Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (A Touch Of Class, Part 3) – Reliant Kitten, The Discreet Charm Of The Toiling Masses

Unlike Invicta and Standard, the incredible story of Reliant Motors is one that stretches to living memory for most people over 30, especially if they spent some time in the UK. Reliant three-wheelers were still a common enough sight there in the ‘90s, and I remember seeing a few Scimitars as well. How did Reliant keep producing their increasingly irrelevant and un-exportable cars for so long? And why did they have to stop?

When the Raleigh Bicycle Co. decided to terminate their motorized three-wheeler line, works manager Tom L. Williams and repair shop foreman E. S. Thomson figured that a new design could be engineered to carry the concept forward. By mid-1935, the two men had founded the Reliant Motor Co. and had a working prototype. The Reliant Regent van kept a motorbike feel, complete with chain drive, single headlamp and driver almost astride the single- or twin-cylinder JAP engine. In 1938, Reliant switched to the venerable Austin 7’s 747cc water-cooled 4-cyl.; Austin soon transferred the engine line over to Reliant.

Van production resumed in 1945, but Reliant were keen to conquer the ever-expanding passenger car market as well. The Regal, unveiled in 1952, still sported the Austin side-valve and had a timber-framed aluminium body, but now the motorcycle genes were receding. Demand for light vans and affordable cars was at an all-time high after the war, so Reliant made great business, thanks in no small part to their products being subject to a lower tax band. Thanks to a legal loophole, vehicles under a certain weight and with less than four wheels were classed as motorcycles, not cars. This explains the multitude of trikes that Britain has foisted upon the world. But not all of them were hits.

Let’s just take three to look at a few contemporaries. The AC Petite, the Bond Minicar, the Trojan 200 and the Invacar. The 1952-57 Petite (top left) was a complete flop. the Minicar (top right) was probably the best of the bunch – Bond was Reliant’s real rival in the market. A license-built Heinkel design, the Trojan (bottom left) was more innovative – but also looks rather dangerous and did not last very long (1961-65). The Invacar was designed by AC, but not made by them. As the name suggests, it was specially designed for handicapped folks. It was made until 1975, but was solely distributed (free of charge) to those eligible by the Ministry of Pensions, though a few did end up in private hands. That last one aside, Reliant still had quite a lot of competition to contend with – not to mention a variety of other four- and two-wheeled vehicles.

Reliant’s ace in the hole was their early adoption of GRP. By 1956, all Reliants were plastic-bodied. This meant weight savings, lower costs and cars that never rusted (well, visibly, anyway). Reliant always emphasized economy in their sales literature, appealing to those who felt every penny counts. And there are a lot of poor folks and skinflints to cater to in the UK…

A thoroughly revised Reliant three-wheeler arrived in 1962, with a trendy reversed backlight and edgy styling. The new packaging was also the occasion to give the old side-valve engine the heave-ho. In its stead, a brand new wet-lined OHV all-alloy bloc was unveiled, with a displacement of 600cc producing 25 hp.

Above: 1968 Reliant Regal Special; below: 1973-82 Reliant Robin

The Regal 3/25’s angular looks faded quickly; in 1973, the Reliant three-wheeler was redesigned as the infamous 750cc Robin. For some reason, the name “Reliant Robin” (or even “Robin Reliant”) stuck to the marque’s three-wheelers from then on in the public’s mind. These were the good times at Reliant. The company claimed it was the “second largest British carmaker” after BL, conveniently putting Ford, Vauxhall and Rootes aside as “foreign-owned.” It’s true that reliant were churning out over 350 cars per day from several factories in the early ‘70s, but that was also due to consolidation.

The Bond 875 was a thorn in Reliant’s side ever since its 1965 debut, so it was time for the Tamworth boys to go on the offensive. In 1969, Reliant bought Bond and pretty much shut it down. The legacy Bond cars were immediately nixed and replaced by the Regal-based Bond Bug (below), which would be the marque’s final model. The name and design of this particular vehicle ensured it would remain in the hearts of eccentric Brits (pleonasm?) for decades after its death from insecticide poisoning. But let’s not get ahead of the story – it gets a little complicated.

