Britain By Car - A Motoring History

Reliant Motor Company

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Britain’s most successful manufacturer of three-wheeled vehicles and, at one stage, the second largest British-owned motor manufacturer.

Location    
Watling Street, Two Gates, Tamworth B77 1HN, and Reliant Metrocab, Kettlebrook Works, Basin Lane Tamworth B27 2AH.

Date
1935 - 1998.

 

Commentary
The first Reliant, a 7cwt van, was produced in 1935.  It was the brainchild of Tom Williams, who had previously worked for motorcycle manufacturers Triumph, Dunelt, and later Raleigh, where he was chief designer.  

Born in 1890, Tom Williams was a civil engineer by profession, but his career in the motorcycle industry was an indirect result of his membership of the Christadelphians; a religious sect fundamentally opposed to violence and membership of the armed forces.  In March 1916, the British parliament passed the Military Service Act, requiring all men aged 18-41 to enlist in the army.  Tom Williams’ refusal to fight, on grounds of religious belief, soon led to a charge of being absent without leave.  He was fined, and held in military custody, but then – because of his engineering background – assigned to non-combatant work at the Triumph Cycle Company, where he remained until 1924.  

After a spell with Dunelt, Tom Williams moved to the Raleigh Cycle Company, which had recently launched a light delivery van (LDV) - essentially a three-wheel motorcycle.  Three years later, under his guidance, the LDV was superseded by the Raleigh Safety Seven; another three-wheeler, but much more car-like in appearance.  However, after little more than a year, the Raleigh directors took the decision to cease motor vehicle production and to focus entirely on building and selling bicycles.  Tom Williams disagreed.  So much so, that he resigned from the company, and decided to set up on his own, building vehicles that would offer a simple, economic and reliable form of transport.

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He began work on a small three-wheel delivery van in August 1934 with his Raleigh colleague Ewart (Tommo) Thompson, who had resigned from the company at the same time.  Perhaps understandably, there was some carry-over from the vehicles that Williams had been designing for his previous employer.  The prototype was licensed on 1st January 1935; and after a number of revisions, which included replacing the handlebars with a steering wheel, the first production vehicle was delivered six months later, on the 3rd June 1935.

(Several writers partly attribute the name Reliant to the number of Raleigh parts initially used by Tom Williams, many of which were stamped with the letter ‘R’.)

The new factory premises was a former Midland Red bus garage at Two Gates, on the south side of Tamworth.  Initial sales were not good; but survival was ensured by Tom Williams’ ability to recognise and respond to customer demand. 

Realising that a bigger and more powerful vehicle was required, Reliant introduced a 10cwt van with a larger 747cc JAP industrial engine.  A year later, in 1937, Tom Williams signed an agreement with the Austin Motor Company for the supply of the four-cylinder Austin Seven engine, moving Reliant further away from its motor-cycle origins.

However, the Austin contract turned out to be relatively short-lived.  In 1939, Austin decided to cease Seven production, and with it their supply of engines to Reliant.  Williams’ response was for Reliant to build its own engine; closely based on the Austin, and of identical capacity, it didn’t reach full production until after the War.  

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From 1939 -1945, Reliant manufactured a wide range of components for military and industrial purposes.  After the War, three-wheeler 8- and 12-cwt vans remained the mainstay of Reliant production but, in 1953, the company launched the all-new Regal; a two-door, soft top three-wheel passenger car, using the same 747cc engine, enclosed in an ash-framed aluminium body.

After experimenting in 1954 and 1955 with use of fibreglass for body panels such as the bonnet and roof, Reliant went ahead, in 1956, to produce Europe’s first mass-produced fibreglass-bodied car – the Reliant Regal Mk III.

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Developments of the Regal continued apace during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  By 1962 Reliant had dispensed with the ash frame and were manufacturing fibreglass bodies of unitary construction.  They had also a new 600cc ohv engine on the stocks; more powerful than its larger predecessor and manufactured in aluminium, making Reliant the first manufacturer in Britain’s to mass-produce an all-aluminium engine.

Although forever associated with three-wheelers, Reliant was also both directly and indirectly involved in the production of four-wheeled vehicles.  The first was in 1958 with the Israeli company Autocars, to whom Reliant had been exporting its Regent three-wheeler in semi-knocked down kit form for a number of years.  Designed and engineered by Reliant, the four-wheel Sussita and Carmel were manufactured by Autocars in Haifa.

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In 1961, Autocars introduced a new sports car, the Sabra, which they then asked Reliant to restyle.  The modified car was re-named Sabre for the British market and produced in two forms – the Four and Six, using Ford four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines, respectively.

The Sabre Six went on sale in 1962, although not a great seller, it had some rally success on the Alpine and Monte Carlo Rallies, and the Circuit of Ireland.

On the 23rd October 1963, fire broke out in the factory fibreglass shop on the south side of Watling Street, causing major damage to the building, machinery and a number of the fibreglass moulds.  In response, it took Reliant just over a month to buy and convert a disused factory seven miles away in Shenstone, which was opened on 27th November 1963, by Formula 1 World Champion, Jim Clark.

Two and a half years later, in March 1966, another fire swept through the fibreglass shop at Tamworth.  Elvis Payne, in his book on the Reliant Motor Company, writes that within a few hours of the fire being extinguished, a new site had been purchased a short distance away at the bottom of Basin Lane, Kettlebrook.  He also describes how Reliant production workers worked round the clock to convert the ex-foundry into a factory, taking a temporary wage-cut in the process.  It took just a month to get the new factory up and running.

