The Reliant Scimitar SE5 combines practicality with sporting performance in a stylishly beguiling package. Best of all, prices are temptingly low at the moment.
The letters ‘GTE’ in this classic’s purposeful-sounding name stand for Grand Touring Estate, and what a good idea Reliant had when they got Tom Karen at Ogle to create a versatile sports estate with four proper seats out of their earlier Scimitar GT coupé! It wasn’t long before Volvo and Lancia also got in on the act with very similar concepts, but the GTE was always the one to beat.
Announced in October 1968, the Reliant Scimitar GTE SE5 boasted a 3.0-litre Ford V6 engine that gave 115mph and 25mpg. From 1972, a useful increase in engine power nudged the top speed up to 120mph and got the car there faster, too. The four-speed Ford manual gearbox (with or without overdrive), was standard fitment, but from late 1969 there was also a Borg Warner 35 automatic option, and, from 1973, a much better Ford C3 auto. These later cars were designated SE5a, with design changes to the grille, rear lights and interior.
In total, Reliant built 4311 SE5s and 5015 SE5a models, so there are plenty to choose from, not least as the GRP bodyshell is impervious to rust.
At the wheel
If the Scimitar is good enough for Princess Anne – she’s owned eight of them – then it’s certainly good enough for us, and there’s much to enjoy behind the wheel of this distinctive sporting estate. And much of the pleasure to be had comes courtesy of the smooth and torquey ‘Essex’ V6 that nestles in the nose, the ubiquitous Ford unit endowing the Scimitar with a decent turn of speed and relaxed cruising ability. With a smidgeon less than 130bhp on offer (the 5a got an extra 7bhp), it’ll hit 60mph in around 12 seconds so it never feels lacking amongst the cut and thrust of modern traffic while the 152lb/ft of torque that peaks at just 3000rpm means there’s always plenty of low-down urge on tap. Teamed with the smooth-shifting 3-speed automatic gearbox that arrived a couple of years after launch it’s an easy-going town companion. The four-speed manual ‘box – especially with overdrive – makes the best of the power on offer though so that’s the one to go for if you prefer a more sporting and involving drive. Either way you’ll benefit from the same capable chassis that makes the Reliant so enjoyable to punt along when things turn twisty, helped by accurate rack and pinion steering that proves well-weighted in town allied to good feedback on the open road if you’re tempted to press on. The overall handling balance is a neutral one so it feels thoroughly safe and secure whatever the conditions, although there’s enough power available to shift the tail on slippery roads if you’re feeling more extrovert. The disc/drum braking set-up means stopping is drama-free though.
Things are just as enjoyable on the inside with plentiful room for passengers and luggage and a comfortable driving position. The compact fascia helps with the feeling of space up front and it’s well stocked with dials and switches which adds to the upmarket ambience, while the SE5a got leather seats as standard giving a suitably luxurious feel. But whichever model you choose it’s the blend of practicality and sporting appeal that makes the Scimitar such a useable and entertaining classic.
Reliant Scimitar SE5
Power [email protected]
Torque 152lb [email protected]
Top speed 110mph
Gearbox 4-speed manual/3-speed automatic
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Bodywork condition is crucial and while glassfibre construction means no panel rust to worry about, metal strengthening inserts in the SE5 shell can corrode leading to cracks. Every panel needs a thorough examination for cracks and crazing – concentrating on stress points such as hinges and the like – and for signs of bodged accident repairs. Equally important is the condition of the paintwork as a full re-spray is trickier and more costly than with a steel body. Watch for signs of micro-blistering, and ensure that a previous re-spray hasn’t been done to cover damage. And although parts availability is generally good, items such as window rubbers, rear bumpers on the ‘5’, and rear light units (shared with the Hillman Hunter) are scarce. You can spot a 5a by the reversing lamps incorporated in the light cluster rather than below the rear bumper.
The chassis wasn’t galvanised leading to a variety of potential rot-spots. Examine the main chassis rails and outriggers, the seat belt mounting points, and around the fuel tank (including the tank itself) although the latter is hard to access completely with the tank in place. The roll-over bar running across the car and bolting to the central outriggers is another rust trap so check it thoroughly, and you should also pay attention to the area beneath the radiator and the spare wheel well in the nose. A galvanised replacement chassis is around £2000.
The V6 is durable with regular maintenance so you’re really just looking for signs of neglect. Check for oil leaks, excessive exhaust smoke, and evidence of head gasket failure, and ensure the cooling system is up to scratch. And expect oil pressure of at least 40psi when warm – anything less could point to a worn oil pump drive. The fibre timing wheel was a weak point and most have been replaced with an aluminium item by now, but it’s worth checking, and don’t worry about tales of engine fires; it was a carburettor issue cured years ago, and as long as the fuel inlet pipe at the carb is secure – later ones were modified – it’ll be fine. Weber or Solex items were fitted although the latter can be harder to keep in tune so may have been replaced.
The 4-speed manual ‘box can suffer from crunchy shifts and jumping out of gear but any problems will be apparent on the test drive. Overdrive was added from ’71 and improves cruising ability but check it cuts in and out as it should, and check the clutch hydraulics for signs of leaks. The Borg Warner 35 automatic added from 1970 should be smooth-shifting but may be in need of a re-build by now so budget accordingly if shifts are jerky. There are no real concerns with the Salisbury back axle but a quick check for oil leaks is worthwhile.
STEERING & BRAKES
The steering and brakes present few worries other than wear and tear and parts are cheap, but the suspension needs more careful checking. It’s a Triumph TR4A set-up at the front and the trunnions need greasing every six months to avoid excess wear and subsequent breakage. Worn bushes can be an issue too and while not difficult to sort it will be labour-intensive. Check the mounting points for corrosion as well.
INTERIOR & TRIM
Interior condition is another important factor so check it carefully.
The black vinyl trim in SE5s was replaced by leather in the ‘5a’ and both can be sorted by a competent trimmer – at a price; and the moulded plastic dashboard in the ‘5a’ can crack, although there’s a reasonable supply of second-hand parts. Ensure minor trim parts are present and correct and check the electrics too as poor earths and aged wiring cause a multitude of niggling problems, although the electric windows in a 5a were always fairly slow so don’t worry. Other issues to watch for include broken front seat frames and excessive creaks and rattles that can signify a tired example.
Considering the space, practicality, and comfort on offer the Scimitar is almost criminally undervalued. But that’s good news for buyers and as long as you check the condition of the bodywork and interior there’s little to fear with this sporting estate. With such an appealing blend of attributes we like it a lot, and the chances are you will too.
Specialists and owners will tell you what great value the Scimitar represents, and looking at the SE5 prices here we’re inclined to agree. Taking on a restoration basket case requires bravery and deep pockets, but you don’t have to spend much to secure an example in satisfyingly useable condition.