Curbside Classic: 1978 Reliant Scimitar GTE – Princess Anne Had One, You Know. And Another, And Another…

Mention to non Curbside Classic devotees that you’ve bought a Reliant and many people’s first reaction could well be (still be) “You’re driving a three wheeler?”

Mention to non Curbside Classic devotees that you’ve bought a Scimitar and many people’s first reaction could well be (still be) “Princess Anne had one of those”.  She did, as did Prince Philip and Prince Andrew.

Rarely have a brand name and model names been so separated in recognition, or two such disparate cars been the main identifiers for the same manufacturer. But don’t worry; we’re only looking at the Scimitar here.

The roots of the Scimitar lie in a car called the Ashley 1172 sports, built by the Ashley company, a now long defunct and always small builder of fibreglass (fiberglass in US spelling, also known as GRP when combined with the resin in the lay-up) specials.

The rights to the Ashley were acquired by a combination of the Israeli Autocars Company and Reliant, to create the Sabra and the Sabre respectively.

The Reliant Sabre used familiar British Ford four and six cylinder engines, Triumph TR4 front suspension and a ZF gearbox.

Overall volume was low, at around 200 cars, but Reliant’s appetite for a larger car than their usual three wheelers was whetted.

CC has previously seen the Daimler SP250 Dart,  also built with a fibreglass body.  A closed coupe, proposed to replace and update the Daimler and based on the Daimler’s chassis was designed by Britain’s Ogle Design and displayed at the 1962 Motor Show. As Daimler, by then owned by Jaguar, were not interested, Ogle therefore planned to market the car themselves, initially known as the SX250 and then the Ogle Scimitar. Some cars, either two or six depending on the record you read, were built before Reliant acquired the rights and Ogle adapted it to fit the Sabre running gear.

In 1964, the definitive original Reliant Scimitar Coupe was launched. Officially known as the Scimitar SE4, fitted with a 2.6 litre straight six Ford engine tweaked to 120bhp. In 1966, the Ford Essex 3.0 litre V6, as used in many other places in the British industry including the AC 3000ME CC looked at recently, was slotted in and performance took a step up. This was now a 120mph car, with 0-60 mph coming up in around 10 seconds.  There were substantial changes to the front suspension and chassis frame to adapt them to the shorter V6. Visually, little changed – that roof profile, so redolent of the MGB GT, remained, as did the waistline ridge that matched the MG’s, flowing off the front wheel arch.

Reliant also built a version with a 2.5 litre Ford V6; in total around 1000 were built. But something more exciting was also happening.

In 1965, Ogle were commissioned by glass maker Triplex (part of the Pilkington Company) to build a car to demonstrate their new laminated heat absorbing glass, branded Sundym. Ogle did not disappoint, with lead designer Tom Karen coming up with the Scimitar GTS.

Reliant and Triplex were even more delighted when the car was sold to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A high style, all British car for the ultimate man about town – you can imagine Ogle and Reliant were really chuffed. The original car is still extant and owned by an enthusiast in North America.

The Scimitar GTS had over 40sqft of curved safety glass, most of it the Sundym heat absorbing type, and production in that form was clearly going to be difficult and uneconomic. Ogle and Triplex had never expected it to a production car, but the Ogle and Reliant were stimulated to consider something.

The idea of the GTE was born, as long roof, four seat version of the coupe, finished off with a flat glass hatchback. Flat rear glass may have been a style highlight, but it was also cheaper and easier for a low volume car. In concept, it was exactly the same as the Volvo 1800ES, but it came to market four years ahead of the Swedish car.

Reliant fitted the car with four seats and in a novel touch the rear seats were individual buckets, divided by a large hump, and individually folding for a certain amount of luggage capacity. This feature in conjunction with the rear styling and the hatch, perhaps more than any other, cemented the Scimitar in the public awareness and lifted it from being perceived as an MGB or Triumph GT6, albeit with more power.

Photo from

The GTE was built on a new chassis, designed by John Crosthwaite, a man associated with racing cars from Cooper and Lotus. Crosthwaite had previously adapted the Scimitar SE4 for the Ford V6 and now produced a new chassis and suspension for the SE5, around the 3 litre Ford V6. At the front, wishbones and a stout anti roll bar, at the rear trailing arms and a Watts linkage. Steering came from Ford, the gearbox was from Laycock and usually had overdrive, or was automatic from Borg Warner. Detail parts like switches, lights, instruments, handles and the like were frequently Ford or BL items, in a way typical of the British specialist industry.

The Reliant Scimitar GTE was launched at the London Motor Show in October 1968. Press reaction was either very positive or in some cases more negative, never ambivalent. The negative reactions were generally reversed after driving and once the public reaction had been more fully understood.

You often sense that Ogle Design and Tom Karen (above) had a bit of a rebellious streak in them, declining to fit in tidily to the motor industry community, perhaps as what we might now call a disrupter.

At the same London Motor Show, Ogle separately showed the Ogle Scimitar GTE. Whilst it acknowledged the Reliant car, and Reliant acknowledged the Ogle input into their car, you sense that the Ogle car was the one Tom Karen really wanted to have seen in production. The variations were in part minor – a revised front end with concealed lights and, significant and forward looking – a full glass roof over the front seats and a more luxury fitted interior. This carried forward the spirit of the original GTS into a more practical and production capable way but was perhaps a bit too much too soon for Reliant. It was, however, purchased by the Chairman of Reliant.

