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Three Wheelers

Three Wheelers Published: 22nd Nov 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Three Wheelers
Three Wheelers
Three Wheelers
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They shot to fame thanks to Only Fools and Horses but you’re not a plonker for wanting one either…

Who would have thought that a small, no-nonsense economy car would gain cult status? No, not the Mini, but the Reliant threewheeler!

In the commercial Regal Supervan guise it became an unlikely TV star even if, in the real world, Del Trotter would have been one of the least likely owners of one of these quirky motorised tripods. It’s easy to mock the fibreglass-bodied Reliant, but back in the early 1960s Colin Chapman was impressed enough to seriously consider buying the company albeit more for GPR expertise we’d wager but while these are not Lotus substitutes you can have a heck of a lot of fun in one.

Timelines

1948 With a need for low cost motoring after the War, Laurie Bond introduces the Minicar three-wheeler powered by a single cylinder 122cc two stroke motorcycle engine offering just 5bhp but over a claimed 100mpg. This simple format continued with facelifts and updates up to 1966 where the final Mark G boasted roof, doors and hydraulic brakes.

1951 Reliant first started making tricars back in the late 30s. The first Regal was an alloy body over timber frame design using the Austin Seven engine with four-speed gearbox and hydraulic brakes. Initially open topped, a saloon surfaced in 1956 along with fibreglass bodies.

1962 Sharp styled Regal 3/25 launched in saloon, estate and van designs they now benefit from Reliant’s own 598cc alloy engine (still heavily based on the Austin 7 unit). Saloon has similar reverse rake rear screen design first seen in the Ford Anglia.

1965 Bond 875 is Regal rival using a detuned rearmounted Hillman Imp engine, hence ‘875’ name. It was killed off after the Reliant take over.

1968 Bigger 701cc engine signifies 3/30 badge. Del Boy Commercial model is known as the Supervan by then.

1970 Bond Bug is launched; a reworked Regal on Mini wheels with Ogle-designed cheese wedge styling plus swing up canopy. All tangerine coloured only but with three trims; about 100 survive.

1973 Robin replaces Regal with modernised Ogle styling, more comfort and 848cc engine. This was available in four flavours: Standard, Super, Estate and Van.

1975 Some body tweaks and the final engine stretch, this time to 850cc for 40bhp. It was replaced by the Rialto in 1981 and Rialto 2 in 1983 only for the Robin name to be revived eight years later.

Driving

Ignoring Tri-cars the trio have different driving characteristics. The Regal with its big 13in wheels is stiffly sprung to help contain body roll, and by virtue the ride can be rough. It’s also extremely low-geared with 50mph being the most your ears can probably cope with.

The Bug is such fun to drive as you’d expect. The smaller 10in wheels contribute to a low centre of gravity and a revised suspension, helped by the addition of an anti-roll bar, both smoothes the ride and makes the Bug feel far more firmly planted. Like the Bug, the Robin rides on 10in wheels and has an anti-roll bar.

Handling is fine at lower speeds, but windy days will have you battling to stay in a straight line although ignore Top Gear – three-wheelers aren’t that easy to tip over… When Car Mechanics published a scathing test of the Regal back in 1970 the mailbag was stuffed with owners’ letters telling the writer what a plonker he was (actually the amusing Brian Lecomber later became a highly respected stunt pilot!)!

Best models

Unless you’re a masochist any pre-Regal model is going to prove challenging. The Robin is a great improvement on its predecessor although not even the later higher spec Rialto can be considered quiet and refined. There was a special edition Robin called the Jubilee in 1977 to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Thanks to Del Boy, the Supervans are most coveted along with the Bond Bug which is a laugh a minute although the earlier 875 is a perky performer with ‘interesting’ handling…

Prices

Three-wheeling might have represented cheap motoring when contemporary but that’s not the now with models such as early Bonds and Bugs needing £10,000 to exchange hands. Regal, Robins and Rialtos are much cheaper (£3500 tops).

Verdict

While not being everybody’s cup of tea, don’t think you’re a plonker for wanting to become a Del Boy. Just don’t refer to them as Robin Reliants. Please!

Four play

If you like the idea of a three-wheeler but would really like a wheel on each corner, why not consider their conventional offshoots? Reliant offered the Rebel from 1964 to 1972 in saloon and estate guise. It was replaced by the Kitten (pictured) in 1975, using a Triumph Herald-based front suspension and steering. Apart from the normal saloon and (highly practical) estate, a pick-up was also made. The Kitten gave way to the similar Fox from 1983-90. Prices are broadly similar to Regal and Robin three-wheelers.

Following in his father’s footsteps

Although he drives a modern Mercedes, John Kenny likes nothing better than to slip behind the wheel of this Regal 21E that he has owned for a decade, and completely rebuilt, to unwind, to remind him of the three-wheelers his father owned. Apart from fitting modern radials “which make a big difference to the handling” the car is unmodified. John is considering a Bond Bug next.

Top 5 faults

Body

The glassfibre bodies, although well made will almost certainly be crazed. This needs to be dug out and filled before painting, which is a painstaking process. Thankfully, there’s a decent supply of old shells from the Owners clubs who are very helpful and well worth joining before you start looking. The Bug Club is looking to make new canopies.

Chassis

They can rust almost anywhere, but the rearward rails under the boot quickly rot away when water gets in by the bump stops and the main rails go first under the rear seat. The most critical area for rust is likely to be the A-frame that carries the front wheel along with cracking steering box vicinity. The top rail tube can rust. Think £1000 for a new chassis frame.

Engine

Older cars with Zenith carb had problems starting on a hot day and so owners cut bonnet cooling holes; problem eased by Robin’s SU carb. Engines are generally sturdy if pricey to rebuld although as Reliant units are wet-lined easy to rebore; overheating common (budget for a better rad) and general access isn’t ideal. Check petrol pipes are they are leak-prone.

Parts swapping

Despite being the same basic idea, Regal and Robin chassis are not interchangeable. The main beams are spaced differently, the Robin engine sits further forwards and the swinging A-frames are different. Engines can be swapped with a little mixing of mounting of brackets but gearboxes are harder to swap due to clutch release arms.

Running gear

Much of the running gear was pinched by the major makers and so parts aren’t massive problems. Just general checks apply but the lone kingpin lives a hard life and can become slack. In extreme cases, the stub axle can be worn oval; remedied by heating and shrinking, or an oversize pin and bushes made up. Later ’92 gearboxes are the weakest.



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