The Scimitar started out as a two-door coupe, but soon evolved into something far more innovative.
We pull together the brief, but fascinating story of one of Britain’s most underrated sporting hold-alls.
Reliant Scimitar GTE: three-door world-beater
As a British success story, the Reliant Scimitar GTE remains one of the industry’s best-kept secrets. It’s also seemingly eternally underrated, with a loyal band of owners singing its praises, and everyone else agreeing it was a great idea… and yet, current values do not reflect the car’s influence on the wider automotive scene. The GTE remains a clever and capacious sports car, and one that sported a huge number of imitators – and yet, greatness eludes it.
Although few people realise it, Reliant’s first ever sports car was the Sabra Sport, produced by Autocars of Israel and launched in 1961. That car’s creation was masterminded by Autocars’ Managing Director, Itzhak Shubinsky, who bought the Ashley GT design and gave Reliant the task of re-engineering it for sale in the USA.
It proved less than successful, with fewer than 150 of these making it to the USA – but it did convince Reliant in the UK, that it had the wherewithal to produce its own sports car – leading to the 1961-’63 Sabre.
With that project considered a success by Reliant – idea to sports car production in just over a year – the company’s management wanted to build a more upmarket sports car. The story behind the Ogle SX250’s creation was told by Tom Karen in an excellent article by Giles Chapman for Octane magazine.
In short, Boris Forter, a Director of the Helena Rubenstein cosmetics company, commissioned David Ogle to build him a personalised car, with the added incentive that this supposed one-off could be replicated in limited numbers for Forter’s friends. There were some requirements, as suggested by his friend Jaguar dealer Syd Creamer, such as the use of the Daimler SP250’s chassis and V8 engine – but he also wanted the car to be able to top 120mph.
Ogle began work on the car but, before the project bore fruit, David was killed at the wheel of his SX1000 en route to Brands Hatch in May 1962. Ogle’s business partner, John Ogier, hired ex-Ford Designer Tom Karen to oversee the completion of the design – and, remarkably, they had the first SX250 up and running and ready for display at the October 1962 Earls Court Motor Show. That car was the followed by one for Forter, and then a subsequent one for his mistress, Jean Hart.
The intention was to build six cars, but no other buyers could be found, and that led to Ogier into conversations with Reliant. Initially, he offered the SX1000 to the Tamworth company. In 2010, Tom Karen said, ‘we approached Reliant in 1963 with a view to them making the Ogle Mini, but Reliant was already making the Sabre and suggested adapting the SX250’s body to fit this chassis. That was how the Reliant Scimitar GT coupe was born.’
From Ogle to Reliant
The deal was struck between Ogle and Reliant and, following a two-year gestation, the first Scimitar GT went on sale in 1964, after being launched at the Earls Court Motor Show. It would be the start of a long-lasting relationship.
It wasn’t a straightforward job converting the SX250 into the latest Reliant – not least because the Ogle’s GRP body panels were married with a conventional chassis, while Reliant’s construction made much more extensive use of glassfibre. The costly – and lusty – Daimler V8 was also replaced by the Ford inline-six, as used in the Sabre.
Between 1964 and 1966 around 300 of the first SE4 series Scimitar GTs were built, proving something of a success for Reliant – which was still best-known for its economy cars and three-wheeler Regal. Priced at a competitive £1292, and boasting a maximum speed of almost 120mph, the GT4 proved the relevance – and success – of Fortier’s original idea, even if he’d not benefit from it.
In 1966, the Ford Zodiac engine was replaced by the three-litre Ford Essex V6, taking the engine capacity up to 2994cc, and power to almost 140bhp. The more compact engine meant it could be mounted further back in the chassis, and thus improved weight distribution and handling. The SE4a/b and SE4c models certainly established Reliant as a serious player in the UK GT market, selling well over 600 copies in two-years.
Autocar magazine’s summary of the GT was typically dry, but hinted at this car’s overall appeal: ‘At a Glance – High performance 2+2 coupe. Lusty, low-revving engine in conjunction with high gearing gives effortless cruising at three-figure speeds. Good gear change, but rather wide ratios. Smooth, light clutch. Ride and handling very good, and much improved over the earlier car. Light, accurate steering and first-class brakes with powerful servo. Ventilation improved but still not ideal. Fuel and range very good.’
