Motor Sport visits the Largest Privately-Owned British Car Manufacturer, at whose Staffordshire Factories the Revised Scimitar GTE is now in Production.
With the many take-over bids that culminated in British Leyland becoming one huge Corporation and then this top-heavy giant going public, Reliant of Tamworth became, successively, the second largest British motor-car manufacturer, and then the biggest privately-owned Company of this kind in this country.
It all began in 1934, when the great bicycle manufacturer, Raleigh of Nottingham, decided to abandon the manufacture of three-wheeled cars and vans. T. L. Williams, who had been in charge of this branch of the Raleigh empire, thought this was a pity, considering the big potential of the low-tax, economical-to-run three-wheeler. So he set up a manufactory for his prototype in a shed at Tamworth, having bought-up as many of the remaining Raleigh components as possible and taken some of the work-force with him. By January 1935 these Reliant vans, as they were called, were in production in a disused mill at Two Gates. When supplies of the Austin 7 engine they used died out in 1939 Reliant began to make their own, similar, side-valve engines. War stopped play. But production was resumed in 1946 and a passenger version of the Reliant, called the Regal Mk. 1, was introduced in 1953. Glassfibre construction of the bodies was adopted in 1956, for the Regal Mk. III, as being more durable and easier to work than the former wood-frame, aluminium-panels construction, and by 1962, no doubt to the delight of those engaged in Holland Birkett-devised 750 Formula racing, Reliant’s own light-alloy o.h.v. 600-c.c, engine was put into production, quite an ambitious undertaking for a small company.
Previous to this Reliant had built four-wheeled cars, the Sitssita shooting-brake, dating from 1958, and the Sabre sports car and Carmel saloons, being sold in Israel. This led to production of the Reliant Sabre for the British market by 1962, and the Anadol being built as a joint venture in Turkey in 1966. Mr. Williams, who had started all these ventures, died in 1964 and Ray Wiggin became Managing Director. He is still in charge, which brings with it not only the distinction of having improved the Company’s turnover from 1.700,000 in 1960 to £20-million last year, hut the possible danger of appearing in the “Guinness Book of Records” as perhaps the longest-reigning MD of any British Motor Company!
Be that as it may, under the command of easy-going, unpompous Mr. Wiggin Reliant brought out the four-wheeled Rebel as companion for the Regal three-wheelers and the famous Scimitar coupe in 1964, which in 1968 pioneered the now-accepted high-performance estate-car hatch-back concept, in GTE form. Then came the sporting Bond Bug three-wheeler, and now the little Kitten economy saloon and estate car, the Robin tricycles taking on the 850-c.c. engine devised for Kittens. It was some time since I had been to Reliant’s of Tamworth, so last March I drove the BMW through early-morning fog on the Welsh hills into Staffordshire, to see the expansion that had taken place at Two Gates. Expansion is the operative word. For in 1973 Reliant spent £14-million on new paint and assembly shops for the Robin and their Kettlebrook plant is the largest in Europe devoted to glassfibre moulding for motor-vehicle bodywork.
It should be explained that this Company, which employs some 2,000 people in its three plants, is the main trading subsidiary of the Reliant Motor Group Ltd., which in turn is part of the Julian Hodge Group, which two years ago was acquired by Standard Chartered Bank. Its companies embrace a Manchester-based combustion firm, Smiths Forgings, and Press Operations Ltd., the last two being concerned respectively with drop forgings and steel presswork.
As I approached Tamworth along the A5 from the west, there was no mistaking the tall brick building, carrying the Reliant name, on the right-hand side of the road, which has always been this Company’s headquarters and where the administration, development, assembly, painting and trimming operations are now carried out. Many years ago Reliant chassis were allowed to roll across the busy A5 to the bodyshop opposite the main works, a jolly procedure, as to an observer it appeared that “last across” with lorry traffic had been reduced to a fine art! I regret to report that I was denied this amusement on my recent visit . . . As compensation I was cordially received by the gateman, in spite of being in a German car, and Mr. Wiggin gave me a generous amount of his time, both before inspection of the works in the company of his Press Officer, Annette Greenhalgh, but also over a pleasant lunch in the Directors’ Dining Room, where the completely informal atmosphere denotes a calm confidence between the Heads of Departments and the MD, which must be good for the running of the Company. I was pleased to see that traditionally Mr. Wiggin carved the joint for us.
Fibreglass remains the essence of Reliant operations, although they also manufacture more than 80% of the mechanical components they need for the Robin and Kitten at the Shenstone plant, eight miles from Two Gates. On this Occasion I did not visit this plant, as Annette was more anxious to show me the fibreglass moulding factory by the railway at nearby Kettlebrook, where the Works Manager, Steve Robinson, has 500 operatives. I was allowed to drive there by a circuitous route, in a new Reliant Scimitar. This had the easy performance expected from the 3-litre V6 Ford power unit, was finished within in a colour matching the exterior paintwork, instead of being trimmed in sombre black, and handled very nicely. I must have further impressions until we have the latest GTE for road-test and can assess the improved accommodation for back-seat occupants, etc. But its smart appearance left a good impression, as did the non-rusting aspect of the car, indeed, of all Reliant vehicles, arising from the glassfibre bodywork and rubber bumpers, anodised-aluminium and stainless steel exterior trim, etc., on the new Scimitar.
