on a Formula Ford race-car.
In 1970, the pair quit their jobs and threw themselves into fulfilling their dream, kitting out an old mill as a factory and building a prototype chassis frame from components rescued from local scrapyards.
Glassfibre experts Specialised Mouldings, based next to Lola in Huntingdon, was brought in to help with the bodywork, designed by BMC’s Harris Mann – the wedge-shaped Strada bears an uncanny resemblance to Mann’s later TR7.
“I’m sure Mann used the same basic design for the TR7,” says Nigel. “He wanted to make the TR7 mid-engined but Triumph would not let him. My belief is if he had his way the TR7 would have been virtually a clone of this car.”
A quarter scale model was created and tested in the purpose-built wind tunnel at Specialised by a young Peter Wright, later responsible for the first “ground-effect” F1 car, the Lotus 78.
The first car produced, the car now owned by Nigel and Neal, passed the 30mph crash test at MIRA before being rebuilt; the second car was designated as a test car, and the third was the 1974 show car destined for the Earls Court Motor Show.
All Hillier and Brighty needed was a name, their original choice of Cougar having already been snapped up by Ford.
After registering ‘Puma’, the pair discovered that Ford also had the rights to that name throughout Europe, but not in England, where they had merely logged it with the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders as a model name.
In the end, Ford paid the men from Suffolk – now in a new factory in Saxmundham – for full rights to the Puma name, and handed over global rights to the name Strada, also owned by Ford.
And so Britain’s newest motor manufacturer proudly took their new car to Earls Court, where Colin Chapman wandered over and extended his hand, saying: “Congratulations, welcome to the club.”
According to Nigel, Strada Cars “took more than 100 orders” before it all started to go wrong.
On the brink of success, Hillier was struck down with a debilitating illness, while the three-day week, the global oil crisis, the introduction of VAT and falling car sales all took their toll.
Meanwhile, Brighty walked away after falling out with the managing director appointed by the company’s investors, and the costs involved in moving to full production proved prohibitive.
Nic Portway, one of those investors, pulled out of the project and the company was voluntarily liquidated.
The dream was over, but what of the cars?
Portway, who bought all the jigs, moulds and parts from the receiver, kept the unregistered show car for himself and still owns it today. It remains unregistered.
Car number two was last on the road in Wales and is listed as SORN by the DVLA.
That leaves the first car produced, the one flung at a concrete wall at MIRA, as the sole road-going survivor, first rescued from a barn in 1987 by former owner Richard Holloway, and then again from a Norfolk garden in autumn 2016.
It was Holloway’s father, John, who first brought the car to Nigel and Neal’s attention.
“We met an old boy in his 80s who runs a stall at the classic shows, bought an engine off him and struck up a friendship with him,” says Nigel who, with his brother, owns a collection of more than 20 rare classic cars and commercial vehicles.
“He knew we were into unusual cars, and turned up one day and said ‘there’s a car you will be very much interested in because you like strange stuff’.
“His son used to own it and used it as his wedding car, then sold it to this lady who had bought it with a view to doing a full renovation.
“She had pulled it to bits and then got a bad back and could not carry on, and it stood in her garden for years.
“John put us in touch with her as it was cluttering up her garden and she wanted to get rid of it to make some space.”
After buying the car for scrap money, the brothers spent the next few months rebuilding it “purely because of its rarity value”.
She gave them the number for Nic Portway.
“He was really thrilled we had found it,” says Nigel. “He thought they were long gone and his was the only one left. He gave us a lot of help with the rebuild.”
Portway, who still retains a stock of spare parts, was able to provide the brothers with a rear windscreen, interior trim, and window winder mechanisms among other items.
The rusting chassis was rebuilt and the mechanical parts cleaned up and restored, with the 1600cc Mexico Crossflow engine still in working order.
As well as the Ford engine, the car was put together using parts from a variety of other cars available at the time, including a VW Transporter gearbox, Triumph GT6 suspension, the steering column from a Triumph 1500, plus door locks and handles from a Hillman Avenger.
The original seats were eaten by rats, so Nigel and Neal replaced them with those from a Mazda MX-5, which may have compromised head room.
“Hopefully we can renovate the seats, put them back in and it might be a little bit better to drive,” says Nigel, who believes if the car had reach full production some other teething troubles would have been ironed out.
For example, the very wide sills angle into the driver’s footwell, cramping space for the pedals, and an off-set steering wheel creates an awkward driving position.
“The space for the foot pedals is far too small,” says Nigel. “You can’t drive it if you are wearing boots – it’s all right if you’re wearing trainers or something but otherwise you can’t get your foot between the pedals.
“The steering wheel’s on the huh, because the steering column is not straight. This might be because it was built as a single-seater Formula Ford now being used in a two-seater.
“The set-up is Formula Ford and they made the body to fit the chassis. If the seats were a little further back it would create more space for the pedals.
“I think if they’d succeeded in going into production they would have ironed out these bugs and it would have been a nice car.”
Despite its idiosyncrasies, the car handles as you’d expect given its Formula Ford heritage, with light and direct steering matching a taut chassis, and performance is more than adequate from the 88bhp Crossflow engine.
With the restoration complete, Nigel and Neal take the car to shows around East Anglia, where it attracts a lot of attention.
“It creates an awful lot of interest,” says Nigel. “Everybody thinks it’s a kit car, and when they discover it’s not they want to know what it is and the history.
“People ask ‘what’s it worth?’ You can’t really put a price on it, but if someone’s into something unique it could be worth a lot of money.”
Fate and finances may have conspired against the Strada back in the 1970s, but Nigel and Neal are determined to keep a Suffolk carpet seller’s dream on the road.
And maybe, just maybe, a fourth car, with all the bugs ironed out, could one day see the light of day.
“Nic has got the moulds, an air tunnel and a lot of the jigging for things like the windscreen,” says Nigel. “He also has another chassis and bodyshell as it came out of the moulds.
“In theory, he has enough to build a fourth car. If he and his son James wanted us to have a go, it would be a great project to take on.”
Do you know where the second Strada, last seen in Wales, is today? If so, leave a comment below.
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