Tom Karen talks about designing the Reliant Scimitar GTE

Tom Karen talks about designing the Scimitar GTE

The Scimitar GTE was as elegant as it was innovative, attracting many admiring glances when it was unveiled at the London Motor Show in October 1968. Styled by the charismatic Dr Tom Karen of Ogle Design, it was trendsetting and practical, tailor-made for people who sought style, space and performance. Other manufacturers quickly followed suit. Gilbern announced its Invader Estate in 1970, Volvo launched its 1800ES in 1972 and Lancia introduced the Beta HPE three years later. Better yet, among Reliant’s strongest supporters was the Royal family. Princess Anne received a Scimitar for her joint 20th-birthday and Christmas present in 1970, the first of eight that she’s owned.

As the cinnamon red GTE of long-time Scimitar enthusiast Michael Carr is reversed into position on the banks of the River Cam, it’s clear that Karen cannot help but still be proud of his design, as a grin spreads across his face. “I like form and I like motor cars,” he enthuses, touching the bonnet with his sculptor’s hands. “It doesn’t look like a 50-year-old design, does it?”

Sporty shooting brake still looks fresh nearly 50 years on; Taylor points out Karen’s signature uplifting rear window line.

Reliant Sabre Six was powered by Ford Zephyr inline unit. GT evolved from Ogle SX250, with Sabre Six running gear. Novel rear seats fold separately to give extra flexibility… …with both flat, there’s a deceptively large loading area.

Glazing Test Special (GTS) had 43sq ft of surface glass.

The background to the GTE is fascinating. The Tamworth firm’s introduction into sports cars came via Autocars in Haifa, Israel. Reliant bought the rights to the Ashley Laminates bodyshell, resulting in the Sabra. Then came its own version, the Sabre, powered by the Ford Consul’s ‘four’. Growth in sales across the board led to a takeover, which provided a sound financial platform and led to the introduction of the Sabre Six coupé with the larger Zephyr engine.

It could be said that the GTE originated when Boris Forter – a director of cosmetics company Helena Rubenstein – placed a commission for a GT with Letchworth-based design house David Ogle Associates. He specified that it should use a Daimler SP250 chassis and running gear. David Ogle made a start, but was tragically killed in ’1962 while driving his Mini-based SX1000.

It’s at this point that Karen enters the picture: “I studied aeronautical design at Loughborough College. From there, I joined Hunting Percival Aircraft, based in Luton, and was placed in the Stress Office. I hated it. I am no mathematician; there’s no form involved. I never worked in aerodynamics, but I did take a great interest in how aircraft were built. By 1959, I’d completed five years at Ford when a contact at the Design Centre in London suggested that I should move to a studio, recommending David Ogle. My time there was to be short-lived, however, for I moved to Hotpoint and Philips. After the death of David Ogle, I received a call offering me the role of MD and chief designer at the renamed Ogle Design.”

Forter’s SX250 was finished at break-neck speed and displayed at the London Motor Show in October ’1962. Critical features of the two-door 2+2 included recessed twin lamps in the angular front end. As Karen points out: “We suggested to Reliant that it should productionise the Mini SX1000, but it rejected the notion – stipulating that we offer up the SX250 to the Sabre chassis. The result was the Scimitar GT.”

That reminds Karen of another project from about the same time: “Triplex wanted to illustrate how its laminated Sundym glass could be introduced into a bodyshell using adhesive rather than ugly rubber mouldings. We built an estate based on the GT called the GTS, its body surface including 43sq ft of glass with heated front and rear screens plus a heat-absorbing panel in the top. It was shown at Earls Court in 1965.”

The estate packaging spurred Karen into thinking laterally about the sporting load-carrier concept and he devised what was to become his signature detail, an upsweep to the rear windows. “At the outset, the rising waistline was hugely controversial,” he acknowledges. “Even some of the guys in my office thought that I was taking a chance sweeping the line up toward the rear.

Karen explains that the dashboard layout for the Scimitar GTE was based on the bespoke set-up from his Ogle SX1000 Prince Philip used it as personal transport for two years

V6 sits well back in chassis, with spare behind radiator Open-top GTC was the final variation, powered by Köln V6.

Karen’s ’1986 Mk3 proposal; he’s still keen to update the idea. Sitting in the airy Triplex GTS for a C&SC article in 1988.

Later, it seems to have been adopted on every car.” Prompted by the GTS, he included a glass panel let into the roof above the front seats. “As with all projects at Ogle Design,” Karen remembers, “we began the GTE programme with a brief from the client. By the mid 1960s, Reliant’s three-box coupé wasn’t selling well, plus the design of the chassis and suspension was considered ripe for an overhaul. Another factor was the need for more room in the back.”

He adds: “Looking at the GTE today reminds me of the significant achievements we had. No one had produced a sporting estate car before.” “I can think in three dimensions,” Karen explains, “which is a huge help when creating a new design. I also had a brilliant model-maker in Norman Teece, who could work wonders in clay. We used the shell of a GT and built up the rear section. On one side, we extended it to produce a kind of duck-back bustle like the Escort Mk3. On the other side, we shaped an estate with angled swept-up rear windows, an upright transom panel and an upswing to the roofline.”

