Britain has a proud history of small car manufacturers, with names like Jensen and Morgan being familiar. Most have, or had, a unique proposition – Jensen had a Chrysler V8 in a coachbuilt body, Morgan has the 1930’s wood-framed body, and Reliant built three fiberglass wheelers.
That statement deserves clarification – Yes, Reliant had built three wheeler vans and cars since the 1930s but they also built four wheeled vehicles, either as derivatives of the three wheelers or as separate vehicles. Perhaps the best remembered is the Reliant Scimitar GTE. CC Contributor David Saunders once owned one and wrote up the story of his Scimitar here.
The Kitten is therefore in a long tradition; it was a four wheeled derivative of the long running Reliant Robin (often incorrectly called the Robin Reliant) which ran from 1973 to 1981 (and then again under various new ownership and licensing agreements), and was perhaps the best known Reliant model.
The Kitten had a double wishbone front suspension and longer front wheel wells, as the engine was mounted further forward, grafted onto a Robin chassis and rear body. Power came from an 848cc four cylinder engine, based loosely on the engine of the pre-war Austin 7, giving around 40bhp, and driving the rear wheels through a four speed gearbox
This featured Kitten is the longer estate version; the regular saloon (above) was the bigger seller.
Like all Reliants since the 1950s, the bodies were built of fibreglass, mounted on a traditional steel chassis, with semi-elliptic rear springs.
Robins, and the later Rialto, can still be seen on the roads; the Kitten only sold 2600 in the UK and there are perhaps 100 still licensed, supported by an active ownership community.
Nice! Looks like a VW Rabbit with a Chevy S10 grille
The Kitten “…only sold 2600 in the U.K.”.
That 2600 was 2/3rds of total production.
My reference book describes the Kitten thusly:
“….it was a rather unpleasant car: noisy, cramped, plasticky, and poorly built.” “A fringe product at best and now extremely rare.”
And that from a book printed 20 years ago.
Even at the time, the press clearly found it difficult to say anything truly positive about a car that was 50% more expensive than a Mini, less capable and smelt badly of glue……
Cute car. That must be the most old-school chassis of any car in the ’70s. Hefty frame, RWD, engine BEHIND the front axle. Except for the rack and pinion, could be a 1939 chassis.
Kitten is an…interesting name choice. I can’t imagine they sold many to men.
Over here in the US, many people know of Reliants only because of Mr. Bean.
Mr. Bean! I had the same thought.
And about the name, don’t kittens eat robins? 🙂
I wonder if the name was chosen deliberately for that kind of reason. They had a similar 4 door version of the Robin’s predecessor, the Regal. The four-wheeler was a Rebel – Rebels against their Regal masters?
It’s funny, I never thought of this as a woman’s car. They were much less common than Robins but little Reliants tended to be driven by a certain type of working class male.
British men probably are less hung up about stuff like that, even less so in those days. The Robin was a coal miner’s car! They may seem like toys but they were a very pragmatic choice.
Bean? No. Clarkson, yes!
There was an episode of Magnum P.I. in which they went to England. Higgins, the British caretaker of the Hawaiian estate, rented a Reliant.
Isn’t it sad how some things stick in your memory?
H’mm. That vehicle looks kinda familiar (except maybe I’m just being fooled by the colour; the one in the link has twin rear doors rather than a single gate).
That’s a Bedford HA, the van version of the original Vauxhall Viva. It’s yellow as it’s ex British Telecom, as seemingly all of them were. It’s a bit bigger than the Reliant.
I’ve never seen a Reliant van or estate with twin rear doors.
Thank you kindly.
This was a semi-familiar sight on Israeli roads in the 70s, particularly after the fuel crisis in 73, after the war, given that it was the most economical car sold in Israel back then (35 MPG combined). With fuel prices being what they were, people were prepared to put up with something which was basic even according to Israeli standards of the time.
Reliant had several partnerships in Israel and in Turkey to create cars based on the Kitten and a larger platform as well. The Anadol is perhaps the best known of these.
As T Turtle says these were very economical. From memory the average consumption on the Autocar road test was around 42mpg (imperial). Peers like the Ford Fiesta and Mini only achieved late 30s. The Kitten was produced as the Sipani Dolphin in Bangalore which spawned a very DIY-looking four door version called the Montana. There were still a few around in the early 90s particularly in southern India looking pretty sorry for themselves.
