Road Test:

What is the Reliant GT really like?

The Editor Drives the Latest 3-litre Ford V6-engined Scimitar

Reliant, for most people, implies a 4-cylinder three-wheeler. These economy devices have, with the aid of the Leyland takeover, rendered the Reliant Motor Company of Tamworth, Staffs., Britain’s second-largest producer of motor vehicles, if you ignore (probably at your peril) those financed by General Motors’, Ford and Chrysler dollars. Only yesterday I saw a young gentleman in a dog-collar and a Reliant saloon tricycle and the thought passed through my mind that here is the 1968 equivalent of the 1924 Trojan. . . .

Reliant, however, have other strings to their bow, or productions in their shops, besides these best-selling tricars (which the generous Chancellor of the Exchequer allows owners to tax for £10 a year, which must surely be the sole reason why people buy them?). For instance, they make a little down-to-earth economy saloon called the Rebel, which they haven’t yet allowed me to drive (I want to discover whether, at last, we have 60-m.p.h./60-m.p.g. transport therein). They used to manufacture a pseudo-GT thing called the Sabre Six. When one of these was submitted for road-test in 1964 I funked it and passed it on to a colleague, who has since left us to deputy-edit another journal, not necessarily for this reason. Knowing our tester’s opinion of the car, I found it embarrassing when, having gone to Tamworth to look at Reliant’s new light-alloy 600-c.c. engine, which I knew would soon figure in 750 Formula racing, their Managing Director, over an excellent lunch, expressed his keen anticipation of our road-test report, arranging for copies of the forthcoming issue of Motor Sport to be flown out to him, as he would be abroad when it was published. . . .

I see that this report (Motor Sport, May 1964) concluded with the words : “. . . if Reliant build a sports car starting with a clean sheet of paper it could be very good indeed”. Not having been back to Tamworth since, I do not know if that is what they did. What I do know is that they scrapped the Sabre in favour of the Scimitar and then improved this by powering it with the V6 Ford Zephyr/Zodiac power unit. An acquaintance of mine whose motor-wisdom I used greatly to believe in, told me recently how much he likes his Reliant Scimitar, one of which he uses as regular transport. So I decided the time had come to form my own assessment of this fibreglass 2+1 120-m.p.h. coupé.

Reliant’s Press-people have road-test cars delivered from the Midlands to the National Car Park garage at Ludgate Circus, being under the impression that if you work on a paper you must have an office in Fleet Street. Motor Sport, being strictly non-conformist, is out at the other end of the City of London, so I was not able to stroll round the corner and pick up the car. However, a short drive with my mini-skirted Secretary in the Editorial Rover 2000TC brought me to where the Scimitar was garaged.

As this garage is underground and dimly-lit, the first impression I obtained of the latest 3-litre V6 Scimitar was that its controls fall, as they say, easily under the hands and that it is not difficult to move away from rest, because without seeing the gear-lever and handbrake I was able to get it going and up the curving ramp without difficulty. Out in the light of day my miserly eye sought the fuel gauge; I was heartened to see that it registered ¾-full, because, it being unlikely that the tank had been replenished between Staffordshire and London, this indicated a very useful range. In fact, the tank holds 21¼ gallons (86 litres), so it is possible to go for some 425 to 545 miles on a tankful, depending on how the Scimitar is driven. The untuned Ford engine will run quite happily in built-up areas at 1,000 r.p.m. in overdrive top, and smooths out at 1,300 r.p.m. whereas in most sporting cars the power does not come in until about twice this crankshaft speed has been reached, and one would not admit to running in top at such speeds. This sort of torque aids economy.

