D[/dropcap]espite being fast, fun, practical, durable, immensely strong and surely the car that has enjoyed the longest and most faithful Royal patronage, Scimitar GTEs have remained stubbornly cheap. They offer brilliant value for money and pundits have tipped them for decades as bargain classics. Princess Anne still owns and drives Middlebridge no.5 and supports the excellent Reliant Sabre Scimitar Owners’ Club (RSSOC), which you really ought to join if you’re thinking of buying one.
But increasing numbers of GTEs are being restored by enthusiasts and professionally, and this is finally having an effect on prices, with cars at both ends of production – SE5s and Middlebridge – showing significant upward trends, so you’ll need to act soon if you want one. Really good cars are few and far between and unless you’re happy with a project car it’s worth seeking out the best you can find because restoration costs still exceed final values. Nigel Palmer at QRG knows Scimitars inside out, supplying a vast range of parts and rebuilding them.
With a vast stock of secondhand parts, Graham Walker and his team have more than 30 years’ experience of repairing, restoring and selling Scimitars. Finally, Jim Pace is SE5/5a Registrar of the RSSOC.
Which one to choose?
SE5 1968-1971 A brilliant enlargement by Ogle’s Tom Karen of the V6 Scimitar Coupé with an all-new chassis by ex-BRM designer John Crosthwaite, the sports estate SE5 pioneered split-folding rear seats and a rear wiper. An electric radiator fan replaced the mechanical unit early in production. These cars have durable glassfibre bodywork and black (or tan from 1971) trim. The lusty 144bhp Ford Essex V6 gave 115/111mph and 10.2/11.3sec 0-60mph (manual/auto) and high gearing gave reasonable fuel economy; 2469 were built.
SE5a 1971-1975 Smoother and quieter, the 5a could top 120mph and do 0-60mph in 8.7sec. You could have beige interior trim, and electric windows were often fitted. In 1972 power went up by 7bhp; 6635 were built.
SE6 1975-1976 Reliant sharpened styling and made the GTE longer and wider for 1976, adding 4in to the wheelbase and 3in to the track. Dramatically improved rear seat space with bigger doors, moulded bumpers and better soundproofing added less than 100kg but (with emissions modifications) this took the edge off performance; 543 were built.
SE6a 1976-1980 A stronger scuttle, stiffer front springs and improved brakes and power steering; 3877 built. SE6b 1980-1986 Reliant followed Ford in fitting the Cologne 2.8 V6. A scuttle hoop improved stiffness while a simpler grille, side rubbing strips and bigger front spoiler were distinguishing features. Cooling was also improved. Chassis galvanising was adopted in 1981; 437 were built plus 442 GTC convertibles.
Middlebridge 1989-1990 Middlebridge bought the rights to the GTE and GTC and began production in 1989 with a 2.9 injected Ford V6 with a five-speed manual or four-speed auto and uprated suspension. One GTC and 77 GTEs were built before Middlebridge failed; Graham Walker assembled a few more.
Rot is the most likely cause of a Scimitar’s demise, even though the entire body is glassfibre. The chassis is immensely strong, as is the tubular rollover protection bonded into the body, but neither is immune to rust. Some can be repaired in situ but if rot is severe, especially on the top faces of the main rails (check for swelling/layering rust oxide between the top of the chassis rail and the glassfibre above), removing the body is the only option. Graham Walker sells galvanised rebuilt SE5a chassis for £2640, while QRG has new original galvanised 6b chassis at £3k.
Other areas to check on the chassis are the front box metalwork around the radiator and bumper mounts (remove spare wheel to check), SE6-on bottom front wishbone brackets (cracks and rot here can be dangerous), chassis side rails and chassis outriggers – especially the round ones in front of the rear wheels that carry the radius arm mounts and bolt to the rollover bars – plus the links between chassis and rear seat belt mounts and the rear diagonals either side of the fuel tank. All the steel reinforcements in the body can suffer from condensation leading to rust. As well as the rollover protection, the A-posts, sills on 5/5a (bulging sills are a sure sign of rot), window apertures and door hinge supports inside the doors can rot.
