The three-wheeled car: a fast disappearing sight from Britain’s roads

By Andy Bannister

09.11.2007

Early 1980s Reliant Rialto at a recent classic car show

Any visitors to Britain who take to the highways of this sceptred isle invariably comment on our national penchant for roundabouts as well as that funny habit of driving on the left with a steering wheel on the right.

A foreign friend of mine used to laugh out loud at the sight of another staple of British roads, the three-wheeled Reliant car, and on a recent trip was saddened to see this symbol of eccentricity rapidly disappearing from the national car pool.

Reliant, of Tamworth in Staffordshire, sold surprisingly large numbers of their quirky three-wheelers, with their heyday from the 1950s to 1980s, although production stumbled up to the year 2000.

The company did well in the years of austerity after World War Two, and had bought out their chief British rival, Bond, by the late 1960s. They briefly marketed, under the Bond badge, a funky wedge-shaped orange three-wheeler called the Bug, aimed at the youth market. It was not a great success.

Another illustrious rival, AC – of Cobra sports car fame, no less – also made three-wheelers for a while but soon gave up apart from retaining a long-standing government contract to produce a pale blue three-wheeled Invalid Car, made until the 1970s.

Possibly the most famous Reliant model is the Robin, introduced in 1973. With its fibreglass body and tiny 750cc engine (later upgraded to a dizzy 850cc), the little Reliant was aimed at that small but significant band of motorists with a licence to drive a motorcycle but no car. The lightweight Reliant was classed as a tricycle, so could be driven legally without a car licence, and delivered a useful saving in road tax to boot.

With an up-to-the minute look courtesy of stylist Tom Karen, the Robin was offered as an early hatchback, with lift-up glass window, plus as an estate car and panel van. It could be ordered in a range of groovy 1970s paint schemes and had a particular appeal in some industrial communities in the north of England.

The Robin was pitched as a serious rival to the Austin Mini, Hillman Imp and small cars from foreign makes like Fiat and Renault, and in penny-pinching times the low running costs, rust-free body and relatively good resale value were appealing. The car itself, however, cost as much as a “proper” four-wheeler, so it is debatable how many people with a car licence actually bought one.

Inevitably, Reliants were ridiculed by comedians, one name that stuck being the “plastic pig”. One Reliant, a tatty yellow Supervan based on the Robin’s Regal predecessor, was the star of a long-running BBC situation comedy series.

As time went on and safety awareness increased, more and more people questioned whether three wheels could possibly be as safe as four, and the Reliant got left behind as bigger makers brought out cheap small hatchbacks of their own.

As the 1980s turned, Reliant gamely fought back, upgrading the Robin and turning it into the angular-looking Rialto with a frontal treatment copied from Austin’s then best-selling Metro. It was a quiet success, although the company’s homespun marketing was increasingly appealing to only a dwindling core of older motorists. Sales slowed and Reliant went through turmoil in the 1990s, with various changes of ownership, although production stumbled on with the Robin name being eventually reinstated and the car fitted with all manner of unlikely trimmings, including a model in British Racing Green with alloy wheels.

Reliant was just too small and their hand-built vehicles were increasingly out of step with modern times. Through the years the company attempted to diversify into four wheelers, marketing the successful Scimitar executive sports estate and attempting to sell small four-wheelers like the Rebel, Kitten and Fox, with very little success. With its fibreglass experience Reliant also helped fledgling motor industries start up in such countries at Turkey, Greece and Israel.

Laugh at it if you want – and many still do – but the Reliant three-wheeler remains a quintessentially British product which brought mobility to many poorer families. Let’s hope a few people preserve them so future generations can get the joke.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant.net – All Rights Reserved

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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5 Comments

  1. I can’t say that this trend saddens me very much. That Reliant Rialto in the photo has an uncanny resemblance to a US Chevy Chevette. Ick.

  2. I know the show you’re talking about: it was “Only Fools And Horses”.

    Weren’t there a few Mr. Bean sketches where he drives one too?

    There are more than a few Stateside PBS channels that air old Britcoms. People form Britcom clubs here, and have tea and crumpets and wear horrid things from the 70s and 80s.

  3. The Reliant Scimitar was a brilliant little car, but sadly, the 3-wheelers are curiosities without much real usefulness. Can’t say I’m sad to see them go away on the motorways. They resemble moving chicanes to me more than anything.

  4. Only the Brits could get teary over such a thing.

  5. A guy I loathed bought a Reliant three wheeler in Hong Kong in the early 60s. He lived at the bottom of a steep hill. The next morning he started to drive to work and discovered that the vehicle lack the power to climb the hill. For all I know the Reliant is still sitting there.

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