The Scimitar’s messy ending.
Towards the end of 1986, Reliant had practically stalled GTE and C production. Financial constraints had led to the final thirty chassis languishing in Tamworth until two Nottinghamshire businessmen eyed a line continuing opportunity – just add a couple of million pounds Sterling. Coincidentally, a Japanese (self confessed Anglophile) fellow had his own wish – to create a British built, aluminium chassis sports car with Japanese mechanicals – with means. And within weeks, the Scimitar GTE not only had new owners but a new direction. Upwards.
Ex-Lucas employees Peter Boam and John McCauley had been wooing Reliant to the point that Tamworth would train the BM Industries production staff at their Lilac Grove, Beeston, Nottingham factory when they met with car enthusiast and collector, Kohji Nakauchi, owner of Milton Keynes based Middlebridge group of companies.
Thrilled at the idea of snapping up a readymade, British built sports car, Nakauchi barely hesitated, stumping up the £400,000 for manufacturing and tooling rights with an extra two million invested in infrastructure. Reliant bent over backwards to assist, stipulating only that the body shape be retained. However, reasonable cosmetic changes could occur, with a change of engine “a matter of routine.” Tamworth would continue supplying body shells for the project. Plans for three hundred cars per year were mooted.
Nakauchi installed long-time friend Dennis Nursey as Middlebridge Scimitar Ltd CEO with Boam and McCauley holding manufacturing and marketing positions. Ex-Aston Martin employees added to the blend along with Middlebridge engineers whose first task to was collect a Reliant chassis, then strip it. Modifications came thick and fast – over four hundred alterations including new alloy wheels, larger 20 gallon fuel tank, vastly superior suspension (nurtured by Harvey Bailey Engineering Ltd), a hot dipped galvanised chassis, stainless steel exhaust system, different lights, higher spec interior and heavily improved NVH suppression to the point where assisting Reliant staff were visibly impressed at the new car’s qualities which neither squeaked nor rattled.
Power for the Middlebridge Scimitar retained the blue oval’s input, this time the 2.9 Scorpio variant offering 150bhp, and a seven second 0-60 time whilst nudging 150mph. The SE6a’s 3.54:1 rear axle ratio led 26 mph at 1,000 rpm – 70mph (on the ambitious speedometer) at a lazy 2,600rpm. Targets were set at three to four cars per week whilst firmly in the executive bracket, the base price tag bearing £24,000.
Tamworth provided both chassis and fibreglass body, these body in green mouldings had to cure outside for a full seven days before being checked for often abysmal accuracy, anywhere from two to fifteen millimetres out, depending on area. Thus, man hours aplenty were spent preparing the car; 100 for paint preparation alone with each car taking two hundred more to assemble. Actual production hovered between one and two cars built per week, performed by just forty seven employees.
Paint was of extra high quality, applied in state of the art facilities; ten coats made up from etch primer, primer filler, customer choice (metallic, pearlescent, two-tone or Reliant standard) before the final lacquering. Interiors were again at the punters behest as were transmission options.
Once the Reliant tooling had been installed at Lilac Grove, Nursey ploughed the furrow; an Earls Court motor show appearance twenty one years from the original Scimitar launch alongside a glamorous photo shoot in Cannes which turned into a very expensive jolly with Middlebridge No.1 (along with plenty of staff and family) being driven from Nottinghamshire to the south of France and back at high speed, demonstrating the capabilities. Twenty four specialist dealers in the U.K. would sell and maintain the cars with orders already coming in from Holland and Italy.
However, the blossoming lilac soon began to fade. Orders were scarce and with extended build times, both Boam and McCauley, unhappy at the slow proceedings, exited the venture. This allowed Nursey to install Steve Coughlin, formerly Aston Martin and Tickford director to overhaul matters. Sadly this meant losing shop floor workers but matters of gross financial importance led to a cataclysmic, vainglorious end.
The Middlebridge umbrella consisted of many car related engineering aspects. One being Nursey’s car restoration company, specialising in Nakauchi’s favourite Aston Martin’s, which proved profitable. One not quite so advantageous purchase was that of the Brabham Formula 1 team where one Bernard Charles Ecclestone pocketed a million from Milton Keynes in order for them to race in the 1990 season. This massive step up occurred from successful races in lower formulas with drivers such as David Brabham and first rung outings for then unknowns Mark Blundell and Damon Hill.
Middlebridge Racing struggled to repay monies owed and with poor track results, went into administration. But the hole deepened. Landhurst Leasing who had provided the finance were investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in 1991 with Landhurst directors imprisoned for accepting bribes and gross corruption with Middlebridge staff. Adding insult to injury, the Beeston factory held large stocks of unused parts culminating in a cash flow crisis. But by far the biggest financial hit came from a somewhat farcical car deal.
Middlebridge were about to purchase another racing car, known as “Old Number One,” a Bentley Speed 6 from 1929 from Waxoyl millionaire Ed Hubbard. Hubbard was to accept £10M in exchange for assets regarding to Middlebridge Scimitar Ltd valued at £3.2M with the remainder in cash. Only during the transaction, Nursey argued over the Bentley’s authenticity, the car being involved in Le Mans victories and a fatal Brooklands race. Incensed, Hubbard took Middlebridge to court and won. Ordered by the court to buy the Bentley, this effectively closed the Lilac Grove factory as Hubbard then pulled the plug.
22nd November 1990 saw the remains of Middlebridge-Scimitar auctioned off with bidder number 22 having a large shopping list. That fellow was Graham Walker who, after a bidding war with an unknown adversary (later found out to be Birmingham based fibreglass company, Jefferson Ritson) heard the gavel fall on lot 653 – the entire stock of moulds and rights to the name and body shape of GTE and C’s for a not insubstantial £31,000, less than a tenth of what Middlebridge had paid just months earlier. Walker maintains these to this day, his Bumpers Lane, Chester site being, not unsurprisingly the world’s Scimitar mecca.
Later lots included five cars which were sold from £12-17,000. In total, 77 Middlebridge-Scimitars were made (78 including number one prototype) with all bar one still in existence. Enthusiastic owners and a keen club following ensure these late twentieth century rarities continue their journey, custodians of a breed the likes of which we’re unlikely to witness again.
I am indebted to Mick Gaughran for his boundless enthusiasm and knowledge concerning Scimitars and Middlebridge. For the full story, check out his website www.middlebridge-scimitar.co.uk