Reliant is a company that has cemented itself in British culture. They built a car that we love to laugh at, with the Trotters and Jasper Carrot, a car that we also love to misname constantly to the point where people genuinely believe it is a Robin Reliant, never the less the three wheeled Reliant is a car recognisable to everyone. Despite the humour, Reliant was a hugely successful company throughout the the first three quarters of the 20th century. They were masters of the fibreglass craft and built a GT car in the scimitar that managed to become synonymous with the hard working Royal Princess Anne. Times changed for Reliant though in the 80’s when Robin became Rialto and Scimitar became the awkward looking SS1. By 1990 Reliant went bust, to be purchased and fail twice more by Christmas 1995. The company was in a tragic state but in 1996 a consortium was led by ex-Jaguar man Jonathan Heynes who had big plans to turn Reliant around. This BBC business education piece follows Reliant through its first year under Jonathan’s leadership.
Heynes seems to be almost like a child with a new set of toys when he drives his plush Range Rover through the gates of the Tamworth plant for the first time. He makes out clearly that the three-wheelers take priority but from the outset we see that a new Sports car is on the cards for Reliant.
Sports cars are in the blood for Jonathan Heynes who did much work on the interesting but flawed Jensen Healey, but this video seems to show that Heynes was somewhat living in his father Bill Heynes’ impressive shadow. Bill was a man that was a very big part of building Jaguar through its heyday, introducing the XKE engine and the race/sports cars through to the prodigious E-type, Bill was honoured with a CBE for his services to British export (big boots to fill). Reliant seemed to be the challenge Heynes needed to prove himself through and as a challenge, Reliant in the 90’s was clearly gigantic and if it worked it would be an impressive feat. The enthusiasm however was lost on the returning staff. Heynes was constantly at loggerheads with his engineering team especially when he states in the video his interest in reintroducing the ageing Bond Bug (11:24). You can’t really blame them for losing their spirit working through late Reliant, that could break any spirit. As well as being a bit cynical, the workforce seem very set in their ways, appropriate for a company that forgot to stop building Micro cars when everyone else did in the 60’s. For reference, just watch the argument over implementing the use of a chopper gun in the body building process (28:00). But this is what I love about the factory at Two Gates, it seems hilariously old fashioned. It’s particularly interesting to see the cars in several stages of assembly as this era of Robin I remember seeing a lot of living as a child in Rotherham in the 90’s. It’s easier to overlook the Robin’s foibles when you see the human side to it.
I particularly like the loyalty of the owners (19:05), with one man claiming to be on his eighth three wheeler. He’s not ashamed by any means on how his life has panned out, he’s someone who is proud of his car and who wants the company to succeed. I really do feel for the Reliant die hards out there, theres no way the company could have survived as long as they did without the few thick skinned drivers out there.
Spot the imposter
Overall though Heynes does seem to win the staff over, and while he never built the 50 cars he set as a quick goal, things do seem to be looking up, despite the uphill challenges for the parts team and the fact all of the seized machinery is “a good collection a museum would want eventually”. By the end of the video we can see that there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for the project as investment is upped by the backers. It’s true. In fact, business was better for Reliant in the following years. The mighty Robin got restyled and updated with natty retrofits that actually did gain the car popularity again for a bit, but the sports car unsurprisingly was never going to happen and neither did the new Bond Bug which supposedly could have been diesel or electric (a similar vein to the popular Aixam Quadracycles). Sadly when one investor got cold feet, a replacement was found who did not want to waste such money on a fantasy (Geoff Wardle, who also helped on the beleaguered Tatra T163 project, came up with some designs, including one with an intriguing mid cockpit engine layout to be powered by a 1000cc Nissan unit). So, with that, Jonathan swiftly left the company in 1999. Perhaps due to being unable to emulate his father by building Reliant up to what he thought it could be. By 1997 Two Gates production had already ended and Reliant moved up the road to Brentwood where it limped on until 2002 when the car operation was stopped to focus on parts. A sad end to an eccentric part of British motoring history.
Alot of work was going on behind the scenes at Reliant
Reliant was not always in such a sorry state. Only 10 years earlier things were far more prosperous, with numerous factories including Shenstone which took on the enviable job of assembling the homologation Group B killer Ford rs200. Reliant were the people to go to for anything GRP and became one of the biggest users of fiberglass outside of the caravan industry in Britain. Reliant also did much to help Israel and Turkey set up a small car industry through the beautiful Sabra and workhorse Anadol which were designed as CKD kits in Tamworth. A happier time is documented through their promotional film shared below. The contrast between the size of the operation is huge but Reliant were an incredible outlier to the standard industry, and managed to carve a niche where companies like Jowett could not.
A company to be proud of
Late last year I visited the sites of the original factory but unfortunately, like many old car plants, Two Gates is now a housing estate with only a few subtle nods to the past through road names. Sad to think not so long ago Robin Close would have been a hive of activity.
End of an era
On a lighter note, in 1972 the factory had quite a humorous and unbelievable issue (as you can see below if you skip to 1:40): “No, we’ve never lost a chassis or a man yet and I’m sure we never will, but they have to look a bit lively at times” .
Come back soon for more blog posts and videos!