The Blunt Edge

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“Now is the time for a car that is exciting, responsive and fun. Now is the time for a car that rekindles the great tradition of British open top motoring. Now is the time for the Scimitar SST from Reliant.” Thus begins the epic sounding sales blurb in the Reliant SST catalogue; a bit melodramatic perhaps but I suppose that I would have to agree with them, on the first two counts at least. There is a noticeable lack of reasonably affordable good quality British sports cars on our roads at the moment. Cars that thirty years ago would have been open top two-seater sports cars are now plain Jane four-seaters with a hot engine under the bonnet. Whether it is quite the time for the Reliant SST to solve the problem is a claim probably subject to one or two reservations, and having had the 1400 version for a two week road test in France (thereby making a holiday moderately useful), I would say that one big reservation must be the engine, or more particularly the engine in its tsetse fly state of tune. My overall impression of the car is that it has a superb chassis, well finished and attractive bodywork, an indifferent interior and an engine that would have sand kicked in its face if engines had legs and went to beach parties. As it is it just gets out-accelerated at the lights.

It is true that Reliant do assemble a very quick version of this car with an 1809 cc turbocharged Nissan engine, and this sells for about £2500 more than the £11450 you need to buy the 1400. It is therefore clear that Reliant are aiming for a slightly different market with their 1400 version; a market not quite so preoccupied with ultimate performance, but more with low price (purchase, insurance and petrol) fun.

So they should be, for we need more of that type of car. But I do not really see any reason for providing it with quite such a gutless engine. The fun of a drophead sports car is slightly diminished if you get blown away by any old family saloon. You should at least be able to give them a run for their money; the exhaust should at least sound rorty and unrestricted, and you should be able to hear the eager hiss of two, if not four, carburettor trumpets. With the SST 1400 you have to remain content with the wind in your hair, and the superb roadholding. I think that for want of an uncompromising decision and a few hundred pounds Reliant are not doing justice to their 1400 SST.

While most sports car engines have something of a power band this one seemed to have more of an elastic band. Eager to find out why I was not being pinned to the back of my seat with quite the ferocity I had hoped for, I opened the bonnet to see what was what. A casual glance revealed what must be half the problem: a big plastic cowpat of an air filter, with an intake tube of a diameter only slightly greater than that of a drinking straw. This sits above a single carburettor, and an intake manifold with more angles in it than a dodecahedron. The exhaust side of the equation is not much better, the four into one that is fitted being far from any thing one might call free-flow. It all struck me as being rather similar to MGBs and MG Midgets; cars equally gutless in their day, but now generally praised for being very responsive to tuning. The same must surely be true of the Reliant, and I would by no means suggest writing it off just because of its poor performance. Its 1400 cc engine with an overhead camshaft and a compression ratio of 9.5:1 could easily be coaxed into producing more than its current 75 bhp. It is all relatively simple under the bonnet, and some well balanced home tuning would make a world a difference. A more generous carburettor and a better exhaust would be a start, and one could also work on the cylinder head to a certain extent. All this would cost only a modest amount, and should provide one with a much revived motor car, with at least enough poke to take advantage of the superb chassis.

With the car in its present state driving quickly is a case of maintaining as constant a speed as possible. One does not so much accelerate as gain interest on one’s current velocity, and so it is important to take the corners as smoothly as possible so as not to scrub off speed. The relative lack of power and the agility of the car are such that the brakes are not used excessively, but they are smooth, progressive and well balanced and always inspire one with confidence. The car handles extremely well, but more power from the engine could only improve this; the car’s attitude in cornering would then become that much more malleable, and any trace of the slightly inherent understeer could then be wiped away with a quick flex of the go-faster pedal.

What really puts the icing on the cake of the silly disparity between engine and chassis performance is the gearbox that thinks it should be in a Ferrari. Fifth is such that the engine would only reach the red-line as the car approached 135 mph. The fact is that in fifth the engine cannot get anywhere near the red-line. Top speed is about 100 mph, leaving as spare some 2000 rpm. All the way through the gearbox the ratios seem too high, and if you can find a power band then a change of gear will drop you right out of it. Surely a close ratio gearbox, with much lower gearing, would make sense for an engine of this power output? Of course with a few more hay-munchers under the bonnet the gearbox might turn out to be quite appropriate, but with the 1400 as it stands there is a mismatch somewhere along the line.

After that tirade of abuse I feel that I should point out that the car is not as bad as I have made it sound. In fact the general competence of the machine makes its errors all the more glaringly obvious and annoying. It seems a shame that such a well designed and constructed chassis should suffer only for want of a properly thought out power-train. As I have said it is only a few modifications away from being a very good small engined sports car, and if I had the readies and a few hundred to spare for the modifications then I might well be tempted to buy one.

The French certainly liked it. Wherever we went the Reliant would turn heads: ruddy faced tractor drivers would gawp in amazement, schoolchildren would stop and stare. A war veteran came over to ask about it, and pointed out that the Scimitar was a good plane when he used to serve with so and so in the Mediterranean etc etc. One old French lady herding cattle along a lane stopped to say, “Elle est belle, la voiture”. It seemed shameful that a nation which produced the Bugatti, Delage and Delehaye could be quite so spellbound by a modern drophead two-seater, but it is a fact that they simply don’t have them in France.

