Our Sabre Six GT
Our Reliant Sabre Six GT was dispatched from the factory in March 1964 to dealer Auto Sales Ltd, Bilston, Staffordshire.The car's first owner was Mark Joseland who bought the car in September 1964. He was a very active motor sport enthusiast, being a long-time member of the Midland Auto Club (MAC) based at Shelsley Walsh hillclimb and Captain of the Frazer Nash Club from 1975 to 1978. Sadly he was killed in a road car accident in June 2009. A family friend and fellow car enthusiast, Martin Cowell, bought the car in 2010 but made very little use of it, selling it to us in July 2017.
The car started its life British Racing Green but at some time in its life was re-paintd white. Mark's motor sport exploits in the Sabre were documented from time to time in Slice (the Magazine of the Reliant Sabre and Scimitar Owners' Club). The car came to us with many performance modificaxtion including a "fast road" engine (strengthened bottom end, Raymond May aluminium 12-port cylinder head, "277" camshaft, twin SU carburettors, free flow exhaust), front anti-roll bar and remote oil cooler.
The car had been taxed and MoT'd all its life and appeared to be in fair overall condition. The biggest problem appeard to be severe paint blistering at the rear of the car. Our plan was to carry out a light re-commissioning and use it pretty much as it was - a good companion to our near-concors white Sabre Six Convertible. It didn't quite work out like that!!
It soon became apparent that all was not well with the engine. It ran very roughly and was inclined to backfire and splutter. I carried out the usual checks including ignition timing and valve clearances and replaced all the ignition components including a Powermax electronic ignition system and rebuilt the carburettors with new gaskets and jets and balanced and tuned them as best as I could. A compression test revealed no issues.
Then the exhaust manifold developed a massive leak and as the rest of the system was in very poor condition I decided to get a new replacement system. As you can imagine these don’t come “off the shelf” so I went to Fast Road Conversions in Ashford, Kent and a couple of weeks later I collected the car, but the 35 mile drive home confirmed that this had not cured the running problem.
Just over a year of ownership and we decided to remove the engine and dispatch it to Sabre expert Iain Daniels Classic Motorsport. Iain soon dismantled the engine for inspection. He found it to be in good condition generally with regard to bearings, bores and pistons. It fact it has been re-built to a good standard at some stage with Volvo pistons, capped centre main bearings, “277” camshaft, balanced crank and pistons, etc. However the head gasket had failed in a few places, the head was warped and it had incorrect, ill fitting inlet valves. These issues would certainly account for the engine’s poor performance. So the engine was rebuilt, retaining the good bits but replacing or reconditioning the bad bits.
In the meanwhile we completely stripped the engine bay of its components in preparation for repainting. We also raised the body from the chassis by a few inches, initially to replace all the rusted fixings. This revealed that the chassis was in sound condition with just surface rust in some places.
The fuel tank had been replaced at some time in the past with a new painted mild steel tank. When removed it could be seen to be in very sound condition. However it was not quite the correct shape and to make it fit a previous owner had crudely cut and patched the rear valence. I considered getting a new tank made. This was going to cost several hundred pounds to replace a sound tank. So I went for plan B, that was to modify the rear valence to make it slightly “fatter”. The tank now fits fine and the difference in the valence is imperceptible in my opinion.
I then set about remaking various metal brackets to replace rusted originals. These included the bonded in bonnet hinge brackets, the rear cross-member to rear wing brackets and the straps that connect the “B” post seat belt mount to the rear chassis cross-member (the car appeard never to have been fitted with seat belts but our plan is to add them).
I decided to replace all the rusty nuts and bolts fixing the body to the chassis. The chassis was found to be in sound condition but had some areas of surface rust. After some deliberation I decided to get it, together will numerous suspension components and brackets, shot blasted and powder coated. Other parts I hand painted with POR15.
On inspecting the dismantled front suspension I noticed that one of the lower wishbones was slightly bent. With the help of a friend and his giant vice, this was easily corrected. However, when I came to reassemble the suspension I realised that one of the lower wishbone chassis brackets was positioned about 4mm too far forward. It seems that someone had relocated the bracket, perhaps after an accident, to suit the bent wishbone! I managed to fabricate a new bracket and got a local welder to stitch it into place.
The chrome over-bumpers fitted originally to the Sabre models are one of the most difficult items to obtain, to such an extent that most owners don’t bother with them. They are only thin gauge covers that go over the glass fibre body and provide little or no protection. It is quite possible to paint the bumper shaped bodywork silver in this area and this can look quite acceptable. Another difficulty is that the bumpers are different for different Sabre models. The original long nose Sabre four is clearly very different to the short nose front fitted to some late Sabre Fours and all Sabre Sixes. But the rear bumpers are also different between the GT and the convertible. These differences make it very difficult, economically, to have a small batch of bumpers made. Several years earlier, for our previous Sabres, I had two sets hand-made by a small panel beating firm based in Leyton, East London and they did an excellent job. Sadly they no longer seemed to exist. For our GT we needed only the two rear side pieces and we found a company in Wakefield that claimed to be able to reproduce them. With a bit of tweaking and once chromed, they look good.
