Mr ES (Tommo) Thompson
This article was sent to me by Colin Fine-Thompson of his memories of the start of Reliant, received 20 years ago and only just resurfaced. While there is some incorrect information contained within the letter it still gives a great in site into the early years of Reliant.
The early days of The Reliant Engineering Co Ltd. (as it was in 1933) were fraught with commercial hazard.
My farther, ‘Tommo’ Thompson, and Tom Williams, saddened by the sudden decision of Raleigh to discontinue any form of motorised vehicle in favour of pedal cycles, had ‘obtained’ the drawings, list of suppliers, and a few spares list, of the 600cc JAP-engined van which, by then, had anyway been superceded by a 750cc JAP vee twin engined version.
The vehicle they planned to make was virtually a motorcycle with a van body in tow. It was fitted with girder forks, handlebars, kick-start Burman gearbox and a 600cc side valve engine. The chassis was unsprung at the rear, the body being mounted on 1/4 elliptics. At the front the sprining was via the conventional barrel fork spring, with side friction dampers. Fuel was carried in two cylindrical tanks positioned just in front of the knees of the driver and passenger.
To start the engine, and to operate the Kickstarter, it was necessary to first lift the drivers seat, which was hinged at the rear. Added therefore to the usual risk of a broken ankle was the danger of the seat falling back down and trapping ones leg just behind the knee. There was just not sufficient head room to really get on top of the kickstart, so that one stopped the engine only with the greatest reluctance, for fear of having to start it again.
Tommo and Tom opted to build the first prototype in the garden behind Bro Dawell, on the Kettlebrook Road. Most of the parts were transported in my farthers’ Bullnose Morris and consisted, in the main, of Raleigh spares brought over the counter. The ash and aluminum body was built in the garden.
The only tool used for this purpose was a wheelbrace (which the writer still treasures) and a collection of hand tools such as would be used by any DIY enthusiast, and a determination bordering on desperation.
Unfortunately the South wall of Bro Dawell was less than 4ft from the neighbouring property, with the result that the entire vehicle, once built had to be dismantled and rebuilt in the street outside.
The resultant prototype was hawked around the district, and modest interest was shown by a few of the local traders. They were not all that excited by the starting arrangements, or, for that matter the handlebars. for this reason a Mk2 version was designed, using a chain drive between a steering wheel and the front forks.
It became necessary to find a place to manufacture the device and, fortunately, at Twogates, the Midland Red bus garage, as well as Wilnecote School Boots became vacant. The Former consisted of a corrugated iron structure in the two bays. This was uninsulated, exceedingly leaky although coated overall with tarred sailcloth, and had the disadvantage of having a row of sliding doors all along its frontage with that they were the only substantial part of the whole building, so that removal would have caused immediate collapse. They were at once, almost impossible to move, but when closed rattled like a thousand dervish drums. So indeed did the rest of the building.
Tom Williams borrowed from one of his sisters the necessary working capital (£1000) and in a moment of madness the wheelbrace was replaced by a hand-operated bench drill with a horizontal flywheel, together with, for reasons I could never fathom, an air compressor.
Both founder members, together with employee No1, one Baden Powell (Not The BP) built benches and an office and a three track assembly ramp, sufficient for three vehicles.
The Wilnecote School Boots factory, which still stands, contained a huge steam engine with a colossal flywheel. This was dismantled and sold for scrap, as was an equally huge gas engine and generator in the ex-bus garage.
I have no idea how many single cylinder models were built, but it was not long before the transverse Vee-twin was introduced and this brought two problems in it’s train. First was a total lack of cash, even to pay wages, which prompted a visit to the local garage owners. These lent cash, in return for being elected to the Board. The local Barclays turned them down flat.
The other problem was that the vee twin required a bellhousing to fir the engine, and as shaft drive was also forced upon them, a differential rear axle became necessary for the first time. This meant a massive injection of capital for machinery and a Covmac lathe and a Denbigh miller were installed. Because the roof leaked nearly everywhere, the position of the machinery, driven of course by a lineshaft, was dictated by the need to keep the operation more or less in the dry.
The floor was always ankle deep in puddles, so these too influenced the position of any static activity. There was no heating, and in the winter of 34/35 it was quite common for ones fingers to leave patches of skin on metal surfaces. All the workers wore jumpers and jackets and scarves over their boiler suits - I say ‘all the workers’; by the end of 1935 there were about five employees, and production was about 3 vehicles a week.
The wiring harness, for example, consisted of a coil of rubber-covered wire from which one cut the necessary length. Wheels were built up from a collection of spokes, nipples rims and hubs, the only assistance given, in order to achieve the required ‘dish’ was a colossal cast-iron jig closed by three handwheels. Axles were built up and shimmed, back and forth, untill they ‘made no noise’ or not much anyway. It could take half a day to build an axle.
There were no drawings for any part. If time permitted details of successful parts were committed to backs of envelopes which were kept on a sharpened wire hung on the wall. Drawings for castings and the inevitable malleable castings used for almost all stressed parts, were sketched on white paper pinned over a carbon copy.
Dozens of vehicles had been produced before someone hit upon the idea of keeping a record. A school exercise book was accordinly produced and into this went brief details of engine No, chassis etc. Prior to this the chassis went unrecorded, the engines had been numbered by JAP before leaving there works. I mention this because if anyone hopes to trace early Reliants they can have a hard time.
The vee twin van was produced in 8cwt and 12 cwt versions, and both sizes as pickups, or even flat trucks. Naturally, in order to qualify for motorcycle tax the 8cwt ones had to be not an ounce over the weight and this was always a problem, bearing in mind the extensive use of malleable castings, which varied greatly in weight. It was not untill 1946 that the first pressings was used, and this only for a door lock component. It is of interest that this particular press tool was the first job ever carried out by The Polymathic Eng Co Ltd, on the Fazeley road.
After production of some dozens of vee twin models, and sometime during 1937 (I think) it was decided to use the three-bearing Austin Seven unit, and this slotted in with only minimal alterations to the chassis. The big advantage was, of course, relative freedom from the considerable vibration caused by the transverse vee twin.
Probably some 400 Austin units were used and sales seemed assured; the van being by now, a relatively respectable vehicle.
One day in 1939 however, a telephone call from Austin was recived which pitched the factory into deepest gloom; the Austin Seven was to be produced no more, or at least no more were to be made available to Reliant.
There was no going back to JAP, so my farther settled down to design and make a replacement engine. This was of course modelled on the Austin and used the same bore and stroke, pistons, valves, bearings and one or two diecastings. It also employed, unhappily, the Austin system of jet lubrication of the big ends. This worked tolerably well with the Austin, with its clean, diecast crankcase, but the Reliant, for reasons of haste and economy had to be a sandcasting. Frequent checking of the jets was obligatory.
There was no time to make press tools for such items as the engine plates of dynamo bracket, so these were made as the inevitable malleable castings, for from flat, and covered with lumps, all of which had to be avoided.
The crankshaft was produce entirely on a centre lathe, and it was only at this point that a micrometer was purchased, prior to this callipers and a rule were the standard tools for checking. The conrods were also bored on a lathe, each one having to be fitted to a suitably sized journal after a certain amount of fiddling.
The first engine was set up and started six weeks after pen was first put to paper.
War was declared a few minutes later.
Please note this page is a transcribe from the typed letter that I was given and has not been altered in any way.