Missing its Moment: The Reliant Scimitar SS1

There was no reward for Reliant getting it right at the second attempt.

Sporting: 1984 Reliant Scimitar SS1. Image: Reliant

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

Scimitar SS1 body construction details. Image: Reliant

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.

Reliant Scimitar SS1. Image: Reliant

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.

William Towns with the Reliant Scimitar SST. Image: sporting-reliants.com

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.

Reliant Scimitar SST interior. Image: classiccars4sale.net

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.

Reliant Scimitar Sabre. Image: carjager.com

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.

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

15 thoughts on “Missing its Moment: The Reliant Scimitar SS1”

  1. Regarding Michelotti in general: I have always thought that he was the weakest of the great Italian designers of his time – if one can even put him up there with Giugiaro, Gandini, Fioravanti et al. His cars often appear overstyled, camp (in the Sontag/Jencks way), dated – the opposite of timeless. Even though there might be something strangely exciting about that at the same time…

  2. With the CVH powered Scimitar SS1/SST models, Reliant’s ties with Ford proved to be a handicap. It was also burdened with awkward styling as a result of Michelotti passing away before it was completed and seemingly due to Reliant trying to simplify it during the production process.

    http://danlockton.co.uk/rebel/double_edged.html

    Another lesser known sportscar of the period was the Lotus Elan inspired Evente.

  3. The SST did not have timing on its side but was a very successful restyle (and again offers evidence that Towns could do subtlety and moderation when he wanted). Against the first generation MX-5 at a similar price point, its days could only have been numbered.

    Thanks for this reminder of a nice car I had almost forgotten.

    1. Hi Chris. I agree. As I said in the piece, had the SST been launched in 1984 with its neatly styled, contemporary looking exterior and galvanised chassis, I think the outcome could could have been very different. That said, its goose might still have been cooked when the MX-5 arrived in 1989.

      The 1992 Sabre update was pretty effective in giving it a bit more muscle, but I still prefer the purer SST.

  4. It’s actually remarkably difficult to find a decent photo of the SST online. Here’s the best I could find:

  5. I think it’s quite interesting Ford continued to offer crate engines to various small scale car makers, especially offering engines and transmissions for rear wheel drive use long after Ford had moved completely over to front wheel drive applications. Throughout the 80’s, it was either that, the Rover K-engine, or the Rover V8 that could be found in absolutely anything and everything. I wonder if Ford is the only maker that has consistently continued to do so? It would be interesting with an article telling about all the cars their engines ended up in, just saying …

    1. I second that idea for an article. Would need diligent research but would be a very interesting read, I suspect.

  6. Good afternoon, Daniel. This is a car I think I only seen once or twice. It’s very rare here. Reliant was most known for its Robin, the Scimitar GTE was also quite rare here. I wonder why they chose such a complex body construction. Did form dictate this, or was it something else all together.

    1. Hi Freerk. I’m guessing here, but perhaps it was (or they thought it would be) simpler and easier to mould a number of smaller pieces rather than the two large sections they changed to on the SST?

    2. As you describe it in the article, Daniel, it sounds to my like they decided at some point that no one material could fulfill their brief, so they tried to find different materials for different parts of the car. I can imagine the bigger picture drifting ever farther out of sight as they kept focussing on details. I’m also guessing that Reliant had a bit of a small manufacturer mentality, making do with whatever solution was at hand and affordable. As you say, it’s hard to imagine even a Scimitar SS1 that got a better start competing with the MX5.

      I’ve only been dimly aware of the Scimitar, since Reliant, as Freerk mentions, has never been that big around here. Reading this, I felt a little confused since the original Scimitar is (I think) a much bigger car. The design doesn’t make its size immediately clear, either (sort of the opposite of the Ioniq 5, then) so I noticed I had to make a mental leap to understand the actual size and intended market when I read about the 1.3 and 1.6 litre engines. I’m spitballing here, so get your facemasks out, but perchance there was a similar confusion at the time, hampering the SS1’s chances even further?

    3. Hi Tom. I think you could well be right, as I remember at the time thinking that it seemed confusing for Reliant to have two entirely different models sharing the same name. The SS1 really was quite petite. Its wheelbase and overall length were 2,133mm (84″) and 3,886mm (153″) respectively, both shorter than the MX-5 Mk1 at 2,265mm (89 1/4″) and 3,950mm (155 1/2″).

    4. Hi Daniel. It’s not so much the number of parts, but more the number of production methods applied. I would think one or two would be enough.

  7. Dear departed Leonard (LJKS) reported upon a week at the wheel of an SS1 in (I think) April 1986 for Car magazine. He gave it a quite favourable review – apart from (if I recall) the steering, the wipers and the lack of a tonneau cover (he used a shower curtain instead). He also commented favourably upon the styling, but given his predilection for the products of Filton – not to mention his latent contrarian streak – that was hardly a shock.

  8. Thank you for an interesting piece on a car I’d forgotten about.
    Surely the Reliant name was more of a hindrance than any confusion about the Scimitar one.
    How could Reliant sell more cars without a proper sales network? More of a problem than any shortcomings of the car.
    It looked a lot nicer than the TR7 and wouldn’t dissolve like an MX5.

  9. A Pistonhead comment about the SS1, from someone who implied that they were a Reliant employee at the time, suggested 12 hours to set up its headlights alone. Surely not? Possibly a quick one for Daniel’s photo-editing: would the SS1 have looked less awkward just by changing the lights to regular pop-ups or Sprite-style fixed units?

    Is it a trick of the photo, or was the gearchange of the SST really as odd as suggested by the photo in this piece?

    Thanks for the article. Incidentally, the New Metrocab seems to have failed as suspected – its manufacturer filed for liquidation at the end of November. (The connection to this article being that Reliant produced the original Metrocab from 1989).

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