Reliant Scimitar SS1
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
For most people outside the UK, Reliant was better known for its three-wheelers than for building fun cars. That changed in 1984 when the company released an open-top sports car which brought back some of the better memories of the MGB
and the TR7
- and, thankfully, did away with most of the unpleasant ones. The wind-in-the-hair fun and back-to-basics exhilaration were all there. But, in addition, there was some sophistication and refinement - attributes as foreign to most British roadsters as suntans in an English winter.
The basic ingredients were traditional enough: sturdy mass-made sedan mechanicals mated to a tough, easy-to-repair body. The clothes, although unmistakably 1980s, also had a link with British roadsters of yore: they were penned by Michelotti, the Italian styling company responsible for a host of TR designs (although not the gruesome TR7
). On the road though, the similarities began to disappear. Where an MGB
would assail bumps, the new Reliant sailed over them. And where some other roadsters tripped and fell on bends, the Reliant cornered with deftness and ability. In sum, the British roadster had entered the 1980s with a reassuring bang. Few would have guessed that Reliant would have been the ones to do it.
The Scimitar SS1
Called the Scimitar SS1 (there was no overt reference to the car's Reliant parentage), the roadster used a choice of British-made Ford Fiesta/Escort
engines mated to Ford Sierra
transmissions. The basic engine was a 1.3-litre 51 kW single overhead camshaft unit. The more popular power-plant was the 1.6-litre 71 kW engine as fitted to the potent little Fiesta XR2. The smaller engine was mated to a four-speed manual gearbox as standard, the bigger unit a five-speeder. Neither power-plant endowed the Scimitar with great performance (160 km/h was claimed for the 1.3, 175 km/h for the 1.6), but they were vastly more efficient engines than the old cast iron wheezers fitted to MGs.
Powertrains aside, Reliant relied to a surprisingly small extent on outside car manufacturers. The steel backbone chassis was pure Reliant and so were the suspension
components. At the front there were double wishbones with coil springs
and an anti-roll bar
. Apart from being superior dynamically to a strut front suspension
, the wishbone system was easily the most practical for a car with a separate chassis: with wishbones it was easy to feed all the front suspension
loads into the central frame. Less conventional were the gas-filled dampers which at one end were attached to levers on top of the upper wishbones and, at the other end, to a high-placed central mounting. The dampers were inclined about 30 deg to the horizontal, a system which allowed long suspension travel without adding to the car's nose height.
The independent rear suspension
had semi-trailing arms, and coil spring/damper units. The suspension arms were unusual in being inclined outwards by only 15 deg. This shallow angle helped to counteract one of the inherent problems of a semi-trailing arm system: under force the suspension
tended to jack up with track and camber changes upsetting the handling. A rear anti-roll bar
was clamped to the chassis forward of the final drive unit and to the outer ends of the trailing arms.
Body by Michelotti
The Michelotti body was attached, unstressed, to a backbone chassis. It was all plastic and was unusual in a number of ways. In order to simplify manufacture and repair damage, the panels were made from a number of separate moulds and were bolted directly to the steel chassis tubes. Different panels were made in different ways. Reinforced resin injection moulding panels were used for the front and rear wings plus nose and tail sections. This substance was flexible and thus had good recovery from deformation. The SS1 's bonnet was made by the Lotus-like vacuum-assisted resin injection principle. More conventional GRP was used for doors.
The body was not just unusual in its construction; visually it caused a little controversy. Wedge-shaped with unusual flush lying pop-up headlights (Porsche 928
-style), the SS1 was not exactly a beauty. Those odd bugeyed lights and the large gaps between panels were both cause for concern. There were also some TR7
overtones in the shape, and that given the love it or hate it reviews the TR7
was getting at the time, it was obvious there would be some that would take an instant dislike to the shape of the SS1. Regardless of the shape, however, the SS1 did look sporty and was clean of line.
Behind the Wheel
It was also surprisingly clean for a limited build (2000 a year was projected) car inside. The trim, dash and switchgear were just as well coordinated as in any better mass-made sedan. The small thick-rimmed plastic steering wheel was positioned in front of speedo, tachometer, water temperature and fuel gauges. Get comfortable in the well upholstered seat, select first in the four-speed transmission, let out the smooth clutch and the car slipped easily away.
The sharpness of the steering was the first thing to impress. With 2.9 turns lock to lock the rack and pinion system translates wrist flicks into steering with surprising ease. Communication with the front Goodyear NCT tyres is excellent. The steering is also well damped with no nasty kickback. It is part of a dynamic system which, on the whole, is commendable. The Scimitar will slice up tinbox sedans on a winding road as well as its eponym would slice off an opposing warrior's head.
Roofless it may have been; ropey this Reliant was not. MGB fans were in for a whole new dynamic sensation. They would have also found, in the 1600 version, more performance as well as more panache. Drivers could get to 100 km/h, from rest, in about 10 seconds. Reliant's engineering director at the time, Ed Osmond (who was development coordinator of the TR7
), said at launch that a turbocharged 1.6 may follow, and even a Ford V6-powered variant was not impossible.
"For the moment, though, we're content to produce the 1.3 and 1.6 models and see how things go. We're sure the cars will be successful." Osmond went on: "There is no longer enough of a roadster market for the mass makers to get involved in. But there seems to be enough volume for us, as small makers. I'm sure lots of people still like the idea of an open-topped sports car. After all, it's such a traditionally British design. I had TR2s
as a youngster, and I still love roadsters."
Despite his involvement with the TR7, it's easy to sense that Osmond does not regard that as a classic. "It was a bit bland, derived too much from a saloon. I think the TR6 was everyone's idea of a sports car. I wanted the SS1 to have a definite appeal along the lines of the TR6
. In the late 1970s we had intended to build a more expensive convertible. We went to Bertone for a body but then the market disappeared for that type of car.
That's when we went to Michelotti for a cheaper roadster." The SS1, in Britain, sold for £7000 ($10,500) at launch in 1.3 guise and £8000 ($12,000) in 1.6 form. Sadly Australia missed out.