Going to visit former racing driver T. A. S. O. Mathieson in Mayfair, I was less-impressed by other aspects of the Reliant, as I inched it along in heavy traffic. From a crawl smooth pick-up is marred by the throttle linkage, as on so many cars I have driven in which a proprietary engine has been installed in a vehicle for which it was not originally designed. The so-called “remote-control”, fairly-long gear-lever sits far back, so that a most unnatural arm action is required to operate it, at all events for a medium-height driver who does not favour sitting at full arms-and-legs-stretch, imagining he is in a racing car, especially as the clutch pedal has a long travel. As the notchy 2nd gear needs a real effort to engage it, this department scored many black marks and terse remarks, although a tall driver, with seat fully back, would find less cause for criticism. The body is not very wide, so that there is an awkward lack of room for the driver’s right arm, as in a Rover 2000, and the window-winder in that door is often found to be in the way. And in Oxford Street on this warm July afternoon the odour of fibreglass was unpleasantly noticeable. . . .

On the credit side, the steering was extremely pleasant on initial acquaintance, being light, precise, and the small leather-gaitered wheel very nicely placed for rapid arm-twirling. The servo disc/drum brakes, at these speeds, seemed very light and effective. The controls were too scattered for instant use, the many flick-switches on the rather close-proximity console being labelled at the top, so that their function is masked when a switch is in the non-operative position. And ambitious movements of the stiff gear-change out of bottom or top gear resulted in the left hand contacting the two heater-setting knobs on the bottom of the aforesaid console. A passenger remarked on the uncomfortable seats but to the driver these seemed just simple, leathercloth-upholstered, close-fitting bucket seats, although the need to dismount and adjust a couple of bolt heads before the squab-angle can be set to the required position is a poor feature in a car of this price class, presumably intended for maximum driver-enjoyment. When one is accustomed to them the controls seem more acceptable and the overdrive stalk, protruding from the screen-sill for very convenient operation by the right hand, gives notably smooth engagement of o/d, which goes in almost before the stalk has been moved. The thick r.h. stalk for turn-indicators and flasher, with a horn-push on its extremity, is less well arranged, being just too short for easy finger-tip operation and quite close to the o/d stalk, so that during frenzied driving the hand is apt to move up to work the latter and signal a left turn en route. Sometimes the indicators did not self-cancel after a left turn; no real hardship, except that the Lord Chief Justice has ruled that giving a false signal is a serious offence, meriting endorsement and fines of up to £100!

On the whole, however, the Reliant’s controls are acceptable, if not readily accessible. The small console carries a 2-speed wipers’ knob, cigarette-igniter, and flick switches for 2-speed heater fan, washers, side/headlamps, and the previously referred to rotatable knobs for setting the heat and ventilation. The leathercloth interior of the Scimitar is all-black and there is thick floor carpeting. On the black facia the Smiths instruments, with white needles sweeping black faces, give an aura of high quality. The tachometer and 130-m.p.h. speedometer with trip with decimal and total mileage readings have between them the small oil-gauge and water-heat dials. The oil-gauge is calibrated in kg./cm.² as well as in lb./sq. in. and the speedometer, less obviously, in k.p.h. as well as in m.p.h. in the centre of the facia dials of matching size indicate fuel-contents and alternator-charge, with, between them, a slightly larger Smiths electric clock. Two more flick-switches occupy the facia, for panel-lighting and the Triplex electrically-heated back window. The interior of the car is somewhat cramped, the tumble-home of the doors providing space for the simple interior handles at the bottom but seriously restricting elbow room higher up, so that the arm-rests are of a token nature. The floor slopes down towards the bulkhead. There is a padded stowage box (unlockable) immediately behind the gear-lever, and although this is within a knob’s-diameter as high as the lever, this does not seriously impede gear-changing. The lockable cubby-hole is fairly commodious, the carpeted back shelf ideally formed for casting loose objects onto the back seat, and there are no door pockets. In spite of the big fuel tank the luggage boot is decently large, if not very deep fore-and-aft, for a car of this kind, and the spare wheel lives under the floor. Very commendable is the stowage of wheel-changing equipment and tool-roll in recesses in the wooden cover over the spare wheel. The plastic piano-lid of the boot is lockable and has a self-releasing prop. The keys, for boot and door-handles, insert into the press-buttons.