However, the truly exciting variations were just around the corner.
The idea of a three-door Scimitar certainly came about as the result of the Triplex Ogle GTS (Glazing Test Special). This special-bodied SE4 was produced following Triplex Glass Company’s desire to promote its new Sundym laminated glass.
The company approached Ogle to build a prototype that would suitably show-off the properties of this new safety glass (something they did later with great success with the 10-20 Special and Princess-based 10-20 Special Glassback). In short, it was a Scimitar SE4 with a heat-absorbing glass roof, curved round side windows and laminated heated front and rear windows. In total, the car was clad in a total of 43 square feet of safety glass.
The car was shown at the London Motor Show at Earls Court in 1965, and was then acquired by Prince Philip, who used it as his own car. As publicity goes, this was as good as it gets – and it certainly led to its creator, Tom Karen, thinking in terms of an expansion of the concept.
Reliant loved the GTS, and asked Tom Karen of Ogle to come up with a production-viable expansion of the concept. He immediately began working on the new four-seater. There was never any intention to glaze it as extensively as the GTS, but what Karen wanted to do was give the new car an identity all of its own – and that was when he came up with the idea of the rising waistline.
The concept was honed by Ogle Designer Peter Bailey, and rapidly translated into full-sized mock-ups. Reliant’s Managing Director, Ray Wiggin, Chief Engineer John Crosthwaite and glassfibre body expert Ken Wood visited Ogle’s base in Letchworth to view the Karen mock-ups, choosing one, approving it for production.
GTE shown in London
Again, within an almost impossibly tight timescale, the new car, christened Scimitar GTE (and known also as the SE5) was developed for production by Reliant – with its public debut taking place at the 1968 London Motor Show.
From full-sized mock-up to production reality, very few styling details were changed, these being the front light/grille layout and the rear air vents which were moved from above the rear screen and fitted adjacent to the rear lights. All changes were made as a result of close collaboration between Ogle and Reliant.
In engineering terms, a great deal was changed in the transition from SE4 to SE5. John Crosthwaite and his team designed a new chassis frame, and fitted revised and improved suspension. A new and relocated fuel tank now boasting 17 gallons for an extended touring range was fitted, and, most importantly, full-sized rear seats and an opening glass tailgate were fitted. Clearly, the Scimitar GTE was going to hit the market without any direct rivals.
Unusually, the Reliant Scimitar GTE’s launch was complemented by Ogle showing its own version of the car. In a press release to accompany the Ogle Scimitar GTE, its creator said: ‘The new and exciting 3-litre Scimitar by Ogle, based on the Reliant GTE, incorporates a number of extra features which give this new concept car an even more futuristic look. Apart from the large windscreen and glass roof over the front seats, the most striking difference is the frontal grille area.
‘The Ogle Scimitar has a concealed headlamp system which embodies four of the new Lucas “all-glass” rectangular sealed beam units, with electrically operated shutters. These 60/60 watt light units are a result of two years development work, and offer all the advantages already associated with the sealed beam principle. When the headlamp shutters are closed, the light units are fully protected and the full frontal area of the car has a flowing and distinctive appearance.’
As before, the Reliant Scimitar GTE was powered by the Ford Essex V6 in 2.5- and 3.0-litre forms, and that was lusty enough to give the new car a 120mph maximum and a 0-60mph time of 8.5 seconds (claimed). Autocar magazine would later conclude in its 1973 road test: ‘The latest version of glassfibre GT offers effortless cruising and over 100mph in third, thanks to the improved Ford Granada engine and close-ratio gearbox. Balanced handling, good wet road grip and responsive but heavy steering are also bonuses, as are practical load capacity and long range.
‘Not least of the Scimitar’s advantages is that its sturdy box section chassis and glassfibre body should ensure it an extended life, free from corrosion, although little or no protection to the chassis was noted when we inspected the underneath on the hoist. The GTE offers adequate accommodation, a high standard of safety, and caters for those who want to travel fast and far.’
In short, it was the ultimate car for GT man – but without the huge cost of the usual four-seater supercars.
