The recent triumphant platinum jubilee celebrations made me think of my time as a director of Reliant Motor Company in its heyday as the second largest British-owned vehicle manufacturer after British Leyland.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s use of the Ogle Scimitar GTS in 1965 and 1966 did not go unnoticed by his and Queen Elizabeth’s only daughter, Princess Anne. So impressed was she by the one-off Pilkington-sponsored special he drove, in 1970, as her twentieth birthday approached, when her parents asked if she would like a car as a combined Christmas/birthday gift, she requested a Scimitar GTE having first been loaned one by the Kenning Motor Group, a Scimitar dealer. The first GTE of what were to become a consecutive eight in total was a regular SE5a with a body painted a blue similar to that of the air force uniform colour, finished throughout its interior in a special grey leather trim and delivered to Buckingham Palace in early 1971. It was registered 1420 H in recognition of her position as Colonel in Chief of the Royal 14/20th Hussars and sported a chrome-plated galloping horse mascot, factory-fitted to its bonnet. That cherished registration was purchased by the regiment from a milk float in Bermondsey, London, and presented to her as a birthday present, coincidental with the placing of the order for her first car.
Princess Anne was to become Reliant’s greatest champion. Apart from regularly hitting the newspaper, radio and TV headlines by receiving too many speeding tickets driving her GTE, she ordered a Robin for use originally around the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later around the estate at Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire she occupied following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips in November 1973. Subsequent to the announcement of the Kitten, she was to swap her Robin for a blue estate version of the four wheeler, the first of two she and her staff at Gatcombe Park were to use.
In 1973, she ordered a replacement for her first GTE to exactly the same specification. Then a year later, she ordered her third. However, wishing to fulfil a desire to increase the legroom in the rear seating area, Reliant’s managing director, Ray Wiggin, used this opportunity to increase the car’s wheelbase by four inches, whilst adding two and a half inches length into the doors to ease entrance to the rear. Her Royal Highness’s new car was built to this unique specification. That was the third of the eight GTEs owned by the Queen’s daughter, the last of which (built by Middlebridge Scimitar) is reported to remain in her possession at the time of writing.
Then, the news came from Buckingham Palace that Princess Anne would like to visit Reliant’s plants. The company and Tamworth as a whole were ‘over the moon’ about the news of her visit. Several of the directors had met her briefly when introduced to her on the Reliant stand at the 1973 London International Motor Show at Earls Court, during her tour after she had opened the exhibition.
She arrived at the Two Gates plant in the mid morning of 15 July 1974, driving her then-current Scimitar GTE with her private detective in the passenger seat and a Rolls-Royce following with her Lady-in-Waiting and accompanying police officers. The chief constable of Staffordshire was invited as were the Mayor and Mayoress of Tamworth.
Her Royal Highness surprised and delighted everyone by wearing her hair in a casual ponytail, tied back by what appeared to be one of those woven-elasticated affairs girls and young women would buy from Woolworths, a silk scarf tied in a knot around her neck above a blue blouse and an oatmeal trouser suit with the then highly fashionable ‘flares’. She was greeted outside the reception door by Ray Wiggin and his wife Joy. Ray then introduced her to deputy MD Bill Snowdon and his wife Mary. Immediately afterwards, works manager Charles Currier led a trip around the Two Gates site with manufacturing director Ron Heathcote in tow.
It was the start of a remarkable five hours spent in the presence of employees of Reliant. A tremendous compliment from our greatest-ever customer. After touring both South and North Works at Twogates, she drove to Kettlebrook to meet works manager Steve Robinson and tour the composite body plant, at noon she attended a short reception in the works canteen with the middle management and senior shop stewards. Then, along with our wives, the directors formed a line up with Tom Karen of Ogle Design and his wife, along which Princess Anne walked for us to shake the royal hand.
To the chagrin of some, the wives were then hived off for lunch with Joy Wiggin and Mary Snowdon whilst we men moved into the directors’ dining room for lunch with the Princess, her Lady-in-Waiting and detective. Princess Anne sat between Ray and Bill whilst I had the pleasure of the company of the charming Lady-in-Waiting. A very relaxed light lunch followed with us all drinking the Princess’s favourite tipple, the non-alcoholic Shloer soft drink. A bit different from the usual bottle or two of wine consumed during our regular Friday-only directors’ lunch there. Inevitably, over lunch she was asked why she had favoured her original Scimitar GTE as the combined birthday and Christmas present from her parents. ‘Oh, that’s because, when I was little, I liked the one Daddy drove’, referring to the Ogle Scimitar GTS – the Pilkington glazing test special – he had used for two years. She was very animated and relaxed and appeared very much more attractive than many of the informal photographs of her in the press, with a skin that can only be described as ‘silk-like’.
The Royal party then left Two Gates to be driven to the nearby Shenstone plant to meet works manager Stan Munden, as wives and families of workers waved from the sidelines. There, the princess toured the machine shop, engine, gearbox and axle assembly lines and parts warehouse, from where she left to drive her GTE, which had been chauffeured from Two Gates during the afternoon, to return to London.
The local roads around all three plants were lined with residents, waving Union Flags they had acquired or pulled out of the attic for the occasion as she and her entourage passed. The press coverage in the local journals Tamworth Herald, Lichfield Mercury, Birmingham Post and Evening Mail was considerable with most of the national dailies giving the visit at least a mention in dispatches. A special two-sided version of the Reliant Review was distributed to dealers and staff. Without doubt the visit represented the best free publicity the company and its products would ever receive. What an ambassador Her Royal Highness had proven herself to be.
Having been pleased by the extra length and corresponding built-in improvements to Princess Anne’s third Scimitar GTE, so Ray Wiggin decided to go one step further than her car’s four extra inches in wheelbase by adding additional three inches in width to the car. Ray asked Tom Karen to refresh the body design without losing the definitive features that set the model so clearly aside from its competition and a full-size mock-up soon emerged.
Ogle’s offering had smoother lines than SE5 and met Wiggin’s terms of reference although some argued it was a less adventurous design than was justified by the high investment in retooling. The similarly laid-out but more aesthetically dramatic Oliver Winterbottom-designed Lotus Elite of that period, had moved away from the Lotus heritage and proved a market failure. That and Jaguar’s successful evolution of its XJ series (prior to designer Ian Callum’s 2010 rethinking) suggests Wiggin was right and the critics wrong.
Ray Wiggin’s target was to place the new GTE in one of the fastest growing market segments in Europe – that of the sporting executive car, dominated by the new Rover SD1, Triumph Stag, lower specification Jaguar XJs, some Mercedes-Benz models and, particularly the BMWs that were beginning to make an impact in the UK, still the main market for the Scimitar brand. This was reflected by an excellent launch press advertisement, developed by Roger Musgrave and Adrian Ball, that showed a new red GTE lined up against that same executive competition in their nearest shades of red with the slogan ‘Which director has more drive?’
Princess Anne’s influence over this near-natural progression of the GTE’s development was significant. Furthermore, she set a royal precedent as her youngest brother Prince Edward would also favour the marque, choosing the Triumph Stag-like Scimitar GTC that was to follow in 1980.