Reliant ScimitarCut above the Rest Published: 18th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!
- Best model: SE5a
- Worst model: SE6
- Budget buy: SE6
- OK for unleaded?: Offi cially no, seemingly yes
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): mm 4242 x 1600 (SE5)
- Spares situation: Superb
- DIY ease?: Excellent
- Club support: Very good
- Appreciating asset?: Not really
- Good buy or good-bye?: Good buy
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Despite its many qualities the Reliant Scimitar still hasn’t cut it as a classic. Don’t let that put you off this brilliant bargain all rounder though
Pros & Cons
Carmakers create a new market segment every week nowadays, but it wasn’t always so. Back in the late 1960s you could have something sporty or cavernous, but not both – until Reliant came along. While Tornado had offered its Typhoon sporting load carrier already (a kit car based upon an old Ford Popular-ed), it wasn’t until the Scimitar arrived in GTE (GrandTouring Estate) form that the sporting load lugger became a mainstream car. The Scimitar’s affordability suggests that it has little to recommend itself, as three grand nets a tidy example. However, if the GTE does have any shortcomings, they’re well hidden. With a huge fuel tank, the car can cruise at high speeds for mile after mile, while carrying a family and its luggage in comfort. Performance and handling aren’t lacking, and neither is build quality; there are some bodged examples around, but the strong chassis, corrosion-resistant glassfibre bodyshell and conventional mechanicals ensures that ownership can be a doddle. Could this be the most practical sporting classic ever built – and the most underrated?
Reliant launched the Scimitar GTE in August 1968; a Ford Zodiac-powered sporting estate based on the more conventional coupe that preceded it but larger, better handling and far more practical. The new model was known as the SE5; its predecessor was the SE4. Stylish, luxurious and speedy, the new Scimitar was a complete contrast to the company’s downmarket threewheelers and the fi rst – and not very good Reliant sportster of 1961. Costing £1559 at its ’68 launch and some £300 more than the 2.5 SE4 that continued in production until late 1970, around 2500 examples of the SE5 were made before the SE5a replaced it three years later. During that time overdrive and a rear wash/wipe were made standard while a Ford automatic transmission became an option. With its fresh light clusters and nicer vacuum-formed interior panels the SE5a became a highly respected GT in its day; around 7100 of these were made and many still feel they are the best of the bunch, especially after September 1972 when the car also gained the uprated 138bhp Capri V6 engine. However by the mid 70s the Scimitar GTE faced some stiff competition, not least from Ford who introduced Capri II with a hatchback facility. Also Volvo, who boasted the clientele Reliant wanted to poach, had also launched a GTE-style option on its saintly P1800 plus a sporty Lancia Beta was waiting in the wings. So a heavily revised GTE appeared in 1976, known as the SE6. Featuring a much wider, longer bodyshell along with bigger doors and moulded bumpers in place of the previous conventional chromed items, it moved the GTE further upmarket with a price to match: £4368 in March 1976. That said the interior was made considerably classier, while power-assisted steering was now made optionally available, there was also a new 20-gallon fuel tank along with Girling dual-circuit brakes plus a stronger automatic gearbox too; 550 SE6s were produced before the updated SE6a appeared with a stronger scuttle, stiffer front springs, a change to Lockheed brakes with larger rear drums and, strangely, smaller front discs; 3878 left the factory before the SE6b debuted in 1980. This featured Ford’s 2.8-litre Cologne engine with better cooling and a lower fi nal drive ratio; 437 were made. The fi nal Reliant-built car was made in 1986, and delivered to GTE fan Princess Anne. The next year Middlebridge bought the production rights to the GTE but it wasn’t until 1989 that the relaunched car became available. There was now a 2.9i engine and fi ve-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox, but before 75 cars had been produced, the company went bust. Within a year the production rights had transferred to Graham Walker, but production was never resumed. Let’s not forget the GTC – Tamworth’s Triumph Stag. Launched at the tail end of the Scimitar’s life to give it a shot in the arm, one wonders why Reliant didn’t do it earlier to compete with the Stag. Those who have one swear it’s the better car…
Reliant brought in BRM’s (That’s British Racing Motors) John Crosthwaite to design a chassis for the Scimitar; his cruciform backbone design provides excellent stiffness without being unduly heavy. Combine that with a glassfi bre bodyshell and you have a car that feels fabulously nimble and it’s quick too, thanks to that lusty 3-litre Ford Essex up front. With excellent handling, care of a pretty sophisticated Aston-like rear suspension, a decent ride and plenty of feedback from the brakes as well as the steering, the GTE is more of a driver’s car than you’d think any estate of this era could ever be. Note that we’re talking SE5 models here because the SE6 that replaced the SE5a in 1976 lost too much of its driver appeal as it grew in length (four inches) and girth as well as weight. As a result a fair chunk of the agility was lost and the Scimitar’s edge was decidely blunted. That said the GTE certainly became more practical thanks to a more spacious and luxurious cabin but for many enthusiasts the trade off was too great.When Ford’s 2.8-litre Cologne V6 replaced the Essex unit in 1980, the resulting SE6b was smoother and more refi ned, but it was also less torquey. When Middlebridge took over the GTE’s production, it fi tted a 2.9-litre fuel-injected version of the Cologne engine, which offered more of the same really – extra power and refi nement but ultimately the same basic characteristics. Few would ever sample it though, because by the time the Middlebridge GTE arrived, the basic design was over two decades old, and buyers wanted something rather more modern for their money. The GTE’s forte was its long distance cruising ability thanks to tall gearing (particularly so with overdrive) and a massive fuel tank. SE5s were Gti quick too, less so the lardy SE6s which could see 0-60mph slump from a best of 8.7 seconds to a more sedate 11 second mooch but all were good for neigh on 120mph and 22-28mpg depending upon driving style. Without doubt the GTE is best remembered in SE5 guise. Monthly Car asked way back in 1971 “Is this Britain’s most underrated car?”. Five years later in larger, lardier SE6 guise however the mag’s opinion changed to “Starting to age and not so pleasant”.
