They were a quirky signpost to a different age, an increasingly sepia-tinted era when individuality still carried considerable clout.
But these are more corporate times – in virtually all areas of life – and the Plastic Pigs, as they became known for better or worse, have long since become little more than a quaint footnote to West Midlands and UK motoring history.
That’s a shame, because the Reliant Motor Company and its three-wheelers were once proud standard-bearers for the mobility aspirations of generations of drivers who were determined to cast off post-war austerity in pursuit of new freedoms.
Around 30 or more years ago, if you couldn’t afford a Ford Capri or an Austin Allegro, cutprice motoring could be yours with a Regal van – as lampooned by the much-loved Del Boy with his famous Trotters Independent Trading New York, Paris, Peckham motif.
Del Boy – with the dubious assistance of another occasionally dodgy wheeler-dealer Jeremy Clarkson – may have reduced this unique slice of UK motoring heritage to pantomine status, but they deserve a more considered epitaph.
And with up to 7,000 Reliants – from Robins to Rialtos and sleek Scimitar sports cars to four-wheeled Kittens and even the odd Regal van – still on the road, that epitaph is perhaps a shade premature in any case.
Reliant was once Tamworth’s mini British Leyland, providing livelihoods down the years to many thousands, with between 2,000 and 3,000 workers on the books at its height.
The firm also produced a truly memorable sports car, the Scimitar, much loved by the likes of Princess Anne, Noel Edmonds, Norman Wisdom, the Duke of Kent and others.
The Queen and Prince Philip bought their only daughter her first Scimitar as a joint 20th birthday and Christmas present in November 1970. She owned eight more over the years, picking up the occasional speeding ticket along the way whilst at the wheel of the rust-free head turner.
West Midland PR and journalist Ken Jackson worked at Reliant as a press officer in the late 60s and early 70s and recalls those days with pride. “It was a wonderful, friendly company to work at,” says Stafford-based Ken. “But we couldn’t speed up the production process when demand was immense for the Scimitar. Every car was hand-built, even the three-wheelers.
“There could have been a future for Reliant – more and more African countries have opened up and some of the economies of Eastern Europe could have benefited from that sort of expertise.”
The Reliant legend is being kept alive today by the likes of 29 year-old James Holland, who hopes to create a special museum to preserve the memory of Tamworth’s most famous industrial son.
James and father John run Norfolk-based Castle Hill Garage, stocking 3,500 parts for Reliants, supplying customers from throughout the UK and as far afield as Australia and Malaysia. Holland Jnr is also quite possibly the world’s biggest Reliant enthusiast, with 35 hand-made cars dating from the 1950s, embracing Scimitars, Foxes, Robins, Rialtos and his cherished 1971 Regal van.
“Some people say there are still 7,000 Reliants on the road, but it is probably more like 5,500. In 2001 there were 44,000. My dad has always driven them and I have always loved them, they are good fun. We regularly ship parts all over the world, I have just sent an order to California and we have dealt with customers in Australia, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Sri Lanka.
“At its height, the factory at Tamworth employed 2,500 people, there was a car coming off the production line every six minutes. We see a lot of people who want to drive Reliants, they are classic cars, they are not the butt of jokes any more.”
But all good things come to an end and it is now 14 years since Reliant ceased production. The company had fallen into receivership three times, leaving its Tamworth home of more than 60 years to move to Chase Terrace and later Cannock.
It was a sad ending for a firm which, in its heyday in the 1970s, was producing up to 300 Robin three-wheelers a week, alongside the much sought after Scimitars.
Cynics might, quite justifiably, argue that Reliant hit the skids because their economy cars became outdated relics.
They ran out of time, and road, as they ran out of customers who wanted more than cutprice motoring on three wheels.
But romantics might equally argue that the inevitable demise of the car they called the Plastic Pig represented a tiny, but telling, part of the transformation of a manufacturing-based economy which had provided a post-industrial freedom of choice into a corporate marketplace which swallowed up, or simply squashed, the little guys in merciless fashion.
Reliant went the same way as all those traders on the high street, from fishmongers to cheese shops, pork butchers to cobblers, caught in a commercial vice between the big supermarket chains and the internet , with goods available at the click of a mouse.
Football, another pursuit for the true romantic, is another case in point. Never again will a one-off genius like Brian Clough take a provinicial club like Nottingham Forest to European glory.
Today it’s all about Champions League riches and a Big Four group of moneyed clubs jockeying to qualify for a tournament they are unlikely, realistically, to win given the presence of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
But the world is a poorer place for the loss of the quirky, the unusual and the eccentric.
It needs its Cloughies, its Reliants, its fishmongers, its romantics who defy convention and challenge the status quo.