Historic scene with... Gordon Cruickshank
The cute baby that might have joined a fresh model range from one of our quirkier marques
There’s a division over the Reliant name. The wider world will think of the Robin and its siblings – low on style, wheel quota and stability. Motoring people’s minds snap to the innovative Scimitar GTE, the good-looking sports estate which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
My thoughts turn to a few sunny days in the 1980s when I had a Scimitar SS1 Turbo on test. I loved it.
In case like most people you’ve consigned the SS1 to the mental lumber room, let me remind you of a trim, compact two-seater with a pokey motor (at least in turbo spec), clever layout and a terrific chassis that was a hoot to drive. Still not registering? Maybe that’s because of the body it wore – a body shaped in Turin by Michelotti, apparently in a rush during a blackout.
It was too narrow, too high, too fussy, with an over-tall windscreen above its gappy plastic ridges and furrows.
A 1990s redesign by Bill Towns smoothed it over, improved proportions and packed more power, but by then all the people who didn’t buy the first one had a meeting and decided not to buy this one either. It was another blow to a struggling company which had pursued its own path since 1935, offering those three-legged oddities loved and abominated equally, but also the unconventional sports cars that livened up many an Earls Court motor show.
There were many ‘might have beens’ along the way, but here’s one you won’t have seen before – a lost Scimitar with a BRM engine.
Prime mover in the scheme was Reliant’s newest Chairman, MD, and investor Jonathan Heynes. Son of respected Jaguar chief engineer Bill Heynes, Jonathan spent 25 years at Brown’s Lane but had also been ‘loaned’ to Jensen to help develop the Jensen-Healey, so he had a feel for a small British sports car maker when he moved to the troubled Tamworth firm in 1996. It proved too difficult to restart production of the final SS model, the Sabre, but an all-new Scimitar looked practicable alongside the Robin and Bug.
“I intended the car to be simple and attractive with conventional running gear,” Jonathan says. “We decided on a rear-drive frame chassis along with a Nissan 1000cc four-cylinder. We also tested the Honda S2000’s six-speed gearbox, which would have been ideal.”
Aware that the looks of the original SS1 hadn’t helped it, Heynes engaged designer Geoff Wardle, who had worked with Chrysler, Saab and Ford and is now a senior figure training future designers at Art Center Pasadena. “I’d previously been involved with the Tatra T163, so I had an inherent weakness for ‘underdog projects’,” Wardle says today.
His proposal shows compact, simple forms, smoothly curved and a long way from the ridges of the SS1, added to stiffen the pressed plastic panelwork. This time the firm saw no need.
“With Robin and Scimitar, Reliant was at the time in the forefront of GRP along with Lotus and TVR,” says Heynes.
Wardle again: “Engineer Tim Bishop and I worked out a package that placed the engine and gearbox well back from the front wheels. Although the car was to be no longer than an Austin-Healey Sprite/MG Midget, albeit a little wider, we managed to achieve a much better front seating position with the steering wheel at comfortable arm’s length away. In fact the motor was so tiny we could position it between the legs of the front occupants, with access through a hatch in the ‘transmission tunnel’ rather than from under the hood! This would have given the car an extraordinarily low polar moment of inertia, not to mention every possibility of achieving a 50/50 weight distribution.”
One influence on the proposal was the recently launched Renault Spider, which had no windscreen.
“Having the engine so far back,” says Wardle, “gave us the opportunity to offer an adjustable windshield suitable for regular road driving or a motor sport mode à la Healey 100/4. Instead of folding, the windshield, complete with frame and wipers, would slide down ahead of the engine.”
You can see in the sketches how the ‘double bubble’ screen slides down, turning the little machine from practical convertible to racy roadster with what Wardle describes as two vestigial Brooklands aero-screens. “I had configured a two-piece folding top arrangement,” he recalls. “The rear quadrant would simply fold back behind the seats and a lightweight glassfibre roof would connect this with the top of the windshield. The roof would easily stow under the clamshell bonnet at the front, which, because of the extreme rearward position of the engine, would have been more like a Porsche 911 baggage space.”
“It was a fairly simple solution with a dramatic effect, excellent in styling concept,” says Heynes, “but it’s unlikely we would have finally approved it. It was not practical for production. The car would have had a conventional fabric hood similar to Sabre.
