MOTORMAN

THE AF­FORD­ABLE SPORTS CAR THAT STRUG­GLED

New Zealand Classic Car - - CONTENTS -

HANDS UP THOSE WHO RE­MEM­BER WHEN THE SCIMITAR SS 1 SPORTS CAR WAS UN­VEILED IN NEW ZEA­LAND. DONNA ND ER SON LOOKS BACK AT A BRAVE PROJECT WHICH FAILED TO SUC­CEED

Twelve years af­ter punt­ing a Re­liant around the Good­wood cir­cuit in south­ern Eng­land, here I was again be­hind the wheel of a car from the spe­cial­ist Tam­worth com­pany, this time in Auck­land, that clearly bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to the 1973 it­er­a­tion. The Scimitar SS1 had ar­rived, bring­ing new prom­ise for the Re­liant Mo­tor Com­pany.

Yet, hark­ing back to the freshly re­leased Re­liant Robin, can you imag­ine launch­ing a small, mod­estly pow­ered, three-wheeled car on a high-speed rac­ing cir­cuit? Well, that was Re­liant’s choice on that per­fect late sum­mer day in Septem­ber. How­ever, lest we for­get the less-than-im­pres­sive han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Robin, the mak­ers in­sisted a Re­liant rep­re­sen­ta­tive ac­com­pany each jour­nal­ist on the cir­cuit drive — just so we would not be tempted to try too hard.

I had driven the larger four-wheeled Scimitar GT and GTE three-door coupé on home turf, but the Robin in Bri­tain was a new chal­lenge per­haps best de­scribed as un­mem­o­rable. Roll on to Oc­to­ber 1985, and the in­tro­duc­tion of a new Re­liant sports car to the New Zea­land mar­ket was also slightly un­usual, to say the least. The late John Wood was well known for cre­ative launches, and the de­but of the SS1 was no ex­cep­tion.

Small Sports car One

John Wood was gen­eral man­ager of mar­ket­ing at Nis­san Dat­sun when the ris­ing brand was num­ber-one Ja­pa­nese car in New Zea­land, be­fore he headed Re­nault and then Peu­geot un­der the Euro­trans Mo­tors ban­ner. For a brief pe­riod, he was responsible for both fiercely ri­val French mar­ques in our mar­ket. Tricky, in­deed.

The Scimitar SS1 (the let­ters stand­ing for ‘Small Sports car One’) was re­vealed at what is now the Win­ter­green Cafe above the duck pond in the Auck­land Do­main but, as usual, Wood used his imag­i­na­tion and gave the de­but an au­then­tic touch of Bri­tain. Top down, the SS1 mo­tored in, ac­com­pa­nied by march­ing girls in their guards­men’s uni­forms, much to the amuse­ment of me­dia and passers-by. Not only that, but the car was driven by Prince Charles who was ac­com­pa­nied in the pas­sen­ger seat by Princess Diana. Just kid­ding, but the looka­like Roy­als were dressed ap­pro­pri­ately and added to the oc­ca­sion.

Wood, with his cus­tom­ary sense of hu­mour, an­nounced to the guests, “It is ap­par­ent that the Scimitar will not chal­lenge Ford for mar­ket lead­er­ship, but it will pro­vide New Zealan­ders with a motoring choice that has been miss­ing from the mar­ket — an af­ford­able, open tourer sports car af­ter an ab­sence of sev­eral years. The decision to rep­re­sent a UK mo­tor-ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer has been based on the strong re­cov­ery of that in­dus­try, and its abil­ity to meet on an equal foot­ing mar­ques pro­duced within the Eu­ro­pean Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity — no small feat.”

John was chief ex­ec­u­tive of Pro­con Mo­tors, a newly es­tab­lished com­pany to dis­trib­ute Reliants, with sup­port from Euro­trans, which was sell­ing Re­naults at the time. Af­ter a lengthy as­so­ci­a­tion with Re­liant, Anziel Camp­bell ex­tended the re­la­tion­ship to the SS1 with main dealer sta­tus in Auck­land. So, af­ter all the lo­cal fan­fare, how would the two-seater sports car sell, both here and in­ter­na­tion­ally? Not too well.

