Three-wheeler suits owner’s sense of humour, writes Jacqui Madelin

You need a sense of humour to drive this Reliant Regal Supervan, especially given its owner's robust funny bone. Peter Drummond has a 17m-long 1960 Seagrove fire truck with an 18-litre engine and a 30.5m ladder parked in the same shed.

Both sport his cafe's logos and large speaker boxes. The fire truck is currently being fettled for the annual Variety Trillian Bash charity rally that kicks off next weekend from New Plymouth - the Supervan is too small, Peter says.

As it would be, given the Reliant started in a garden shed. Raleigh Bicycle Co stopped building three-wheelers in 1934 and the works manager carried on in his back garden, producing a 356kg van with a hardwood frame and motorcycle front end.

The Reliant Regal Supervan.
The Reliant Regal Supervan.

It was designed as a delivery van for the British market that could be driven on a motorbike licence, and demand saw production move to a disused bus depot, and develop to include conventional seats. When Austin stopped building the 747cc Seven engine, Reliant began building its own, with minor variations, then a broader range of cars, conventional four-wheelers and three-wheeled models that included the Bond Bug and the Robin, the car this Supervan is often confused with.

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It was the commercial Reliant Supervan which was made famous by television show Only Fools and Horses and by Mr Bean.

The Supervan wasn't sold new here, and Peter doesn't know this car's history. When he bought it 15 years ago, it was derelict with a seized engine and no windscreen.

The Reliant Regal Supervan.
The Reliant Regal Supervan.

"It's unique, I like different vehicles and I thought it would be a wonderful promo car for the Fishpot Cafe." It's certainly rare - there are only seven Robins and three Regals registered in New Zealand today - and it fits Peter's unique sense of humour, "It's fun to drive, and I like things that are a bit different."

He sent the car to his mate, Vern, whose engineers started on the 850cc engine - this must have been one of the first cars out with this bigger unit. Peter tracked down a windscreen at a second-hand shop in Tooting, London, and while there for a business trip was collected by a friend with a Bentley, of all things.

They went and bought the windscreen, his hotel wrapped it up and he checked it on to the flight as a surfboard, carried it on board, and it was propped up among hanging coats.

Peter Drummond says his Reliant Regal Supervan was derelict when he bought it 15 years ago. Pictures / Jacqui Madelin
Peter Drummond says his Reliant Regal Supervan was derelict when he bought it 15 years ago. Pictures / Jacqui Madelin

Bar paintwork, radial tyres in place of crossply and the sound system (and cellphone holder), the car remains standard.

"I could easily spruce it up, but I like to keep it as is."

It's now my turn to drive, a problem, as I'm much shorter than Peter. Adjusting the seat requires unbolting it, so he simply pushes the hinged seatback to shunt me into reach and off we go - or not.

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An arm recovering from breakage doesn't manage the slightly stiff four-speed gear lever, so I do the steering, accelerator and clutch, he the gears and it all works fine, given Sunday traffic in an industrial area, until we get to a junction with a hill start. Having to do the handbrake and gears he lets go of the seatback, I slide gently away from the pedals and the car stalls. It takes both hands on the wheel to pull me back uphill into reach of the clutch and accelerator, so he now gets key, gear lever and park brake to manage while I pump the throttle until she starts, and we try again, but lurching forward jerks me away from the pedals and ... I'm sure you get the picture.

We manage it eventually: "You're not used to manuals, are you?" Not driven like this, I'm not.

The Reliant Regal Supervan.
The Reliant Regal Supervan.

An over-vigorous approach to tackling roundabouts has us rolling like a dinghy in a hurricane, but I soon get the hang of smooth cornering and settling her on the throttle, with rear drive leaving only the steering to that front wheel, though I'm not sure I'd be game to do 100km/h. Peter's brother drove it on his daily commute for almost a year, until getting a better car, though neither of them has gone outside Auckland in it, and he admits it gets blown around a bit by passing trucks - it's under 500kg, he thinks.

Has he ever rolled it? "No! Treat it with respect, and going straight you have no issues."
He does enjoy the attention it gets, and of course simply getting a warrant can be fun.
"The guy waves you in and of course hasn't noticed the single wheel, and there's a pit there ... I pretend I'm going to drive it in."

With the back seats in use it must have been a handy delivery van, given the tight turning circle and abstemious thirst for fuel, though you wouldn't have carried much. That didn't seem to put buyers off, and the Reliant three-wheeler remained in production until 2002.