The cars : Reliant Scimitar GTE development story

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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.


Three-door world-beater

1972 Reliant Scimitar: the ultimate sporting hold-all?
1972 Reliant Scimitar: the ultimate sporting hold-all?

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, as produced by Autocars of Israel, as 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.

Reliant Scimitar GT
Reliant Scimitar GT

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 1965 Triplex Ogle GTS
The 1965 Triplex Ogle GTS

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.

Styling sketch from 1967 shows the rising window line and panoramic roof window, which only made it onto the 1968 Ogle concept.
Styling sketch from 1967 shows the rising window line and panoramic roof window, which only made it onto the 1968 Ogle 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

Reliant Scimitar GTE - or GT/E as it was originally known as
Reliant Scimitar GTE – or GT/E as it was originally known

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

1975 Reliant Scimitar GTE
1975 Reliant Scimitar GTE

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

1980 Reliant Scimitar GTC
1980 Reliant Scimitar GTC

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 fewer than 100 were built before the Middlebridge operation folded in 1989.

The fifth car off the line was sold to long-time The production rights were once again sold – this time to main dealer Graham Walker Limited,  which would build you one to order. What is the company up to now? Well, the Chester-based dealership is still “the largest Scimitar Specialist in the World” but now trades as Graham Walker Sports and Prestige and offers a wide range of performance and prestige used cars.

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!

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Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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35 Comments

  1. I still see the odd Scimitar around from time to time. In the 1970’s a former colleague told me that when he and our boss were driving along a motorway one day in the company Cortina, a Scimitar followed behind before overtaking – it was driven by Princess Anne with a Police security officer(?) in the passenger seat.

    The body design still looks good, even nowadays…

  2. I ran a GTE for two years and I would easily have another one again.

    It was a pity that it was never taken seriously. It was one of the best cars I ever owned.

  3. i live in crewe and pass one most days in the week, think its x reg 1982? did they do a rover v8 powered model aswell. i own a sd1 v8 past 22 years. is that mad ??

  4. When I was at school my best friend’s parents had one of these, thanks to his Dad being into cars.

    Quite fun to be driven around in even if the rear seats were a squeeze even for 2 6 year olds.

    Eventually they got a Jaguar XJS & also did up a Hillman Imp & Jensen Healy.

  5. @5 – There was a guy with a V8 doing the rounds in the south Birmingham area in the 80’s, a Black car and it sounded great, I would have thought its a pretty straight forward conversion. I wonder if anyone did a Broadspeed Turbo conversion like the TVR with the same V6 engine?

  6. I had an SE5a Lovley car, not at all bad on fuel either with the overdrive! I think the main issue is though was the fibreglass was so so, and the used the moulds too long as the bodies often took on a wavy appearance even when new. But id love another one, to do a V8 conversion using the 2.5 litre turner engine sitting in dads feild attaced to a very very very rusty Mk2 jag (however it is a runner)

  7. There was never a factory V8 GTE, or any reliant but there have been many that have been modified with one

  8. Was the rear-end styling the inspiration for the Austin Allegro Estate launched in 1975? The rear pillar is similar.

  9. Looked fabulous and it was a trend-setter. What a pity they didn’t follow it up with an upmarket replacement instead of bringing out the SS1. Amazing to think this came from same company that produced the 3-wheelers, but for a while it showed that the name Reliant could be aspirational. Scimitar and Bond Bug, produced at the same time by the same company: surely the foundation for better things?

  10. A clever concept, this was a car which a cross between a sports coupe and an estate car, and Ford running gear and rustproof fibreglass bodies ensured it was relatively cheap to own. It’s a shame that the Scimitar is overlooked now as the benefits of a fibreglass body means no rust and using Ford drivetrains mean spares are easy to find if you want one as a classic.

  11. Amazing how prescient the panoramic roof is, looking at modern cars. I wonder if that’s a protected concept…

  12. 12 – I was thinking almost the same thing a few days ago.

    The mid 1980s seemed to be a tricky time for cheapish sporty cars other than hot hatches, so I guess they decided to play safe.

  13. “Hardly see any around now, why is that?”

    If you smack a fibre glass shell then it’s difficult to repair. Whereas a steel shell can be straightened out and have new panels welded on, once you severely damage a GRP shell it’s often only fit for the bin. You can repair localised damage, but any major damage and it’s pretty much a case of moulding a new shell.

    Also while GRP doesn’t rust, like a steel shell, the steel inserts moulded into it (for fixing and carrying components) usually do and they can be difficult to repair, left too long and the rusting steel swells and damages the surrounding GRP.

    Osmosis is something else GRP can suffer from, UV damage can break down the resins again making for a difficult repair. Once the protective gel coat goes the resin starts to break down.

    It’s a lot like Boats, old GRP ones are normally worth much less than old wooden or steel ones, as the latter can both be repaired simply. Whereas GRP will last a long time, when it finally does go it’s very difficult to restore.

  14. My Scimmie, OLGa was a 3.1 tuned 200hp rocket, vulcan head, powermax pistons, ported and balanced, drove it through two gearboxes during the late 1980s and nothing could catch it. Smelt a bit on the inside, headlining a bit ropey, seats a tadge too vinyl but the straight line performance was staggering. On the A33 uphill from Reading to Basingstoke it would leave any early 90s car for dead. OLGa doesn’t exist anymore so this is her eulogy. My mate Kevin Walden had her next and he loved her a much as me, he died a few days ago and during his eulogy they mentioned OLGa. So I am just returning the favour. Thanks for the opportunity.

  15. I ran a 1978 GTE for several years and I would easily have another one again- except my old bones would find it hard to climb out of!
    Sadly never taken seriously by just about anyone –could it be the Reliant monica that did it?. It was the most fun on four wheels I have ever had, predictable rear wheel drive (good on the roundabouts!) and long loping cruising with the overdrive box. Loved it!

