Classic Project: Reliant Regal Supervan
Image credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons
The story of the classic three-wheeler vehicle that inadvertently became a comedy car legend.
Sometimes a design classic can be, on the face of it, difficult to take seriously. Yet, despite it being a staple of British TV sitcom eccentricity, the Reliant ‘Regal’ Supervan three-wheel light commercial vehicle was a feast of engineering ingenuity and innovation.
While today it’s probably only really remembered as Del Boy Trotter’s canary-yellow company car in the perennial BBC series ‘Only Fools and Horses’ (although the eagle-eyed may be prepared to admit seeing frequent appearances of a blue model in ‘Mr Bean’), its designers used radical tactics to overcome commodity shortages – notably aluminium and petrol – during the 1960s and early 1970s.
The first and most obvious feature of the Regal was that it had three wheels, meaning the vehicle was something of a hybrid that was mechanically more like a motorbike at the front and a car at the back. The design rationale behind such vehicles was they were cheaper to make and more economical to run.
Because of their light weight and layout, they were legally defined as tricycles or motorbikes, with lower product safety thresholds than road cars. In some countries, including Britain, they would be cheaper to tax than a car and would not require a full driver’s licence.
While it is a commonly believed myth that three-wheelers were not permitted access to the UK’s motorway network, the regulations were and are that any two-, three- or four-wheeled vehicle is allowed on the motorway as long as its engine is larger than 50cc (0.05l).
All this for a motorised road vehicle that could bomb along at anything up to 85mph with a fuel economy of 70mpg. At the time, there was an ongoing oil price crisis that lasted for a decade, culminating the price of crude rising from $3 per barrel to $12 by 1974. It’s no surprise that the Regal (saloon and van versions combined) sold more than 110,000 units, becoming the best-selling three-wheeler in the UK of all time.
Despite succeeding the Reliant Company’s Regent models and being succeeded by the Robin, the ‘Regent’ was never officially called that by the manufacturer, which preferred to designate it the Supervan, or to refer to models by code names (e.g. ‘TW7’, signifying ‘Three-wheeler MkVII’).
Produced by the Reliant Motor Company based in Tamworth, Staffordshire, the first models to emerge in the 1950s were of wooden-frame and aluminium panel construction, allowing the vehicle to come in at under 7cwt (355.6kg), which under legislation of the day did away with the need for the driver to have anything higher than a Class A or motorcycle licence. Yet it wasn’t until the introduction of the Regal 3/25 in 1962 that we started seeing the type of vehicle we associate with the design today.
In response to a global aluminium shortage, Reliant did away with the discrete metal panelling, opting instead for a bonded glass-fibre shell bolted to a steel chassis instead of the original wood. For a comedy utility vehicle, the Regal seemed to punch way above its weight.
Although the most famous of them all is yellow, in fact, most Regals were blue. Arguably the second most famous was the restored ‘Ole Blue’, lovingly brought back to show-room condition by the wonderfully named Elvis Payne, whose desire to share his story led him to writing the book ‘How to Restore a Reliant Regal’.
Yet spare a thought for amateur car mechanic and self-taught writer Payne, who reports on his web site that, “sadly in May 2008, my 1972 Reliant Regal Supervan III (Ole Blue) was destroyed by fire”.
Reliant Regal Supervan: facts and figures
Project: Reliant ‘Regal’ Supervan
Date: 1953-73 (all models)
Originator: Reliant Motor Company, Tamworth
Unit cost: Expect to pay up to £15,000 for a restored model
Features in the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Top 10 Classic TV Cars’ listing.
In pub quizzes, 71 per cent of contestants think Del Boy’s yellow car in ‘Only Fools and Horses’ is a Reliant Robin. It’s not. It’s a Reliant Regal Supervan.
The AA tested the Regal as a breakdown patrol vehicle. They only ever used one.
In model names, such as 3/30, the digits refer to number of wheels/bhp.
The Regal was replaced by the Robin in 1973.
There is a book called ‘How to Restore a Reliant Regal’, author Elvis Payne.
The closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games featured a Reliant Regal.
In 2016, Microsoft added the Reliant Supervan to the vehicle roster of its racing game ‘Forza Horizon 3’.
British boxer Ricky Hatton paid £44,000 for what he thought was the original Regal from Only Fools and Horses. It turned out to be a replica.
General arrangement of the Reliant Regal Supervan, based on MkIII (‘Only Fools and Horses’) model
Wheelbase 1,930mm (76in)
Length 3,430mm (135in)
Width 1,485mm (58.5in)
Height 1,450mm (57.0in)
Kerb weight 445kg (981lb)
FMR layout (front mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive)
Side-hinged rear door
Single front wheel
Reinforced glass-fibre body bolted to steel chassis