I understand that in the UK, there are, or were, tax advantages to 3-wheelers. But once you’ve graduated to 4 wheels, why a Kitten when so many other cars are available?
I believe a vehicle with three wheels is legally a motorcycle and not a car.
It wasn’t the tax saving it was the fact you didn’t have to pass a driving test if you had a motorcycle licence. A Robin was your choice if the alternative was a side car on your motorcycle. A Kitten didn’t save you anything so if you could afford a 4 wheeler you had a wider choice – hence it was never as popular as the Robin. Hi
The tax advantage can be overstated, road tax is pretty low – but the Robin did outsell and outlast the Kitten.
The 3 wheelers were sold until 2001 and low running costs but also strong resale values were a factor. I wonder if fibreglass bodywork may also have been attractive in the 70s when your neighbours cars were dissolving around you.
There is a reason Reliants have been made fun of for as long as I can remember, even by the Brits (just watch Top Gear). It’s probably the same reason they don’t exist anymore.
All the mechanical weight within the wheelbase these might have handled stupidly well if anyone ever tried, looks like Herald front suspension but what did they do to the prewar flathead for 70s motoring? with only two mains those things were hardly robust.
Reliant was involved in designing the Turkish Anadol cars which were also fiberglass. In fact, the front grill and headlights on this yellow Reliant above look very much like the ones on a 1970s era Anadol.
OK, here’s yet more obscure information, about this obscure car. Early Reliant 3 wheelers did have an Austin 7 based flathead, but later 3 wheelers and the Robin had a newly designed engine, pushrod ohv, with alloy head and block and a forged crankshaft, quite a sweet and tuneable little motor.
The Robin’s separate chassis, and its ‘mid front engine’ layout, made an attractive basis for designers and builders of kit-cars. So, as well as those 100 surviving Kittens, there’s quite a few more still scampering around, but with a new sports body, one example being the Liege design, http://www.liegecars.co.uk/page.php?6 .
In the UK, we have offroad motorsport events called Car Trials, which are all about getting up steep hills, and the light, compact Kitten is good at these events, and still used in them, as per this example pic.
The Kitten lives !
Hi. The rear alloy wheel on this reliant kitten are they 6×10? I brought exactly same wheels for my mk1 relaint robin. I would of thought the mk1 robin is the same studs and hub as your kitten? My wheels hole are bigger diameter then the studs are on the robin. Just seeing if you had the same problem?
And here’s a Liege, at the same kind of event (click on the image, to see full size). The twin spare wheels are a Car Trials trick, to shift the weight distribution backwards, for extra traction. This particular car has been upgraded with a 1300 Suzuki engine, and is very successful.
Interesting how wide-set the wheels are compared to the fenders. Although I suspect that it is due to narrow bodywork than being the British version of the Wide Track Pontiac.
Great post – for some reason I never knew Reliants used fiberglass bodies. The Kitten brought to my mind a early Suzuki Alto minicar.
Ashley. “There is a reason Reliants have been made fun of for as long as I can remember, even by the Brits (just watch Top Gear). It’s probably the same reason they don’t exist anymore.”
Yes, they have always been made fun of, that’s true enough. As for the Top Gear feature, you do know that was totally staged don’t you? The Reliant Robin was heavily loaded with ballast on one side to prompt it to tip on corners.
Top Gear is great TV, great entertainment, but it is just a slapstick comedy. The jokes are scripted, the adventures faked, the stunts staged. Sadly a lot of folks outside the UK who have never owned, driven or even seen most British cars have built up their rather distorted knowledge of old British cars based entirely on watching Top Gear.
Please, all Curbivores, enjoy Top Gear but accept any fact or event with great care unless it is verified elsewhere. ClassicCarFan is absolutely right
That’s my old Reliant kitten yellow MHK 16P owned when I was 19 ! I’m 53 now. Completed full chassis resto, engine rebuild, & half front crash repair to passenger side…….with the help of my late brother & dad Dave & Ed ,Had alloy wheels when I owned it though…… Good to see its still rolling