The ‘60s were very busy times for Reliant, for it was a time not just of growth and acquisitions, but also diversification. Not only did Reliant take over the three-wheeler competition, they made the great leap into the arena of four-wheeled cars. The first toe in the water was the Sabre. It was wise of Reliant to start off with a small sports car: in a niche market, even small sales looked pretty impressive. And the enthusiast crowd, if they liked what they saw, could perhaps start talking of Reliant in a positive way.

In the late ‘50s, a car manufacturing plant was being built in Haifa for a new outfit called Autocars. Their director Yitzhak Shubinsky struck a deal with Reliant so the British firm could help Autocars build a sports car called Sabra. It had a plastic body, a Ford Consul engine and buckets of charm; the first cars were assembled by Reliant in Tamworth in 1960 and exposed with great fanfare in New York. Thus the Autocar company (later Rom Carmel) was born, but that’s a story for another series.

Reliant started selling the Sabra (renamed as Sabre) under their own brand in 1961; a heavy restyle, a 2.6 litre Ford Zodiac engine and some Triumph suspension bits turned it into the 1962 Sabre Six, which didn’t exactly catch on, but Reliant had had a taste of this completely new market, and they liked it.

As a follow-up, Reliant wanted to attempt a true luxury coupé. The Sabre Six’s engine, now with dual carbs and producing 120 hp (gross), went into a re-engineered, longer and wider chassis. Designer David Ogle had proposed a fiberglass coupé design for the Daimler SP250, but the deal fell through. Reliant bought the design and launched the Scimitar GT in 1965.

The GTE evolved from graceful ’60s restraint into gimmicky late ’70s farce in under a decade.

It was a relative success. Reliant were now competing with the big boys – Austin-Healey, Daimler and Sunbeam. The genius of the Ogle design lay in its timelessness and versatility. Reliant launched the even more successful Scimitar GTE shooting brake in 1968, which just kept ticking along through to 1986, burying the cramped coupé in 1970. In 1980, a GTC convertible was added, but it failed to sell 500 units in six years.

With their (optional) automatic gearboxes and leather seats, the Scimitars were a complete deviation from the other Reliant products. They must have been very profitable, but not many were sold after the model’s ‘70s heyday. Total production (1964-86) was just over 15,000.

The Scimitar name was bestowed to a smaller 1.5 litre roadster called SS1 in 1984. Still using Ford (and Nissan) engines, the SS1 was made to fill the gap left by the demise of MG and Triumph roadsters, but the car’s bizarre looks (apparently Michelotti’s last design) didn’t catch on, even after a thorough restyle in 1990.

Having conquered trikes and started a new four-wheel sports car line, Reliant proved even more ambitious and launched a small four-wheel car. The 1964 Reliant Rebel was essentially a four-wheeled version of the Regal: same 600cc engine, same RWD transmission, same rear axle. The Rebel was a bit rough around the edges, though. Impinging on turf of the BMC Mini, the Hillman Imp and the Fiat 500 with a RWD design was gutsy, perhaps even foolhardy.

The problem was Reliant’s image as, first and foremost, a maker of cheap three-wheelers. This was reinforced by popular sentiment and echoed in the culture (Steptoe & Son, Mr Bean, etc.) even into the present decade (Top Gear). There were enough second-hand Fords and Morris Minors by the ‘60s to enable car ownership for comparatively little money. By this point, folks who bought Reliants actually believed they were saving money by only using three tyres. It would have been difficult to claim similar savings on a four-wheeled Rebel. So Reliant’s main clientele would probably not be interested in those. But everybody else, those who wanted four wheels, would never dream of visiting a Reliant showroom. Or if they did, it was low on the list.

