There was no reward for Reliant getting it right at the second attempt.
In the decade before the arrival of the all-conquering Mazda MX-5 in 1989, the choice in European small two-seater roadsters was very limited. The ancient MG Midget and MGB had finally been killed off in 1980, but not before their handling and looks had been comprehensively ruined by US regulations(1). The Triumph Spitfire also died in that year, while the more exclusive Lotus Elan had been pensioned off in 1973(2).
Concerns about the possible outlawing of soft-top cars in the US had also caused delays or cancellations in the development of such models. The Triumph TR7 drophead finally arrived in 1979, almost five years after the launch of the fixed-head coupé. By this time, the TR7 had acquired a grim reputation for build quality and reliability, and both versions were discontinued in 1981 as a consequence of the closure of BL’s Solihull factory.
British manufacturer Reliant, famous for its Scimitar GTE sporting estate and equally infamous for its Robin three-wheeler, saw an opportunity to fill this void. The formula was a simple one: take well proven mechanical underpinnings from a mainstream manufacturer, install them in a tubular backbone steel chassis and clothe it in an attractive fibreglass roadster bodyshell.
The engines came from Ford, CVH units from the Escort in 1.3 and 1.6-litre capacities, but installed longitudinally and mated to a four or five-speed manual gearbox from the Sierra. Suspension, also from the Sierra, was independent all round, with double wishbones at the front and semi-trailing arms at the rear, both ends fitted with anti-roll bars. Brakes were also sourced from Ford, servo assisted with discs at the front and drums at the rear. Instrumentation and switchgear were taken from contemporary Austin Rover models, while the seats were the same as those fitted to the Triumph TR7, albeit trimmed with different fabrics.
The body construction was innovative and complex, comprising fourteen separate major panels using four different plastic materials and methods of fabrication, all hung onto a steel skeleton, which was itself attached to the chassis. A semi-flexible injection moulded material was used for the front and rear bumpers and wings, to prevent minor nudges from causing damage. The bonnet was a resin-injected polyester sandwich construction with a urethane skin, chosen for both its rigidity and sound insulation qualities. The boot lid was made from cold-pressed reinforced polyester. The remaining panels, comprising the inner body tub and boot moulding, doors, rear deck and headlamp surround, were fabricated in hand-laid reinforced polyester
The new roadster was called the Scimitar SS1(3) and was launched at the British International Motor Show at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre in October 1984. For a roadster, the car was surprisingly practical, with good interior room and a decent boot, the spare wheel being carried under the bonnet ahead of the engine. The soft top was a simple vinyl pram-hood concertina design with a plastic rear window and quarter lights, which folded manually into a shallow well behind the seats.
Performance was respectable if not impressive. The 1,597cc engine produced maximum power of 96bhp (72kW) and torque of 133 lb ft (180Nm). Mated to the five-speed gearbox, this was good for a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 9.7 seconds and a top speed of 110mph (177km/h). The CVH engine was rather rough and unrefined, as it was in the Fiesta and Escort. The UK list price at launch was £7,000 for the 1.3 and £7,800 for the 1.6-litre model.
Unfortunately, the complex body construction and mix of materials made it difficult to achieve a consistently good quality of fit and finish. There was also a high degree of wind noise above 65mph and road noise from the rear axle was highly intrusive, seemingly amplified by the boot void. Contemporary road tests suggested that the SS1 was less than thoroughly developed at launch.
Then there was the SS1’s appearance: it may have been styled by Giovanni Michelotti, but even the carrozzeria’s most ardent fans would not claim that the SS1, which was Michelotti’s swansong, was his finest work. There was simply too much going on along the flanks. The strakes that formed partial eyebrows over the wheel arches before extending to the car’s front and rear extremities were a particularly dissonant and controversial detail, as was the Porsche 928 / Lamborghini Miura style headlamps, which pointed skyward unless in use.
After two years the larger Ford engine was replaced by a 1,809cc turbocharged unit from the Nissan Sylvia. This produced maximum power of 135bhp (101kW) and torque of 143 lb ft (194Nm) which cut the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time to 7.6 seconds and raised the top speed to 126mph (203km/h). The smaller engine was uprated to 1.4 litres, producing 75bhp (56kW). From 1986 onwards, the SS1’s steel chassis was fully galvanized.
