King In A Catholic Style

The Scimitar’s messy ending.

Publicity shot for the Middlebridge Scimitar. Image: (c) middlebridge-scimitar.co.uk

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. 

Publicity shot for the Middlebridge Scimitar. Image: (c) middlebridge-scimitar.co.uk

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. 

The Scimitar with its most high-profile and loyal owner. Image (c) middlebridge-scimitar.co.uk

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.

Publicity shot for the Middlebridge Scimitar. Image: (c) middlebridge-scimitar.co.uk

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 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

15 thoughts on “King In A Catholic Style”

  1. Good morning Andrew. What a sad story, but very well told, thank you. It sounds from your account that Middlebridge made real, meaningful improvements to the Scimitar . I wonder if they are especially prized and sought after, especially with only 77 made? The survival rate is extraordinary though.

    The Scimitar design was extraordinarily enduring. Often, twenty year-old designs that have been heavily updated look like ageing celebrities who have had too many facelifts and with too much slap on. The first and last Scimitars are equally handsome and contemporary looking, which is most unusual:

    1. The Scimitar makes a strong case for inclusion in that regrettably short list of cars visibly improved by the facelifter’s scalpel. If anything, it was a better looking car at the end of its life than at the beginning. Because while the original Scimitar GTE has an appeal of its own, it always looked a little unpolished to me in styling terms. I wonder if the headlamp treatment would have benefited from a Lamborghini Jarama-style, semi-enclosed effect?

      The more bluff-looking nose treatment of the SE6 model suited the lines better, as did the other subtle bodywork changes, which sharpened the lines, lending it a more modern appearance. I would agree that the changes to the Middlebridge car, while subtle, were very effective and really well handled.

      Like the Triumph Stag against which it competed for a time, the Scimitar really seemed to chime with the UK customer throughout the 1970s, and also like the Triumph, has benefited from a loyal and enthusiastic following in later life. It’s not hard to see why.

    2. Hi Eóin. Some of the changes are only apparent when you see the two cars side by side. I notice that the bodyside crease ahead of the front wheel arch has been straightened to align with the raised front end. In similar vein, the windscreen no longer turns down towards the A-pillars as it did on the original.

      I like both equally. Even though the Middlebridge car looks more modern, I would imagine the original looked equally contemporary in its day. For £17.5k, the Middlebridge car below is not cheap, but with a fibreglass body, galvanized chassis and proven mainstream mechanical, it’s likely to be a very serviceable classic. I hope the buyer really enjoys and takes care if it.

    3. Am particularly fond of the later Scimitars from the SE6 to the Middlebridge, especially when compared to what Reliant planned to replace it with in terms of styling.

      Know the proposed Scimitar replacement was amongst other things planned to feature a Rover V8 and 5-speed gearbox (along with possibly a Triumph Slant-4) when it was initially conceived. That said did wonder if Reliant or Middlebridge considered other alternative engines to the existing Ford Cologne V6, be the Rover V8 originally envisaged for its successor or as with the Scimitar SS1 maybe even a Japanese sourced 6-cylinder+ engine.

      Would loved to have seen Middlebridge versions of the earlier Scimitar GT Coupe and SE8 Scimitar GTC Convertibles.

    4. Hi Bob. If you follow the link Andrew provided above to Middlebridge Scimitar and go to gallery, on page twelve car no. 80 is a 1980 GTC rebuilt to Middlebridge specification.

    5. Daniel – Nice, the rebuilt Middlebridge spec GTC comes off pretty well.

  2. This nice 1990 69k miles example is advertised for £17,500 on Car and Classic and is reserved:

    That’s the price of a new Fiesta…

    Sadly, the MOT on HRH Princess Anne’s Scimitar expired in October 2012. I’m surprised the registration number hasn’t been reassigned.

  3. Morning Andrew. A sad end to a worthy car. Never owned one but worked on a few and test drove one once. Some of the finishes, especially the interior, weren’t great, but quintessentially British 🤣. Indecently Daniel, I know that dealer, Percival’s, down in Kent. I looked at a Saab he had many years ago. He has some very nice cars.

    1. I did not realize that the doors from the Jaguar Ascot would fit on the Volvo Tundra.

    2. If indeed this design dates from 1982, it would suggest that it was a design helmed by Marc Deschamps, rather than Marcello Gandini, who had departed Stile Bertone two years previously. Perhaps it was something Marcello had left lying about the place. It certainly looks wholly derivative of just about everything late-era of Gandini’s Bertone period. That, or the concept of recycling had truly been embraced in Caprie, well before it became commonplace elsewhere.

    3. The SE82, Mazda MX-81, Fiat X1/10 and Volvo Tundra do share common themes, putting it mildly. Nevertheless, I quite like the Mazda – they made an interesting, short film about the influence of Italian design and the MX-81’s restoration.

  4. Great story, Andrew. Thank you for posting it here. A sad ending to a car I’ve always liked. They’ve always been a rare sight here in the Netherlands, but at least two of the Middlebridge cars were sold in the Netherlands in LHD form. Who knows, one might pop up for sale at some point in the future.

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