Based at Tamworth in Staffordshire, Reliant built its business by producing economy-minded three-wheeled microcars that could be driven on a motorcyle licence.
The origins of the sub-1000cc engine – which has been used in various forms by Reliant’s small cars throughout the company’s history – can be traced back to the Mini’s illustrious forebear, the legendary “Baby” Austin Seven. Of course, the Mini was famously developed with the intention of “driving bubble cars off the road”, and while it may have succeed in this aim, the popularity of Reliant’s three-wheelers continued unabated well into the 1980s.
However, Reliant had more than one string to its bow; from the 1950s onwards, they used their expertise in the low-volume production of plastic bodyshells to help set up car-building operation in a variety of countries, including Israel, Turkey, Greece and India. And the 1960s saw them supplement their “economy” range with the trend-setting Scimitar sports car range.
Here we take a look at some of the post-war connections which arose between Reliant and the BMC>Rover companies.
|Autocars of Israel
Autocars was founded with Reliant’s help, and started out building three-wheelers under licence before beginning to build their own range of Relaint-designed cars from 1960 onwards. In 1966, Leyland-Triumph took a majority interest in Autocars, and the company remained an overseas associate of BLMC until 1971, by which time the entire range was powered by the 1296cc Triumph engine.
|Ogle SX 250
Presented at the 1962 London Motor Show, this stylish coupe (upper photo) had been commisioned by the Helena Rubenstein cosmetics company, and was built on the chassis of Daimler’s similarly-named SP 250, or Dart. Only two SX 250s were ever built, but the design was too good to go to waste. Any chance of its becoming a replacement for the Daimler Dart was ruled out by Daimler’s new masters, Jaguar, but it caught the eye of Reliant’s MD, Ray Wiggins, who was in search of a more alluring body style for the slow-selling Sabre sports car range. A deal was done, and after a little re-engineering and a swift re-style by Ogle – inspired, indicentally, by the recently-launched Triumph 2000, and including the use of Austin-Healey Sprite front indicator/side-light units – the car was launched in 1965 as the Reliant Scimitar (lower photo).
|Reliant Sabre Six
Some three years before Triumph became involved with Autocars (see above), Reliant introduced their short-lived Sabre Six sports coupe which used the Triumph TR4’s double-wishbone front suspension, along with the rear light clusters from the Austin A40 Farina. Although only 77 were ever made, the Sabre Six was campaigned in six international rallies between 1963 and 1965 (with, it has to be said, little success). One of the drivers in the 1963 rallies was none other than Raymond Baxter, who was working for the BBC at the time but would later become BMC’s public relations officer. And in its final rally appearance – the 1965 Monte Carlo – a privately-entered Sabre Six was co-driven by BMC competitions manager Stuart Turner.
Ogle built this one-off Scimitar-based show car for the automotive glass supplier Triplex, to showcase their new Sundym heat-reflective glass. The result was both innovative and impressive, with a full-width bonded-in pane over the front passenger compartment, while the tops of rear side windows curved into the roof. Over a decade later, Triplex asked Ogle to repeat the trick to promote its new Ten Twenty Superlaminated windscreen, and this time the result was the Triplex 10-20 Glassback, and estate car version of Leyland’s car of the moment, the wedge-shaped Princess. In a parallel project, Chris Humberstone Design was commissioned to produce the Triplex 10-20 Special, a six-seater coupe based on the Rover 3500. Humberstone had also been responsible for the XJ6-based Owen Sedanca, and went on to form Rapport International.
Although they had engineered a four-wheeled version of their Regent van for Autocars to build and sell in Israel as the Regent Four back in the late 1950s, the Rebel was Reliant’s first UK model to make the progression from three to four wheels. Based on the three-wheeled Regal (which had replaced the Regent), the transformation to Rebel was achieved thanks to the Triumph Herald, whose front suspension was grafted wholesale onto the Regal’s chassis.