  16. Russell @ 18 – well, possibly, but that’s kinda what I was getting at in terms of the relatively recent appearance of such roofs on cars… I appreciate that the massive ones like the Astra and C3’s continuous windscreen may have had a technological barrier to overcome, but the “glass roof with a conventional windscreen fram” seems to have taken a long time to make it into mainstream cars, given how long ago and how often it resurfaced on concepts.

  17. In terms of “why didn’t they sell”… this is a recollection, but some context:

    My dad bought British cars. BL cars, in fact, having had prior to Marinas a Reliant Supervan, a Berkeley T60 (bike licences…) and a Karmann-Ghia Type 3 (don’t ask the fate, I cry if I think about it). He had a Marina 1.8TC, a 1.3, an Allegro estate, a Maxi 2 and an Ambassador. The Ambassador was the final straw and he switched to Audi.

    So he’s a bloke who had his own business, he wasn’t totally car-ignorant, and he was driving German when German was still expensive and exotic.

    When looking at cars to replace, I am guessing, his Passat around ’86, I was championing the Manta and he was distracted by a neighbour’s recent acquisition of a GTC. He was a photographer, so needed space. I am fairly sure that he dismissed the still-available (not sure if it was Middlebridge by then, but it was based on ‘long-term awareness’) Scimitar GTE as being too expensive whilst still expressing a liking for them.

    So whether or not it was the badge shaping that, I can’t say, but the impression I grew up with wasn’t that the Scimitar GTE was an undesirable car – far from it – but that it was an expensive car.

  18. I loved these and always wanted one just don’t have anywhere to store it or the money at the mo.

    The other reason there are not many on the road is the chassis was never rust proofed so they just disentigrate. However you can now buy the whole chassis or GRP body parts brand new to order.

  19. Handsome, capable vehicle. There were two parked outside the garage I visited to MOT my bike today. One was in bits though and the other had been badly modified

  20. Great to see this review of a seriously under-valued car. I had one in the mid 80’s and it was at the same time one of the best cars I’ve ever owned (for sheer fun) and also the worst (for difficulty of working on it!)
    I also owned it throughout the 1984-5 Miner’s strike, and since all of our policemen were away in Yorkshire beating up pickets, and Gatso cameras were yet to be invented, meant that speeds of 120mph could be freqently enjoyed without worry. Princess Anne was also well known for similar high speeds in her Scimitar and famously got nicked in it several times. The lusty Essex V6 was also so torquey that it could pull direct 4th from 16mph to 120mph without changing gear if you so wished! Some people slotted Rover V8’s in, but this always seemed a bit pointless to me.
    I’d love another – I almost bought a GTC once, but don’t tell my wife.
    Cheers, David

  21. Interesting article.
    The GTE name also resurfaced again at Tom Karen’s Ogle company when it was comissioned by GM to style the Astra GTE!

  22. Was it so under-rated? For a small car company from Tamworth, I felt it got plenty of coverage in the eighties when I was growing up.
    I don’t remember reading in the motoring press then that it was overlooked, and there were then still many on the roads.

    When opening the glass screen on the boot of my ZT-T, and if I’m not thinking this is my shooting-brake, I’m thinking this is my GTE!

  23. My mum’s cousin worked for a Ford dealers in Liverpool in the late 60’s/early 70’s and one of the bosses had an SE5 – apparently, the radio didn’t work because the carburettor setup interfered with the signal…It could still do 100mph on the motorway though!!

  24. How did these compare price-wise to a Capri V6?

    Is it a myth that the earlier country set owners found the handling was improved by keeping a bail of straw in the boot?

  25. A car I do have a real fondness for. I once spotted a lhd convertible Scimitar on french plates at the Avignon Motor Festival. Its Dutch owner told he had had the dash converted in the Netherlands for 15,000 €…

  26. Not sure that association with HRH princess Anne does much for their street cred. Also as has been said making a car from GRP does nothing for its rust resistance it the chassis and body mounting points aren’t galvanized or stainless; Lotus Eclats, Elites and the Matra Bagheera all suffered from this issue.
    Another problem with the Scimitar is the horribly low quality interiors and woeful economics. Great concept- better packaging needed; give me a P1800ES thanks, although the usual Volvo quality wasn’t entirely evident in them…..

  27. I have one, it’s a 1974 se5a in black. It’s been off the road since 1999 as a non runner sitting in my garage!

    I know I should sell it but I can’t bring myself to part with it, so it just sits there.

    I love the shape of the car and when it was running it gave modern cars a run for their money.

    I would like to get it running again but it need a new engine and lots of TLC fixes.

    Rich

  28. I have currently have an SE5a from 1975/6. Its on a historic tax (free) and costs me £130 a year to insure. Great for a 3 litre V6.

    But it is over 40 years old and these cars are just coming out of the ‘old banger’ phase, where they have often been run on a shoestring and bodged.

    Prices are just on the rise, slowly. Mine is a rolling restoration. But I still get plenty of positive comments. Plenty of work to do to get up to speed, but still eminently drivable.

    But I have 16 previous owners and the last couple were not averse to a bodge or two to get a ‘Mates’ MOT.

    Usual caveats apply with classics, buy the best you can afford, but keep some cash back for the odd surprise.

    A great car for the home mechanic or enthusiast.

    A heart breaker if you are paying someone else to fix it.

    Steve

  29. It was regular transport for a former jockey turned private eye( usually exposing horse racing touts and gangsters) in a 1979 ITV series called The Racing Game. That’s my main memory of the Scimitar, and Princess Anne was caught speeding in one.

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