The Reliant Sabre Six GT

From a humble three-wheeler to a 100-m.p.h. sports car is rather a big step, a step which the Reliant Motor Co. made in 1961. This car, the Reliant Sabre, was not a success in Britain for it featured a Ford Consul engine in an L.M.B. chassis, clothed with an oddly-shaped body designed originally for builders of home-made “specials.” We were not surprised at not being invited to road-test this model, and Reliant soon realised its shortcomings and re-hashed it considerably. It still featured the basic L.M.B. chassis with leading arm swing-axle front suspension and a rigid rear axle located by a Watt linkage, and sprung on coil-spring/damper units. The Consul engine was swapped for the bigger 2.6-litre Zodiac engine, mated to the Ford 4-speed gearbox instead of the German ZF box, which was the best feature of the early Sabre. The glass-fibre bodywork was cleaned up considerably by lopping off the pointed nose and improving the finish. Many other features were changed and the car began to have some possibilities. A works team was entered for several International rallies, and although no great success came their way the car at least proved to be strong. Towards the end of 1963 the handling was improved by getting rid of the swing axle front end and substituting a straightforward double wishbone layout.

It was this model, the Sabre Six GT, which came to us last month for road test. Our only previous experience of the Sabre Six had been three laps of the Goodwood circuit during the Guild of Motoring Writers test day in 1963, and this had hardly set us afire with enthusiasm, but we approached the test car with the open mind and lack of bias which is a hallmark of Motor Sport road tests. Alas, first impressions seemed to confirm our worst fears, for, as we drove the car out of London, in heavy traffic, it felt horrible. The ride seemed harsh, the cockpit cramped, visibility nil, and the gearbox appeared to have a mind of its own, changing gear by itself (despite being a manual box), free-wheeling when we wanted to stop, and leaping about like a bucking bronco every time the throttle was touched.

Having got the car home safely we perused the leaflets sent with the car (there’s no driver’s handbook, apparently) and discovered the intricacies of the gearbox. The test car was fitted with the Borg-Warner overdrive as used on the Ford range. This does not engage like the Laycock de Normanville overdrive, which has a positive switch, but a T-shaped handle is fitted next to the gear-lever on the floor. With this handle pushed in, overdrive engages on and, 3rd and top automatically as soon as the throttle is released. If the throttle foot is lifted completely at speeds below 30 m.p.h. the car freewheels until more throttle it applied. When in overdrive, direct drive can be re-engaged by depressing the throttle fully, which operates the kick-down switch, and overdrive can only be locked out with the throttle in this position as the handle will not move until this is done or if the car is stationary. The people who designed this complex layout must have seen some merit in it to have ever gone so far as to build it, but try as we might we couldn’t find any justification for the expenditure of £60 on this optional extra, and potential owners would be well advised to steer clear of it unless they are planning on winning the Mobilgas Economy Run. The disadvantages are similar to those experienced on an automatic transmission, so that when you approach a corner in top gear and lift your foot to slow slightly the car immediately goes into overdrive top and ceases to slow down; the driver can then either stay in top and lug round the corner, change to overdrive 3rd, or depress the throttle fully and pull out the handle and re-engage direct drive. The freewheel also causes complications in traffic for the car tends to accelerate instead of decelerate at the wrong moment. The whole thing is complicated on the Sabre by a very sticky throttle action which sets the car juddering and jerking all the way along the drive line. After a day or two we locked out the overdrive and forgot about it.

The Ford gearbox is a quite respectable example, with a heavy, and notchy, but positive action. Reverse is rather difficult to locate beyond 1st gear position and occasionally the gear-lever could be returned to the neutral position but still leaving reverse engaged. Synchromesh is quite strong, except on 3rd-gear, which produces the most horrid crunches on downward changes unless accurate double declutching is employed. First and 2nd are fairly low ratios producing speeds of 30 and 45 m.p.h., but a fairly big jump is made to 3rd gear, which is good for 76 m.p.h. at the 5,000-r.p.m. limit of the Ford engine. Top speed in direct top is around 105 m.p.h. but overdrive top will add another 5 m.p.h. or so on the level, with 115 m.p.h. available on long downhill runs, but this is accompanied by a great deal of vibration from the transmission.

Acceleration is quite brisk by any standards, although this is achieved on a fairly low axle ratio of 3.5 to 1, and we would rather see less acceleration and a more effortless cruising speed. As it is the car accelerates to 60 m.p.h. from a standstill in 12 sec. and to 100 m.p.h. in well under 40 sec., with a standing-start ¼-mile in 18.1 sec. For maximum acceleration overdrive must be locked out as the time taken to bring it into use ruins the theoretical advantages.