Before getting down to some serious motoring in this Scimitar, I read with amusement the sales-booklet on the car, in which a mythical photographer is supposed to have adopted all the wrong angles when taking publicity pictures of the Scimitar, until he hit upon the safety-angle, which the maker’s think is the one most likely to sell the GT Reliant in this safety-first, rather than safety-fast, age. The shot showing the Scimitar’s interior certainly emphasises the extensive crash-padding, the anti-dazzle trim, and the steering column which operates through two universal joints so as to collapse on impact. This brochure suggests that sheer speed is taken for granted in a Scimitar (but quotes a maximum of more than 125 m.p.h., which is optimistic by some five m.p.h.), that car-at-stately-home pictures went out with the 1960 Motor Show, because “today’s customer for a GT car wants something more than mere opulence and fashion” (he might also prefer the quarter-light in the driver’s door to be rainproof, which It wasn’t!), that the front-end Detroit-look, emphasising that “this Reliant has a 2,994-c.c. engine giving 144 b.h.p. at 4,750 r.p.m.” won’t sell it (perhaps not; this is only 48 b.h.p./litre!), and when the luckless camera-man tried taking the car with a girl “in bathing costumes and tight trousers” he was told that sex is out of date—which, when you think of the circulation of the glossy-girlie magazines, is a sentiment which surprises me. Even his arty-crafty view of a Scimitar probing early-morning mist was dismissed as something “which went out of date with the 1964 Motor Show”. Then the fellow hit upon the safety angle and all was forgiven. . . .

Having got indigestion over the publicity material, let us look at what a Scimitar is like mechanically. A steel box-section frame has conventional by coil-springs and wishbones, with an anti-roll bar. The back axle is supported by coil-springs and located by trailing arms and transversely by Watts linkage, this being a great improvement over the earlier Reliant’s dual Watts linkage. The brakes are Girling, with 10 5/8 in. discs and 9 in. x 1¾-in. drums, radial-ply tyres are standard equipment, being 165 x 15 Pirelli Cinturatos on the test car (another set of these excellent road-clingers having been fitted to the Editorial Rover 2000TC recently), and the steering is rack-and-pinion, friction damped. An Ogle-designed body, mounted on a separate chassis frame, has a rather Triumph-2000-like front-end incorporating dual Lucas headlamps. The power unit is a quite undoctored Weber-carburetted V6 Ford Zodiac, with its normally smooth gear-change ruined by the position of the lever. The test-car had the very necessary optional overdrive, which gives an o/d gear ratio of 2.93 to 1. Fuel feed is by an A.C. mechanical pump, the quick-action tank filler being placed high up on the n/s rear quarter of the body and being prone to blow-back. Filling-station attendants were sometimes unable to find it, being used to fillers set lower down.

There is a number of luxury items in the Scimitar, such as coat-hooks, quarter-lights in the doors which have press-in releases for the catches, opening side windows with strong toggles, anti-dazzle vizors containing a passenger’s vanity mirror, with a roof light having courtesy-action between them, while at the extremities of the facia are powerful swivelling fresh-air vents on the Ford/Rootes pattern but smaller, neater and unplated. Some modifications have been made to the car since its introduction in 1967, the former awkward headlamps-dipper button on the floor having been changed for stalk control, now a single r.h. lever, but on some cars a l.h. stalk. A retrograde point is that the fly-off hand-brake has been changed for a normal press-button affair, very well located, however.

