This weeks marque article is about the British car company, Reliant, not to be confused with the very successful Plymouth Reliant model of the 1980s. The British company was founded in 1935 when a designer, Tom Williams, left the Raleigh bicycle company to build a three-wheeled delivery van that he designed for them but they didn’t want to manufacture anymore. He set up a factory in Tamworth in the Midlands near Coventry, the home of bicycle manufacturing.
This first vehicle used a 750cc V-twin JAP motorcycle engine and was simply called The Reliant. It was built from 1935 – 1946 before being updated and called the Reliant Regent. The design was very simple – think of the Piaggio Ape that is still in use in Europe or the Asian equivalents. The front is basically a motorbike with a cab over the engine seating two, and a flat bed over two rear wheels. Reliant made two versions: the flat bed and an enclosed van.
By 1939 the original 750 motor was replaced by an engine based on the Austin 7 sidevalve and this engine lasted over 50 years. The Regent was extended to have a four seater option based on an Ash frame in the early 1950s and then by the late 50s, the body was made using glass-fibre. This version was known as the Regal and was in production for 20 years and eight updates. The Regal also came in a commercial version known as the Supervan and over 50,000 Regals were produced with 600 and 750cc alloy engines. The 600cc motor produced just 21 hp!
Reliant were also looking at extending their range and in 1961 started to work with an Israeli company, Sabra Autocars, to jointly build a sports car. Sabra, like Reliant built glass-fibre cars and with Reliant’s help had launched a 2 door four seater called the Carmel. Sabra wanted to hit the US market with a cheap sports car, so Reliant built the Sabra (or Sabre for the UK market). This was a two seater convertible using a Ford engine, a body designed by Ashley, a specialist British sports car company and a chassis from LMB. The Sabre was built for UK consumption for about 4 years and only 270 or so were built – the rest of the production were built in Israel and badged as Sabra’s. The first versions used a 1700cc 4 cylinder Ford motor giving 70 odd hp and then Reliant released the Sabre 6 with a 2.5 litre 6 cylinder motor again from Ford.
In 1964 the Regal was joined by the Rebel, a 4 wheeled version designed by Ogle, a British design house (similar to a Bertone or Ghia). This used a steel frame with a glass-fibre body and came in two variants: saloon or estate and the engine started out as an uprated 600 with 27 horses and later it took the 750 motor with 31 horses – as did the Regal. The Rebel was in production for 10 years and was replaced by the Kitten.
Also in 1964, Reliant showed the replacement for the Sabre, the Scimitar, initially a GT version with the same motor as the Sabre 6 and then with Ford’s 3 litre V6. This was a 2+2 model until the GTE version – a “Grand Touring Estate” was built in the early 1970s. The Scimitar remained in production until 1986 in various forms including a convertible (known as the GTC) and a luxury wide bodied version. The rights to the Scimitar model were sold to Middlebridge in the late 1980s and about 70 more were produced before production finally stopped.
The Regal van had been very successful as an export model – and may have influenced other manufacturers to build similar vehicles. Reliant were exporting Regal cabs with space for local coach-builders to add a flat bed or another rear end. By 1967, the export Regal had been replaced by the TW9 or Ant, which was co-developed by a Greek company who needed a new design. The Ant was also sold in the UK as a cab chassis unit that other people could add their own design to the rear for different purposes. The Ant remained in production for about 20 years using the same running gear as the other models with the 750 motor.
In 1970, Reliant acquired Bond Cars and for four years they built the Bond Bug a 2-seater glass-fibre fun car with the 700 and later 750cc motor. The Bug was like a modern beach buggy and only about 2,000 were built. They were overshadowed though, by the new Reliant Robin.
The Robin was launched in 1973 and was based on the Regal car using the 750 motor. It remained in production for nearly 30 years and had the engine uprated to 850 soon after production started. This car was hugely successful as you didn’t need a full car licence to drive them and they were cheap and economical to run. The final versions were built by a 3rd party (BN Plastics) after Reliant had announced that they were stopping production. The Kitten was released in 1975 as the replacement for the Rebel and was basically a 4 wheeled version of the Robin. Only 4,000 were made over seven years. Another model to come from Reliant was the Rialto. First launched in the early 1980s, this was supposed to be a replacement for the Robin but public pressure forced the Rialto to die and the Robin to be resurrected!
Also in the early 1980s, Reliant worked with Lucas Electronics to produce one of the first hybrid cars – in fact it uses the same concepts that the big manufacturers are using today. It was called the Whisper and used an electric motor with the 850 Reliant petrol motor being used as a generator and it could also be plugged in a domestic socket. It has only taken 30 years for this to become main stream!
To replace the Ant and Kitten, Reliant built a car with a design from the original Greek company that had helped create the Ant – the new car was known as the Fox and was similar to the Daihatsu Mighty Boy ute sold in Asia. Only 600 were built using the same running gear as the Kitten and production lasted seven years. The last new model was the Zoe, which was a Reliant built in the US and was based on the Robin, in fact it looked like a Robin on steroids with massive rear wheel arches for wider rims. This is interesting as it wouldn’t have helped a car with only 31 hp! This model was released in 1986 and although only five were built, they were offered with a hybrid power plant.
Reliant were very similar to AC Cars in some respects. Both companies developed and manufactured for others as well as their own cars – Reliant built the bodies for Metrocabs, the Ford/Toyota powered modern London taxis and they even owned Metrocabs for a while after the original owners, MCW, spun off their manufacturing businesses. The combined business didn’t last long after the acquisition.
After Reliant had sold its factory in Tamworth and moved across the country, the land was turned into a housing estate with street names such as Regal Close, Robin Close and Tom Williams Way. The whole estate is called Scimitar Park! The Reliant trademark appears to be now owned by Reliant Parts World who import Ligiers and other niche cars into Britain and supply parts for the entire range of Reliant 3 and 4 wheeled models.
And just to finish off, the Reliant 850cc engine was used during the 1970s in the Quasar, a feet forward motorcycle built in the UK for seven years. The reverse is happening now, as many niche cars use 1 litre motorcycle engines – think Westfield and others.
The image used is from Sporting Reliants, a great resource for all things Scimitar and is a site collecting as much information as possible about these very practical sports cars. The web site is well worth a visit.