After Reliant had seen the model, it favoured the estate treatment, but it was a crude mock-up. A full-sized clay followed, and that formed the basis for the prototype. The GTE was discovered to be more aerodynamic than the coupé because air passing over the windscreen had a chance to settle along the estate roof. “Later,” as Karen reveals, “Reliant found that the GTE was faster than the Ford Capri with the same engine. The rear roofline lip made a positive contribution to stability. Estate cars are inherently less affected by crosswinds anyway – the GTE tending to track straight ahead – while saloons can easily be blown off course.”

The only alteration requested by Reliant for the production version was to remove the mesh grille over the twin lights and retain the frontal treatment of the GTS. Ogle displayed its own take on the GTE at the same show, the car being fitted with the glass ‘skylight’ and specially developed Lucas lamps behind closing covers. So what contribution did the GT make to styling the GTE? “The proportions of the door skins and glass areas were right so that aspect remained unchanged. We focused only on the rear of the body, from the B-post backwards.” And which cars, if any, inspired Karen? “At the time I produced the GTE, it was a market leader, so, rather than be influenced by other shapes in the market place, at Ogle Design we were always ahead. We were setting a trend that people such as Volvo and Lancia followed later.”

As we move around the Scimitar, it’s clear how much sculpture and shape are priorities to Karen as he looks fondly at the curvature of the C-post: “Even in the mid 1960s, a lot of cars were pulled out to extremes at the corners, sometimes with fins to make them look bigger. I’ve always been in favour of wrapping designs around at corners.

“The fixed transom panel that accommodates the light clusters, the registration plate, the fuel filler, and the lifting screen above it were all shaped as a single object of form. The angle of the tailgate was very much a function of what looked right against the profile of the rest of the car. Significantly, a flat panel was less costly to manufacture than a curved one. Another benefit is that the glass reaches low down on the body line, enhancing vision when reversing. The addition of the wiper was another innovation.” Karen then relates the logic behind the rear seat set-up: “The backrests could be lowered flat individually dependent on what you were carrying. Again, it was a novel idea not seen before.”

Next, we look at the neat powerplant installation. “At the time that we designed the GTE,” Karen recalls, “there wasn’t a lot of styling time spent on creating an impressive under-bonnet experience. It was all about functionality. Importantly, Reliant had a good relationship with Ford and it was able to source engines easily.”

Almost from the outset of the GTE project, Karen and Ogle Design worked in close harmony with Reliant’s managing director Ray Wiggin, chief engineer John Crosthwaite and glassfibre expert Ken Wood, who spent a considerable amount of time at Letchworth.

Crosthwaite was responsible for creating a new chassis and suspension design, while Karen asserts that the introduction of Ford’s compact V6 enabled the running gear to be located well back in the frame. This improved handling and freed up space behind the radiator for the spare wheel: “It also enabled us to position the large 17-gallon fuel tank under the load-carrying area where, generally, manufacturers place the spare.”

In addition to Reliant’s attention to build quality – critical to the GTE’s overall feeling of luxury – was the car’s solidity on the road. “To achieve this,” Karen says, “the body’s rigidity was increased by installing steel hoops within the shell during lay-up in all the key places, such as the scuttle, B-post and at the C-pillar.”

Moving inside, Karen carefully considers the dials and switches: “I had an Ogle Mini SX1000, which featured a special configuration that I had designed for it. The layout for the GTE dashboard was based on my Mini. I especially like its practicality – you can see all of the instruments easily. Another plus point is the L-shaped arrangement with the gauges in front of the driver, plus the miscellaneous controls and air vents mounted in the centre console. Naturally, a lot of components were sourced from the parts bins of other manufacturers. Our speciality at Ogle was to blend them together so they looked as if they’d been made specifically for the GTE.”

As we discuss the ergonomics, Karen spots the logo in the centre of the steering-wheel boss: “We spent a long time designing that badge, the name emerging from the earlier Sabre.”

Which brings us on to the larger, more luxurious SE6, which was launched in ’1975. “It wasn’t just a matter of increasing the body size,” Karen explains. “Quite a lot of remodelling had to be done, including the frontal treatment and the hind quarters. In truth, the result wasn’t quite as subtle as this version. From the outset, Reliant’s intention was to give the SE6 a stronger signature. It was certainly a more restful car to drive.”

The final iteration was the drophead GTC: “I think the idea originated from Ray Wiggin and for us it developed into yet another styling exercise. With the added strength that we had given the standard GTE model, the transition into a soft-top was made easier because the torsional rigidity was already there in the structure.”

So is there anything that he would have done differently? “There was always so much happening at Ogle Design that I didn’t spend time mulling over new ideas,” Karen laments. “Today, I’d love to have the chance to do a GTE successor. I would stick to the two-box silhouette, but I am a great advocate of low waistlines. In many cars, the driver’s and passenger’s heads are only just above the waistline. I think that is a great design mistake – people like to be seen just as much as they enjoy looking out. I would make the side windows a big feature that frames those inside. I would also add a convex bubble over the driver and passenger as a second aid to framing the upper area of the bodywork.

“Inside, I would redesign the dashboard. I am very keen on putting information such as speed in front of the driver’s eye-line to do away with the need to constantly re-focus between the road and the instruments while driving.”

Sadly, after 14,273 GTEs had been built, Reliant stopped production in 1986. Being a trendsetter always has its own shortcomings as the opposition catches up and even improves on the original. “The Scimitar has special memories for me,” Karen concludes. “I had several as company vehicles and enjoyed them all, especially the SE6s. They were great cars.”

Thanks to Mike Carr; Reliant Sabre & Scimitar Owners’ Club and Queens College Rowing Club



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