Connections : Reliant

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.

1955 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.

1962 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).

1963 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.

1965 Ogle-Triplex GTS

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.

1966 Reliant Rebel

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.

1969 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.

1963 Bond GT 2+2 Equipe
1964 Bond Equipe GT4S
Reliant-styled Equipe prototype
1974 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.

1977 Ed Osmond

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.

1981 Elswick Envoy

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.

1983 Reliant Rialto

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…

1984 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.

1990 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…”

Keith Adams


  1. While I’ve read somewhere of Reliant Rebel prototypes powered by 1.6 Ford Crossflow engines, were there plans in the works to build 4-wheel versions of the Reliant Rialto / Fox or further develop the 848cc engine?

  2. There’s a fascinating official Reliant video on Youtube – “World of Reliant” – which shows lots of export models, a potted history, extensive views of the manufacturing processes, etc, which is well worth a look.

  3. There is a suggestion that had BL not been formed Reliant would have become further intertwined with Leyland / Triumph from the mk3 Bond Equipe onwards, since they were motivated to acquire Bond Cars to access the Bond Car’s pre-existing deal with Leyland / Triumph that involved using the latter’s componentry (at the expense of Ford) and access to the latter’s dealer network.

    Additionally Saab (who already had pre-existing links to Leyland / Triumph via the Slant-4 engines) during the early-1970s was at one point aiming for Reliant to design, engineer and assemble the stillborn SAAB Sonett IV – which was to be a 2+2 sportscar possibly powered by a 2-litre Slant-4 engine (potentially including a turbocharged variant).

    In 1977 there were plans for a consortium of businessmen led by investor Joseph Beherman (as well as including the likes of John Barber, Donald Healey and even John DeLorean) and organized by Ray Wiggin to acquire Reliant from Sir Julian Hodge (who instead decided to sell it to Standard Chartered Bank). Under the watchful eye of Ray Wiggin a 7 year forward model policy was created, which projected a number of new models that could be developed.

    Those included the Wasp (possibly referring to the Reliant Cipher prototype) – a lightweight two-seater sportscar powered by a 750cc (or 850cc) Reliant-BRM OHC (potentially putting out as much as 60 hp) positioned between the Robin and Kitten in terms of price, the Reliant Scimitar GTC, a new Scimitar GTE styled by Marcello Gandini of Bertone (aka Project SE82 – whose styling was apparently recycled to become the Honda Accord Aerodeck), a Dolomite Sprint-type Sportscar based on the Gandini-styled Reliant FW11 prototype (possibly referring to what became the Michelotti-styled Reliant Scimitar SS1 or another project), an up-market medium-sized car built in collaboration with BL (possibly referring to a repurposed Reliant FW11 prototype – which already bares some similarities to the Triumph SD2 and TM1 as well as the Citroen BX), a taxi and lastly a Tom Karen designed ”people-carrier” having most of the features of the later Renault Espace (that may or may not be referring to what later the 1982 Reliant Ogle Lucas Hybrid Car concept).

    That is on top of a deal with British Leyland that would allow Reliant to switch from Ford to Rover V8 and Triumph Slant-4 engines plus transmissions for the planned larger sportscar.

    • The Rover V8 might have had more torque, but wouldn’t have made the Scimitar much faster than the Ford V6. Bear in mind, 120 mph was very respectable 40 years ago and the Ford V6 was known for being a reliable and simple to work on engine. When the Essex V6 was replaced the Cologne V6 used on the Capri, this made the car slightly faster and more economical and the Cologne V6 was known for being bulletproof.

      • The impression one gets is the Rover V8 was intended for the new Bertone-styled Reliant Scimitar (Project SE82) plus a related replacement for the Scimitar GTC, know a number of Scimitar owners in the past replaced the V6s with the Rover or other V8 engines.

        While the 2-litre Triumph Slant-4 was possibly planned for the upcoming FW11-derived sportscar that may or may not refer to what became the Scimitar SS1 (along with the distant possibility of the Rover V8).

        In the case of the planned sportscar and given both Healey’s and DeLorean’s involvement with the consortium intended to acquire Reliant. One wonders whether the failure to acquire Reliant inspired DeLorean to later try and acquire the Triumph TR7/TR8 or whether BL considered pensioning the TR7/TR8 to Reliant (or at least a version using a number of FW11 components).

        One of the intriguing things about a no-BL scenario where Reliant becomes increasingly tied to Leyland / Triumph, would be the latter developing a downsized all-alloy 750-1000/1200cc OHC version of planned PE166-based 4-cylinder engine to replace the 600-850cc Reliant OHV for use in both Triumphs and Reliants (as seem to recall the Reliant OHV was not capable further enlargement beyond 850cc).

        Also seem to recall the Bond Equipe mk3 prototype was to be derived from a shortened Triumph 2000 platform, opening up the possibility of Reliant essentially making recycled Triumphs with largely fiberglass bodies (along with perhaps a FWD Triumph 1300/1500-derived replacement for the Reliant Rebel / Kitten).

      • Probably the case, originally found the reference in The Independent A Wheel Over The Edge 27 Nov 1994.

        It is pretty comment to see Car stylists recycle designs, one version of Project Broadside by Michelotti was said to have been recycled into the Reliant Scimitar SS1.

  4. Another possible Austin Rover link, the Rialto looked a little like the Metro and the final generation of three wheelers had a similar front end to the Rover 100.

  5. Prototype Reliant ,Rebel was powered by the Ford 105 E Andlia engine,pre crossflow,later to become, the crossflow,in 1967..

  6. In the seventies, Reliant were Britain’s fifth biggest car manufacturer, and the success of their three wheelers enabled them to fund the Scimiitar, which was a favourite of Princess Anne and was popula withr better off buyers who wanted a practical performance car with a large boot. ( The cat became popular in horse racing circles). The Scimitar had its faults, the GRP body was difficult to repair, the chassis underneath rusted and it wasn’t very well made but as a high performance estate car powered by the durable and easy to maintain Ford V6 it had no rivals.

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