In fact the French seem content to put up with one or two deficiences in the motorised vehicle market. For one thing petrol “sans plomb” is still very rare, at least in the countryside, but more strangely the French youth seem blissfully happy to scream about the place on absurd looking motorised bicycles. These devices have virtually unsilenced engines that cannot be more than 50 cc, with various bits of plastic and fibreglass taped and screwed on to a useless looking frame in order to make them look a bit sporty. The general idea is to whizz about town like a bee in a jam jar wearing nothing but shorts and a cheap crash helmet. The really ‘cool’ way to ride them is with both feet up in the middle, looking like you are about to fall backwards whilst skiing. These bikes are so underpowered as to make slipstreaming slow moving lorries the most popular way of covering long distances. Hills are definitely out. Someone should show them all a proper motorbike; I expect that they would all be as amazed as theywere by the Reliant.

If a nation as artistic as the French thought that it was a “belle voiture” I would hesitate to disagree with them. In fact I also think that it is a pretty car, although one major failing must be the slabs of grey plastic at the back and front. The front would look fine if it was coloured GRP like the rest of the bodywork, but the toy-town rear end really should be redesigned. Apart from that it does have a pleasing shape, especially above the lines formed by the two slabs of plastic, and it looks just as good with the hood up or down.

The interior of the car is very comfortable; whilst most cars with the modern preference for monkey like driving positions give me backache after a couple of hours, I could sit in the Reliant for much longer than that without the slightest twinge of discomfort. Small two-seaters always prove to be comfortable, with one’s legs stretched out and the steering wheel and gearstick in the right position.

There are some thoughtful aspects to the interior layout as well; for example there is a neat storage box between the two seats, with easily enough room for fifteen or so tapes, a wallet, driving license and keys. When closed it provides a good armrest with the gearstick easily falling to hand just ahead of it. Behind the seats there is also some useful storage space, and I was surprised by just how much shopping (in Britanny this was mostly wine, fruit and seafood) could be stored in that area.

However, the level of finish of the interior leaves a little to be desired. The carpets etc all look a little DIY, and it is a shame that the dashboard and central consul are of such an inappropriate design for this type of car; they are of the same grey plastic slab nature as the front and rear of the car. Again I feel that a slight rethink in this area could provide a great improvement; not from a functional point of view, for there is little wrong with the actual positioning of the controls and dials, but from an aesthetic point of view. The steering wheel, a tiny, but very thick rimmed device coated in leather, should be larger (the steering was very heavy at low speeds), with a wooden rim and chrome or aluminium spokes. The walnut inlay theme, only modestly exploited should be extended to the central consul and dashboard. Instead of the clumsy plastic buttons there should be high quality toggle switches, and the dashboard should contain chrome-rimmed black on white chronograph dials. After that one might have a British sports car that looks and feels like a British sports car, and not something with an identity crisis.

Having said that, for two weeks touring in Britanny it was a fun machine to have. There is nothing better than a soft-top car and some twisting tree lined roads to put a proper perspective back on life, and the Scimitar gradually revealed its likeable character and temperament. Being quite a mellow car it blended in with the pace of life in Britanny, which in many respects is quite like Ireland and Cornwall. It was pleasant to lower the hood at the slightest glimpse of sunshine, and in the cold of the early morning to motor along with the heating on and the cold wind blowing across the back of the neck. The neat and close fitting hood could be lowered and raised with comparative ease. Every so often a psychopathic Frenchman, driven to distracted envy at the sight of a sports car, would hang on to your tail and scream past at the first opportunity, although in the corners it was amusing to watch them try to keep up with the sure-footed Scimitar on porridge-like French suspension.

The Britanny roads are perfectly suited to a touring holiday, with mile upon mile of empty roads of much higher quality than English ones. There are very few other cars off the beaten track and in two weeks I did not once see a caravan. Perhaps the French have sensible laws banning them. If so it would be about the only sensible law concerning motoring that they do have. Once one has yet again got one’s mind around the utter absurdity of driving on the wrong side of the road, it is then necessary to remember that French roundabouts give priority to joining traffic. This is something to make steam come out of the ears of anyone with a brain, but in fact it seems that even the French are at last relenting: signs announcing “vous n ‘avez pas la prioritée “are now on the approach to many small roundabouts.

One thing that I did like, however, was the fact that all the French drive quickly. Even modest Renault 5s and 2CVs are hurled along at unlikely speeds, and everyone seemed to be of the opinion that driving is much better fun when you are going fast. It was a shame then that the Scimitar could be outdragged by so many ordinary saloons, although as I have said, in the corners one could get one’s revenge.

One look under the Scimitar explained why it did handle so well. The build quality seemed particularly high, and the chassis looked to be carefully constructed of two parallel square section steel tubes on a fabricated centre tunnel. Forward inclined shock absorbers, semi trailing arms and an anti-roll bar control the rear, whilst the front is on double wishbones, coil springs and transversely mounted dampers. The ride of the Scimitar is quite harsh, but there is little body roll in cornering and no noticeable flexing of the stiff chassis.

The design and construction of the engine bay, with the careful positioning of all the internals, is also of a high standard, and contrasts with the unimpressive interior of the car. It has thoughtfully been designed with the home mechanic in mind, because there is plenty of working space and all vital components look as if they can be easily reached. The wide and high-lifting bonnet allows plenty of working room, and also allows easy access to the spare wheel and jack that are tucked away at the front. This makes the boot all the more capacious. It could easily accommodate a couple of medium sized cases, coats and hand luggage, and there is even more room in the small space under the boot that would accommodate the spare wheel in most cars.

The Reliant SST therefore, is a car of strange contrasts. It is highly competent in some areas, and slightly amateur in others, whilst the instalation of the 1400 engine in such an uninspired state of tune must surely be a false economy. Although one can imagine that there is something of a market for this car in its present form, and one says this bearing in mind its many attributes, it seems clear that a certain amount of engine tuning, and a redesign of the dashboard and some of the interior layout would be a vast improvement, and would make the car a very reasonably priced competitor to the Mazda MX5 and Alfa Romeo Spyder. CSR-W.

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