‘Mo­tor­ways were al­ways the GTE’S heart­land as a high-speed cruiser’

Classic Cars (UK) - - The Big Test -

Launch-year cars are in­creas­ingly col­lectable so I’d tar­get the first 1968/69 Reliant Scim­i­tar GTE SE5S wear­ing G- and H-plates. They have a sim­plic­ity of de­sign and de­tail­ing car­ried over from the ear­lier SE4 coupé and the first run of GTES are now the rarest Scim­i­tars of all. Look for the tell-tale two-year-only chrome strip run­ning along each flank (if it’s still fit­ted) and the now-rare orig­i­nal plas­tic wheel cen­tre cov­ers crafted to look like al­loys. The DVLA list around 770 GTES of all ages sur­viv­ing – but I’d bet that fewer than 70 are the early ’68 to ’69 ex­am­ples, so you’re look­ing at a rare car in­deed. The first pro­to­type, NRE 845F, reg­is­tered in Fe­bru­ary 1968, is still listed on the DVLA main­frame so it’s out there some­where. Re­stored and lovely, that one could be worth £50k.

In­spired by the Triplex GTS (Glaz­ing Test Spe­cial) of 1965, de­signer Tom Karen raised the SE4 coupé’s waist­line and seam­lessly grafted on a shoot­ing brake rear end with such enor­mous skill that the GTE de­buted to rave re­views at the 1968 Earls Court show. With a list price of £1559, it cre­ated a new mar­ket seg­ment all its own and ad­verts promised buy­ers that they’d be join­ing ‘The GTE Set’ or ‘Tak­ing off for the Seven­ties’. The raspy Zo­diac MKIV 3.0-litre cast-iron V6 was the per­fect pow­er­plant, giv­ing 120mph and 0-60mph in nine sec­onds. If you went for the op­tional over­drive you could pull 107mph in third.

Soon GTES be­came a sub­ur­ban sen­sa­tion helped by own­ers like Princess Anne (she had nine), the Duke of Kent, Ge­orge Lazenby and Rita Tush­ing­ham. The gymkhana set loved its tow­ing prow­ess, 17-gal­lon tank and British classi­ness. The first Scim­i­tar’s fresh­ness, moder­nity, and eques­trian and royal con­nec­tions helped shift more than 4000 units be­fore the SE5A ar­rived in 1971.

With all this con­tem­po­rary hoopla you’d ex­pect prices to have risen in sym­pa­thy with other game-chang­ing clas­sics. But no. You can still buy a de­cent driv­ing GTE SE5 for £3500 and an ab­so­lute cracker for £9000. And com­pared to con­tem­po­rary ri­vals – the Volvo 1800ES, Gil­bern In­vader Es­tate and Lan­cia Beta HPE – early Scim­i­tars are puz­zlingly cheap. And it can’t be be­cause they’re flimsy or a chal­lenge to own – they’re not.

The glass­fi­bre bodies may crack and craze but they def­i­nitely don’t rust. The pressed steel box-sec­tion chas­sis is tougher than most, with cor­ro­sion rarely be­ing ter­mi­nal, and the Ford me­chan­i­cals are hardy, cheap and plen­ti­ful. Even re-trim­ming the largely PVC in­te­rior will cost much less than re­fresh­ing the cabin of a Jaguar or Mercedes.

The rea­son why GTE prices have plateaued for so long is twofold – they’ve never re­ally come back into fash­ion and their homely Stafford­shire her­itage isn’t ex­actly glam. And fash­ion, as we know, is a ma­jor fac­tor in clas­sic car con­sumer sen­ti­ment and why this sur­pris­ingly com­pe­tent, clever and gruff two-door per­for­mance es­tate has stayed in the shad­ows for so long.

But drive a well-sorted early GTE and you’ll won­der why you waited. This is a gen­uinely brisk, well-planted ma­chine that han­dles neatly and rides well. Try to find one with the over­drive op­tion, and avoid the auto be­cause the Borg-warner 35 fit­ted to the first cars feels a bit jerky. Flick­ing the over­drive in and out gives lively bursts of speed for over­tak­ing ac­com­pa­nied by a de­ter­mined growl through the V6’s twin tailpipes. Mo­tor­ways were al­ways the GTE’S heart­land as a high-speed cruiser, so keep­ing up with mod­ern traf­fic is easy and you can ex­pect up to 30mpg with the over­drive’s raised ra­tio on fourth. The unas­sisted steer­ing is lumpy at park­ing speeds – es­pe­cially if the front sus­pen­sion is worn – but once you press on the whole thing feels lively, solid and strong.

You’ll like the huge in­te­rior with its in­di­vid­u­ally fold­ing rear seats, tog­gle switches and white-on-black Smiths gauges. While prices are so low go for the best and ear­li­est GTE you can find and you’ll own one of a tiny num­ber of sur­vivors of the world’s first trend-set­ting sports shoot­ing brake.

The GTE’S sports shoot­ing brake for­mula was soon copied by more glam­orous mar­ques – and that’s some­thing the mar­ket has to wake up to sooner or later

PVC aplenty, but that helps keep in­te­rior re­trim costs low

The Ford Es­sex V6 is easy to look af­ter with good spares backup

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