If Wood had en­joyed the ben­e­fit of a crys­tal ball, he may well have not both­ered with the Re­liant op­por­tu­nity, since fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties would soon ham­per the British com­pany. Re­liant had be­gun building ve­hi­cles in 1935, but, af­ter re­ceivers were called in 1990, the com­pany strug­gled on with three suc­ces­sive own­ers, and the last ve­hi­cles were made in Fe­bru­ary 2001.

“Get­away car”

It was de­scribed by its maker as “the get­away car”, and ini­tial UK press re­ports for the Scimitar SS1 were largely glow­ing as me­dia wel­comed a pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor to the MGB — which had the iden­ti­cal length of

3886mm — and the slightly longer TR7. The Re­liant was also seen as a re­place­ment for the 3480mm long ‘Fro­g­eye’ Austin-healey Sprite and MG Midget. Af­ter all, the 1958 Fro­g­eye, or ‘Bug­eye’, Sprite’s slightly strange looks did not de­ter buy­ers, and the odd-look­ing Scimitar was also con­sid­ered a small car that would be fun to own and run.

The weekly Au­to­car jour­nal reck­oned that the han­dling was “good enough to al­low the tyres’ grip to be fully ex­ploited” and that the fuel econ­omy was even more fru­gal than that of the last MG Midget it tested. Crit­ics said that the car’s steer­ing was so good that the ve­hi­cle could be made to “do al­most any­thing short of sit up and beg”. It was this nim­ble­ness that made driv­ing the SS1 re­ally fun, ac­cord­ing to Au­to­car.

How­ever, right from day one, the pun­dits were un­sure about the ec­cen­tric looks, and, sev­eral years on, the gawky styling was claimed by one prom­i­nent pub­li­ca­tion as be­ing as awk­ward as a teenager with ter­mi­nal acne.

Blame for the body shape and the fussy wheel-arch blis­ters goes to Gio­vanni Mich­e­lotti. This was the last car he styled, and it was clearly not his best work. Get past the un­nec­es­sary swage lines along the flanks and the Porsche 928–like re­tractable quartz halo­gen head­lights that point to the eye when not elevated for use, and there is an in­ter­est­ing car un­der the skin. The fab­ri­cated steel chas­sis is wax in­jected against rust and cor­ro­sion, and John Wood rea­soned that the glass-fi­bre body pan­els would be par­tic­u­larly suited to the New Zea­land en­vi­ron­ment. Rather than use the hand-laid glass-re­in­forced plas­tic of old, the body used more ad­vanced ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques. There is dam­age-re­sis­tant polyurethane for the nose and wings, and an in­ge­nious sand­wich­moulded bon­net and boot lid.

Both bon­net and boot are made from a polyester resin pressed into place around a fill­ing of polyurethane foam and glass fi­bre, cre­at­ing light and rigid pan­els. The space­frame con­struc­tion car­ried the petrol tank well for­ward, safely be­tween the wheels, and is de­signed to take all the loads and stresses. Re­liant claimed that the SS1 could be driven with­out any of its body pan­els in po­si­tion. Dur­ing re­pairs, the un­stressed body pan­els can be eas­ily re­moved from the chas­sis, thus re­duc­ing costs.

How­ever, this sep­a­rate-panel con­cept re­sulted in poor body fit­ments, and, five years af­ter the SS1 de­but, a re­vised Scimitar adopted a more tra­di­tional con­struc­tion, with larger body sec­tions bolted to the chas­sis frame. This was less costly and faster to build, and re­sulted in much-needed im­proved qual­ity.

Ac­tive safety is strong, with the chas­sis- frame for­ward ex­ten­sions ab­sorb­ing en­ergy, while the spare wheel was lo­cated in the nose ahead of the en­gine. The car is strictly a two-seater, but the rear bulk­head is handy. A ton­neau cover fits over the stowed soft-top with­out eating up too much space, and the boot is large enough to ac­com­mo­date at least two medium-size suit­cases.

