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|T L Williams, founder|
Reliant was mainly known for producing the 3-wheeled Reliant Robin, but in fact produced a variety of different vehicles during a production run of over 60 years, including popular sports cars, convertibles and commercial vehicles. Around 1 to 2 million Reliant vehicles were produced, and were sold in at least 9 countries. For a period from the 1970s to the 1990s, Reliant was the UK's biggest British-owned car manufacturer.
When the Raleigh Bicycle Company decided to discontinue the manufacture of their three-wheeled vehicles in 1934, their Works Manager Mr T. L. Williams and a colleague, Mr E. S. Thompson, felt that the days of lightweight three-wheelers were not over. They decided to build their own vehicle in Williams's back garden at Kettlebrook, Tamworth. The homebuilt design closely resembled the Karryall van previously built by Raleigh, and the prototype was licensed in January 1935. It was a 7 cwt (356 kg) van with a steel chassis, powered by a 750 cc V-twin engine driving the rear wheels through a 3-speed gearbox and shaft drive. The body was a hardwood frame with aluminium panels attached to it, in the traditional manner of the time. With the obvious motorcycle front end, mounted in the open, in front of the bulkhead, it was essentially a motorcycle fitted with a box body.
From building vehicles at home, the work moved to a disused bus depot on Watling Street in Fazeley. June 3, 1935, saw delivery of the first Reliant. Powered by a single-cylinder air-cooled 600cc J.A.P. engine, the driver sat centrally on the vehicle astride the engine, much like a motorcyclist. The single-cylinder engine left the Reliant underpowered. March 1936 saw an update to a two-cylinder water-cooled J.A.P. engine and an increase to 8 cwt (407 kg) gross vehicle weight (gvw). The driver no longer sat astride the engine and the vehicle gained more conventional forward-facing seats in the front. The first improved 8cwt twin cylinder model was delivered on March 16, 1936.
In 1936, British finance minister Neville Chamberlain abolished (as it turned out, only temporarily) the "road fund licence", an annual car tax which had not been applied to three-wheelers and which had therefore conferred a major competitive advantage on Reliant's "three-wheeled motor goods vehicle". This did not dissuade the engineers at Reliant.
In 1938 the Reliant Motor Company started to use the 747cc four-cylinder 7 hp Austin side-valve engine as found in the popular Austin Seven. The first four-cylinder Reliant was delivered on March 12, 1938. The Austin Car Company then announced their intention to cease production of the 747cc Austin Seven engine. Williams was always enthusiastic about Reliant being as self-reliant as possible. He was keen that the company did not buy parts which it could make ‘in-house'. Reliant therefore commenced manufacture of their own engine, which was essentially a copy of the Austin product. Although appearing very similar to the Austin engine, the level of commonality between Reliant and Austin remains unclear; the Reliant side-valve engine was a 747cc four-cylinder unit built using smaller-scale manufacturing techniques than Austin. The Reliant crankcase was sand-cast rather than die-cast.
The Second World War saw Reliant machining parts for the war effort. In the post-war years, three-wheeler development continued. Reliant introduced a slightly modified van called the Regent. Still visually similar to an oversized motorcycle, the first Regent was completed on March 13, 1946, just ten years after the first twin-cylinder van was built.
The Regent grew to a GVW of 10 cwt and was better equipped with sliding windows in the doors, rather than canvas side screens. Two larger models were produced, a 12 cwt Regent and a Prince Regent. In 1953, the Regent continued to be built alongside the Reliant Regal. The Regent was eventually replaced by the Regal Mk II 5cwt van in 1956.
In 1952 a four-seat car version was launched, initially with an aluminium body, but panel by panel the company substituted glass fibre, as the company's understanding of the material improved and the price of aluminium increased. By 1956 the bodywork of the (by now) Mark 3 version of the Reliant Regal had changed completely to glass fibre, the first generation of vehicles were Mk1 to Mk6 with each one getting improvements and slightly different styling, the car was originally powered by the Austin Seven engine but when production ended on that design by Austin Motor Company, Reliant bought the design and redesigned it with improvements giving the 750cc engine 17.5 hp (over the original 7 hp of the Austin version).