It’s all labour-intensive to repair: typical replacement of both A-posts at QRG costs £1800. The top of the huge 75/90-litre fuel tank is another favourite rot spot, as are the heater fan boxes behind the headlights on SE6 and later. A new fuel tank is £430. Chassis were galvanised from 1981 (including Middlebridge) but the fixings are mild steel and can still rot.
Glassfibre bodywork is durable, but crazing from stress and impact damage is unsightly and time- consuming to eradicate, making a respray potentially more expensive than on a steel-bodied car. Check for poor repairs. New panels are available.
Trim items unique to the GTE can be hard or impossible to find, though the situation is improving: formerly unobtainable SE5/5a rear bumpers are available as a car set in stainless steel for £900.
Interior trim is mostly unobtainable new. Soft trim can be refurbished, replaced or upgraded by a competent trimmer; it was black vinyl only at first, though leather (and tan) soon became optional on the SE5, then blue on the SE6. More options followed.
The 5a had a vacuum-formed dashboard that’s prone to cracking and is unobtainable new; glassfibre replacements have been produced in the past, and Walker has a few salvageable secondhand originals.
Engine The low-revving Essex V6 has few weaknesses beyond its fibre timing gear, which eventually strips. For decades only noisy steel replacements were
available, but current alloy replacements (£199) are ‘50 per cent quieter than steel, but still 50 per cent noisier than the originals’, says Nigel Palmer. Without additives cylinder heads will need hardened valve seat inserts if you habitually drive much over 3000rpm.
The Cologne 2.8 V6 on the SE6b is less torquey but more free-revving, so Reliant fitted a lower axle ratio; Middlebridge used the injected 2.9 version. Expect 40-plus psi oil pressure at 2000rpm hot. Poor performance is usually down to a worn camshaft; cams and followers wear quickly if oil changes are neglected. All engine parts are available and a specialist rebuild of a worn engine costs £3-5k-6k.
Overall gearing was high, especially on the automatic. This was initially the ubiquitous Borg Warner 35, which suited the car well and is cheap and easy to rebuild at about £750. A Ford C3 automatic box replaced it during SE5a production, which can be rebuilt by a specialist for around £1500. Manual cars used a Ford gearbox with overdrive on third and top, giving six useful ratios and 2700rpm at 70mph. A dragging clutch may mean a bent dutch release fork, a gearbox-out job. Budget £600-1500 for a gearbox rebuild if needed, plus fitting. Middlebridge used the Ford Type 9 five-speed.
Brakes were excellent, with servo assistance and dual circuit by the SE6. The front discs were unique on SE6s but are available new from specialists, and new Girling calipers for SE5-6 have been reintroduced at £107 each.
Cooling system becomes marginal over time. A new radiator should fix overheating, but simply installing a new or bigger electric fan won’t. The SE6 and 6a benefit from adding an expansion bottle.
Suspension is derived from the Triumph TR6 at the front and is at the limit of its load capability, requiring frequent lubrication and bush replacement; Polybush conversion is worthwhile. Radius arms, coil springs and a Watt linkage give excellent location to the Salisbury live rear axle. A limited-slip differential was optional. Noisy axles can be rebuilt for £1700-plus.
Electrics can be troublesome because the glassfibre body requires individual earths for everything. The fusebox can also suffer from poor connections.
The brilliant Scimitar design combines sporty performance with an estate car rear end that makes It a useful load lugger. Cabin trim is mostly unobtainable new. Fords Essex and Cologne V6 engines are robust and reliable units, and availability is good. It may have glassfibre bodywork but rust is still the Scimitar’s most deadly enemy if it takes hold in the chassis or the tubular rollover protection inside the body.
