RELIANT SPORTS CARS

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MARQUE


IN THE BEGINNING

The founder of Reliant Engineering, Tom L. Williams had worked for the Raleigh Cycle Co. in Nottingham, where he designed a three-wheeled, two-seater car called the Safety Seven, powered by an air-cooled JAP V-Twin engine of 750cc. Despite its success in selling over 1,000 units between 1933 and 1936, Raleigh decided not to continue with the design of the car, which left Tom Williams with nothing further to do. Redundant, he left the company to start up his own business, developing his own prototype three-wheeler car in a shed at his home in Tamworth. He was assisted financially with a small loan from Barclays Bank.

Initially, the company produced a van based on a motorcycle front wheel supported on sprung forks connected to handlebars inside the cab. Power was delivered by chain drive to the leaf spring rear axle by a single-cylinder motorcycle engine and gearbox. The van had a carrying capacity of 7cwt. Later, the engine was replaced with a V-twin JAP unit that enable the payload to be increased to 10cwt.

In 1937, Tom Williams and his assistant, E.S. "Tommo" Thompson negotiated with the Austin Motor Co. to use their 747cc water cooled 4-cylinder engine, but a year later Austin stopped production of their engine, leaving Tom Williams no alternative but to produce an engine of his own. When the Second World War broke out Reliant had already delivered 1,000 vans until production was curtailed in favour of components for armaments. Van production started after the war and the first vehicle came off the production line on 13th March 1946, followed by another 2000 up to the early 1950s.

The Reliant Regal, the first passenger car came off the production line in 1953, the year of the Coronation. Unlike the earlier vans, the Regal now sported a conventional steering wheel. Three years later the ash frame and aluminium body was about to be replaced with a hand made body made from glass reinforced polyester (GRP), and the Regal Mk III made its debut, with time and cost savings for the company. Production soon rose to over 100 cars per annum, in addition to the vans, now based on a similar pattern. Perhaps there is significance in that the Reliant output was competing at that time with a 700cc vehicle of similar style from another manufacturer - BMW.

A GROWING CONCERN

The motor industry during the 1950s was concentrating as much as possible on the export of as many cars as possible. The prime target was the USA. The home market was equally interested in acquiring one of the new "sports cars", but the US market was more affluent and the UK market was limited to buyers in the higher income bracket. This situation led to the creation of a small industry composed of enthusiastic engineers who offered kits to convert basic, cheap saloons into attractive sports cars by the use of GRP - the so called "Kit Car" market. This material was already being used by Reliant in a big way and was to be the mainstay of their manufacturing process right up until they ceased manufacturing.

Reliant made a decision in 1958 and an appointment in 1959 that were to change the company in a big way. First, They collaborated with the Autocars Company of Haifa in the design of an estate car. This was not the first of Reliant's endeavours, but it was significant in that it was one of the first 4-wheeled devices they had designed. They then appointed Ray Wiggin, a man with considerable foresight, as Deputy Managing Director.

The estate car project was soon followed by joint ventures in truck and saloon cars using fibreglass kits exported from Tamworth to several developing countries in Europe and Africa.

SABRE RATTLINGS

In 1960 Autocars were looking for a sports car for their home market, and for export to America. Reliant acquired the rights to the Ashley Laminates bodywork and produced a car with four wheels for Autocars called the "Sabra", named coincidentally after a species of cactus peculiar to Israel, its national emblem and used affectionately to describe young active Israeli!1. After a short but fairly successful production run and exports to Israel the link was eventually severed and Reliant decided to market the new car themselves in the UK. The name change to "Sabre" was logical and so logical that it led, of course, to the "Scimitar". This period in motoring history was also marked by the virtual demise of the Kit Car industry. Changes in UK legislation were made in the 1960s with the introduction of Value Added Tax. Kit Cars had up until then been subject to Purchase Tax and therefore exempt from taxation. VAT however became payable on Kit Cars. Some would say this was the death of the industry of the day. It was probably something that did Reliant an awful lot of good.

This new "Sabre" was initially powered by the Ford Consul four-cylinder 1703cc engine, mated to a ZF 4-speed gearbox, with reasonably competitive performance. Unfortunately, the price, handling and build quality were not and only fifty-five cars were sold over the two years of its production.

By 1961, under Ray Wiggins' guidance the three-wheeler body shell was a complete monocoque, and a new 600cc all-alloy OHV engine had been designed and put into production. This lead in 1962 to the launch of a new-style 3-wheeler called the Reliant Regal 3/25.

The success of the three-wheelers, the expansion into four-wheel vehicles for Israel and Turkey, and interest in the company and its production methods grew and in that same year the Hodge Group bought a 76% holding interest, which was to be the foundation for further expansion and influence on the production of the better known Reliant Sports cars.

By 1963 the four-cylinder Consul engine had been replaced by the straight-six cylinder 2,553cc Ford Zodiac engine and the body had been redesigned as a fixed head Coupé called the Reliant Sabre Six GT with much modified front end bodywork. Despite some intense activities in International Rallying, only seventy-seven cars were built between 1963 and 1965. However, for a small company, Reliant's rallying exploits were quite impressive, including their campaign with three Sabre Six GTs in the Monte Carlo Rally of 1963 and Class wins and places in other International Rallies of the period.