GTE projects start at all of £50, but wade in at this end of the market and it’ll cost at least another £1000 in parts alone to create a car that’s reliable and looks reasonably smart – but you’ll have to do all the work yourself if the bills aren’t to mushroom. Buy a good GTE for at least £1500 and you’ll reap the benefi ts of the previous owner’s care, while really good cars start at £3000. GTC and Middlebridge values are generally £2000-£5000, although the weather affects GTC values. Road tax-exempt SE5, galvanised SE6bs and concours examples of any of the models are higher than for all other Scimitars, but they’re all superb value.
All Scimitars featured a Ford V6 engine; the 3-litre Essex unit was fi tted until 1979, when it was superseded by the smoother 2.8-litre Cologne lump. Some cars have been converted to the later 2.9-litre engine, with or without fuel injection, and generally mated to a fi ve-speed manual gearbox or four-speed automatic. The Essex powerplant tends to be durable and highly tunable, but it does have a few weak spots. One of the most common is stripping of the fi bre timing gears, which is why many owners simply fi t metal replacements; they’re less troublesome but more noisy. Essex-engined SE6s used to be prone to overheating because of their marginal cooling system. Discussions still abound as to whether it’s due to the fl uid capacity, the cooling fan, the routing of the pipework, the cross-fl ow radiator, the water pump or even the underbonnet airfl ow.Most owners solve any problems by reverting troublesome cars to the SE5a pipework and carefully maintaining the system. The syspension’s inherent design is good if wear prone plus the cheap dampers were knownto weaken prematurely. A set of quality replacements and poly bushing is a wise step along with good quality tyres. Power steering from a later SE6 can be fi tted and worth doing as the tiller can be heavy when compared to moderns.
What To Look For
- You’re onto a winner with the Reliant’s glassfi bre bodywork, as rust isn’t an issue. However, cracks, crazing and poorly repaired accident damage are all too common and can cause lots of grief and expense.
- All panels are available; problems may arise when you try to graft them in though. It’s a skill you can learn at home, but making invisible repairs to glassfi bre can be fraught with problems such as paint sinkage and joints that are less than perfectly blended in.
- The areas most likely to be affl icted with crazing and cracking are the corners of the bonnet, the base of the windscreen pillars, the panel below the window on the tailgate and around each of the door handles, along with the wiper spindle hole in some of the earlier models.
- Cracks across the top of the front wheelarches are also quite common, but this may be a sign of impact damage, so look out for signs of other problems such as a distorted chassis.
- The chassis is made of steel so it invariably corrodes. It’s unlikely to be rotten as such; repairs can almost always be carried out; the issue is how much work is needed. Some late SE6bs and GTCs have a galvanised chassis which is unlikely to have any corrosion. The key thing to check is the state of the main rails; they’re usually preserved by leaked engine oil, but not always. The round tubes just ahead of the rear wheels can also rot, and if these or the main rails have corroded signifi cantly, it’s a major job to put right. Unless you’re intent on a body-off restoration, you’re better off fi nding another car.
- Less of an issue is corrosion in the outriggers just behind the front wheels, along with the side rails below the sills; these areas can both be patched up without the need for too much dismantling. It’s the same for the bottom of the roll bar (at the base of the B-posts) as well as the rear diagonals, the framework around the fuel tank and the rear suspension mounting points on the axle, which you’ll be able to see better by removing each rear wheel.
- It can take a while for oil pressure to build on early Essex V6s – perhaps as much as fi ve seconds. Once hot, expect to see 15-20psi at tickover and 50-75psi at 2500rpm. Being an unstressed unit, the Essex powerplant tends to be durable. Oil pressure can be reduced through engine wear as well as the oil pump drive pencil wearing; replacing this is cheap and easy.
- The other likely malady are the rocker posts pulling out of the heads; if the engine sounds especially tappety, suspect this is about to happen. A simple clean up, Loctite and re-torque provides a long-lasting fi x.
