Soft in the Head?

To think that once we feared the day of the soft-top was past, that US legislation had killed open-air motoring! Now we are back to having convertible versions of everyday cars, of Cavaliers, Escorts and even of Yugos, as well as Jaguars and Porsches. But there are two companies, both here in Britain, offering traditional two-seaters which, if not cheap, at least hark back to the days of the good old MGB.

Both firms have switched back to this “budget” market from greater things: TVR Engineering has steadily pushed the power and price of its top two-seater to the 300 bhp/£30,000 mark and now aims to come in again at the other end and offer a “starter model”, called simply the “S”. Reliant, in contrast, stuck for many years to a single model, the famous Scimitar GTE and its convertible brother, before axing it to concentrate on a new small Scimitar, the current SS1.

Blackpool-based TVR, synonymous with brute power and big engines in its appealing but unhandsome V8 cars, made a surprising choice for the design of the new car: responding to a strong desire in export markets for “traditional British sports-cars”, it went back to one of its previous cars, the 3000 Convertible of the mid-Seventies and recreated the shape in cleaned-up form. With fewer mouldings than on the big cars, assembly time could be substantially cut, even though the chassis is similar to that of the early V8 cars.

Reliant started with a clean sheet of paper both on body and chassis, and employed Italian styling studio Michelotti to create a wedge shape incorporating bolt-on wings, a useful plus for insurance purposes. The odd result of an this is that in the TVR we have a Seventies shape posing as an Eighties car, while Reliant’s Eighties car has a distinct Seventies flavour.

Choice of power unit, too, highlights the contrast between the two cars’ characters: in the Reliant, a smooth, revvy and sophisticated turbocharged four bought in from Nissan out of the 200ZX Silvia; for Blackpool’s baby that faithful workhorse, the Ford Cologne V6. Loud and heavy, crude but powerful, the big Ford thumps out raw horsepower where the compact Japanese unit whirrs away deceptively quietly to turn in 0-60 mph times vvhich are certainly in the same bracket, if not absolutely on par.

With virtually equal weights to propel (the TVR is a mere 24lb up on the Reliant’s 1960 lb), the Blackpool charger’s claimed 160 horses should easily see off the Tamworth car with its 25 bhp deficit. In fact, it is the TVR which is in danger of being embarrassed, being rivalled, if not actually beaten, by the cheeky Midlander. Ford is reputed to have been rather optimistic in claiming 160 bhp for the older 2.8 Cologne engine for one thing, while the Scimitar is also much lower geared, putting it well up with its Northern rival. With some abuse of its Bridgestone tyres in order to keep the lump revving, the TVR can be stretched to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, while the wedge-shaped SS1 quietly turns in 7.6 seconds with no spinning tyres and no blaring exhaust.

Yet the deep-throated rumble which surrounds the TVR as it idles at traffic lights makes it sound a real brute, brawny and fast, which is just what buyers want. Good manners, in the form of the politely quiet SS1, are not always a sales feature.

Structurally the two rear-wheel-drive sportsters rely on similar principles, with separate steel chassis, double front wishbones, rear semi-trailing arms, and bodies in composite materials, but naturally there are distinct differences. Where TVR uses a backbone chassis welded up in-house from round tube, the SS1 has a fabricated sheet and square tube assemblage sharing torsional loads between a backbone and two strong sills. Folded boxes take rear suspension loads into the spine, while the front dampers lie flat across the car, being compressed by a rocker extension of the upper wishbone. This frame does not look very elegant, but it is tough, rigid and free from creaks.

Concealing these two skeletons are their rust-free skins. TVR’s method is the handlaid fibreglass traditional amongst small specialist car builders, but Reliant has turned to sophisticated techniques using polyurethane and polyester materials. Vulnerable wings and bumpers use the expensive but high-quality Reaction Injection Moulding process for good impact resistance, and the overall exterior finish is exceptionally good.