The project did get as far as a full-size mock-up shaped on the firm’s digital modelling bed, from which moulds would be taken. At the same time Reliant was pushing to improve its ‘bread and butter’ business, which meant fitting fuel injection and catalysers onto the Robin’s 850cc alloy motor. That proved to extract 50bhp but clearly they’d need more punch for the sports car.
“We located an overhead-cam Reliant 850cc engine which the government had commissioned from BRM,” Heynes recalls. “Six were built and all were instructed to be scrapped, but one escaped into my hands. Powerful and light, this would have powered the Kitten four-wheeler and the four-wheeled Bond Bug that we had also developed.”
What’s this – a Bug with four legs? The Bug was the groovy orange 1970s sports machine with a lift-up screen and roof instead of doors, which one reviewer described as “scuttling down the road like a demented wedge of Leicester cheese”. Designed by Tom Karen of Ogle it was a lot of fun, but you can’t combine enthusiastic driving with a single front wheel for long, as a Motoring News reporter admitted while clambering out of the test car lying on its side outside Standard House.
So a 33 per cent increase in wheel count might have brought new customers, especially with a conventional screen and a light twin-cam under the moulded floor pan. And you could still drive it on a motorbike licence.
Despite its tiny staff (“A small team of engineers and two draughtsmen,” according to Jonathan) the firm was buzzing with plans, with the new Kitten, the Bug, the EFI system, a diesel prototype, experimenting with electric power ahead of the curve, and investigating a new GTE derived from an MG styling project (right). Sales were rising too. But when one partner decided to pull out the remaining investor was, as Heynes puts it, “regretfully less enthusiastic on the Scimitar project than myself and my team. They thought we were weakening the cash position with a longer-term project. The Robin was the priority, along with a complete move of factory.”
All Scimitar development stopped pretty much immediately. With company restructuring on the way Heynes later decided to sell out of Reliant, and though car production limped on it finally died in 2002.
Thus vanished another bright idea from the UK car industry. It could have been a ‘halo’ vehicle for a marque with a – let’s say – mixed image, and might have sparked a new market of its own, as Wardle reflects.
“I believe that Tim’s simple but smart engineering philosophy combined with the car’s diminutive size could have chewed a little out of the roadster market that the Mazda Miata [MX-5] had reawakened,” he says.
“The car would have been much simpler than the Miata but would have had its own strong personality, perhaps providing a new subculture of miniscule sports vehicles. It would also have had spectacular fuel economy and very low running costs – a Frogeye Sprite for the 21st century!”
Lap of honour
Jaguar legend recognised for a lifetime of input to one of Britain’s great marques
One of Jaguar’s key figures, test driver Norman Dewis, has been awarded the OBE in the New Year’s honours list for his work developing racing and road cars for the famous firm. Over three decades Dewis put in millions of test miles on everything from XK140 to the XJ40 saloon, via the Le Mans-winning C- and D-types, the immortal E and its Lightweight spin-off, and the sensational XJ13, the quad-cam V12 sports racer that never made Le Mans. It wasn’t just development, either – Norman was a handy pilot, co-driving Stirling Moss on the 1952 Mille Miglia and driving a works D at Le Mans in ’55.
Despite his 94 years, Dewis still plays a part in Jaguar as what they now call an ambassador. Often at marque events his trademark bootlace tie and cowboy boots are evident, and he’s very involved with the new Heritage operation, including the new Lightweights currently being built. Which makes sense, as Norman was one of the team developing the original. He has a great memory too, which is handy when you need a quote on racing Mk2s or what it was like driving a works D to Le Mans.
It’s been a remarkable career. Congratulations, Norman.
* I do know the difference between a Ferrari and an Alfa Romeo, honestly. Still, we managed to head my piece last month on Paul Grist with a picture of someone else in a car Paul has never driven. WB always blamed “the printers” for errors in the mag, but there’s no such escape route here. My apologies to Paul, and herewith a photo which is definitely him, on the right, congratulating son Matt on his impressive victory in last year’s Monaco Historique event in their magnificent Alfa Romeo Tipo B, which you may have seen on our stand at the London Classic Car Show.