The extent of the Kettlebrook moulding works is very impressive. It handles all Reliant body parts, and some lower-volume tasks such as production of cabs for commercial chassis, etc. The size of this factory, of course, to some extent reflects the fact that this form of construction is very labour intensive and that production is relatively small, related to floor-space and cost. The mats are obtained in various gauges from Fibreglass Ltd., and cut by hand. The bonding is achieved conventionally, the Robin body pans and shells, for example, being clamped together until heatbonded, then cleaned up. Robin and Kitten bodies are produced thus in what is known as the “Economy Bay”, Scimitar bodies in a separate bay. There is flexibility in the methods of assembly; doors are attached while the body is on the chassis, to obviate distortion, after which, the body is removed from the Chassis frame for it to be painted. Doors, bonnet lids, arm-rest mouldings, cubby-hole moulds, van doors, etc. for the Robin and Kitten, are produced on two presses, one of 600 tons, the other of 1,000 tons. It takes but four minutes to thus make sets of four components. Scimitar bodiesare removed on dollies to the various bays for rubbingdown, finishing in primer, etc. After a checkover, they are sprayed with two coats of undercoat, and treated with rubberised bonding of chassis parts, etc.
The bodies are painted in Devilbiss booths, passing through these on a floor-level conveyor, belt-driven 25 h.p. fans .serving these booths. The bodies are painted before the trim is installed, with primer, two undercoats, and three final coats of paint: Seven or eight paint options are available, and special orders can be undertaken, not only in respect of colours, but of other items of the specification. The paint can be changed over from one colour to another at any stage of the painting operation.
Assembly of Scimitars and trimming of Kittens is done in what was the old Regal body shop, across the road from the main Two Gates factory. The Robin is put together in a fine new assembly hall above the main factory block, which it is hoped one day to duplicate for Scimitar production. Reliant make their own seats and, of course, the engines, gearboxes; suspension parts, etc. for the economy vehicle, but they buy-out items such as brake drums, fuel tanks, and so on. They make their own chassis and their own Ford transporters bring the mechanical components from Shenstone and the bodyshells from Kettlebrook for assembly at Two Gates. Overhead conveyor lines permit easy fitting of mechanical components and the front seats on the Scimitar but trim is installed at floor-level, on a single line for Scimitar two lines for the economy cars. The finished Scimitars are given the usual careful inspection for paint blemishes, are subjected to a simple but effective water-seal cheek under high-pressure hoses, and each car then goes out for a short road test. Scimitars are still shod with Pirelli Cinturatos, but the Kitten is fitted with specially-made 10 in. Goodyear tyres.
Of these differing Reliant products, the Bond Bug has ceased production, but 250 Robins and some 80 Kittens are being made every week. The revised and very handsome Scimitar GTE is now in growing production, which it is expected will soon reach 50 a week. At the time of my visit the weekly output was around a dozen. Seventy agents sell Scimitars and 230 dealers in this country look after the economy Reliant models.
Mr. Wiggin admits that things have been very difficult recently, but is confident of improvement in the near future. The demand for Robins is unabated. The Kitten was introduced not so much as competition for existing small cars (it costs £198 more than a Mini, £144 more than a Ford Escort Popular) but to prevent losing staunch customers who wished to graduate to four wheels and who appreciated the very real advantages of a rust-proof body and a very economical engine. On the subject of petrol economy, only that day Mr. Wiggin had received very good reports of astonishing petrol thrift from a Kitten, after minor carburation improvements now introduced on production models, from his technical representative in Europe —”Lofty” England; and who better to look after Reliant’s interests abroad than this ex-Jaguar executive? On the economy front there is, too, the matter of a Robin doing 70 m.p.g. ITCA challenged the wording in a Reliant TV commercial that claimed a fuel consumption of 50 m.p.g. around town and 70 m.p.g. on a run—nice to know, incidentally, that TV advertising is properly vetted. So Reliant got the RAC to undertake an Officially Observed test, when a four-seater Robin saloon did 75.314 m.p.g. over 150 miles of country driving, at an average speed of just under 30 m.p.h., and an almost unbelievable 71.1 m.p.g. when driven in Central London traffic for 64 miles, including Oxford Street and Piccadilly, at a 16 3/4 m.p.h. average speed. Naturally, Roger Musgrave, Reliant’s Marketing Director, and their advertising agents, Allardyce, were delighted, and ITCA able to accept the 50/70 m.p.g. claim. It does look as if my ideal of 60 m.p.h./60 m.p.g. is near attainment, although Mr. Wiggin says he prefers a ratio of 55/65 . . . and, of course, a Kitten won the Total Economy Drive by doing 55/11 m.p.g. over a tough route. I asked whether he felt bitter that fast hatch-backs have arrived since the Scimitar GTE was introduced?
“No”, he said. Imitation represents fine flattery and anyway there is absolutely nothing he can do about it, although he regards some of these cribs as “positively horrid”.
I asked if there was any intention to soup-up the Ford V6 engine used in the Scimitar but was told that it is installed in absolutely standard form, as delivered from Ford’s, to retain the Ford warranty intact. These power-packs do not even have to be run before installation in Scimitars, although Reliant’s own Robin/Kitten 848-c.c. 40-b.h.p, engines are naturally bench-tested at Shenstone. In the course of general conversation I heard how well the work-force has responded to visits to the Reliant factory by a certain Royal customer and that Mrs. Thatcher, Leader of the Conservative Party, has also coped very well with visits there. HRH Princess Anne is thought to enjoy driving her Robin as much as she does her Scimitar . . .
The Company has promising export plans. It exports knocked-down parts’, and manufacturing know-how relating to glassfibre vehicles. The Kitten is made in Greece and Scimitars are being sold in New Zealand as well as in Europe. So this second-largest British motor manufacturer can say that things look “set-fair”, which was the happy impression I took away with me as, shrugging off the offer of a run in a Robin, I eased the BMW out into the A5 and made for home.