A story of continued development
The Scimitar’s subsequent story become one of continued development to keep abreast of changing fashions and engine supplies. In 1971, the SE5a was launched and, although it looked very similar externally, it received a new dashboard and a later version of the Essex V6, reflecting the upgrades it had acquired to accompany the introduction of the new Granada.
The first major changes to the GTE were reserved for the SE6 upgrade of 1975. It’s here that the car’s move upmarket was cemented. By this time, the Scimitar’s influence on other manufacturers was becoming more apparent, with the arrival of the Gilbern Invader estate in 1970, Volvo P1800ES in 1972, the Lotus Elite in 1974 and the Lancia Beta HPE in 1975.
But the SE6 was designed to be more profitable for its maker – it was wider, longer and heavier – and was more easily identified by its bold 1970’s front-end styling, safety bumpers and far roomier interior. However, with a higher list price, came sterner rivals, and the once amiable build niggles which could be laughed off in a value product, became something more serious in a car with an executive-sized price tag.
That car became the SE6A following some minor upgrades in 1976, and then the SE6B in 1979. It’s the latter that ushered in the biggest changes, with the arrival of the 2.8-litre Ford Cologne engine in fuel-injected form, to up the power from 138bhp to 160bhp. The additional power went some way to offset the additional weight that had blighted the Scimitar since it grew up in 1975…
Scimitar drops its top
In 1980, and after a three-year gestation period, the Reliant Scimitar GTC (or SE8) was revealed. As before, the car was styled by Tom Karen’s Ogle company and, once again, the final product was good looking and innovative. Considering it was based on the SE6B, the GTC was an altogether different proposition, being a full-sized convertible with a practically-shaped boot. The GTC was new from the B-post back, and received plenty of under the skin bracing to reduce the effects of body-flex.
Just as Triumph discovered back in the 1960s with the development of the Stag, bracing would be needed in addition to the under-floor stiffening. So, the roll hoop from the GTE was retained and, for additional support, this was linked to extra tubes running around the front screen creating a T-bar design that would ensure the rigidity of the new body design. It was so close in concept to that of the Stag, that commentators at the time considered the GTC as the spiritual successor to the ill-fated Triumph.
Sadly, though – and despite favourable road tests – the GTC failed to find favour on the marketplace. The UK in 1980 was a rough place to be selling anything even mildly flamboyant and, as a consequence, a mere 442 open-topped Scimitars were built between its launch and its death in 1986. Following the launch of the Scimitar SS1 in 1984, the company had decided that the GTE’s days were over anyway – and, after a production run of 14,273, the Scimitar was dead.
Middlebridge steps in… and out
…Except that it wasn’t.
The Scimitar’s story didn’t end with Reliant’s decision to stop making it in 1986. It sold the manufacturing rights to Middlebridge Scimitar Limited, which decided to reintroduce an upgraded version of the car. In 1987, a 2.9-litre five-speed Scimitar was unveiled and the fifth car off the line was purchased by HRH the Princess Royal – a loyal owner, this car was her ninth Scimitar. However, only 77 were built before the Middlebridge operation folded in 1989.
The production rights were once again sold – this time to Chester-based former main dealer Graham Walker Limited. The company is still ‘the largest Scimitar Specialist in the World’ and continues to make or restore them to order, but now trades as Graham Walker Sports and Prestige and, in addition, offers a wide range of performance and prestige used cars for sale.
The Scimitar GT, GTE and GTC, though, remain curiously undervalued and underappreciated in today’s fashion-conscious classic car market. Given just how ground-breaking the original GTE was when it was unveiled in 1968, this is one of the scene’s strangest enigmas.
Perhaps in time, and thanks to that well-known Royal link, the situation will change but, right now, and given it’s possible to buy a perfectly serviceable SE6 for not much more than £2000, it’s hard not to take advantage of the this unfashionable fashion-leader. It has to be cheaper than buying the car’s nearest new counterpart – the Ferrari GTC4Lusso!
- Concepts and prototypes : Hyundai/Rover Oden (1992) - 9 November 2023
- Opinion : So, maybe the Montego was the best they could do… - 8 November 2023
- The cars : Austin Montego (LM11) development story - 7 November 2023