- Scimitar manual gearboxes (four-speed with or without overdrive) are tough enough, but prone to oil leaks. The fi rst sign of old age is jumping out of second or fourth gears; when this happens you’ll need to rebuild the gearbox or buy an exchange unit.
- There were also three-speed automatic transmissions available; early cars featured a Borg Warner Type 35 unit while from the SE6 there was a Ford-sourced C3 ‘box. The latter is the stronger of the two, but both are generally reliable if the car isn’t used for towing (many are). Check the colour of the transmission fl uid if in doubt (the dipstick is at the rear of the engine, accessed from under the bonnet); it should be pink rather than black.
- The SE5 and SE5a had different ratio back axles to accommodate the different gearboxesavailable. The later Cologne V6 doesn’t have the torque of its Essex predecessor so Reliant fi tted a lower ratio back axle to maintain acceleration levels. What one is now fi tted to the car?
- If the Scimitar has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the front suspension, which is prone to wear in numerous places. Greasing at least twice annually is essential to prevent suspension failures.
- The top inner wishbone bushes can wear, while the fulcrum bars on which they pivot can corrode. Replacing both is easy (poly bushes are readily available), but in the case of the latter the correct shims should have been used or the camber will be out. Also expect wear between the vertical link and bottom trunnion, which is best checked by ensuring the trunnion bolt isn’t seized, and the steering isn’t stiff when the car’s nose is lifted off the ground.
- It may sound daft but have a look at the steering wheel on early SE6s lacking power steering. In this bigger, heavier GTE it became almost intolerably heavy and – in the case of Autocar’s long term test car – even caused the steering wheel to fracture due to fatigue! Power steering is highly desirable.
- Four types of wheel were offered over the years by the factory. There were steel items with three different glassfi bre trims, ‘Princess Anne’ alloys, Dunlop composite wheels (with an alloy centre riveted to a steel rim) or Wolfrace alloys. None give problems, but each type uses its own fi xings – so make sure the correct type is fitted by looking for signs of movement or wear around the mounting holes.
- Make sure the front seats feel secure; the frames can fracture as they’re not very well made, leading to back seat driving just when you don’t want it. The trim itself is generally durable, especially where leather has been used;it was optional from the SE5a onwards. However, this derivative is the one that causes headaches thanks to its plastic dash surround, which is prone to cracking. Original-style dashboards are no longer available, but you occasionally see glassfi bre replacements for sale.
- As with many glassfibre cars, the Scimitar’s electrics can be extremely temperamental through poor design, bodges and age. Then there’s the 17ACR alternator, which even when new wasn’t really strong enough; if any extra electrical items have been fi tted, this can lead to the charging system packing in.
- Fuseboxes can melt; SE5 units are underthe bonnet while those in an SE6 are in the passenger footwell. Circuits at the rear of the car can be especially trouble-prone, but all circuits can cause problems which is why it’s worth replacing the factory-fitted glass-fuse boxes fi tted with the more modern blade type. If you’re going to have to get this work done, also budget to have some relays fi tted into the headlight and electric fan circuits.
- Make sure you check all the switchgear works okay; from the SE5a onwards it’s fragile. Also check the heater works okay; they’re a poor design anyway and access to overhaul the matrix of the SE5a onward is tricky.
- Is a towbar fi tted? Thanks to its big engine power the GTE became a respected towcar and it’s reckoned that half of those remaining are so equipped. Nothing wrong in that but check the transmission and clutch for wear.
Three Of A Kind
BMW 2002 TouringThere aren’t many 2002s to go round, with the Touring one of the rarest of the lot. As a result you’ll have to look hard to fi nd a really nice example, although at least the Touring is worth less than an equivalent 2002 saloon. Beautifully built, superbly engineered and great to drive, the2002 Touring was built between 1971 and 1974; it was offered solely as a 2-litre in the UK, but 1600, 1800 and 2002Tii versions were available elsewhere.
Volvo 1800ESThe most readily available of the sporting estates up against the Scimitar, the Volvo is also one of the best-built and perhaps the most stylish. It’s still an unusual car though, as it was offered for just two seasons and most of the cars built were shipped to the US. More practical than the 1800 coupe that sired it, the ES is every bit as good to drive yet it’s even cheaper. You won’t fi nd a good one really easily, but it’s worth tracking one down.
Ford CapriAs soon as Ford put a rear door in the Capri, the Scimitar GTE was on a sticky wicket, especially as it was £1000 cheaper. Better built and cheaper, of into the bargain, but the Ford always, irritatingly, lacked the overdrive transmission that made the GTE so relaxing and economical. Handling wasn’t so much fun either although the gap closed when the 2.8i was introduced but the Reliant remains that bit more spacious, exclusive and cheaper.
You need to drive a properly sorted Scimitar to understand what all the fuss is about; they really do offer a perfect blend of fun and practicality. However, if you drive a dog you’ll never get it, so ensure any potential purchase is scrutinised closely. It’s also important that you get the right derivative for your needs; as the car was developed, its character changed signifi - cantly. However, all cars are fast, refi ned, relaxed tourers that can give many moderns a run for their money as well as make a superb criminally under priced daily driver alternative.
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