The first time I saw a Reliant was on TV, in an episode of Mr. Bean in the early Nineties. As Rowan Atkinson’s beloved character relentlessly punished this hapless light blue three-wheeled van in ways bordering on sadistic, I wondered if it was the result of the studio’s creativity. Surely, it wasn’t a real automobile sold to the public. However, as the Internet crept into our lives, I did some research and discovered just how wrong I was.
First, I discovered its proper name, the Reliant Regal. Then, I discovered that the light blue example in Mr. Bean wasn’t the most famous TV Reliant. No, that honour is held by a yellow one driven by the main characters in a British sitcom called Only Fools and Horses. Since this series wasn’t popular in Sri Lanka, no wonder we hadn’t heard about it. But the owner of this particular Reliant Regal, Hiran Jayasooriya, has heard of it. In fact, he’s heard about, and knows nearly everything there is to know about Reliant Regals. You need that knowledge if you’re the owner of the only known Reliant Regal in Sri Lanka.
When this car made a public appearance after a long hiatus, it created waves. Waves that reached me, and I acted with speed to contact its owner. Thanks to classic car enthusiast Damascene Fernando, it took less than an hour for me to get Hiran’s number and call him up. We eagerly waited, but the September rains had other plans. The meeting and photo-shoot was postponed for approximately two weeks before a sunny Sunday suddenly crept up. Since the Reliant lived just one kilometre away from my home, we quickly arranged a mutually convenient time for this feature.
The Reliant Motor Company was founded in Tamworth, England. Renowned for their line-up of three-wheelers, it’s also said that in their heyday, they made kitchen units, watercraft, and even train bodies. This is because of their expertise with fibreglass, the material from which this Regal’s body is constructed. They didn’t only make three wheelers, though. Just Google Reliant Kitten and you’ll find a boxy economy car with four wheels. Now google Reliant Scimitar and you’ll be greeted by a surprisingly stylish sports car, again with four wheels.
However, the company’s claim to fame is its expertise in three-wheelers. You might ask, why make a car with only three wheels? The short answer is, to cater to a segment of blue-collar workers, primarily in the North of England. Thanks to its three-wheeled layout, you only needed a motorcycle license to drive one. This made Reliants immensely popular with miners and other blue-collar workers who typically rode motorcycles but needed something a bit more comfortable and weatherproof during harsh winters. Thanks to the fibreglass body and compact dimensions, the cars used smaller engines that sipped fuel, resulting in impressive frugality.
Sadly, the Reliant Motor Company would close its doors for good in 2002, with the Reliant Robin being its last product. Upscale Robins did sport features such as leather seats, wood trim, alloy wheels, CD players and metallic paint. However, they remained three wheelers, with a diminutive 850cc engine and manual transmission. In case you’re interested, the most powerful Robins could do zero to hundred in 14 seconds and top out at 140km/h.
This particular Reliant Regal has been in the same family since its three little wheels touched Sri Lankan shores way back in 1986. Purchased by Hiran’s father, it served family transport duties with aplomb. Hiran tells me that his father actually managed to roll it once, during a sprightly drive down Elvitigala Mawatha way before it was the smooth and broad road it is today. However, the car was easily righted thanks to the lightweight fiberglass body, and the family continued on their merry way.
Maintaining this Regal isn’t as hard as you’d expect, since Hiran comes from an automotive background. He’s owned and run a workshop, after all. Spare parts are still plentiful in the UK, and he tells me that there are companies there still making brand-new spare parts for a variety of Reliant vehicles.
Time for a ride, and I eagerly hop into the passenger
seat, only to notice how cramped the footwell is. That’s because the
transmission effectively lives inside the passenger cabin, thanks to the need
for space to accommodate the single front wheel and steering mechanism. This
pushes the engine backwards, which in turn pushes the transmission backwards. The
little 700cc engine purrs into life and away we go.
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not that roly-poly at sane speeds. You don’t get a sensation of the car tipping over at every 90-degree corner. It’s not anywhere like Jeremy Clarkson made it out to be on a Top Gear episode, and the big man himself admitted that the Reliant he drove on screen had been modified by the TG crew to make it more prone to tipping.
As long as you drive like a regular person and don’t take any sudden turns, it will behave itself well. Hiran is well aware of the car’s capabilities, and I never feel unsafe during our drive. In fact, I’m soaking up the atmosphere of being driven around in this curio that’s truly one-of-a-kind in our country. The looks and smiles of passers-by is very prominent, much more than I imagine one gets with a Lamborghini or Ferrari. No surprise, given that this car is rarer than a Lambo or Ferrari in Sri Lanka