Market reception of the Scimitar GTE was quickly seen as positive. In six years, Reliant had sold around 1000 Scimitar GT coupes; in four years they sold over 4300 SE5 GTE hatchbacks and the Coupe was quickly phased out.

In 1972, the SE5 was updated to become the SE5a, with very mild changes – additional reversing lights, a new dash and badging were the biggest changes. Another 5100 cars were sold in the next four years.  The customers included HRH Princess Anne, who got the first of eight Reliant GTEs for a twentieth birthday present in 1970. She actually also had the last one Reliant produced.

Perhaps the definitive Scimitar was the (featured) 1975 SE6, which was an evolution of the SE5 series, but with some significant changes that could go unnoticed to the casual observer. Skillfully, Ogle and Reliant added four inches to the wheelbase and three inches to the width of the car without visually impacting the appearance significantly. Indeed, without the contemporary rubber block bumpers and larger outboard headlamp, spotting the new car was not easy. But the changes added substantially to the interior space, especially in the rear seats, and Reliant also put a lot of effort into the standard of the interior trim materials.

The feature car is a 1976 SE6, unusually fitted a vinyl roof. Getting a vinyl roof on the fibreglass doesn’t sound an easy task – getting anything to stick to such a substrate tidily is an art to say the least – and there are no panel gaps or aftermarket sunroof to cover. The oval cover centrally mounted under the rear window is the fuel filler.

For 1977, Reliant offered the SE6a. In response to press and public criticism, it had a stiffer chassis and better (Lockheed, not Girling) brakes, a Ford not Borg Warner automatic and gentle revisions to the bumpers. Power continued to come from the Ford Essex V6, until 1980, when the German Cologne 2.8 litre V6 was fitted. The lower torque meant a revision to the final drive ratio to keep the acceleration where the customers were perceived to need it, and still offer around 120mph. From 1981, the steel chassis frame was galvanised.

Perhaps surprisingly, it took until 1980 for Reliant to over a convertible version, with a roof bar arrangement that was similar to the T-bar on the Triumph Stag, which had died the year before.  The conversion design was again done by Ogle Design, and a lot of reinforcement went in as you can imagine.

This came to market as the Scimitar GTC (factory code SE8b) with the Cologne V6, and 442 were built over the next six years. Yes, it was attractive car, but it was an expensive way to buy Austin Allegro door handles and Vauxhall Chevette rear lights.

Unarguably, the Scimitar was facing a tougher market now than it was ten years earlier. Probably the most direct domestic competitor was the Triumph Stag, another differently configured, comfort in preference to outright speed grand tourer that also came with baggage of its own – the Triumph V8 engine and the BL quality reputation to name two pieces. The Lancia Beta HPE directly aped its style, but with a much better badge and more coherent package, rust apart. The hatchback Ford Capri 3.0 Ghia offered something very similar, indeed perhaps something inspired by the Scimitar, with the same engine and interior format, the Opel Monza perhaps trumped both (it would for me, anyway), as perhaps did the SAAB 99 Combi Coupe as well.

The low volume, relatively cheap but hand finished, unsophisticated and glassfibre aura (and aroma) of the Scimitar could not really hold it’s own against these cars in absolute terms, never mind the lack of positive image and truly modern engineering. The writing was on the wall, and the recession of the early 1980s really took its toll.

Just short of 5000 Scimitar SE6 variants were sold in ten years, but only 437 of the 2.8 litre SE6b from 1980 to 1986. Production of the GTE and GTC ceased in 1986.  Princess Anne had the last one.

There was an attempt of restart production. Reliant sold the design to the Middlebridge Company in Nottingham who intended to produce 300 cars a year. Various changes were made: the V6 went to 2.9 litres as Ford increased the capacity for the Scorpio, central locking, electric mirrors, colour coded bumpers (as the black ones were now unavailable) and rear anti-roll bar (sway bar) were fitted. Biggest change was probably a five speed or four speed automatic gearbox, from Ford.

In the event 77 (or 78 some say) cars were built, including serial number 5 for Princess Anne, her ninth Scimitar and a car which she still has. The Middlebridge Company failed in 1990, through an unrelated legal case, and the Scimitar finally died.

One prototype idea that did not make production was a four wheel drive Scimitar, using the same Ferguson technology as used on the Jensen FF, derived from the Interceptor.  This was an engineering exercise, between Reliant, Ferguson and component supplier GKN to prove the concept of four wheel drive and promote their respective skills.

The changes were surprisingly wide ranging, with new engine and gearbox mountings required as well as a repositioned steering rack and larger wheels. It remained a one-off and actually sat quietly in the back of Reliant’s factory for several years. It was recently sold at auction for £13,000, probably twice what any other Scimitar would cost.

In reality, by 1986 one of Britain’s more charismatic and individual low volumes cars had gone, and whilst never a great car on an outright objective basis, the appeal is easy to see and you can understand that for many it would be sufficient to overcome the failings of the car, such as the mundane power unit, imprecise handling, build quality and materials (panel gaps and the smell of glue were always there for example). Seeing a car with bodywork damaged by the rear wiper was not unusual.

But it was certainly had, has, an enduring charisma. Ask Paul, my friend of 38 years. He’s got four, though that’s not as many as Princess Anne.

And he hasn’t been caught speeding in one either.