Despite having the market for small roadsters virtually to itself, the SS1 still struggled to overcome its challenging styling and problematic build quality. However, an opportunity presented itself when General Motors approached Reliant in 1988 about building a 3.1-litre V6 powered version for the US market. William Towns(4) was commissioned to restyle the SS1 and produced a prototype, the SS2 Concept, which was unveiled at the 1988 Birmingham motor show. This was a radically different looking car, with smooth, sheer bodysides and blistered front and rear wheel arches.
Unfortunately, GM went cold on the idea, and development was halted. However, Reliant then commissioned Towns to rebody the SS1 and the new model, dubbed the Scimitar SST(5), was launched in 1990. This was based loosely on the SS2 Concept but had conventional wheel arches and a knee-height indentation running along the flanks which aligned with the tops of the front and rear bumpers.
This was more than just a facelift, however. The steel skeleton and individual panels of the SS1 were replaced with a monocoque-style body fabricated in two large sections, front and rear. The front part comprised the passenger compartment floor, front and rear bulkheads, windscreen surround, engine well, front wings and headlamp surround. The rear part comprised the rear deck, inner boot moulding and rear wings. All parts were now made in glass-reinforced plastic.
The headlamps were now a conventional pop-up design, concealed under flush lids when down. The only panel carried over unchanged from the SS1 was the boot lid. A canvas soft-top replaced the vinyl original and the latter’s plastic quarter lights were deleted
The intention of this radical overhaul was to simplify construction and eliminate the SS1’s issues with inconsistent alignment and panel gaps. Subjectively, the car’s appearance was also improved significantly, although some might have considered it now rather bland.
Mechanically, little was changed from the SS1. The galvanized chassis, 1.4-litre Ford CVH and 1.8-litre Nissan turbo engines were carried forward and the five-speed manual gearbox was standardised on both models. UK list prices for the new models were £10,600 for the 1.4 and £13,000 for the 1.8 turbo.
Car Magazine reviewed the new SST in its June 1990 edition. The reviewer was unimpressed by the restyle, stating that “what the Scimitar gains in neatness, it loses in distinctiveness”. The car still drove very well and had a “remarkably agile chassis and wonderfully precise steering”. The response from the turbocharged engine was instant, with no hint of lag. The cabin was roomy and easy to get into and out of, and the car was well equipped. In summary, however, the reviewer concluded that “Reliant has stumbled (yet again) on what is arguably the single most important ingredient in a sports car’s success: its looks.”
Whatever the concerns about its styling, the SST’s prospects were fatally undermined by the simultaneous arrival of the Mazda MX-5. Here was a pretty two-seat roadster with proven Mazda build quality and reliability for a list price of £14,200. Its retro styling reprised that of the iconic 1962 Lotus Elan. As the new decade arrived, organic curves replaced straight lines in automotive fashion, making the MX-5 look bang on-trend and the SST a throwback to the previous decade.
In 1992 the SST was updated with flared wheel arches, side skirts and differently profiled front and rear bumpers, and the car was renamed Scimitar Sabre. The Ford CVH engine was replaced by a 1.4-litre Rover K-Series unit in 1993. Production continued until 1995 when Reliant called in the receivers and went out of business.
The story of the SS1 and its successors is one of missed opportunity. With the field virtually to itself at launch, the SS1 could have been a success had it not been for the controversial styling and build quality issues resulting from its complex construction. Had the SST instead been launched in 1984, the outcome could have been very different, not just for the car, but for Reliant itself.
(1) The ride height of both cars had to be raised by around 25mm (1”) to ensure compliance with new US minimum height regulations for headlamps, while much larger and heavier rubber covered ‘5mph’ bumpers were fitted.
(2) The Elan+2 fixed-head coupé remained on the market until 1975.
(3) The suffix stood for Small Sports 1.
(4) Best known for the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda.
(5) ‘T’ standing for Towns, in recognition of its designer.