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The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a boom period for Reliant, with three-wheel car and van sales steadily improving.  It was also a time that saw the growth of its four-wheel car range – although this probably applies more to the Scimitar than the smaller Rebel.

The Scimitar and Rebel were both launched at the 1964 Earls Court Motor Show.  Based on a design by David Ogle and completed by Tom Karen, the Scimitar was a 2 + 2 sports car, initially using the same six-cylinder Ford engine from the earlier Sabre.  Over the next four years it was continually upgraded, and garnered considerable praise for Reliant.  In 1970, its reputation was further enhanced when Princess Anne bought the first of the seven Scimitars that she eventually owned.

The Rebel, however, was less of a success.  Also designed by Tom Karen, it began life with an upgraded Reliant 600cc engine.  Offered in saloon and estate versions, and later with a 700cc engine, it was eventually discontinued in 1974.

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In 1968, Reliant launched the Scimitar GTE.  Although visually linked to the original Scimitar GT, it was largely a new design by Tom Karen at Ogle Design – with the (almost) revolutionary feature of a hatchback rear door. During its lifetime, the car was gently restyled and developed, evolving into the GTE SE6a and SE6b and the open topped GTC.  Production of the GTE and GTC came to an end in 1986, but in 1987, the manufacturing and tooling rights were purchased by the Middlebridge Company of Beeston, near Nottingham.

Reliant’s next (and final) sports car also used the Scimitar name, but was very different in nature from the previous model.  First launched in 1984, with a choice of Ford 1300cc or 1600cc engines, the Scimitar SS1 was a smaller car and built in a very different way from other Reliants, using injection- and compression-moulded body panels, rather than a single-piece body shell.

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The car was expensive and tricky to build and the body, although originally designed by Michelotti, seemed ill-proportioned, particularly with the soft-top raised. Again, the new Scimitar went through several revisions, which included fitting a more powerful Nissan Silvia 1800 Turbo engine and changes to the body, restyled by William Towns, whose previous work included the Aston Martin DBS. 

The Reliant Robin, the Regal’s replacement, had a more modern, rounded shape.  Like other Reliants, it was regular updated, and in 1975 was fitted with a more powerful 850cc engine.  Although initially selling well, the car became subject to criticism on grounds of safety, giving rise to a question in Parliament, after reports of faults on a number of cars possibly contributing to serious accidents.

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In 1981, the Robin was replaced by the mechanically similar Rialto.  An upgrade in 1984 gave greater fuel economy and a higher top speed, but in 1989 the Rialto was discontinued as Reliant re-introduced the Robin name.

However, on a wider level, Reliant was in slow decline.  After control of the company passing to Gwent & West of England Enterprises in 1962, ownership moved to J F Nash Securities Ltd in 1977.  In 1990, Nash sold Reliant in a complicated arrangement with two property companies, but the new consortium failed to give Reliant the stability and funding that it needed.  Haemorrhaging money, Reliant ceased trading in October 1990.  Workers were laid-off and assets sold, including Reliant’s Metrocab division along with the Kettlebrook site, where it was based. 

In 1991, Reliant was bought by Beans Industries Ltd., manufacturer of the Bean car, between 1919 and 1929, and to whom Reliant had more recently outsourced production of some of its mechanical components.  Within two months, production of the Rialto and Robin resumed, and a year later, in July 1992, a revised Scimitar was launched, known first as the Sabre, and then the Scimitar Sabre.  But the good fortune did not last; in late 1994, Beans Industries went into receivership, and Reliant was once more up for sale.

In January 1995, Avonex – an engineering group, based in Tewksbury – took control, and car production resumed; but in less than a year the receivers were back.

The final change in Reliant ownership was a takeover by a consortium of three companies, with day-to-day running under Jonathan Heynes, formerly a senior manager with Jaguar.  Once again, production was restarted, with further revisions to the Robin, the re-introduction of the Supervan, and initial development on a number of interesting projects, including a new small sports car.  However, many of these plans were curtailed with the withdrawal of one of the consortium companies leading, in 1998, to Reliant leaving the Tamworth site for a new location, twelve miles away at Burntwood.

The old Reliant factory on the north side of Watling Street was demolished in February 2000.  Today it is a housing estate, with a number of street names marking the area's links with Reliant.  These include Tom Williams Way and Regal Close.

In preparing this article, I am very grateful for the information provided in Elvis Payne’s book, “The Reliant Motor Company”.

Other locations    
Burntwood, Staffordshire.
Shenstone, Staffordshire.

Further details    
• The Reliant Motor Company, Elvis Payne, Crécy Publishing, 2016.
• The Reliant Three-Wheeler, 1935 – 1973, Stuart Cyphus and Elvis Payne, Crécy Publishing, 2011.
• Information on the history of Reliant and company archives are available from www.3wheelers.com, an online catalogue of three-wheeled vehicles from Cugnot fardier à vapeur (1769) to the present day.
• Rebel without applause: Reliant from inception to zenith, Daniel Lockton, Bookmarque Publishing, 2003.
• Reliant Three-Wheelers, John Wilson-Hall, The Crowood Press, 2014.