Road test: Reliant Scimitar SS1 1600

You have to admire Reliant as a company, even if you're never likely to be in the market for one of its three-wheelers. For one thing, it's no mean  achievement for so small an outfit to design and build its own engines and gearboxes, and, for another, it shows enterprise to every so often spring a surprise on its mainstream competitors by finding a gap in the market and filling it. Such a car was the Scimitar GTE, perhaps the world's first sporting estate car. With the SS1 sportscar, the men at Tamworth have again looked for a gap in the market, in this case the relatively simple, relatively low-cost open sportscar, and have filled it with a competent design. You also have to admire Reliant for the way it manages to survive as a small independent manufacturer at a time when even the giants of the industry have been forced to make international marriages of convenience.

The Scimitar SS1 is the natural heir to the Spridgets and Spitfires, MGBs and TR7s of a few years ago. Like those cars, it can be easily out-performed, in terms of stopwatch times, by a large number of contemporary saloons at about the same cost. There will always be, however, buyers for whom nothing else will do except a practical, affordable, workaday, two-seater drophead and though there are a number of specialist sportscars currently available (Panther, Morgan, Caterham Seven and TMC Costin spring to mind) they all have niches in the market which do not conflict with Reliant's target buyer profile.

The concept of the car is simple: there is sturdy, rigid, deep channel backbone chassis fitted with Ford components, two versions of the CVH engine mated to either a 4-speed (1300) or 5-speed (1600) Ford gearbox driving to an independently sprung back axle (trailing arms, coil springs, dampers, and anti-roll bar). Reliant's chief designer, Ed Osmond, has produced a particularly elegant front suspension layout consisting of an ant-iroll bar, coil springs and double wishbones with long dampers at angles across the front of the car, in the interest of a low bonnet line, and connected to the top wishbones by rocker arms. Disc brakes are fitted at the front, drums at the rear and the whole is clothed in a corrosion-proof, dent-resistant body constructed from four types of plastic.

Semi-flexible reinforced reaction injection mouldings (RRIM) are used for the bumpers and wings; the bonnet is made from vacuum-assisted resin injected polyester sandwiched with rigid urethane; cold pressed reinforced polyester is used for the boot lid; while all the other parts, including the cockpit cell and doors, are of hand-laid, reinforced, polyester. On a visit to Reliant last August WB. and I, neither of us feather-weights, found we could jump up and down on wing panels without damaging them. The overall finish of the body is good but on "my" car there were two small paint runs.

Giovanni Michelotti's last design was the Scimitar and I have to say it will not be the car by which I will prefer to remember him. The scalloping and ridges over the wheel arches seem unnecessarily fussy, for the overall shape is quite simple. An improvement in the car's looks could be made if the headlights were shrouded at rest, those two little eyes looking up at you weaken the bonnet line. All in all, I think the body is a wasted opportunity, though I must say that my teenaged sons' friends were very enthusiastic about it. Still, odd looks never harmed the original Sprite.

Much of the interior of the car bears witness to the Ford connection, with the steering wheel and column, instruments and switches all Escort-derived. The car I had was trimmed in grey velour with red piping, and very handsome it looked. When driving against the sun when it was high in the sky however, the top of the instrument binnacle cast a distracting reflection against the windscreen at eye level, but it is something which could be cured with a small panel of black cloth.

Although from the outside, the windscreen looks a little too high, once inside, the relatively high seating position makes the screen appear much more narrow. Visibility is good under most conditions but would be greatly improved if the wipers travelled two more inches. I'd have liked a little more elbow room on my right side and I'd have thought that the interior door trim could be easily modified to achieve that. An extra inch would have been most welcome.

There is no dashboard glove compartment nor any lockable cubby hole, an odd omission on an open-topped car, though there are elasticated pockets behind the seats and on either side of the transmission tunnel and the central armrest contains storage space for cassettes and small items.

My main criticism, though, is the accelerator pedal. The trouble is that it is hinged from the top and has a long travel so, at high revs, it moves so far away from the driver that one is left pressing it with the toes rather than the ball of one's foot. The awkwardness of this pedal at times threatened to ruin my enjoyment of the Scimitar's impeccable road manners for I could never find an acceptable compromise between obtaining a comfortable seating position relative to the steering wheel and one relative to the throttle pedal.

