There, he met the very enthusiastic company owner, Gerry Hawkridge, and the seed that had been planted a few weeks earlier began to sprout. Next, Steve took the opportunity to take a ride in one, which was followed by a lot of research about getting one road legal in New Zealand, thus, before long, the seed had grown into a proper plant! With his wife Carole on board, the decision was made to buy one.
The next step was the accumulation of all the additional parts required to build it. As the original Stratos was basically a hodgepodge of components from the Fiat empire, this was not too difficult. Steve bought most of his parts new, but some hard-to-get items were purchased from a wrecker. For example, the tail lights came from the Fiat 850 coupé, the door catches and steering column from a Fiat X1/9, and the heater controls and vents from a Ferrari. The 2.4-litre V6 Dino engine was left on the shelf, as that was deemed a little too expensive for Steve’s rapidly thinning wallet. A more realistic Guy Croft–tuned Lancia Beta 2.0-litre engine was chosen instead.
There was a great deal of excitement when the kit finally arrived, in August of 1989. It was quite comprehensive and as close to the original as Gerry could build it. Gerry had decided to create the kit while he was restoring a couple of original cars. After coming to an agreement with the owners, he’d been able to use their cars to make his production jigs. The resulting vehicle is a good copy, except for the centre tub, which is fibreglass bonded to the fabricated steel-and-tube spaceframe chassis, rather than pressed steel.
By the time the decision was made to return to New Zealand, in 1991, the car was already a rolling chassis with all the body parts painted. While it was being painted, Steve met Neville Griffiths, a man who owned a genuine Stratos. He was enthusiastic about Steve’s project and allowed him to take dozens of photographs of his own car from every conceivable angle. This car, and the pictures of it, became the model that Steve used to get the small details right. When asked how easy it was to build the car, he said, “It was basically just a straightforward assembly job with no engineering or modifications required.”
On arrival in New Zealand, with most of the hard work done, the body panels, doors, and windscreen were fitted for the final time. During November of 1991, after nine months of weeknights and many weekends spent on the job, it was finally certified via the Constructors Car Club and registered ready for its first WOF and maiden trip for display at the MG Classic Meeting at Manfeild.
Since then, this amazing-looking vehicle has been exhibited at many car shows around the Wellington region, and, in 1995, despite having no race experience, Steve entered and drove it in the first Targa. Nobody was more surprised than he when the Stratos came second in its class.
During 2002, Steve decided to take the car off the road and give it some upgrades. One advantage of having a replica is that, if you modify it, purists cannot complain about the additions or improvements that make it more reliable and perform better. As original Dino motors had not become any cheaper or more dependable, Steve decided to fit the biggest manual V6 that was available in New Zealand at the time: a 3.0-litre V6 from Alfa Romeo. At 157kw, it had similar power to the original Dino motor. It came with computer-controlled fuel injection, making it much easier to service than the Dino motor, which had Weber carbs and required tackling the complex task of balancing six throttle bodies.
Initially, it was going to be a straight engine swap, until Steve discovered that the donor Alfa car also had ABS braking. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so he decided to upgrade the brakes as well — this task was more of an engineering job. Fitting the V6 required new engine mounts and a major overhaul of the plumbing and wiring. Along with the ABS brakes, an improved dual master system was fitted. The upgrade took about two years, as there were lots of small finicky jobs to complete. Once finished, the car sailed through certification with only a couple of simple issues to fix. One certifier commented that he thought it was a bit sluggish to 100kph in third gear for the brake tests, but then realized that the speedo reads in miles per hour!
The leap from early ’70s technology to early ’90s is, as you would expect, huge, and the Alfa V6 made for an amazing transformation. The car now produces a fantastic noise and sounds not unlike the originals — but with 30 to 40 per cent more torque and power, and vastly improved fuel economy on a trip, such are the benefits of modern fuel injection, a few sensors, and a computer. It will happily idle around town and pull away in top gear from almost any speed.
When you get into the car, the first impression made is its small size — it was, after all, designed to win rallies not for bringing home the groceries, although it does have a cavernous boot (enough for two bags of golf clubs). With its short wheelbase, driving it can be best compared to travelling in a road-legal go-kart with a sensational-looking body. Despite sporting a 1973 design, the car still looks pretty amazing. But those looks come at a price — on the average trip to the petrol station, Steve now has to allow extra time to explain to the curious what the car is, and how he came to possess it.
These days, as with all hobby cars, there is always something to tinker with. But now that he’s owned it for over 25 years, it is a classic in its own right. Steve never intends to sell it, as long as he can still drive.