My First Car: Three wheels on my Reliant Regal wagon
PUBLISHED: 10:50 07 October 2016 | UPDATED: 10:50 07 October 2016
My first car was a Reliant Regal MkI made of aluminium nailed onto a wooden frame with a plywood floor, all screwed to a simple hollow chassis.
As a keen motorcyclist in the early ’60s, the main attraction of this car was the protection from wind, rain and snow. Although anyone who tried to drive a three-wheeler along normal wheel tracks in snow will know that as the front single wheel zig-zags from track to track over the centre ridge, one is likely to be arrested and breathalysed for dangerously erratic driving!
I paid £2 for the car, and went to collect it from a work colleague at Handley Page, where it was parked way over at the back next to the airfield, possibly because he hadn’t wanted anyone to see him arrive in it. There were a few days left on the MoT, so I set about putting it in order. There were no seats, only a wooden box with a cushion for the driver. Amazingly, seats weren’t part of the MoT in those days, only brakes, lights and tyres.
I bought a flashing indicator and four amber lights as the trafficators no longer functioned. The little glass Lucas lenses could easily be replaced with glass fish-paste jars if you broke one. It passed its MoT, and in due course I bought the seats from a crashed Mini in a garage in Oakwood Road, Bricket Wood. The seats had to be cut down slightly to fit. I then fitted it out with the grey leatherette insulation material from a Handley Page Hastings and fitted an aircraft cockpit clock on the dashboard. Today that clock would pay for a modest secondhand car.
The engine was a modified Austin 7 engine as fitted to all early Reliants, a simple side-valve unit with a compression ratio of 4 to 1. It would even run on paraffin, so I’m told. There was no synchromesh and after a few days I had learned the subtle art of double-declutching to change down the gears, although first efforts were rather tuneful! It did approximately 22mpg, but that didn’t matter so much then as low-octane petrol was about 4/6d per gallon (about 22p).
The engine was mounted amidships between the front seats so you drove with one elbow on the fibreglass cover. The engine roared like four Merlins in a Lancaster. I often thought that the clutch was slipping on roundabouts and bends, but it was one of the rear wheels lifting off the road and allowing the engine to rev like mad.
One day on the Cottonmill estate there was a huge cloud of petrol vapour in the cab, like steam in a Turkish bath. I lifted off the engine cover, which was only attached by an elastic band with hooks. The carburetter was gushing petrol all over the red hot exhaust manifold and belching petrol ‘steam’ everywhere. I jumped out in a hurry expecting it to blow up at any moment. It didn’t, and after a minute or two, I gave the carburetter a sharp tap to free up the float, which had stuck in the open position and then carried on.
After I left Handley Page, shortly before they went defunct, I worked in Watford. Whilst travelling to work one morning, there was a loud bang and a clatter. A large steel fan blade had detached itself and sliced right through the aluminium engine surround near my left foot. Had it been an inch or two further back it would have taken my toes off.
I did manage some reasonably long journeys in my Reliant, including a tour of Birmingham and the West Midlands to visit relatives.
When I sold it and bought a Mini, the Relaint still soldiered on with its new owner. I didn’t have a camera in those days, but I include a sketch I made of it when I was deciding what shade of paint to colour it. I was told it looked like a tiny ice-cream van of a well-known brand. I still have so many fond memories.