The world of low volume British sports car manufacturers is strewn with tales of woe and missed opportunities. This is of course an indisputable fact known by all.
Last week’s Prime Find showcased the often-overlooked Jensen Healey, a car that could boast a Lotus engine and bore the names of two great manufacturers but still failed to make an impact. Sometimes the products were to blame, sometimes management, sometimes external forces. Even the best and most determined have had difficult times, as described in our recently published history of Ginetta. But occasionally there were unexpected success stories of cars that belied their modest backgrounds and defied the view that breeding and branding is everything. Take the 1968 Scimitar SE5 for example, the Ogle designed sporting estate with a lusty 3-litre V6 and distinctively brutish looks. The SE5 carved its own niche and even gained Royal approval, with it becoming English law that any mention of the car must be followed in fewer than 33 words by a mention of Princess Anne. Consider then, this aristocratic express wasn’t a product of Aston Martin or Rolls-Royce, but was instead brought into the world by Reliant – a company best known for producing the much-maligned Regal and Robin three-wheelers. With a loyal following and friends in high places the Scimitar became unconsciously decoupled in a manner that seems barely credible in today’s brand oriented world. Like an automotive Cinderella, it did go to the ball. But like the clock striking midnight, we’re here to talk about woe and missed opportunities, and conveniently we can stay with Reliant. So synonymous is the SE5 with the Scimitar brand, that it’s easy to forget there was another one hiding just out of sight. It also happened to be the end of the line.
The Reliant Scimitar SS1 is yet another chapter in the annals of British sports cars that didn’t quite succeed. Launched in 1984, it was swimming against the tide from the start. Affordable two-seater convertibles were out of fashion, swept away by hot hatches that provided more comfortable and practical all-weather thrills. Mazda’s MX-5 was still 6 years away and the small cabriolet market had stalled with jitters around American safety regulations and the departure of the old stalwart MGBs and Triumph Spitfires. You could argue a case of chicken and egg, but the key reason for the demise of the traditional sports car was lack of demand. The SS1 was therefore the answer to a question that very few people were asking. Nevertheless, Reliant aspired to be a big fish in this small pond and planned for 2,000 sales a year. On paper the SS1 was convincing and the sales aspiration seemed perfectly achievable. Boasting a stiff frame chassis with a central backbone, it was clothed in an angular composite body designed by Michelotti no less, incorporating pop up headlamps to keep the nose low and purposeful. Weight was minimal and the 1300cc and 1600cc Ford CVH engines offered at launch only had to haul 839kgs around, promising reasonably lively performance, especially from the latter’s 96bhp. Suspension was independent at all four corners and with the engine mounted well back and the driven wheels at the rear, near 50/50 weight distribution was achieved. The folding roof could be flipped back when the sun shone and an optional hard top promised a snug cockpit in winter. On paper, what was not to like?
However, I’m afraid here we repeat the familiar story of great promise hampered by poor execution and in-built prejudice. If only the SS1 had hailed from Turin, the slapdash fit and finish may have been forgiven as Latin character, but for poor old Reliant of Tamworth there were no such allowances made. Contemporary road tests, from the days when magazines assessed cars on their individual merits rather than churning out the same received opinions, praised the handling but found the chassis was far more capable than the engines. In the context of such surprisingly good dynamics, the underpowered 1300cc variant was a complete waste of time, and although the larger capacity motor promised more, Reliant’s claimed performance figures proved optimistic, so it wasn’t quite the hot hatch chaser it was billed as. It took nearly two years for extra poke to arrive with the introduction of the 1800Ti powered by the Nissan CA18ET 1809cc turbocharged engine. Also found in the much heavier Nissan Silvia and Bluebird, the 135bhp motor transformed the SS1’s performance, slicing over two seconds off the dash to 60 mph which now flashed by in 7.6 seconds, before storming on to an impressive 126 mph. Transformative it may have been, but it was too late as initial interest in SS1 had already waned. The main problem wasn’t necessarily one of speed, rather that Reliant simply didn’t built the thing properly.