Lifting the bonnet-lid (which is self-supporting on a sliding strut like the boot-lid, but needing depression of a release pip before it can be lowered, with the engine compartment automatically illuminated) provides something of a shock, because at first sight the power unit isn’t apparent. At the back of the compartment there is a box rather like one of those metal cabinets which used to contain the ten or more exposed valves of an early heterodyne wireless-set on which experimenters in London hoped to receive signals from America on a frame aerial. From this, very low down and back behind the steering rack, protrudes the cooling fan. There is nearly as much nothingness behind the radiator as there is engine. This is because since the Scimitar was designed the V6 Ford engine has been substituted for the in-line 6-cylinder Ford engine. This has pushed the power unit very much into the console box between the passenger and driver, and it says much for the heat instilation that console and gear-lever convey no warmth to the driving compartment. Incidentally, it is amusing that no-where does the maker’s literature own up to the origin of the “advanced design vee engine”!

On the Road

On the road the Reliant Scimitar is ridiculously easy to drive. It is virtually an all-in-top-gear car once town traffic has been left behind. It is driven mainly in top and o/d top, the driver flicking in whichever is required with his right thumb. This largely excuses the horrid, badly-placed, long-travel, laterally stiff gear-change, although from rest the difficulty of engaging 1st or 2nd gear, or reverse which is back outboard of top, even after spinning the clutch, is very irritating, to put it mildly. The Ford engine shows up very well in the Scimitar, providing the optional o/d is fitted (£63 17s. 9d. extra). This gives an engine speed of less than 3,000 r.p.m. at the British legal top speed, whereas in normal top gear the crankshaft then rotates at approximately 3,500 r.p.m. You can cruise at 100 m.p.h. at a mere 4,000 r.p.m. It may get a bit rough towards full r.p.m., which the tachometer specifies as 6,000-7,000 r.p.m., but as there is little point in taking it above about 5,000 r.p.m., this is irrelevant. The Ford V6 is a splendid “wafter'”, taking the car rapidly up to 70 m.p.h. and, with a fine surge of power, on to 80, 90 and 100 m.p.h., with a muffled beat from the twin exhaust tail-pipes reminiscent of the pre-war Ford V8s.

Cruising is extremely restful, providing all the windows are closed to eliminate wind roar and buffetting. Unfortunately this was not to be enjoyed on the test-car, as fumes were entering the body, which affected the driver’s eyes, although they seemed to disperse with the side windows closed and the fresh-air setting of the ventilator turned off. In the fresh-air setting the heater passed warm air, a fault I have seen ascribed to other Scimitars.

So far as sheer performance is concerned, this Reliant is a very fast car. It has a top speed of 120 m.p.h., gets to “the ton” from rest in 28½ seconds, and will show nearly 80 m.p.h. in 3rd gear and 95 m.p.h. in o/d 3rd, a disgraceful state of affairs for a British-built car to own up to! But very useful on the Continent. . . . And this without provoking the Ford engine beyond 5,500 r.p.m.

The revised suspension and weight distribution have endowed the Scimitar with cornering which is initially neutral between over- and understeer, with a mild dose of the latter coming in gradually, unless power, of which there is plenty, is used to break the back wheels away. The back axle is firmly located on all but bumpy corners. The rack-and-pinion steering, with the very well-placed and conveniently small-diameter two-drilled-spoke wheel, is quick, being geared at just over three turns, lock-to-lock, in conjunction with a 35-ft. turning circle. There is kick-back only on really nasty surfaces. There is sensible castor return action and hardly any lost motion. The suspension is hard, giving an uncomfortably choppy ride unless on smooth roads, but is well damped, a severe irregularity in the road throwing up the back axle quite abruptly but the effective damping planting it back on the road immediately.

There is just a trace of wander—that too-stiff rear-end again?—more sensed than perceived, which makes this quite large car a thought less happy to handle at speeds above 90 m.p.h. than, say, a modern Alfa Romeo or B.M.W. Cornered very fast there is roll but in normal main-road driving this does not seem excessive. Visibility is average, but with thick screen pillars, while the rear quarters mask the rear-ward glance at acute road junctions.