Some rough inner edges betray the rectification work necessary when the various panels arrive at Tamworth from outside contractors, but if the TVR were mine I would avoid parking it beside an SS1. Imperfections abound in the Blackpool body, which is noticeably worse quality than the more expensive products of the same factory. The worst of it was right in the driver’s eye-line: I spent a week looking at the ripples along the front offside wing and reflecting that it was not up to the standard of the better kit-cars today. No-one buys a TVR for its build quality, but even the budget model should be better than this. The actual paint quality, on the other hand, is high, and the cars look particularly good in dark metallic colours.

In other respects the Ford-engined car felt strong, with acceptable panel-fit and solid-slamming doors. It too had some rough edges, but from a distance it certainly has more presence than the upright-looking Reliant.

That is a shame, since Reliant was brave enough to go for an entirely new shape, while TVR played safe by cribbing an old one of its own — and got it right. Though I fail to understand why a profile a decade or two old in inspiration should be so appealing, customers love it, with S sales surging ahead of expectations. Production of all cars now runs at 14 vehicles a week, and factory expansion should see this rise to 20 per week by the end of the year.

Reliant, on the other. hand, is struggling to sell its planned quota of the little two-seater, even after the arrival of the Nissan turbo engine which has saved the car from the complete obscurity that the Ford-engined version faced (justifiably too, as there was no pleasure to be had from the delightful chassis when powered by the noisy and gutless CVH Ford. It is still available in 1.4 and 1.6 forms, the former being the cheapest convertible around at £8575 until the arrival of the new Peugeot 205 Junior).

Why should this be? There are only a few two-seater convertibles on the market, and the Scimitar is priced at the bottom end of these, despite the fact that it combines extremely enjoyable road manners and comfort with performance to upstage most things you will meet in a day’s drive. It must be, in part at least, the way the car looks. That Michelotti-styled shape with its Seventies swage-lines, together with the narrow-track stance of the car and the tall screen, give it a petite, dainty look which is not what the average sports-car buyer wants, at least not when he could have the aggressive appeal of the TVR S.

Yet there is a more basic problem with selling a car like the SS1. Reliant’s previous car was a larger, more expensive model (the Scimitar GTE); with the new SS1 the company hoped to fill the vacant Midget/ Spitfire/MGB slot. But it looks increasingly as though that sector is being satisfied by the bewildering range of small fast hatchbacks which make practical sense for the buyer spending his own money. The luckier people amongst company purchasers, on the other hand, are looking for power and prestige, for more expensive products in fact, and as this segment continues to grow, it is the £15,000 sports — car which thrives, not the sub-£10,000 one.

What is worse for the Tamworth plant is that it is tied to certain quotas from its many subcontractors, making it hard either to cut production or to change the appearance of the car, although the separate panels would allow this relatively easily.

From inside, the Reliant looks much more like a family saloon, its central spine disguised by a console and armrest, and the door panel finished with a tidy one-piece moulding. Austin Maestro instruments are recessed into a simple grey binnacle, with other borrowed switches in the console. Behind the stubby gearlever are the joystick for the remote-control mirrors and the electric window switches. Some of these mouldings are rather flimsy, and there is no glove-box, only a pocket down by the gearbox, although the central armrest lifts up to reveal a shallow tray. Neither is there much useable space behind the seats, where the TVR has a good flat shelf.

Sitting in the TVR is very different. Reclining low, legs stretched under the scuttle, bulky centre tunnel at elbow level, this feels like a sportscar. A small wheel, low-set, frames the separate speedometer and rev-counter, which start at the top and read downwards, with four other dials ranged in an arc across the centre of the dash. It hardly feels lavish, the gauges embedded in leathercloth and the heating sliders as stiff as anything, while the strip of vvarning lights is hard to register, but the essential equipment is all there, apart from intermittent wipe.

With its very short lever, the Ford box feels notchy, and after an hour or two the left leg is aching because there is absolutely nowhere to rest it. Normally this complaint can be eased by parking it under the clutch, but the TVR’s sloping floorpan prevents this. The steering on the test-car was heavy and uninformative, and had a truly dreadful lock (I had to make a three-point turn around a traffic bollard!), but later I was persuaded by Giles Cooper of the TVR Centre in Arkley to try a couple of production cars. The difference both in the steering and overall chassis behaviour was marked: whereas the early car I had been driving had a buckboard ride which shook the dash, clattered the bonnet and crashed through potholes, the cars being readied for August 1 delivery vvere more relaxed, soaking up more of the jars and keeping the wheels in touch with the tarmac.