The Rebel’s engine was upped to 700cc, then 750cc in 1972. But sales were extremely slow – around 2600 were made in 10 years, including 850 export models. One of the side benefits was the creation of Anadol in Turkey. Their 1967 debut model, the A1, was designed by Reliant, building on the Rebel experience. The incredible expansion of Reliant’s range in the ‘60s seemed to keep going in the ‘70s. In fact, the firm had plateaued.

The biggest sign was the 1975-82 Kitten, which replaced the Rebel as Reliant’s Mini-fighter. The car looked quite modern on the outside, but underneath, it was more or less the same old set-up: the front suspension was new (the Rebel’s was made from Standard-Triumph bits) and well-designed, but the rear kept the three-wheelers’ antediluvian live axle and leafs.

To keep production costs low, the Kitten also shared many body panels (doors, rear end) and glass with the new Robin saloon and wagon. There was also a Kitten van, with a simplified grille and round headlamps. In spite of these efforts, the Kitten was much too expensive to have any hope of succeeding. Let’s look at the general state of play in the world of late ‘70s city cars.

The Citroën was not sold in the UK at the time, but it’s there as a reminder that Reliant faced additional competitors (the LN, but also the Autobianchi A112, the SEAT 133 or the Innocenti 90) abroad, including in certain markets where Reliants had a small following (e.g. the Netherlands or Greece). Many of the Kitten’s competitors were FWD cars and were available with bigger engines – and disc brakes. Some could even have automatic transmission. The client walking in a Reliant dealership could not be persuaded to get the bigger model: there was only one. Well, two. The 850cc Kitten, or a three-wheeler Robin. Or the super exclusive Scimitar. How many folks went into a Ford dealership looking for a Fiesta and coming out with a Cortina, or the other way around?

There was none of that over at Reliant. The three car ranges were in silos. The Kitten was the first to go. It seems just over 4000 were made, including a few hundred exports. Just for comparison, the Linwood plant made over 200,000 Chrysler/Talbot Sunbeams in fewer model years (1977-81). It was another unmitigated disaster — and I’m talking about the Sunbeam. The Kitten, for its part, was a pure Deadly Sin.

Well, Reliant being who they were, they did manage to squeeze everything out of the Kitten (me-YOW!) before they were through with it. Reliant had another Mediterranean tryst, this time in Greece. In 1979, MAEBA, the firm that assembled Reliant three-wheelers, developed a Kitten-based vehicle inspired by the Mini Moke and the Citroën Méhari. They called it the Fox and built the car for a few years.

Reliant also built their version in the UK, but only 600 had been sold when production stopped in 1990.

Another great way to recoup investments was to license and/or ship over the whole line to an independent manufacturer. Reliant soon found a place where the Kitten’s separate chassis and rudimentary suspension were an asset: India. Hitherto specialized in three-wheelers, Sipani Automobiles of Bangalore imported the Kitten in CKD kits starting in 1983 and marketed it as the Sipani Dolphin. Given that some Indian States mandate the existence of doors for rear passengers, a locally-designed 4-door saloon called Montana soon appeared. Neither the Dolphin nor the Montana sold very well and Sipani turned to other parnters for their future projects.

In 1989, Reliant bought the Metro-Cammel-Weymann Metrocab, a Ford-engined, fiberglass-bodied, separate RWD chassis alternative to the ubiquitous Austin FX4 that had been launched in 1987. Production moved to Tamworth, but Metrocab sales were sluggish and Reliant were already short on cash. The Metrocab operation was sold off to Hooper in 1991, where production continued for 15 years. Perhaps Reliant didn’t think the Metrocab was a winner, but it kept the lights on at Hooper for a good while…

Despite a continuing trickle of four-wheeled products, Reliant really went back to what it had always been: Britain’s three-wheeler specialist. The Robin gave way to the Rialto in 1982 – this is the first Reliant I remember seeing, on my first trip to the UK, sometime in 1990 or 1991. The Rialto kept the all-alloy 848cc engine of their predecessor, though it was more tuned towards economy. But then, Reliants were always cars for the economically challenged.