The brakes, while not memorably powerful, are well suited to the car, being very light, quiet, progressive, and applied by a pedal level with those for clutch and throttle. The steering wheel had a disconcerting habit of riding half-an-inch or more up its column; there is no column adjustment, so this must be associated with the fail-safe-in-a-shunt connections. Water temperature stayed normally at 85° C. but rose to 90° in traffic and then went to boiling point for a few miles; oil pressure is normally just under 50 lb./sq. in. The fuel gauge shows “E” with well over a gallon remaining in the tank. The engine started readily on its automatic choke and was ready for action immediately. Although the engine is hidden in the aforesaid boxing, making carburetter and sparking plugs very inaccessible, the big flat-strip dip-stick is easily withdrawn, and there are two Lucas 6-volt 57-amp./hr. “King of the Road” batteries flanking the radiator block. The two hydraulic fluid reservoirs, washers’ bottle and belt-driven alternator are also very accessible.

On a long non-stop run the driver’s seat, upholstered in patterned plastic which gets adhesive, is less comfortable than it had seemed on brief journeys, and the back seat was obviously singularly uncomfortable even for the normally-adaptable Motoring Dog, so its elaborate formation and upholstery is wasted and a luggage-shelf would be preferable. When set about half-way along its slides the squab hinge of the front seat can hurt those climbing into the car, so small are these seats, which gives them the merit of holding the occupants snugly. As expected, objects soon fell off the wrongly-cambered back shelf. The test car had a Smiths Radiomobile radio, from which for some unexplained reason the name had been obliterated. It has a roof-mounted aerial but this set was faulty, the tuning control slipping so that all the press-buttons brought in the same station unless some care and much luck was brought into play. It was only the latter which enabled us to learn via Robin Richards’ useful bulletins that Stewart had such a commanding lead in the Matra in the German G.P., while we were negotiating the country roads between Ledbury and Cheltenham.

The appearance of the Reliant Scimitar is admirable, although the tail is rather high, with the boot-lid atop of it, the big wheels offsetting the compact shape of the coupé body, on which, however, the rear lamps and stop lamps protrude rather prominently, the former being the inboard lamps. The exterior of the car is not overburdened with badges and insignia. The nose carries the Scimitar badge and “Reliant” in small letters. On the tail the word “Scimitar” appears in bigger lettering, with “3-litre” in a small panel—how vain we motorists are! The facia has a very small “Reliant” on it, and the steering-wheel boss carries a little Scimitar badge. That is all! Night driving is enhanced by Lucas sealed-beam dual headlamps and built-in twin reversing-lamps. The cooling system holds 22-pints of water, the engine lubrication system, which incorporates a full-flow filter, 9½-pints of oil (the sump takes 6½-pints). The body possesses wide doors with good keeps and, being of fibreglass, creaks but does not rattle. The front bumper does not have any wrap-round, nor are overriders thought necessary. The screen is a Triplex laminated, with Triplex heated back window. Servicing intervals are every 5,000 miles, with 11 greasing points.

For those who want a not-too-expensive, very high-performance GT-type car, the 3-litre Reliant Scimitar has much in its favour. For me, however, it is marred by the nasty gear-change, badly-placed minor controls, uncomfortable seats, far too lively ride over secondary roads, and a cramped interior with the window-winders (just under two turns) tending to jab the driver; the intrusion of fumes, heat, and the sense of being in a “components” car also putting me off. So in this I am at variance with my friend, who says he likes his Scimitar very much indeed. Certainly it provides an economical way of motoring quickly while out-accelerating most of the other traffic, for on a quickish run I obtained 26.5 m.p.g. of 4-star premium fuel, which is a reminder of the worth of a big engine pulling really high gear ratios, and after 650 miles the Reliant did not need topping up with oil. Which was just as well, because the boxing-in of the engine has made the n/s rear-mounted oil filler difficult to use, although this has been extended apparently from its original location. Finally, the price of £1,576 6s. 1d., purchase tax paid, is not expensive for a 120-m.p.h. 3-litre GT motor car.—W. B.