By 1963 the all new Regal 3/25 had its body completely made of fibreglass, on previous generations of the Regal the body was fibreglass but the floor made of hardwood which was bolted together. The engine was Europe's first mass-produced lightweight overhead valve aluminium alloy engine and the UK's first British overhead valve all-alloy engine, initially 598cc on the Regal 3/25 but later upgraded to 700cc on the later Regal 3/30.
At the same time Reliant were working for other countries to design vehicles for home-grown production, vehicles would be sent over in kit form for the countries' own workforce to assemble with Reliant first designing a vehicle to the countries' or companies' requirements, the first was the Anadol in Turkey which was based on a mix of Ford parts and specifically-designed chassis. The Anadol was designed to be any vehicle the country needed, originally it was a 2-door saloon, then a 4-door saloon, later the company would make commercial pick up and van versions too, the pick-up version carried on production until the early 1990s.
Another vehicle of this sort of start was the Sabra which was again based on Ford running gear and engine but this time a 2-door coupe or convertible for Autocars Co. in Israel. Reliant was so impressed with the design they sold it in the UK under the name Sabre, this was also to help Reliant's company imagine from just a 3-wheeled micro-car maker, but the car didn't sell very well with its unknown status in the UK against competitors such as the Triumph and MG.
Later Reliant bought a prototype design for the replacement Daimler Dart which would later become the Scimitar coupe and later would become the best-selling sporting estate - the Scimitar GTE.
Reliant absorbed Bond Cars in 1969 after Bond had gone into liquidation, being Reliant's main competitor in 3-wheeled vehicles with the Bond Minicar and the Bond 875 which used the Hillman Imp 875cc rear engine. Reliant used the Bond name for the 1970s Bond Bug which was a Reliant prototype originally named the Reliant Rogue, a sporty 3-wheeler designed by the Ogle designer Tom Karen. The Bug used a shortened Reliant Regal chassis and other mechanical parts but many of the new parts such as the front swing arm were a brand new design which would also be used on the new Reliant Robin of 1973.
Reliant also built 4-wheeled versions of their 3-wheeled stablemates - the original was called the Reliant Rebel which had three-quarters of the rear chassis design of the Regal but Triumph Herald front suspension and standard Austin Seven steering, the engines were the same 600cc and 700cc as the Regal but with higher compression and more torque because of the extra weight the Rebel carried over the Regal, the last model came with the 750cc version when the Mk1 Reliant Robin was introduced. The styling of the Rebel was intended to make the car look unique so it didn't seem like a 4-wheeled version of the Regal; the Rebel came in saloon, estate and van models.
The Reliant Kitten was the 4-wheeled version of the 1970s Reliant Robin, designed to replace the Rebel and featuring the 850cc version of Reliant's own engine which was introduced in 1975 (with the Reliant Robin gaining the engine shortly afterwards). The design this time featured very heavily on the Reliant Robin with only the nose of the design being different, having square headlights and a black panel around them - this was done mainly for cost-saving reasons so the parts from both vehicles could be shared for production.
After Reliant Kitten production stopped in 1982, the rights were sold to Sipani Automobiles in India which made the vehicle near-exactly the same but with the name Sipani Dolphin. Later the vehicle would be changed into a 4-door hatchback called the Sipani Montana, the car was built well into the 1990s with exactly the same Kitten mechanicals, Reliant would even import engines they had build for their own vehicles in the UK.
Between 1983 and 1990 a utility/pickup vehicle called the Reliant Fox was produced in the UK. This was based on an original development by Reliant to design a vehicle for the Greek company MEBEA, it was based on Reliant Kitten mechanicals with its own design of pickup body and canvas top, it had originally been built in Greece by MEBEA between 1979 and 1983. After production had finished in Greece, Reliant decided to build it in the UK but gave the Fox many design changes giving it 12 inch wheels, altered suspension and the high compression 850cc engine. They also designed a rear hardtop to make the vehicle into a van or estate. Tandy IOndustries used Foxes as a basis for a compact, two-berth campervan.
