Curbside Classic: 1975 Reliant Kitten – Out of the Blue

Quite possibly some of this car looks vaguely familiar. Imagine now just one wheel at the front (and no wheel arches). Basically it’s a Reliant Robin with an extra wheel. In fact this was the second time Reliant had produced a four-wheel version of their more (in)famous three-wheelers.

(ED: just in case anyone isn’t familiar with the more (in)famous three-wheel Robin, here it is. And yes, the Top Gear episode of them repeatedly tipping a Robin was utterly staged, as are/were all of their shows).

From 1964 to 1973 they made the Rebel, based on the Regal 3/25; my Dad caught one in the background of a photo he took in Victoria Park, Hackney in 1970.

They are small, even by 1960s/’70s British standards, though not quite Mini small being 13″ longer and about 1″ wider. Their mechanical layout though was ‘conventional’ with the engine at the front driving a live back axle on leaf springs, with wishbone IFS at the front. Whereas the three-wheelers had the advantage of cheaper road tax and only required a motorcycle licence to drive, the four-wheel variants were classed as cars so needed a full car driving licence and cost more in road tax. Still, their glass-fibre bodies wouldn’t break out into rust spots after 3 to 5 years like most mass-market cars of the time; even their steel chassis were galvanised. The Kitten gave slightly more room up front as the engine could be moved further forward between the front wheels rather than being behind the single one of the Robin and they looked less comical.

They were still light weight, just 1186 lbs in this form, so the 40hp 850cc engine was enough for quite nippy performance combined with economy (over 50mpg was easily obtainable) and the 23 foot turning circle was useful around town. Of course, accommodation was quite basic and, from reading a contemporary review, they were severely lacking in refinement. ‘Car’ magazine called the Kitten ‘one of the least satisfactory cars we have ever encountered‘ and concludes ‘Close up, the Kitten looks, sounds and feels like a kit car.’ What really counted against it though was price. This version would have cost £1574.82 new. For about the same money you could buy a Ford Escort. In the eight years they were made (1975-83) they made just 4074* Kittens, including those exported. Ford sold 103,817 Escorts – in the UK in 1975 alone!

I first saw a (so 1970s!) orange Kitten saloon locally more than five years ago, but though I have seen it several times since it has always remained elusive when I’ve had my camera with me. I saw it last a couple of months ago, at a local filling station. Last Wednesday though I had my camera with me so, of course, the orange Kitten didn’t show. No, instead I saw another one I’d never seen before!

It’s about the same age as the orange one (the P suffix gives a registration date between 1st August 1975 and 31st July 1976) though the metallic paintwork is uneven in places. It is the estate (wagon) version with a practical, upright rear door (side hinged, not tailgate). The side window shape is vaguely like the contemporary Austin Allegro estate in that the lower edge sweeps up in a gentle curve, though less pronounced than the Allegro. Of course, the latter was a bit like Reliant’s Scimitar GTE in the first place. The rectangular headlights contrast the round ones of the Robin and are normally set into a black grille surround, though this one has had the surround repainted like the body.

At the rear of this particular car it’s obvious that the owner has also ‘upgraded’ the rear lights, the original small red/amber ones, shared with the Robin, replaced with a larger, more comprehensive set which I am pretty sure are those for a 1980s Ford Escort van. The chrome ‘KITTEN’ letters also non-original, but neatly done.

Name note: There’s a kind of edgy juxtaposition between the three- and four-wheels versions. A Regal should be wary of a Rebel, while a Robin may feel threatened by a Kitten. Was this deliberate? Not to worry; in sales terms this Kitten was never going to catch the Robin.

*figure from the Reliant Kitten Register

Further reading:

Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (A Touch of Class, part3) by Tatra87