Brian Culpan tracks down a rare, 1984 Reliant Fox Custom van and meets its enthusiastic owner, Chris Heaton.
Ely’s Garage, Dover in Kent, was a motorcycle and motor scooter dealer who also sold Reliants. As riders progressed from two wheels to three; dealers followed suite by widening their stocks. The association between the two-wheel, three-wheel and the four-wheeled Reliants, is in the driving licence grouping. Class G covered motorcycles and tricycles (if the latter weighed less than 8cwt and had no working reverse gear). A provisional licence allowed the rider/driver to take to the road without having to be accompanied by a qualified driver! Also, provisional licences lasted just three months but could be renewed indefinitely without ever having to submit to a driving test – many took advantage of these loopholes.
Reliants and bubble cars had a reverse gear in the ‘box so the selection of that gear was prevented by a simple plate fitted over the lever stem and held by a couple of self-tapping screws. These were soon removed by a new owner – perhaps on the way home from the showroom! Soon, dealers included four-wheeled Reliants in the stocks.
So, this Reliant Fox Custom was new on 1st May 1984, sold by Ely’s of Snargate Street, in Dover to the WRVS (Womens Royal Voluntary Service) to deliver ‘meals on wheels’ locally. It was allocated the registration number A250 PKP by Kent County Council. For those who might be interested, its chassis no is SCD170133EB 000256 according to the international ISO 3779 VIN codes and Reliant enthusiasts: S is for UK, CD for Reliant, 1701 any Fox model, 33 paint finish, E for 1984 year of manufacture (1980 was A), B for February (month built (January was A), 000256 – the 265th built (last one was 000616), engine no 4A/857/106650E.
By the time of its MoT test in 1994, it had covered 15,000 miles. At some point later it was bought personally by the late Ben Hyams, a director of Octagon Cars Ltd., of Maidstone (a prestigious classic car business). The fact his name appeared on the logbook suggests that it was bought to keep rather than being bought by his company to sell-on quickly. Ben had many classic cars in his collection; mostly MGs ((hence the name of the business).
Later, in 1997, it was bought by the Saunders family for display at their Transport Museum in Stondon near Henlow, Bedfordshire, that they had opened three years earlier; being gradually changed from a small holding growing flowers, fruit and veg., to eventually house many, varied and unusual vehicles. The museum had bought vehicles before from Octagon Cars. The Fox was on display there for many years; surrounded by other Reliant models. Unfortunately, Fredrick John Saunders, head of the family, died in 2013, the museum closed two years later. The entire contents of this museum (the largest private one in the UK with 400 vehicles) were taken to Brightwell’s Auction House in Leominster, Herefordshire in June 2015. The Fox was lot 6 and achieved a hammer price of £1,800.
It went to a guy who lived on a remote Cheshire farm; curiously he is not named as the previous keeper on the V5C. After he passed away, his son put the Fox up for sale. It was bought by Chris Heaton of Scarborough, North Yorkshire, early in February 2019, he went over to Cheshire to collect it and drove it back home – the seller expected him to use a trailer, but it was MoT’d, in running order, and had still done less than 16k miles. Since then, Chris has replaced a few items: suspension arm bushes, water pump, and the starter motor – this necessitated firstly removing the oil filter! It still has just 16,0021 miles showing.
The cab door windows are of two pieces contained in black powder coated two-piece steel frames. The frames have retaining channels to allow sliding – thoughtfully, rainwater drainage holes are provided. Chris has freshened up the paintwork with T-Cut, the bonnet is hinged on its forward edge for safety, and locks with the door key. Just noticeable to the keen-eyed admirer is a small silver fox’s head bonnet decoration – positioned behind the lock.
The little van is used daily, Chris grew up in Bingley in West Yorkshire, and as a lad he had often admired the cars at the town’s Reliant dealer’s forecourt and showroom – it was mostly Scimitars that he admired.
Reliant’s advertising used several catch-phrases: ‘its rot proof body was a featherweight with the strength of a heavyweight’ and ‘it acts as its own garage’. The steel chassis was galvanised at the factory – this involved dipping it when new in a molten bay of zinc to prevent corrosion (the previous model, the Kitten’s chassis was not dipped). So, in theory, the Fox should last for ever, and, looking very much into the future, grandson, Oliver, is looking forward to driving it when he is old enough. This Fox Custom is one of only 25 left; probably not a bad survival rate as only 601 were built here in the UK, however, 3,000 were built in Greece to a slightly different spec. My sincere thanks to Chris Heaton for help with this feature.
MEBEA Motors of Greece had been building Reliant vehicles since the 1960s. Using a Reliant Kitten chassis, MEBEA, came up with a utility vehicle that Reliant developed for them (c1976). At the 1980 British Motor Show, the Fox was shown alongside the Kitten to gauge public reaction but it would not be until the 1982 Motor Show at the NEC that the Fox appeared again as a Reliant model; the company had been very busy spending £500,000 making modification to create this UK version, making it very different to the Greek version. It had 12in wheels, ‘Marle’ fabric interior, to mention a few – making it ‘an informal successor’ to the Kitten. Also a spec sheet listing many optional extras. It came in three versions: pickup, hardtop, or utility. There wasn’t a van version – as such, the basic pickup plus hardtop was offered instead. By undoing just four bolts it can be converted to a pickup but with an open cab back (a cab back panel was one of the optional extras). Its style, particularly the deep, black, front and rear bumpers) was influenced by the Fiat 127-based Gipsy Fiore (flower) an open top, leisure runabout – the front windscreen is the same as on the Fiat 127 Fiorino van. Obviously, Reliant engineers had a close look at the Italian maker’s small vehicle.
However, the independent front suspension and steering mechanism used many Triumph Herald parts; consequently, having a tight turning circle – better than a London taxi (which was well emphasised in sales advertising)! It featured double wishbones with coil springs, and rack and pinion steering gear. Tyres were 155 x 12 SR radials, the spiral bevel final drive unit was an ultra-low 4.1:1.
The 848cc all-alloy block and head engine (62mm bore x 69mm stroke), developing 40bhp @ 5500 rev/min and 46 lb.ft at 3500 rev/min. Using a HS2 1.25in diameter, SU carburettor, and AC Delco mechanical petrol pump. This unit had been in production for some time already, so was reliable and economical. The hardtop Fox Custom cost £3593.
In 1984, the engine was modified to become the 37.5 HTE (High Torque, and Economy), with a higher, 10.5:1 compression ratio; to meet new emission laws but at the expense of reduced power output to 37.5bhp it can be identified by a yellow engine top. The Fox’s body had 35cu.ft. of load-space and could carry 7.5cwt, but the body building technique of ‘hand laying’ polyester fabric soaked in resin had become less, and less, competitive and production ended in 1990. It was so poorly advertised that only 601 examples were sold in the UK – it was not replaced.
This feature comes from the latest issue of Heritage Commercials, and you can get a money-saving subscription to this magazine simply by clicking HERE
Hetton Colliery Railway’s 200th anniversary