There was noth­ing revo­lu­tion­ary about the gen­eral de­sign, with the clas­sic front-engined, rear-driven me­chan­i­cals, but the car soon won praise for its road man­ners, good ride, and straight-line sta­bil­ity. The SS1 could be steered ac­cu­rately through a cor­ner with the throt­tle alone, while it al­ways felt nim­ble and fun to drive en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. In short, it was an ex­cel­lent low-cost sports car.

The seats are well shaped, the driv­ing po­si­tion is good, and the pedals are light and easy to op­er­ate, even if there is no foot rest. The short gear lever is po­si­tioned well for­ward, but shift move­ment is short and positive. Even with the soft-top erected, all­round vis­i­bil­ity rates highly.

Real light­weight

The car launched with a choice of 1300 and 1600 Ford CVH en­gines from the pop­u­lar Eu­ro­pean Es­cort, but New Zea­land wisely de­cided not to of­fer the less pow­er­ful op­tion. Even the 1596cc sin­gle-over­head-cam mo­tor with its al­loy cylin­der head, hy­draulic tap­pets, We­ber twin-choke down­draught car­bu­ret­tor, and elec­tronic ig­ni­tion pro­vided a fairly av­er­age 71kw and 133Nm of torque, which strug­gled to match the straight-line per­for­mance of newly ar­rived hot hatches. Still, the SS1 was a real light­weight at 889kg, and Re­liant claimed a top speed of 177kph. The car reached 100kph in 10 sec­onds, and man­aged 6.1 litres per 100km at a con­stant 90kph, with the fru­gal fuel econ­omy backed up by independent tests.

The five-speed man­ual gear­box and dif­fer­en­tial were sourced from the Ford Sierra, while Ley­land’s Mini Metro pro­vided the 226mm front disc brakes with four-pot cal­lipers, and the rear drums came from an Es­cort van. Unas­sisted rack-and-pin­ion steer­ing is geared to a quick 2.9 turns of the steer­ing wheel, and is both light and pre­cise.

Front sus­pen­sion is dou­ble wish­bone with coil springs, an anti-roll bar, and trans­versely mounted damper units. The independent rear com­prises rub­ber-mounted semi­trail­ing arms, con­cen­tric coil springs, and an anti-roll bar. When Au­to­car first tested the SS1, it ap­plauded the han­dling, fuel con­sump­tion, and prac­ti­cal­ity, but was less than im­pressed by the re­fine­ment, fit and fin­ish, and per­for­mance.

Any per­for­mance short­com­ings were ad­dressed in 1986, when the Scimitar Ti ver­sion ar­rived with the tur­bocharged Nis­san 1800 en­gine that was also used in Blue­bird and Sil­via mod­els. The Ford RS Turbo power plant was con­sid­ered, but tool­ing and en­gi­neer­ing com­plex­i­ties ruled it out. Re­liant of­fered the sin­gle-over­head-cam, two-valves-per-cylin­der Nis­san mo­tor in the Scimitar for six years, and it trans­formed the car’s per­for­mance. Power was up al­most 40 per cent to 99kw, aided by a large in­crease in torque to 196Nm.

The Ja­pa­nese en­gine had multi-point fuel in­jec­tion and a sin­gle Gar­rett T2 turbo, and, sud­denly, the Re­liant was ca­pa­ble of 200kph and zero to 100kph in 7.2 sec­onds, and it could now com­pete with the best of the hot hatches. Off the line, there was a mi­nor prob­lem in ac­tu­ally get­ting some of that power to the road, be­cause of the com­pro­mises in­her­ent in a semi-trailin­garm rear sus­pen­sion and the 185/60 tyres, but the car felt sta­ble even with the rear wheels spin­ning.