The Robin came back in 1989 with Ford headlights, but otherwise things hadn’t changed much since the 1973 Robin Mark 1. Reliants were never cool, but now Mr Bean was ruining it for the younger generation as well. There were fewer and fewer markets that Reliant could export to and British sales were inexorably drying up as Robin devotees either passed away or passed their car license. It was remarked even in the ‘90s that the Robin’s continued existence was a sign of British exceptionalism. Alas, the exceptional Reliant were in dire financial health and sputtered along, just barely.

The small 4-cyl. Scimitar convertibles (SS1/SST/Sabre) only found 1500 homes in 12 model years


Speaking of Mr Bean, it so happens that Reliant was bought off by Beans Industries in August 1991. Beans used to make cars back in the ‘20s and had gravitated toward parts supply. It had been bought by Standard back in the ‘50s and found itself caught in the BL saga; Beans were privatized in the mid-‘80s and were looking for a challenge. And they got one. Tamworth was a tattered and cramped mess of a plant by the ‘90s. Beans sank a fortune in trying to make the SST (above), an SS1 with a pretty decent nose job by William Towns, into a proper sports car. It was rechristened Reliant Sabre in 1993, but nobody took any notice. Rialto production was cut and all focus turned back on the Robin. Beans Industries went into administration in 1995, yet somehow Reliant production was only paused, not stopped.

The video above is a fascinating look at the situation of Reliant in 1996, after the company’s third bankruptcy. Perhaps this is a British version of what it was like over at Talbot, Salmson or Delahaye, circa 1950: partial disorganization, ageing equipment, problems with suppliers, small team of long-time employees (experienced, but also quite set in their ways) – a small victory today means you get to continue the fight to the death tomorrow. When the pre-war luxury French marques agonized throughout the ‘50s, few people took much notice, let alone bothered to document it. Luckily, Reliant collapsed during the video age, and in England, where automotive eccentricity is a celebrated national virtue.

A final restyle in 1999 was all for naught. Reliant finally closed in 2001 and with it died a venerable British tradition of small and silly RWD cars built very seriously (but by hand), following a pattern basically set in the early ‘50s. The failure of the small four-wheelers meant that Reliant was unable to weather the storm with only three wheels.

There was little doubt, even when it was being made, that the Reliant Kitten was a lost cause. It was impossible for Reliant, still making chassis the old-fashioned way and incapable of changing their production methods, to even dream of competing with British Leyland, Fiat and all the rest. The Rebel should have made that fact clear enough, but it seems Reliant were feeling cocky enough to try.

Reliant’s investment in the Kitten, which did not pay off, might have been useful in other areas – they could have attempted a 1.5 litre roadster in the ‘70s, for instance, and tried to hang on with sports cars, the only logical niche for small-time automakers. Instead, Reliant blew their cash (and in the early ‘70s, they had plenty) on a losing horse that became a three-legged one-trick pony.

That’s it for this edition of British Deadly Sins, folks. What country should we visit next?


Related posts:


COAL: 1969 Reliant Scimitar GTE, by David Saunders

Curbside Classic: 1978 Reliant Scimitar GTE – Princess Anne Had One, You Know. And Another, And Another…, by Roger Carr

Curbside Outtake: 1976 Reliant Kitten Estate – Four Wheels On My Robin, by Roger Carr

Cohort Sighting: Reliant Rialto In Scenic Setting, by PN


* * *

European Deadly Sins series

French DS 1 (Hotchkiss, Panhard, Citroën) — French DS 2 (Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Monica)

French DS 3 (Berliet, Salmson, Delahaye)

British DS 1 (Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler) — British DS 2 (Alvis, Lagonda, Gordon-Keeble)

German DS 1 (BMW, Borgward, Glas) — German DS 2 (Neckar, DKW, NSU)

Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia) — Other DS1 (Minerva-Impéria, Monteverdi, DAF)