What to pay
1 Prices of the SE5/6 are led by condition and specification rather than model or year. Examples of all in need of restoration can be picked up for £500, really good examples are £4k-5k, while exceptional cars in high spec with a good history and colour scheme can command well over £10k or even £20k.
2 An exceptional, fully-restored Middlebridge has sold for more than £30k but £15k-20k is more normal for a really good example and £8k-12k for a good running example. Rough projects are £4k-5k. ‘The GTE offers brilliant value for money and pundits have tipped them for decades as bargain classics’ ‘Prices of both early and late cars are showing significant upward trends, so act soon if you want one’.
Owning a Scimitar
John Parker, Bristol
A chance conversation with my barber in 2004 led me to buy this SE5a locally for just £350. It was towed to my local garage which rebuilt the front suspension and brakes. I finally drove it in 2005. It was a manual, but I bought a scrap Scimitar for £50 for the parts and converted it to automatic.
I put it in for body repairs and a respray in 2009. It’s a glorious yellow – the painter couldn’t match the original paint code but this is very close. I got the car back in July 2010 and spent the next three years working through reassembly, making my own carpets and improving all manner of details. I’m very happy driving it. My MoT man spotted play in the lower steering coupling last year so I fitted a new one from QRG and it transformed the handling. We’ve taken it to France for RSSOC internationals and up to Durham this year. It flies up the motorway, though I prefer driving it on winding country lanes. I’ve spent a lot on it and will never get that back, but I’m very happy with it.
Terry Rickard, Bristol
I bought my very early Ivory Beige, manual-plus-overdrive, manual-steering SE6a at the end of 1985 when it was only nine years old. Since then it has been used almost continuously, sometimes as my daily driver. Initially I concentrated on mechanical repairs and maintenance to get it running well, then in 1993, at just over 100k miles, I did an in-situ engine rebuild, changing the big end and main bearing shells and the piston rings. It has since had gas-flowed, unleaded cylinder heads, a high-torque camshaft and a steel timing wheel fitted.
The car had been resprayed before I got it – badly; the paint was blistered and peeling off in places. It was resprayed with two-pack paint in 1996, still Ivory Beige.
By 2014 it was in need of serious body and chassis work so was stripped out completely, the body lifted off for glassfibre repairs, and the chassis shot-blasted and weld-repaired. The doors were split and the internal steel-work, which had expanded with rust, was replaced with stainless steel and the inner and outer door halves were re-joined with glassfibre. I am still rebuilding the car, which should be on the road next spring just in time for its tax-free historic registration.
Will Anderson, Moray
I bought my first SE5a in the late Seventies. I still have it, though it’s laid up now. I bought another 5a in 2002 which I’ve been doing up over the years, but I’d wanted a Middlebridge since they were being built new. I’m Middlebridge Registrar for the RSSOC. I bought my first in 2012. There are so few that you have to buy whatever comes up – I’d wanted metallic blue, auto and leather, but ended buying a red manual car with velour. I’ve changed it to leather but kept it red because it grew on me.
It was overhauled by Graham Walker at 145,000 miles and given a new gearbox, but the engine is original. It’s now on 196,000 miles and has been faultless. The engine’s never been touched but I’ve put on new springs and dampers all-round. The Middlebridge is a great cruiser, with a more luxurious feel than the SE5a; that feels more sporting, but the Middlebridge is also fairly quick off the mark when it needs to be. It’s reliable, easy to look after and cheap to keep. I’ve thought about selling the 5a but each time I get in it and drive it I think, ‘No, I know why I bought this car and I’m keeping it.’ It’s such an enjoyable drive!
1985 Reliant Scimitar GTE Se6b – £5950
‘Excellent mechanical condition, faultlessly maintained by marque specialist QRG during my ownership. Major works last year totalling £3500. Good oil pressure, punchy 2.8-litre Cologne engine, responsive handling. Original unaltered interior in good overall condition. External paintwork fair, some crazing, doors need hinge adjustments.’