I used to hate these things with a fervent passion.
Not one to jump on the bandwagon of hating a car because Jeremy Clarkson hates it, my reasons for despising the little Robin and its cretinous relatives was more down to the practical limitations and endemic design flaws of this odd little vehicle.
However, as time has passed and I have matured, while I still don’t appreciate what the car is, I can appreciate what it has done. Aside from being the punchline to a Jasper Carrott joke and facing endless gags on Only Fools and Horses, Reliant’s three wheeled legacy, the Regal, the Robin and the Rialto, do have their place in motoring history as an endearing machine that survived against the odds and provided many people with motorised transport.
So, where did this troublesome trio come from?
First, you need to follow the Reliant company itself to understand where their fascination with three-wheeled motorcars originated.
Reliant was formed in 1935 by Works Manager T. L. Williams and his colleague E. S. Thompson when they decided to continue a series of three-wheeled motorised vans that had been built previously by the Raleigh Bicycle Company. The company’s first model, which was built in Williams’ back garden in Tamworth, was essentially a motor-powered tricycle with an aluminium body over it. This home-built prototype would eventually lead to a full production model, and would prove incredibly popular among milkmen and postmen across the West Midlands. Being cheap to run and only requiring a comparatively inexpensive motorbike license, the Reliant 7cwt soon found itself being something of a viable alternative to early motorcars. Demand was so high that, in 1936, Reliant purchased the former Midland Red bus depot in Fazeley on the banks of the River Tame and turned it into their main factory.
Then came World War II, after which the UK was subject to severe rations on both steel and fuel. This was further compounded during the 1950’s by events such as the Suez Crisis, wherein fuel rationing continued to be implemented as oil imports suffered from the conflict. While major car builders attempted to downsize by creating highly economical models such as the Austin Mini and the Morris Minor, Reliant were way ahead of the curve due to their comparatively innovative designs and their ability to sneak through a convenient loophole in motoring legislation.
In 1953, the company launched their first car-like production three-wheeler, the Reliant Regal; a machine that was designed to be largely reminiscent of a regular car, but, in the eyes of UK law, was officially a motorbike. British road legislation stated that any car that had three-wheels and weighed less than 800kg was to be designated a motorbike, and therefore only required a motorbike license which was £50 (£1,327 in 2018) cheaper than a regular car license.
The Reliant Regal, which weighed only 445kg, was powered by a series of motorbike engines which developed between 24 and 30hp, propelling the three-wheeler to a blinding top speed of 75mph, with a 0-60 of 25 seconds; which was actually quicker than the comparative Morris Minor and its 0-60 of 52 seconds. The car was lightweight, nimble and highly economical, thanks primarily to its perfect mixture of low capacity motorbike engines and its somewhat pioneering fibreglass moulded bodywork.
Reliant had chosen to use fibreglass instead of the regular pressed steel found on normal cars due to the post-war steel rationing; although early examples used aluminium until its price went up during the mid-1950’s. The fibreglass had the advantage of being fairly rigid, while also making the car supremely light so it could effortlessly nip through the city streets like a mouse through the pipework under your kitchen floor. However, fibreglass did have the downside of being not particularly safe, meaning that in the event of a crash the car would crumple to pieces and anyone inside would likely be killed.
However, the biggest concern with the Regal was its three-wheel configuration; with the two driving wheels at the back and a single wheel at the front. This was compounded by the car’s lightweight body, which meant that at high speed it would routinely cock its rear wheels and it became incredibly unstable to drive. While, contrary to popular belief, it is quite difficult to tip a Reliant over unless you actively try to, the car threatening to capsize every time you turned a corner led to nothing short of a terrifying ride for those involved.
Regardless of the safety concerns, its slow speed and rather featureless, cramped interior, the Regal sold massively across the UK and Europe; becoming one of the most popular cars on sale during the 1950’s and 60’s. The car truly found a niche in the deprived areas of Britain such as the steel lands of Yorkshire, the industrial Midlands, and the pit towns of Lancashire and the northeast, being popular among the working classes as a means of getting around with the cheapness of a motorbike but the protection of a regular motorcar.