There was noth­ing revo­lu­tion­ary about the gen­eral de­sign, with the clas­sic front-engined, rear-driven me­chan­i­cals, but the car soon won praise for its road man­ners, good ride, and straight-line sta­bil­ity

Check out the light grey in­te­rior and you could be for­given for think­ing the car came from Austin Rover, with its deep, velour­faced seats, velour door in­serts, full Ley­land in­stru­men­ta­tion, and a soft-feel steer­ing wheel. There are il­lu­mi­nated push switches in the cen­tre con­sole for light­ing, two fa­ci­amounted in­te­rior lights, and even a boot­com­part­ment light.

Gap in the mar­ket

A sig­nif­i­cant styling change came with the SST model in 1990, with a much smoother — al­beit still slightly awk­ward-look­ing — body de­signed by Wil­liam Towns. Fi­nally came the restyled Sabre, built be­tween 1992 and 1995, still with the Nis­san turbo mo­tor, as well as a less costly 1.4-litre Ford-pow­ered al­ter­na­tive. In 1993, the car was also of­fered with the Rover 1.4 K-se­ries en­gine.

Scan the lo­cal price lists in 1985 and you will not find another medium-cost open sports car. The NZ$34,255 sticker price for the SS1 1600 in­cluded me­tal­lic paint, 14-inch-di­am­e­ter al­loy wheels, tinted glass, and an elec­tric door mir­ror, while elec­tric win­dows were a $500 op­tion. A ra­dio/cas­sette player with elec­tric aerial was $1300, and other op­tions were the $1400 hard­top and a $1K charge for leather seat fac­ings, door trims, and head re­straints.

With no MG or Tri­umph sports cars and the cheap­est BMW 318 cost­ing more than $40K, buy­ers with a bent to­wards some­thing sporty could con­sider a three-door Toy­ota Corolla GT ($26K), Mazda 323 GT ($27K), or per­haps an Isuzu Pi­azza or Alfa 33 (each cost­ing $33K). So, with the Mazda MX-5 still four years dis­tant, the open Scimitar was clearly unique.

By 1987, the re­tail had risen only slightly to $36K. Two years later, the Scimitar was only avail­able on spe­cial or­der. British sales stopped in 1995 when the Re­liant com­pany col­lapsed, but the lit­tle sports car had sur­vived a model life of 10 years in one form or another. To­day, a good ex­am­ple on of­fer in Bri­tain is val­ued at the equiv­a­lent of around $4K.

Given a var­ied pro­duc­tion life and less-thanhappy styling, it is ques­tion­able whether the car will be re­garded as a wor­thy clas­sic. Rar­ity does not nec­es­sar­ily im­ply rev­er­ence. The later Nis­san-pow­ered mod­els ap­pear the most de­sir­able, but there is still a cer­tain amount of charm about the cars fit­ted with Ford en­gines. As one critic ar­gued, while the SS1 was a brave ex­per­i­ment that didn’t quite make the grade, with the hood down, on a twisty road, it’s hard to think of a car that of­fers as much fun for the money.

Bear in mind that Re­liant was never a largescale car maker, al­though the sales ex­pec­ta­tions for the SS1 were more bullish than the even­tual re­al­ity. Ritchie Spencer, Re­liant man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at the time, did not an­tic­i­pate huge sales but saw a gap in the mar­ket and reck­oned that Ley­land could no longer af­ford to com­pete in this small sports car class. The ini­tial tar­get was 2000 a year, ex­tend­ing to 3000 an­nu­ally once the North Amer­i­can mar­ket was cracked. These fig­ures were never at­tained — just 1507 were made over the 10-year pe­riod, and it is es­ti­mated that fewer than 200 are still cur­rently in use world-wide. Un­sur­pris­ingly, few came to New Zea­land. When was the last time you saw one?

Some­what awk­ward­look­ing head­lights in the raised po­si­tion

Left: Prince Charles and Princess Diana look alikes ar­rive in Auck­land Do­main in Oc­to­ber 1985 to launch the Re­liant Scimitar SS1

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