Reliant were nothing if not ambitious when it came to developing the SS1’s body. The unstressed panels were intelligently designed and the material properties matched according to the demands of their location on the car. The central tub was traditional GRP but the wings and bumpers were made from reinforced reaction injection moulded polyurethane so they would spring back into shape after low speed impacts. The bonnet was different again, being made from a polyurethane and fibreglass sandwich that was injected with polyester resin. The latter process in particular proved difficult to perfect leading to costly wastage in both time and materials, requiring in the region of two and half bonnets for every one that was fit for use. Each body panel was located on the chassis frame using Torx bolts driven into slotted holes, which lacked the accuracy of fully robotised assembly that 1980s buyers were coming to expect. Coupled with unresolved issues around shrinkage tolerances in the moulds, the resulting panel fit was approximate at best. The ambition of the design couldn’t be matched by the reality of production.
On the inside, the parts bin interior made use of a scattergun selection of Ford and Austin Rover switchgear, and regular ViaRETRO readers will be excited to see red piping on the seats. Critically however, hood fitment was somewhat variable and not always compatible with the damp British climate. Whilst a period road test praised the handling, it noted that the tenacious grip also resulted in fuel sloshing back out of the filler cap. Such issues should have been addressable, but quality control never really improved and thus the poor reputation stuck. The introduction of a galvanised chassis in 1986 should have been a major selling point, but it was an invisible change and didn’t bring customers through the door. Incidentally, outsourcing chassis production to Thyssen didn’t guarantee the German quality that was hoped for and galvanised or not, it would probably have been preferable if they were all made within the same tolerances. Warranty and rework costs spiralled whilst the SS1 stumbled on until 1990, at which time it was re-engineered as the SST with a revised frame and simplified GRP body facilitating greatly improved panel fit. A final reimagining created the Sabre which eventually adopted the modern Rover K-Series under the bonnet. However, ten years after the SS1’s debut, Reliant collapsed and that was that. Production of all variants totalled a disappointing 1,507 cars, less than even one year’s planned volume.
Perhaps though, it’s time to reassess the SS1. The questionable build quality may have been difficult to swallow at £8,000 in 1985 (equivalent to a heady £23,000 today), but current values are low and in the context of a cheap curiosity, you can probably afford to consider such flaws as character. Either way, any example that has lasted over 30 years can’t be thatbad (famous last words). The CVH engines may not be Ford’s best, but there is plenty of tuning knowledge out there to ensure it can be optimised, or you could always hunt down an 1800Ti Turbo model as they are not yet fully extinct. More importantly, the chassis is inherently good, so with modern shocks, brake pads and tyres there’s plenty of potential for ongoing fun. The Michelotti styling may have split opinion at launch, but it’s undeniably period and distinctive, and it’s the last design that flowed directly from the great man’s pen, even if Reliant had to make a few tweaks in order to productionise it. Considering the sort of rubbish people hold in high regard, the SS1 actually has a lot going for it.
Winter is a good time to make a bid on a convertible car, and there are currently a few SS1s of varying quality being offered for sale. We’ve found this one on the Car and Classic website, advertised by a private seller in East Anglia, and from the vendor’s photographs it looks like one of the better ones. We haven’t inspected the car ourselves and you should always look closely before buying, but the vendor advises it has been recently serviced and benefits from a new stainless steel exhaust and Avon tyres. The advert states it has a new cambelt, fan belt, manifold gasket, rocker cover gasket and everything works as it should. It comes complete with a hardtop for the colder weather, so buying during the winter isn’t as daft as it seems. At £3,150 it’s the most expensive of those we’ve found, but has the benefit of being complete and apparently ready to go. If you’re feeling brave, there’s also a Turbo project car for sale on the same website for £1,550, but you wouldn’t be able to just turn the key and drive away. Here’s a few pictures borrowed from the advert:
Reliant over extended themselves with the SS1. It was an ambitious design and a lot more advanced than it may appear, making use of composite materials rather than settling for the obvious fibreglass. With the financial backing of a major player it might have worked, but the truth is that Reliant designed a car they couldn’t actually build properly, and that’s not the car’s fault. It had all the ingredients of a winner and was arguably ahead of its time, but the world would have to wait for the much less technologically adventurous Mazda MX-5 to revive the small two-seater droptop. Surely now from a 21st Century perspective the SS1 is a more interesting choice though. Deservedly overlooked or decidedly underrated? You decide…
Here’s a link to the full advert: 1986 Reliant Scimitar SS1
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
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