|Bond Cars Ltd
When Reliant took over Bond Cars in February 1969, the similarities between the two companies were clear to see: both had built their reputations with small-engined three-wheelers, before diversifying into four-wheeled sports cars in the Sixties – Reliant with the Scimitar and Bond with the Equipe. However, Reliant had an ulterior motive in buying Bond: they wanted to gain access to the nationwide and international sales network of Triumph, with whom Bond had an agreement covering the distribution of the Herald-based Equipe range. However, fate was to deal this ambition a fatal blow: in the wake of the formation of BLMC, rationalisation was the order of the day, and it was decided that there was no longer room for the Bond models alongside Triumph’s own range in the showrooms. By this time Reliant had already begun developing a new version of the Equipe (which incidentally bore more than a passing resemblance to the soon-to-be-released 2-door Morris Marina), but without the distribution deal, work on the new car was halted and, indeed, production of the existing Equipe range was wound down, finally ending in August 1970. The closure of Bond’s two Preston-based factories followed, although Reliant continued to produce the three-wheeled Bond Bug (which it distributed through its own dealerships) until 1974, when the Bond name was finally consigned to history.
|Sunrise Auto Industries Ltd (SAIL)
In another globe-trotting venture, Reliant helped to set up SAIL in India, starting with production of a heavily modified version of the Reliant Robin called the Badal. In 1978, the name of the company was changed to Sipani Automobiles Ltd, and almost 20 years later, they began to build and sell the obsolete Montego saloon and estate in India. After this venture failed, the company changed its name again – to Maestro Motors Ltd – but went bust shortly afterwards.
Osmond began his career at British Leyland, starting as graduate apprentice and later working directly under Spen King, before joining Reliant as engineering director in 1977. At Reliant he led the development of the Scimitar GTC and SS1 (see below), before leaving in 1985 to take up the same post at LTI Carbodies, where he would oversee the development of the ex-Austin FX4. In his final days at Reliant he was involved in the preparations for the production of the rival MCW Metrocab, which Reliant went on to build until the end of the 1980s.
Reliant won the contract to build the bodywork for this innovative car, whose unique selling point was that it could be driven from a wheelchair. The design had started out some eight years earlier as the Townscar, but was swiftly adopted by BLMC as a potential Mini replacement, being renamed Minissima and touted around the motor show circuit, before being sold on to GKN Sankey, who re-engineered it for use by disabled drivers.
The Rialto was an updated version the original Reliant Robin, which had been given a fresh face by the Worthing-based design consultants IAD. When it first emerged, several eyebrows were raised at how closely it resembled the cheaper versions of BL’s Austin Metro. Coincidence or, erm, flattery? Who knows…
|Reliant Scimitar SS1/SST/Sabre
Here was a car for which the term “parts bin special” might have been invented. With its development masterminded by Relaint’s ex-Leyland engineering director Ed Osmond (see above), the Scimitar SS1 owed much to the BL parts bin. Its headlamps, instrument binnacle and switchgear were all Metro items (as were the front brake discs), while the headlamp retracting mechanism and the seats came courtesy of the Triumph TR7. It was also rumoured that the car’s Michelotti-penned design had previously been offered to – and rejected by – Triumph as a replacement for the Spitfire. The rebodied Scimitar SST, introduced in 1990, added the TR7’s round headlamps to parts tally, and owner Dan Lockton reports that it also appears to have a TR7 windscreen, the rear lights from a 1980s Freight Rover Sherpa and at least some Montego-sourced switchgear. Relaunched as the Scimitar Sabre in 1991, it gained Rover’s 1.4-litre K-series and 2.0-litre T-series engines two years later.
|MG – PR2 Prototype
Reliant were one of three outside contractors asked to produce sports car prototypes for Rover Special Products during 1990. Rover intended to investigate three mechanical configurations, and involving third party constructors was a much more cost effective way of doing things. Reliant’s prototype, the PR2 was built on a Scimitar SS1 chassis. Layout was classical – front engine, rear wheel drive and the power was provided by a 3.9-litre version of the venerable Rover V8 engine. This rear wheel drive proposal was dropped by Rover in favour of the mid-engined car (built by ADC). The lower photograph taken by Reliant historian Dan Lockton raises some interesting questions as to whether the PR2 might have had an afterlife: “…the picture is a GRP bodyshell I photographed at Reliant at Twogates, Tamworth, in 1996. At the time I was told it was for “the new Scimitar” which had been under development by Avonex to replace the 1.4-litre K-series / 2.0-litre T-series engined William Towns-styled Sabre, using pretty much the same chassis as the SS1 on which the PR2 prototype had been built. The Scimitar badge on the body would tend to bear out this story, even if it’s a little too obviously placed (covering an octagonal depression?). But perhaps the development programme was abandoned after someone realised Reliant didn’t actually own the rights to the shape…”