Less “stiction” through the steering showed quick response, perhaps even a bit sudden, while the wheel gets heavier as the understeer builds up; it is improved but there is room for refinement, and the lock is still poor.

At its best, on smooth roads, the S is the equal of a good 350i in terms of balance, and not far off in grip, but it does seem less rigid overall than the V8 car, so that bad surfaces can compromise its abilities.

More travel in the Reliant’s softer suspension makes it correspondingly more forgiving over bumps, so that while the TVR can generate more grip on a flat surface, the SS1 feels more confident on mixed roads with its light and informative steering, smooth clutch action, and easy gearshift which leans slightly forward like that on an AC Cobra.

Running on narrower tyres (185/60 instead of the TVR’s 205/60 on lin larger diameter rims), the SS1 coped better with heavy rain, and when the low-down boost of the Nissan engine swelled up, it would wag its tail just as much or as little as the driver chose. All in all it is a superb combination of engine and chassis, with low gearing letting the turbo swing into action good and early, but with no penalty at the top end since the boost is blowing strong even in fifth.

In contrast the TVR’s abundant torque has faded out by the time the high top gear comes in, and frequent forays back into fourth or third are essential for overtaking. Yet it is a very rapid car, that rumbling block sitting well back in the fork of the chassis launching it forwards with gusto.

One of the TVR features I have often praised is the rigid roof system — until the S arrived. In order to store the roof in the tiny boot, it splits into two squarish panels. Now, the folding rear head cannot be raised unless the windows are down, which means there is nowhere to rest the panels while lifting the rear section to mate up with them. And there is a grand total of eight tabs to be lined up and inserted all at once before the overcentre levers can be locked. It can be done solo, if you have three arms, one of which is four feet long. Otherwise grab a passer-by. I did.

Once up, the effect is more like a coupé than a convertible, with relatively little wind noise and no drumming under the velour-finished top. Poor ventilation meant that I needed the window open, which on the test-car allowed rain to pour onto my knees. Production cars, however, have a roof gutter to prevent this. I am also told that the leak problem mine exhibited has now been cured.

In comparison Reliant’s unlined black plastic hood is old-fashioned, fiddly, with poppers and velcro, occasionally downright recalcitrant to erect — and utterly watertight even in torrential floods, once the window seal is jiggled into place. It creates some wind roar, but there is a lot to be said for the one-piece approach, not least that it can be folded from inside the car and does not consume boot space.

The TVR, of course, may be driven in comfort with the back section up in quite heavy rain, a plus for the fresh-air lovers amongst us, but its minimal and unlockable boot, already half-full of narrow spare tyre, is virtually filled by the two roof panels. Strange to think that the mid-engined Fiat X1/9 has two boots, each of which, even with its targa roof stored away, is more use than this one. Full marks to Reliant for finding space between engine and radiator for a full-size spare tyre, leaving the shallow but long boot unencumbered.

After many miles in both cars, in pouring rain and sunshine, in town and over muddy moorland roads, I have little doubt that the Scimitar SS1 has the better chassis. Responsive to steering commands, it settles quickly into a neutral cornering attitude in which oversteer is a long way away. For a turbo engine it has excellent mid-throttle controllability, with good ratios and well-matched throttle and clutch which give that satisfying sensation of seamless acceleration through the gears. A good driving position and well-placed controls make long journeys possible without fatigue, the neat pop-up lamps work well, and the car looks well built.

There are plusses for the TVR S: the roof, once it is up, and the wonderful noise it makes. But the doors open barely enough to get out, the dials reflect in the screen at night, the lights are poor, the mirrors little use. Its handling potential, ultimately higher than the Reliant’s, is more affected by bad conditions, and the gaps in the gearbox leave the poor old Ford unit breathless, despite all the urge that is in there somewhere. So why did I enjoy driving it so much?

It can only be the confident, even swaggering air it has; it is like the loud chap at the party everyone listens to, ignoring better-behaved and quieter souls on the fringes. I would rather be in the Scimitar, but I would rather be seen in the TVR. GC