The Regal’s success brought about massive changes to the British motor industry, and secured the company as the largest builder of three-wheeled cars in Europe. The revenue earned from the car allowed Reliant the ability to buy out their longtime rivals Bond Cars in 1969; after the latter’s recent bankruptcy. The procurement of Bond gave rise to classic, though undeniably flawed, machines such as the Bond Bug; the company’s attempt at a sports three-wheeler which wooed the masses with its space-age looks but didn’t translate well into sales.
What was successful, however, was the company’s range of sports cars; including the beautiful and elegant Reliant Scimitar. With a low-slung, crisp design, a 2.9L Essex V6 and some Gung-Ho handling, the car was an instant success; so much so that HRH Princess Anne had eight of them.
Eventually, the archaic 1950’s design of the Regal was in need of replacement, and thus in 1973 Reliant replaced it with the much more famous (if not, infamous) Robin. The general formula behind the Robin was near identical to that of the Regal; a lightweight fibreglass body powered by a small motorbike engine. The power of the car, however, was upped slightly from the Regal’s 600cc motor to an 848cc motor, resulting in the Robin attaining a top speed of 85mph and a 0-60 of 14 seconds, which put it on par with the likes of the Mini 1275 GT.
Despite the Robin receiving immediate criticism for its wayward handling, its propensity to cock a wheel, its tight cabin, its biblical impracticality and its wheezy performance, the car was still a massive sales success; continuing to exploit the loophole in the British road legislation that allowed a much cheaper driving experience for the working classes. This was compounded further by the car’s incredible efficiency, which made it a useful ally following the 1973 Fuel Crisis. While normal cars lined for miles waiting for petrol, the Robin could drift past smugly; safe in the knowledge that it could go for weeks, even months, without need for refuelling.
The success of the Robin led to Reliant attempting another variation on the three-wheeled theme; the four-wheeled Reliant Kitten. The Kitten wasn’t the first time Reliant had done this, the earlier Reliant Rebel of 1964 having been a four-wheeled version of the Regal. Body frames for the Robin and the Kitten were identical, as was the engine and drivetrain; the only difference being the addition of a fourth-wheel. The Kitten was built to try and hammer home the success of the Robin over the Mini, with its main selling points being its lack of rusting due to its fibreglass body, and its lightweight, efficient and nimble design. However, the Kitten was a phenomenal failure upon its launch in 1975, and would stutter along largely unnoticed until it was finally axed in 1982.
Either way, the Robin’s incredible sales had made Reliant an incredibly influential company, so much so that in the mid-70’s it was the second largest car builder in the UK behind British Leyland. As Chrysler Europe, which controlled the famous Hillman, Sunbeam and Talbot brands, collapsed into bankruptcy and was bought by Peugeot, Reliant’s fortunes went from sweet to sweeter; reaching their peak in around 1977.
Still on a winning streak, Reliant replaced the Robin in its company lineup with the Rialto, an improved design which increased structural and high-speed stability while changing the styling from the Robin’s rounded lights and corners to something more serious and angular. The engine was still 850cc and the top speed was still 85mph, but the added weight of the modified body structure increased the 0-60 time to 19 seconds; making it somewhat uncompetitive with the likes of the new Austin Metro.
The mid-80’s proved to be the point where Reliant started to fall from their peak and into a downward spiral to inevitable destruction. The increased popularity of supermini cars following the Fuel Crisis had led to high efficiency machines that could match the Robin and Rialto on fuel consumption, but benefited from better practicality, comparative running and licensing costs, superior performance and structural rigidity. Very soon, the market had become saturated with successful supermini designs such as the Volkswagen Polo, the Fiat Ritmo, the Metro and the ever-present Mini. As driving a regular car continued to become cheaper, owners could now afford to forgo the £50 benefit of the Reliant three-wheelers.