In the meantime, co-operation between Reliant and Ogle Design started and the first of some new innovative Reliant styles was seen on a Daimler SP250 chassis. Bill Boddy, the renown correspondent at Motor Sport remarked that "Reliant would have a very good product if they started with a clean sheet of paper", so perhaps this was the jolt that the company needed to look for a more elegant bodyshape. The solution came from Tom Karen at Ogle Design, who had been commissioned by the Helena Rubinastein cosmetics company to design a car for them, which was to be based on the Daimler SP250 chassis and would be known as the Ogle SX250. This car was to become the foundations for the Reliant Scimitar SE4 GT Coupé.

After the Daimler project foundered, almost by accident it was discovered that the Ogle 2+2 coupé body fitted almost exactly on the Sabre-6 chassis. This was to be the acclaimed Reliant Scimitar GT Coupé that Reliant launched in 1964, the same year that founder Tom Williams passed away.

As a result of the good relationship between Reliant and Ogle Design the Scimitar Coupé body was used as a base for a design concept commissioned by Triplex to demonstrate heated and laminated glass in automotive applications. The innovative style of this project caught the eye of the Duke of Edinburgh who was so taken with the Triplex Ogle "estate car" style that he used it for two years as his personal transport, and was to be the first of several links with the royal family for many years to come. Indeed, her royal highness the Princess Anne was given a Reliant Scimitar by her parents for her 18th birthday, a sporting estate car model, which emerged three years later in 1968, and was exhibited at the Motor Show as the revolutionary Reliant Scimitar GTE.

In 1967 Ford dropped the three SU carb. configured straight-six engine that had powered the Coupés in favour of the 3-litre V6 "Essex" engine. Reliant followed suit by fitting this new powerful V6 engine with a single Weber carburettor to the newly launched GTE, whilst still offering the revised Coupé with the 3-litre V6 engine. Both of these models were to be greeted with much acclaim. Reliant's production capacity was stretched to the limit and around this time and into the seventies the company was employing some 2,500 local personnel in almost a quarter of a million square feet of assembly space and an annual turnover of around £12m.

1977 saw the beginnings of a period of decline. The Hodge Group had already been taken over by the Standard Chartered Bank in 1976 and when the Bank decided to review their investments Reliant motors were sold on to the Nash Industries who had a totally different philosophy. Although 182,000+ three-wheelers had been built and the company had seen good times, Nash did not see it this way and reversed all the forward thinking and expansion strategy. Ray Wiggin resigned and the company probably never recovered. Lack of development of the GTE undoubtedly contributed to its demise, particularly as the Nash management decided to pursue the small sports car market. This in itself was a wise decision because with the exception of the Morgan and a few small specialist manufacturers the British sports cars had all but disappeared.

Unfortunately, Reliant spurned design suggestions that would use an existing Reliant running gear assembly as a basis for their new car, favouring a controvercial Michelotti design on a brand new chassis. Even more strangely, the company contracted out work to sub-contractors in the UK and Germany for components that they were probably capable of making themselves, or at least using existing principles that would have made the job more simple. The design was not a happy one, the components did not assemble well together nor look natural, but did incur high costs, such that the cars were heavily criticised and sales were poor.

In 1980 Reliant launched the Scimitar GTC SE8b, a 2.8-litre Ford "Cologne" powered convertible, the Ford "Essex" 30-litre engine having been withdrawn from production. This new power plant was also fitted to the revamped GTE - now dubbed the Reliant Scimitar GTE SE6b - giving the car more torque and at the same time improving the car in general with better sound insulation and updated electrics. Both of these cars could have been well received by the motoring public, especially the GTC which was launched at the time of the demise of the Triumph Stag, but the economic slowdown caused a temporary halt to production of the cars whilst stockpiles were run down. Sadly, three years later when production restarted the factory never recovered and in 1986 the production rights to the Scimitar GTE were sold to Middlebridge and Reliant retained the rights to the GTC for the time being.

In 1989 Nash Industries sold what was left of Reliant to the Wiseoak/Belmont property development organisation, and in 1990 losses sustained on the property market as a result of Government interference forced the new owners Johnson and Turpin to put the company into receivership. The factory was never to recover. One of the major creditors with a great deal to lose was Bean Industries who had been responsible for much of the engineering work having supplied basic engine and suspension castings. Beans revived the SS1, calling their new model the Scimitar Sabre, a very much cosmetically improved car, but they too went into receivership following major losses sustained after the Leyland/Daf merger.

1995 - the workforce was down to 100. Taken over by Avonex. Staff of 30

1996 - Taken over by Jonathan Heynes.

1998 - Direct control taken by Kevin Leach, main backer, ex-TVR director Stuart Halstead made MD. Two Gates and all other buildings given up.

2000 - Reliant

Reliant Celebrities:
  • Sir Norman Wisdom Sabre Six GT
  • His royal highness the Duke of Edinburgh Ogle Tiplex GTS
  • Her royal highness the Princess Anne GTEs (several)
  • His royal highness the Prince Edward GTC
  • Jimmy Tarbuck Bond Bug
  • Bob Monkhouse Bond Bug
  • Noel Edmunds SE5a
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