In some ways Sabres are cursed by their more numerous ascendants. Every Sabre that we have owned and enjoyed has been afflicted by the Scimitar damper syndrome. Sabre dampers should be 14.5 inches free length. But Scimitars (the SE5/a model) use 15.5 free length dampers. It seems that the market for Sabre and Scimitar dampers is dominated by the much more common model. So previous owners of our cars have been persuaded that Scimitar dampers are OK. Removing and fitting over-length dampers is a pain, particularly at the rear where the rotation of the rear axle due to the leading and trailing radius arm geometry means that the bottom fixing is at an extreme angle to the horizontal on full rebound.
At this stage I had completely separated the body gtom the chassis and had decided to undertake a full respray. So I then turned my attention to preparation of the body for painting. Most of the glass fibre repairs had been completed and I starting to remove the balance of the old paint. Unlike our previous cars, NRE has only been repainted once, so there were not numerous old layers of paint to be removed. Having tried chemical strippers (very messy) and soda blasting (too brutal) in the past I chose to use a professional quality orbital sander (attached to a vacuum cleaner to gather most of the dust). This proved to be an effective, relatively quick and clean technique.
The car was originally “British Racing Green” but was repainted white at some time in its history, I suspect at least 20 years earlier. Stripping the paint down to the gel coat can reveal a lot about a car’s history. I found that most of the original green paint had been removed as part of the previous re-spray and it looked as if the body had been removed from the chassis at this time. However, awkward areas such as the lowest part of the sills and front and rear valences still had the green under the newer white. Generally the exercise showed that the car has never suffered serious accident damage, which is good. There were however a number of areas of gel coat cracking which had simply been painted over. Interestingly none of these cracks had shown through the paint in its long life. However I decided to carry out “proper” repairs. After more than 40 years of owning and repairing Scimitars and Sabres I follow the techniques described in Miles Wilkins’ book “How to Restore Fibreglass Bodywork”. This excellent book was first published in 1984 but is still available. This technique comprises carefully grinding away the cracked gelcoat (checking that the cracking has not extended into the base glassfibre), applying a layer of glass tissue with resin and then skimming with filler to get back to the original body profile. On larger areas I did this in a number of smaller sections to ensure that the original profile was not lost. What fun!
Over the years the doors have suffered from “sag syndrome”. This seems to afflict so many Sabres and Scimitars. To address this I separated the outer door skins from the door shells and re-set them to give the correct alignment with the main body.
Sabre floors are made of 1/2in plywood encapsulated with glassfibre. It is in two parts, one either side of the transmission tunnel. It’s common, after almost 60 years, to find that the plywood has rotted in places but being encapsulated this is not always easy to see. As I stripped the car it became apparent that large areas were rotten. So I cut out the old floor sections completely and replaced them with new marine ply covered with glassfibre top and bottom. The two floor parts could be cut from a single 2400 by 1200 sheet. Laying up the glassfibre on the underside of the floor was going to be difficult. Gravity is an enemy in this situation, so I decided it would be easier if the body tub were to be inverted. After a bit of head scratching I managed to do this single handed using various chain blocks and ratchet straps with the body tub suspended from my, fortunately strong, garage roof structure. With the body inverted I couldn’t resist the temptation to paint the underside. I coated the new glassfibre with grey “flowcoat” and the rest, including the rear wheel arches, with household external paint. With the floors complete the body tub was sat back on the chassis.
In my experience Sabre Six heaters are pretty useless. We use our Sabres as often as possible through the winter and don’t like being cold, so this is a problem for us. The standard heater system comprises a heat exchanger located in a glassfibre housing mounted over the transmission tunnel under the dasboard. Fresh air is supplied to this by an axial fan located in the engine compartment, connected by 80mm flexible hose. The fan is weak and there are many opportunities for the air that it does supply to leak away before it gets to the heat exchanger and into the car. However the heat exchanger itself looks plenty man enough for the job. I decided to abandon the existing fan and leaky ducting and replace it with a completely different centrifugal fan located out of sight under the passenger side of the dashboard. This will blow directly into the existing heater unit. There is no fresh air component but, as the car is generally very leaky, air-wise, I don’t think we will be in danger of suffocating. I have retained the existing fan and ductwork so the engine compartment looks original and the modification is easily reversible.
The body was now ready for painting but I decided to trial fitting things like bumpers, radiator grille and door furniture. I didon’t want there to be any issues with fitting these items after the car was painted.
After almost 3 months NRE came back from the spray shop. The paint job looked superb in my opinion. My task then was to bolt all the bits back on without damaging the new paint. I started with the many bits and pieces on the outside such as bumpers, door handles and lights plus most of the engine bay components.
I then set about repairing/remaking the wiring. The loom that I removed was cloth covered and, although electrically sound, the cloth was torn and frayed in many places and looked terrible. Also the wiring was far from original. Instead of just two fuses as standard, a total of 12 had been fitted at some time. I understand the merits of separately fusing all sub-circuits, but it means more cables passing through the bulkhead which cannot neatly be accommodated through the existing bulkhead holes. Further it seemed that colour coding was based on availability rather than the widely accepted Lucas system. The routing of the loom was non-standard and, in my opinion, unsightly and impractical. For example the loom to the rear of the car was routed through the interior of the car hidden under carpets as opposed to under the floor. The loom through the engine compartment was fixed to removable inner wheel arches as opposed to the bulkhead and the chassis. So I decided to revert back to standard fusing, routing and colour coding as far as practicable. I ordered a load of cable and loom tape and remade the loom, virtuallt from scratch.