Reliant also made a small 3-wheeled commercial vehicle called the Reliant TW9, later sold by other companies as the Ant (and, like the Robin, licence-built in Greece by MEBEA ), which was a chassis and cab, onto which a custom rear body was fitted to create any type of commercial vehicle, a road sweeper, a flat back, a van, a milk float and hydraulic lifting rear bed version were common fitments. Also as a fifth wheel (actually fourth wheel) articulated tractor unit was created to pull large trailers. It was often used by public utility companies or more commonly sold to councils, where its ability to negotiate narrow alleyways was a big advantage.
Reliant's expertise in the area of composite car body production also saw the company produce lightweight bodyshells for Ford RS200 rally cars and a glass fibre-bodied taxi, the MetroCab — the first to have full wheelchair provision, manufactured by a division of Kamkorp, they also made Ford fibreglass truck cabs and Ford Transit hightops.
With Reliant's expertise in glass fibre the company would also create such things as bodies for trains, kitchen worktops and boat/jetski bodies.
Reliant's main business was selling 3-wheeled vehicles, the main market these would sell to would be a motorcyclist who didn't wish to pass their full car licence test, this was a sizable niche market due to the large number of motorcyclists, this niche lasted until 2001 when the EU eliminated the B1 been issued with a full motorcycle licence (the B1 allowing the holder to drive a 3 or 4-wheeled vehicle up to the weight of 550 kg), this killed the market from having any new motorcyclists from driving a 3-wheeled vehicle.
Ending of car production
The Hodge Group bought the majority of Reliant in 1962, selling it 15 years later to the Nash family. During the early 1990s the owner of Reliant was a major housing developer and when the 1992 recession hit the company folded and thus Reliant was sold to Beans Engineering. By 1996 Jonathan Heynes took the lead and his main backer took control - Heynes changed many models' design by employing designer Andy Plumb, and gave the Robin more luxuries and retro upgrades, doubling sales. Production was relocated to Cannock in 1997 where, following a major redesign in 1998, Reliant built a whole new model of the Robin which featured all new panels and was essentially a 'heavy facelift'. Research continued into 4-wheeled (Bug and Kitten) models featured as prototypes in newspapers and magazines. Production continued until 2001 when shareholders decided to import the French Liege micro-cars and Piaggio Ape 3-wheeler instead. As a consequence, Heynes sold his shares and left the company, wishing to create an all new 4-wheeled Reliant model instead.
In 2001, production rights for the Reliant Robin were sold to a Sudbury-based firm called B&N Plastics, who redesigned major parts of the Robin, the base model was £10,000 for a BN-1 Robin but featured all the features of the Robin 65 such as a leather interior. A BN-2 model was produced which added more luxury items as standard for example like electric windows. Production ceased in late 2002 with over 200 outstanding orders. B&N Plastics ceased production after an argument with Reliant over the supply of parts.
In 2001 it moved to nearby Cannock. The old site of Reliant Motors, in Tamworth, was turned into a housing estate named Scimitar Park, after the Reliant Scimitar that they produced; a number of Tamworth street names used Reliant model names. The company had produced over half a million vehicles over a 65-year history starting in 1935, and selling cars in 7 countries including the Netherlands, India, the UK and the Middle East. They were the UK's second-largest British-owned car manufacturer from the 1960s until the 1990s.
Reliant Motor Company was producing 50 vehicles a week until 2001, when it finished production of its own models to focus on importing French microcars and motorcycles, and the Piaggio Ape commercial range. A final version of the Reliant Robin was produced retailing at £10,000, with leather seats, metallic gold paint, alloy wheels, walnut dashboard, and some more luxurious features. The car was produced in the 65th year of production ,so was named the Reliant Robin 65.