Reliant has avoided the trap of pretending that its car is any more than strictly a two-seater, so there is no attempt at an "occasional rear seat" but there is space behind the seats which will take quite a number of small items, or even a child seat, and the boot space is generous, given the concept. It's a car you ·could realistically take on a weekly shopping trip or for a fortnight's holiday.

"My" car was fitted with the 1,600 cc engine which gives 96 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 98 lb/ft torque at 4,000 rpm. The chassis is good enough to take a lot more power but the injected (XR3i) version will not fit into the envelope, though Ford's V6 will and this option is under consideration. Yes, please!

"My" car also had electrically operated windows, an electric aerial and a stereo radio/cassette unit which bump up the price from a basic, and reasonable, £7,795 to £8,105. Electrically operated door mirrors and head restaints are standard.

Once on the move, the stubby gear lever is an immediate joy, it looks and feels the part but the standard Ford ratios do not really suit this much lighter car, I would have liked closer ratios with shorter fourth and fifth gears. Wind noise is surprisingly low for a sports car, even with the top down (operating the hood is a very simple exercise and, once down, it folds flush with the rear of the cockpit and is covered neatly by a tonneau), though road noise from the rear wheels is quite high with the hood up. Directional stability in strong crosswinds is excellent. Steering is wonderfully precise and one needs to make only very small . movements except when exploiting the car's tight (30 ft) turning circle.

On uneven road surfaces, though, bumps are transmitted back to the driver via little movements through the wheel. Since the car seems so taut and controllable under all conditions, the effect of this is to enhance one's enjoyment for it brings one closer to both the car and the road. A first rate ride/handling compromise has been reached, making the car taut and firm and yet very comfortable (apart from that throttle pedal). The seating is not only attractive, but supportive and comfortable. The most outstanding feature of the car, though, is its road-holding. On the Bruntingthorpe test track's handling pad, which Motor Sport now uses for tests, as opposed to "road impressions", I tried everything I know to get the car to spin, but the back end always remained instantly controllable.

The car's performance under admittedly artificial conditions was very impressive. Goodyear 185/60-14 NCT tyres, which are standard, doubtless help, but most of the credit goes to the chassis. Less pleasing, though, was the fact that petrol from a less than half full tank spilled past the filler cap (which is placed vertically by the boot lid) when the car was cornered hard and the fuel pump was left gasping. I'm not suggesting that many will reproduce such high cornering forces on the open road but I do believe that a car should function properly in every department within its limits and this the Scimitar failed to do. When filling up, care must be taken to empty the nozzle of the petrol pump or else fuel spills over the top of the rear panels.

When cornering hard, the car handles neutrally, veering to mild understeer, hut a quick lift from the throttle gives easily controllable oversteer, the car being simple to control on the throttle. It's the sort of handling which supports, even flatters, the average driver and in which the better driver will revel.

Reliant's own claimed figures for the car are a top speed of 110 mph and 0-60 mph in 9.6 sec. With the hood down, the best figure I could achieve on the track's two mile straight was a mean of 101 mph, 103 mph best one way) but with the hood up, this rose to a maximum speed of 103 mph.(106 mph best one way). Acceleration also fell below expectations with my best 0-60 mph time of 11.3 sec. These figures were obtained on a warm, dry, day, though with strong  cross winds, and were verified by Motor Sport's electronic test equipment.

Economy, too, did not match my expectations, the car returning an overall average of 29 mpg, excIuding time spent on the test track, when it returned under 20 mpg. With over 3,000 miles on the clock, this rather suggests that the test car was not in perfect tune.

As tested, the Scimitar SS1 was an impressive motor car. The chassis could certainly handle more power but even as equipped, a close ratio gearbox would enhance performance. Having said that, there are several points to be borne in mind. The first is that Reliant is not attempting to produce a car with ultimate performance but an honest two-seater practical sports car in the former tradition of BL. This it has certainly done and, though the outright performance figures seem disappointing, the car's wonderful handling and roadholding make it rapid from A to B, and great fun too.

In all the important departments the company has got the package right but there are a number of niggling faults which detract from one's overall enjoyment. All these faults are, however, easy to rectify and I am told that Reliant has most of them in hand. Reliant conservatively estimate a production figure of 2,000 units pa on the home market. My feeling is they will achieve this easily and, given the car's concept, price, and the inherent reliability of its major components, will win many friends both here and abroad. Welcome back, the basic sports car! -ML.