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Reliant Three Wheeler

Published: 17th Oct 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Was it only plonkers who owned three-wheelers? Of course not!

A Regal felt like a Rolls compared to a sidecar combination!

Who would have thought that a small, no-nonsense economy car would gain cult status? No, we’re not talking about the evergreen Mini, but the Reliant three-wheeler! In its commercial Regal Supervan version, Reliant’s three wheeler even became an unlikely TV star. However, in the real world, Del Trotter would have been one of the least likely owners of one of these quirky motorised tripods, which were originally most popular with aspiring bikers, who wanted to upgrade from a sidecar outfi t and didn’t want to take the car driving test.

Economy motoring in 2011 is a lot different to the 1960s and 70s when image was not so important and 60mpg wasn’t as commonplace as it is today thanks to modern diesels. Indeed, perhaps the spiritual successors to the Reliant are brands such as the obscure Perodua or thebetter known, and well respected, Hyundai and Kia brands – both who made a killing during the recent car scrappage scheme.

Reliant can trace its roots back to the days of cyclecars, which were small lightweight vehicles, with wheels not much larger than those you’d find on a pushbike, and normally fitted with motorcycle engines. In the early years of motoring, these were the economy cars of their day, including vehicles like the 1908 three-wheel AC Sociable (AC stood for AutoCarrier, as the vehicle was designed to deliver parcels), which was initially built in West Norwood and later in the famous Thames Ditton factory. The original threewheel Morgans were also cyclecars, with their sporty JAP motorcycle engines.

The Austin Seven was the death knell for many early cyclecars, just as the Mini helped to kill off the bubble car many years later. However, Reliant stuck with the concept and continued to develop the lightweight threewheeler, with all its quirks. The Tamworth-based company was established in 1935 and initially only built lightweight commercials, until the 1952 introduction of the fi rst Regal passenger car, which used a modifi ed Austin Seven engine. This engine was eventually replaced in 1963, with the company’s own die-cast OHV 600cc unit, which increased in capacity over the years to 700cc, 748cc and ultimately 848cc.

Taxation and driver licensing laws made three-wheeling appealing not only to bikers but also 16 year olds, because a full motorcycle licence entitled them to drive a three wheeler as well. Due to their light weight (under 8cwt) the Reliants qualifi ed for motorcycle road tax which, for example, in 1970, was £16 rather than £25 – a fair old saving 40 years ago.

In fact the Reliant was tailored for the twowheelers who wanted to trade up to a car but didn’t want, or need to take the driving test. The two main players in the three-wheel market were Bond and Reliant; the former making more expensive upmarket machines with Reliant majoring on economy motoring. And it was Reliant who called it right, buying out the ailing Bond company in 1969.

The classic Reliant that we all know best is the Regal (only lazy TV presenters called it the Robin Reliant!), made popular by the TV series Only Fools and Horses. The 3/25 was launched in the early 60s as a car and commercial van, featuring neater styling than before, more civility and better performance, care of its Austin 7-derived engine but now manufactured from aluminium (just like a Rolls-Royce engine claimed the adverts!).

It’s easy to mock the fi breglass-bodied Reliant, but back in the early 60s Colin Chapman was impressed enough to seriously consider buying the company more for GPR expertise we’d wager. The Regal was all about economy motoring. Mind you, it cost the same as a Mini or an Imp when new (albeit with similar levels of performance), but at least the Regal depreciated less than those posher rivals. In a bid to appeal to a younger, trendier driver, Reliant bought out the funky orange-coloured Bond Bug, but sadly the idea was killed by a change in the licence laws soon after launch, which standardised all car and tricycle driving ages to 17.

It started to look like the end of the road for the three-wheeler, until the energy crisis and subsequent rocketing of fuel prices of 1973 put economy motoring in the frame again. Fortunately, Reliant had the stylish Robin ready to roll by then. With more power, better handling, comfort and refi nement plus a hatchback body, it was a huge improvement over what had gone before.

The basic design remained the same for 20 years, evolving into the Rialto, produced by Beans Engineering after Reliant folded. However, by then the cars were only made in small numbers, as people realised that there was more to life than simply saving fuel and road tax.


  Lovely jubbly…
 
Or acting like a plonker? You either loved or loathed three-wheelers and their owners. Reliant hardly helped this state of affairs, with a period 1970 ad depicting the most boring family you could wish for (Mum. Dad, angelic-looking son and Gran) all blissfully happy in their 3/25.

While there were normal motorists who would forsake a fourth wheel to save £1.50 a week (according to Reliant), most sales came from bikers who wanted to move upmarket from a draughty, leaky sidecar, where a Regal or Robinmust have felt like a Rolls-Royce in comparison. And bikers loved them as cheap second-hand purchases during the winter when their widowmaker could stay locked in a warm garage. So long as it had a roof and a heater, bikers couldn’t care less what they were driving in the late 70s.

And it was the bikers who could drive the three-wheelers better, without them tipping over, although it was never as common as an episode of Top Gear made it out to be anyway. With a bikers’ balance, a steady throttle, smooth positive movements of the tiller, any Reliant owner would get through a corner and live to tell the tale. In fact statistically a recent report revealed that it’s one of the vehicles you’re least likely to have a prang in! Or want to?

And the owners! They were usually a pretty dexterous DIY bunch – well you had to be to get at the engine – and were tremendously loyal to the car. When Car Mechanics published a scathing a test of the Regal back in 1970 (“We have tried very hard to think of something nice to say about the Reliant three-wheelers… regrettably our efforts have not been outstandingly successful” was its verdict) the mailbag was stuffed with owners’ letters telling the journo what a plonker he was (actually the amusing Brian Lecomber later became a highly respected stunt pilot!)!

Today you see too few at car shows – and mostly they are Trotter replicas which is a bit sad. The exception is the Bug, which gaining a cult following, and prices of £5000 for a top car isn’t unknown. It’s easy to be dismissive of this harsh, noisy and some felt dangerous mode of transport, but you have to remember that the Regal and Robin were designed to do a simple job, and that was to provide the cheapest form of family motoring. For plonkers? Not really…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When The Car Was The Star

Long before the yellow Regal Supervan Mk.III (actually one of 18 1966-1969 models used over the years) in Only Fools and Horses or the blue 1972 Supervan in Mr. Bean, a 1965 Regal 3/25 saloon starred in the fi rst ever episode of George & Mildred – demolishing the fence of the Roper’s next door neighbours due to Roy Kinnear putting the gearbox in backwards. The prize for the most offbeat Regal starring role has to be the red Supervan in the Welsh children’s comedy Fan Goch on Ceri Geru and award for the most charming is obviously the video for Tracey Ullman’s cover of They Don’t Know About Us (with Paul McCartney at the wheel!). As for the Robin, an estate is the bona fi da star of the 1992 Paris set art house drama La Vie de Bohème – and the director liked it so much that he bought the Reliant for his personal collection!



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