The cars we loved.
In 80’s America there always a clear notion of what the biggest car companies were. The traditional “Big Three” made it easy to know what was from Detroit and what came from elsewhere. It would not take long before globalism threw a wrench in that hierarchy. Parts and platform sharing made domestic content less so clear-cut by the 90’s. Back in the day, the situation in England would have seemed far more complex to the typical American. There were the large conglomerates like British Leyland that churned out cars from marques as diverse as Austin to Jaguar, but it was the many small builders that gave Britain’s auto industry its unique character. They provided quirky transportation that usually went no further than the shores of the UK. Like Saturn or Oldsmobile, many of these companies are long gone.
One of those companies, who traced its roots from Raleigh, a bicycle maker was Reliant. Established in 1935, Reliant first produced three-wheeled contraptions that became a kind of city car in the crowded urbanscapes of England. Eventually they would graduate to four wheels a long list of small cars, many powered by Ford engines. The most desirable may be the last generations of Scimitar GTE/GTC code names SE6B and SE8.
First launched in the 1964, the Reliant Scimitar evolved from a Volvo 1800-like shooting brake sports coupe to a more refined RWD GT that began to resemble Ford’s Capri Mk 1. While the SE6B refers to the last generation of coupes, the SE8 was a sought after convertible. By 1978 the Scimitar had become a refined executive sports GT while retaining an interesting two door hatch form factor. It was comfortable even for rear passengers thanks to 2+2 seating in the tradition of true GT cars. It was intended to be exported to the US at some point, but Reliant was never able to federalized the car presumably due to economic troubles.
Although the Scimitar never made it to the States, its engine was familiar. Reliant had long been associated with Ford engines. Early GTE’s used the same four-cylinder engine that powered Ford’s American Pinto. By 1980 the SE6B, had just transitioned from the “Essex” 2.9L to the German built 2.8L “Cologne” V6 from the Capri. The Cologne introduced new levels of performance to the Scimitar, thanks to its healthy 135 hp. Although considered powerful for its day, the GTE could still deliver nearly 28 mpg.
It was fitting that the Capri would be the motivation for the Scimitar, because its face would mimic Ford’s popular ponycar. Although not the fastest, 0 to 60 times in the low 11 second range placed the Scimitar right in the middle of its class. Cars equipped with the 4-speed manual offered the best performance, but more Scimitar buyers were moving towards the Borg Warner 3- speed automatic by the 80’s. Top speed was 116 mph for the brave as only the front wheels had disc brakes while drums were fitted in the rear. Although similar to the Capri in some performance aspects, the Scimitar’s longer wheelbase allowed for a more comfortable ride, something expected in the executive class. Handling was stable over most road surfaces, thanks to an independent double wishbone front suspension with a rear trailing arm Watts linkage setup in back.
Luxury items became more commonplace. GTE models could be ordered with goodies like power mirrors, intermittent wipers and halogen lights. The interiors were upgraded with new interior fabrics and colors, while the general ergonomics remained boxy yet functional. There was also the option of an electric sunroof for those wanting to embrace the gloomy English weather. Practicality had always been a hallmark of the Scimitar, thanks to it’s fold down rear seats and unique hatch configuration. As much as 20 cubic feet of luggage space was available.
The least practical version of the GTE was the SE8 convertible. Mechanically it was similar to the coupe and looked like a drop top Capri from the front. In an example of how small English auto companies borrowed from each other, the tops came from the Triumph Stagg. The SE8 was unique in that it was a four seat coupe that still offered room for luggage when the top was down. Although not called targa tops, a version of the convertible with a detachable hard top was also available.
All Scimitar’s got a galvanized chassis for improved rust protection by the 80’s. Around that time, the Cologne V6 was replaced by a more modern 2.9L from the Ford Scorpio. Unfortunately for Reliant, the tides of the auto industry were not flowing in its favor as financial problems caught up with it. There were simply not enough Scimitar’s sold to keep the small company afloat. In total there were less than 1,000 SE6B/SE8 made with the ratio of coupe to convertibles being split almost evenly. Reliant sold its rights off to Graham Walker and began production under a new owner for a short period in 1988, only to close up shop for good shortly after.
Although they have a strong following and fan base, Scimitar GTE’s remain rare in England and rarer in the few markets outside the UK where they were sold. The ongoing globalization of the auto industry swept small auto makers like Reliant aside during the 80’s and 90’s. Today only a few independent specialty car builders remain in Britain.