From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Reliant Regal was broadcast on the 30th April 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Surely no one is fooled by a posh name given to something ordinary. Like the Reliant Regal, which was certainly the last vehicle you’d connect to royalty. This was a very basic car that was cheap to buy, thanks to its lack of a fourth wheel, meaning it was taxed as a motorbike not a car. And while car buffs might be sniffy about the vehicle, it was, in its way, actually quite significant and a mark of a company that liked to defy convention.
The idea of a three-wheeled car is not new. After all, the very first car with an internal combustion engine, the Benz Patentwagen of 1885, had only three. Most manufacturers went for four, but not all. Like Henry Morgan’s dashing little sportscar of 1910, the third wheel at the back. As it was with Buckminster Fuller’s futuristic Dymaxion car of 1938. And when German aircraft manufacturer Messerschmidt was banned from making aircraft after WW2, they produced a tiny three-wheeled car that looked, with the passenger sitting behind the driver and both under a clear, hinged canopy that allowed access, just like the cockpit of a plane set on wheels. Others, like BMW, had their own versions, popularly known as bubble cars, accessed by a hinged, front door that was a car-crash nightmare.
Reliant Motors was committed for much longer. Their first three-wheeler was launched in 1935 but it was little more than a motorbike with a van body grafted onto the rear. In 1952, though, the Regal was launched. It looked a little like a boat with its single front wheel tucked under a tapering bonnet, with a wooden frame covered in lightweight aluminium panels. Its low price made it a surprising hit and regular upgrades kept it viable for decades. In 1956, the increase in the price of aluminium meant that the bodywork was now moulded entirely from fibreglass, a material that the company took to heart, making it one of Europe’s biggest manufacturers. By 1973, over 110,000 Regals had been produced and the car was a regular if not always popular sight on British roads.
The problem for many was that it looked rather like an invalid carriage, the three-wheeled, single-seat vehicles that the National Health Service doled out to those with a physical disability. And despite the evidence, no one was truly convinced that three wheels were stable. Reliant even made a four-wheeled version, called the Rebel, alongside it. But the Regal’s lower tax bracket was the decider. While it was never chic like a Mini or sporty like a Hillman Imp, it was much cheaper. This was a vehicle for the masses, helping a post-war recovery.
Oddly, while Reliant’s bread-and-butter was the Regal, in the 1960s it also developed a stylish coupe called the Scimitar which had a sleek, hatchback body made from fibreglass, meaning that Reliant produced at the same time one of Britain’s most desirable cars as well as one of its least. Princess Anne’s love for the Scimitar – she had nine – at last added a proper Royal link to the Reliant name. The Regal was replaced in 1973 by the Robin, which amazingly bowled along for another thirty years. In Italy, Piaggio launched a tiny three-wheeler truck in 1948 based on the Vespa scooter and known as the Ape, or Bee. It was the basis for the tuk-tuk taxis that would rule the streets of south Asian countries. But their motorcycle heritage was never hidden. The Regal, on the other hand, was most definitely a car, messing with everyone’s preconception of what a car should look like. And for that alone it should be crowned. Regal, after all.