THE AFFORDABLE SPORTS CAR THAT STRUGGLED
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.
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.
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