The 6-cylinder engine is lowly stressed at 109 b.h.p. (gross) at 4,800 r.p.m. and produces excellent low down torque, so that use of the gearbox is not a prime requirement for reasonable performance, but a grinding noise from the transmission if the engine is allowed to run at low revs in high gears discourages the driver from dropping much below 30 m.p.h. in top gear. At the other end of the scale the engine begins to roughen up at 4,000 r.p.m. and is rather noisy at the 5,000-r.p.m. red line on the tachometer. This engine uses a single downdraught Zenith carburetter and is in standard form in the Sabre, but the tuning firms have extracted power outputs of nearly 200 b.h.p. from this engine, which, together with a higher back axle ratio, would make the Sabre a very fast car indeed. However, we feel the chassis would be hard put to it to handle much more power in its present form. The engine is a temperamental starter, requiring full choke to encourage it to commence, after which it must immediately be returned to the half-way position to prevent stalling. Even so there is a good deal of spitting and banging until the engine is fully warmed up, which is hardly assisted by the afore-mentioned sticky throttle action. The Sabre becomes something of an embarrassment in traffic as progress tends to be very jerky, accompanied by various graunching noises from the transmission. The engine warms up quickly as there is no mechanical fan and a thermostatically-operated electric fan cuts in at around 80° C., and although the fan is in use for much of the time, indicating that the 23-pint radiator might be inadequate, the temperature never rose over 90° C.

Our first petrol check worked out to under 17 m.p.g., which seemed rather drastic, but it was later discovered that the Sabre’s 12-gallon fuel tank is extremely slow to fill, so that we were able to squeeze in another gallon when the tank appeared to be full. Later checks showed the fuel consumption to be nearer 20 m.p.g., with an overall figure of 19.8 m.p.g. The range on the test car was little over 200 miles as a pessimistic fuel gauge showed empty when nearly 2 gallons of fuel remained in the tank.

The harsh ride of the Sabre at low speeds diminishes somewhat as speed rises, and in fact at a cruising speed of around 80 m.p.h. the car rides rather well on most surfaces. This is accompanied by a fair amount of noise from the suspension and on sharp bumps the rear suspension bottoms viciously. The car is also caught out on hump-back bridges and the like, as the rear of the car rises very sharply, causing taller occupants’ heads to hit the roof, as headroom is rather restricted. The movement at the rear is so severe as to give rise to the suspicion that the test car’s shock-absorbers were worn out, although the car had done less than 4,000 miles when we took it over. Considering the hotchpotch of proprietary components that have gone into the Reliant’s chassis the ride is quite good, and one excellent feature was the apparent stiffness of the chassis, for there was no noticeable scuttle shake.

Cornering of the Sabre is good under normal road conditions, aided immensely by the Pirelli Cintura braced-tread tyres which help it to stick well on dry roads. Towards the limit of adhesion body roll increases considerably, the inside rear wheel lifts and the tail slides very rapidly indeed. Extremely quick correction on the steering is required if a full-blooded slide is to be avoided. On wet roads the tail breaks away very easily.

The rack-and-pinion steering is quite light and free from kickback on hard cornering, but it could be higher geared than its present 3 turns lock-to-lock. A Les Leston wood-rimmed steering wheel is fitted but this has a rather narrow rim. One irritating feature of the steering is a strong tremor which affects it at most speeds, especially when the throttle foot is lifted. The steering wheel oscillates over a range of three or four inches, but if the hands are taken off the wheel the car carries on a straight course and it is best not to grasp the wheel too tightly. As the wheels of the test car were balanced this may well be an inherent defect of the Sabre’s steering. The car is also affected by side winds at high speed.

The brakes of the Reliant are Girling 10-½ in. discs at the front, matched with 9-in. drums at the rear, which are well suited to the car. They provided excellent, reliable, fade-free braking at all times, the only fault being extreme sponginess and long travel of the brake pedal, which makes for difficult heel-and-toe gearchanges. The hand-brake is of the fly-off type.

