Dockside Delivery – Girder-fork Van at 70

Filed under: Articles,Classic News |
The cabin is basic with wood, Bakelite, aluminium, one seat and a single wiperMention three wheeled transport from Tamworth and the first thing that flashes through most minds are two brothers from Peckham, a ‘plonka’ named Rodney and one yellow Robin. Whilst we jest now Reliant Engineering knew they had a ‘cushty number’ with their tri-wheeled commercial prior to the commencement of hostilities in 1939. The idea originated during the 20’s as bicycle manufacture Raleigh experimented with a variety of options for their fledgling motorcycle range. In 1930 they purchased the rights to the Ivy ‘Karryall’, a light commercial featuring a motor cycle front end which they would improve with a 598cc engine pulling a 5CWT payload and a 75 guinea price tag. Its success owed much to Tom Lawrence Williams who had joined Raleigh in 1930 (previously working for Dunelt and Triumph) and over the next three years he developed his Light Delivery Van. Owner Jon Mills restored his girder-fork van from tip to stern. The earliest versions came with handlebars prior to steering wheel optionBy 1933, the motorcycle handlebars had been replaced with a steering wheel and with floor mounted accelerator the LDV became much more conventional and not just a motorbike with a box attached. Williams went on to design a passenger version and a small range of tri wheeled sporty tourers and whilst ‘Horsepower’ tax didn’t apply to three wheelers they were competitively priced against their rivals. The Raleigh management decided to gradually withdraw from motorised transport and concentrate on bicycles, so jumping before he was pushed Tom Williams left in 1934. A bank loan helped him set up his own design office in his garden shed at home in Tamworth Staffordshire. Joined by old work colleague Tommo Thompson from the Raleigh factory, the duo set about building a prototype, a simple three wheeled LDV with a 600cc Jap single cylinder engine. Chain drive and basic, the first Reliant was born and shown to local traders who offered feedback; this was acted upon and the vehicle was updated and refined then tested by Commercial Motor Magazine early in 1935. Williams rented the former Midland Bus depot in Tamworth and a production line was set up, the first Reliant 7CWT Girder-fork vans were delivered to enthusiastic local traders soon after; the Reliant Engineering Company had arrived. Tamworth’s Tax Dodger The inline four Reliant developed from Austin, brilliantly basic and bullet-proofWilliams developed his LDV further, offering a steering wheel and standard controls plus increased carrying capacity thanks to the inclusion of Austin’s 747cc motor in 1938. The Austin Seven power plant arrived from Longbridge complete with gearbox and starter motor and history has confirmed it was a perfect match for the Reliant. Austin stopped producing the engine in 1939 so Williams took the decision to build their own version and as order books increased the factory was purchased from the landlord.  Reliant Engineering looked to keep as much production as possible ‘in house’ and their first attempt emulating Austin’s four-cylinder engine was bench tested and running early morning Sunday 3rd September 1939; war was declared at 11.00am. The factory managed to produce around 80 such units before it become designated for armament production. During hostilities and post war, restrictions on vehicle movement (essential users only) were never applied to motorcycles or three wheelers, increasing their desirability. Post war and fuel rationing ensured a huge interest for low powered transport, this increased further by huge taxation imposed on new cars for the home market; all part of the government’s export drive. Commercial vehicles including the Girder-fork van were not subject to ‘Purchase Tax’ and remained so even if converted to passenger carrying duties; if completed post sale. Reliant were in a great position and production restarted with the 8cwt van in March 1946, this was joined by 12cwt a year later. In 1950, the next stage of the three wheeled Girder-fork van was introduced, named the Regent, this enjoyed success at home and abroad. As Reliant began to move into the passenger car market the last of the Girder-fork vans, a Regent was produced in 1956. A Religious Affair Engineering ingenuity and cost saving brilliance but the girder-forks offered little comfortFrom their family home in Worcestershire, Jon Mills, a trainee blacksmith at 18 was required to accompany his parents to church every Sunday. Residing next to the grave yard was a Reliant Girder-fork van (a venue it had enjoyed for many years) and enquiries traced the owner back to the former village postman; an approach was made offering this unusual vehicle a future. A move from the Midlands to Brighton for the Reliant; luckily Jon had the foresight to join the AA the day before heading south as both arrived courtesy of a breakdown truck. The van was sold on shortly after but over the years the urge for another never dwindled and mid 1990s one was advertised locally, the temptation was too much. Manhandling a 1947 example into the rear of a Luton van was possible as the rear axle wasn’t attached, so Jon made up a skid plate for the front forks; brute force did the rest. The chassis was in reasonable condition and the engine had been rebuilt but the wooden frame had suffered and required replacing in many areas, the alloy panels however would present no problems to Jon’s metal working skills. Family arrived and work took priority but eventually one of the world’s longest restorations was completed 20 years on; other interests that had slowed progress included Jon’s A35 and an Austin Seven Special plus the odd classic bike. With many of the van’s components estranged from the body, often in boxes, one saving grace for Jon were the spares he had acquired from his original purchase in Worcestershire years before. Included in those was a virtually complete chassis which had remained in his possession, ideal reference for the current build along with original photographs and advice from other owners. With just drivers seating there’s plenty of accommodation for dockside deliveriesThe interior is obviously basic but all the wood flooring is painted and the centre section is removable offering access to the oily bits and a storage compartment for tools. The Girder-fork van became very popular with local trades; requiring a motorbike licence allowed the local fish monger or green grocer to send ‘the boy’ out on deliveries. The history of Jon’s Reliant is sketchy but we do know it was originally registered in Southampton and there is little doubt it would have frequented the docks at some point. Whilst it would have been nice to photograph the Reliant where it originated, taking a 70-year-old three wheeler on a 120 mile round trip didn’t appeal. The alternative was just along the coast from Jon’s Brighton home at Shoreham Harbour, proving a hit with dock workers and day trippers alike.