Reliant was well-known for producing the Reliant Robin, but they made many different three-wheeled models from the Rialto, Ant and Regal, along with a line of small four-wheeled vehicles ranging from the Rebel, Kitten and Fox with Reliant's range of sports cars.
Reliant Cars Ltd. was renamed Reliant Partsworld, and operates from the factory where the Robin was built.
Driving a Reliant on a motorcycle licence
Originally to drive a 3-wheeled vehicle on a motorcycle licence you would have had to have passed a full motorcycle test and covered your restriction period, when your licence was issued you were given a B1 class on your licence as well, which gave you the right to drive a vehicle with 3 or 4 wheels up to 550 kg, but B1 licences stopped being issued in 2001.
More interest has been given to Reliants from January 2013 as the licensing was changed once again, now if you have a full A category motorcycle licence and are over the age of 21 you may drive a 3-wheeled vehicle of any weight.
The age limit is 21 even for holders of full car licences.
You can not drive any Reliant 3 wheeled vehicle on a CBT or any lower type of licence.
Also the only time you didn't need reverse gear was in 1964 when it was law but it was repealed soon after as they found it was dangerous for a vehicle not to have reverse.
||This section possibly contains original research. (March 2015)|
One of the widely known myths is that a Reliant three-wheeled vehicle would have to have reverse gear removed or blanked off from its gearbox for someone to drive it on a motorcycle licence; this was only true in the early 1960s but was removed from law soon after as the lack of mobility in reverse was dangerous to the driver and other road users, but somehow this has stuck and has become a common myth.
The most obvious myth is that Reliants cannot go around corners. This was shown on the BBC's Top Gear programme, but what was not shown was that the Reliant Robin driven by Jeremy Clarkson had a 10-inch wheel on the driver's side, a 12-inch wheel on the passenger side and a 13-inch wheel on the front wheel, which caused the vehicle to be unstable on the driver's side, hence always rolling towards that side, all very well staged for television but some people actually believe it to be truth.
Another myth is that some people believe a Reliant - or any three-wheeled vehicle - isn't allowed on British motorways. This is not the case as any two-, three- or four-wheeled vehicle is allowed on the motorway as long as its engine size is over 50 cc.
A lot of people think the main character (Derek "Del Boy" Trotter) in the British television comedy series Only Fools and Horses owned a Reliant Robin. Many people have painted their Reliant Robins and Rialtos yellow with the famous "Trotters Independent Trading Co" lettering, but the Trotters' van was actually a Reliant Regal Supervan III.
Some people believe one can drive a three-wheeled Reliant on a compulsory basic training (CBT) driving licence, but this is incorrect as Reliants have engines larger than the CBT licence allows. A full motorcycle or full car driving licence is required, and the driver must also be over 21 to drive a Reliant.
- Base Model (No model name) 1935-1939
- Regent 1946-1956
- Regal 1953-1973 and Supervan III
- Sabre 1961-1964
- Scimitar GT 1964-1970
- Rebel 1964-1974
- FW5 1966-1975
- TW9 1967-1987
- Scimitar GTE/GTC 1968-1986
- Robin 1973-1982, 1989–2002
- Kitten 1975-1982
- FW11 1977
- Rialto 1982-1997
- Fox 1982-1990
- Scimitar SS1/SST 1984-1992
- Scimitar Sabre 1992-1995
- "Robin's rest". CAR: pages 106–108. December 2000.
- Skartsis, L., "Greek Vehicle & Machine Manufacturers 1800 to present: A Pictorial History", Marathon (2012) ISBN 978-960-93-4452-4 (eBook)
- Pither, D (2001). Reliant Regal and Robin. Thrupp.
- Wotherspoon, N (1993). Lawrie Bond; the man and the marque. Minster Lovell.
- Armstrong, Aldridge, Boyes, Mustoe & Storey. Companion to British Road Haulage History. NMSI Trading Science Museum. ISBN 1-900747-46-4.
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