The cockpit of the Sabre is best described as “traditional British sports car,” which means that there are plenty of instruments to tell the driver what’s going on. These are fitted into a rather complicated facia which seems to have suffered at the hands of the stylist. The 140-m.p.h. speedometer and 6,000 r.p.m. tachometer match each other and are easily read, but the ammeter, fuel gauge, water-temperature and oil-pressure gauges, which are on the lower edge of the facia, are masked by the steering wheel spokes in the straight-ahead position. An electric clock is fitted between the speedometer and rev.-counter. The remainder of the equipment is comprehensive, with fresh-air heater, cigar-lighter, 2-speed windscreen wipers, washers and twin horns as standard equipment.

The seats are excellent bucket types with a good range of fore-and-aft adjustment, although the back-rest might be criticised as being too upright. These fold forward to give access to the tiny rear bench seat which is suitable only for small children. With this seat occupied there is virtually no luggage space at all and even with the back-rest of the back seat folded down there is precious little room. All luggage has to be loaded through the doors, which is rather aggravating with large items.

The driving position is quite comfortable but for the larger man the cockpit is too narrow and there is little elbow room on the right-hand side, making it difficult to reach the window winder. The windows are rather stiff to operate but quarter-lights give draught-free ventilation. The pedals are well spaced but are incorrectly angled, so that the foot tends to press the upright rather than the pedal pad. A minor irritation is the fact that the doors have no keeps, which is unfortunate as the Sabre is not the easiest of cars to enter and leave. Visibility is not good as the car tends to be “beetle-browed,” and it is wise not to draw up too close to the traffic lights as the driver has to lean forward to see the lights. Rearward vision is adequate but the rear screen distorts following traffic considerably, so that Mini Minors look 10 ft. tall—but at least they look better that way!

The external finish of the Sabre is good, the test car being painted metallic grey. Whilst we do not like the looks of The Reliant it must be admitted that the surface of the glass-fibre body is very smooth, while the doors and forward-hingeing bonnet are good fits.

Unlike the mass-produced sports cars the Reliant Sabre is an amalgam of proprietary components, and in this respect it is much more a compromise than its competitors. At its total price of £1,076 the Sabre Six competes with the Austin Healey 3000, and cheaper cars such as the M.G.-B, Triumph TR4 and Sunbeam Alpine, and it seems unlikely that the Six will achieve large sales for at its present state of development it cannot compete with the mass-produced cars, especially in respect of internal finish. It seems a pity that Reliant do not market the car as a kit of parts until they have amassed enough experience to build a car which is completely competitive with other sports cars. As it is they are likely to lose many sales to the better-finished cars which have the backing of large sales and service organisations. We found the Sabre to be a lot better than we feared, and if Reliant build a sports car starting with a clean sheet of paper it could be very good indeed.—M.L.T.

The Reliant Sabre Six GT

Engine : Six cylinders, 82.6 mm. x 79.5 mm. (2,553 c.c.). Push-rod-operated overhead valves. 8.3-to-1 compression ratio. 109 b.h.p. (gross) at 4,800 r.p.m.

Gear ratios : 1st, 11.14; 2nd, 7.91; overdrive 2nd, 5.98; 3rd, 5.05; overdrive 3rd, 4.21; top, 3.58; overdrive top,, 2.75.

Tyres : 165 x 15 in. Pirelli Cintura on pressed-steel wheels. Wire wheels extra.

Weight : 19 cwt. 1 qtr. (dry) (maker’s figure).

Steering ratio : 3 turns lock-to-lock.

Fuel capacity : 12 gallons. (Range 220 miles.)

Wheelbase : 7 ft. 6 in.

Track : Front, 4 ft. 2 in.; rear, 4 ft. 2 in.

Dimensions : 13 ft. 2 in. x 5 ft. 1 in. x 4 ft. 2 in. (high).

Price : £890, plus £185 19s. 7d. p.t.; total, £1,075 19s.7d.

Extras : overdrive £60, wire wheels £43 10s.

Makers : Reliant Motor Co. Ltd., Two Gates, Tamworth, Staffs.

Performance Data

0-30 m.p.h. .. 3.7 sec.

0-40 m.p.h. .. 6.2 sec.

0-50 m.p.h. .. 8.7 sec.

0-60 m.p.h. .. 12.0 sec.

0-70 m.p.h. .. 15.5 sec.

0-80 m.p.h. .. 20.8 sec.

0-90 m.p.h. .. 27.0 sec.

0-100 m.p.h. .. 37.5 sec.

Standing start ¼-mile .. 18.1 sec.

Speed in gears : 1st, 30; 2nd, 45; 3rd, 76; top, 105; overdrive top , 110 m.p.h.