While Reliant did find a bright spot in providing bodyshells for the popular Metro Cammell Metrocab, which was the first British taxicab to be built with wheelchair provision, a multi-million pound contract to supply Ford with fibreglass bodyshells for their RS200 rally car fell disastrously through when production of the car was abruptly ceased following a string of fatal crashes and the subsequent demise of Group B rallying. Other ventures such as 1983’s Reliant Fox four-wheel pickup truck and attempts to revive the Scimitar name through the SS1 sports car were sales disasters that cost the company millions.
In 1989, Reliant reintroduced the legendary Robin and ran it alongside the Rialto; hoping to garner further sales by having multiple three-wheeled models on the production list. However, in 1992, an economic recession struck from which Reliant couldn’t escape, not even with their incredible fuel efficiency.
The Reliant company had, since 1962, been juggled from parent company to parent company as a majority share, but this unstable form of management was doomed to inevitable failure. That naturally came when Reliant’s parent, a local house-builder, declared bankruptcy following the 1992 recession and the subsequent downturn in the housing market. Reliant’s share was sold as part of a bankruptcy auction to Beans Engineering, and in 1996 it was sold again to Jonathan Heynes.
Noticing the increasing losses incurred by Reliant as the Robin and Rialto continued to decrease in popularity, Heynes chose to follow Rover Group’s tactic with the later versions of the classic Mini by making their retro models less mass-production machines and more a novelty collectors items. Designer Andy Plumb was called in to give the cars greater luxuries such as additional features, wooden trim, leather seats, and retro-styled upholstery. To further reduce the company’s expenditure, the Rialto ended production in 1997, and the same year the company moved from the Fazeley Plant to a new factory at Plant Lane, Burntwood.
The last car on the company’s books was the Robin, which was given a significant facelift in 1998 to make it look less like a box-on-wheels from the early 80’s and more like the contemporary Rover Metro. Headlights were sourced from the Vauxhall Corsa, and the interior was lathered with features to make it comparable to its rivals. At the same time, research was undertaken to restart the four-wheel Kitten range for launch sometime in 2000 to 2001; but nothing more than prototypes came of the project. Because of the company’s indecisiveness with regard to the four-wheel model that Heynes wanted to bring forward, he eventually sold his shares and left the company in 2000.
In its final years, the company produced only 50 vehicles per week until 2001; when shareholders chose to invest instead in the much younger Piaggio Ape range as well as French-built Microcars. With the Robin’s demise announced, the last 65 units were built as ‘Special Edition’ variants costing up to £10,000; including leather trim, walnut veneer, a numbered plaque, red carpets, a radio, a sun roof, white dashboard dials, chrome door handles, front foglights and minilite alloy wheels.
This wasn’t fully the end of the Robin, however, as Reliant sold production rights for the car to Sudbury-based B&N Plastics, who intended to sell two versions; the BN-1 Robin (base model) and the BN-2 Robin (luxury model). The BN-1 featured all the additions to the limited production Robin 65 cars as standard, while the BN-2 added higher-grade materials for the interior, a custom metallic paint finish, a radio-CD (instead of radio-cassette) and front electric windows as standard.
Unable to meet demand, and with over 200 orders unfulfilled, B&N Plastics had truly bitten off more than they could chew and ceased production in late 2002 following an argument with Reliant over the sourcing of parts. B&N Plastics had also failed to gain type approval for Robin production before they were allowed to start building cars, and thus owed a fine of £100,000.
As for Reliant itself, it was renamed Reliant Partsworld, and continues to provide spares and parts for Reliant models, both young and old, from a small factory on the outskirts of Cannock. The former Reliant factory in Tamworth, the site where thousands of Regals, Rialtos and Robins were produced and sent out to the masses, was demolished in 2000 and turned into a housing estate called Scimitar Way; a final nod to the area’s former association with mass-production motoring.
One wonders if the residents know that where their house stands used to be home to Britain’s second-largest car manufacturer; even more ironic if they happened to own a Robin!
Although the Reliant three-wheelers are no longer with us, their place in both motoring and British history will last forever thanks to their odd appearance, their strange driving experience, and the fact that they truly seem to perfectly sum up British eccentricity. When the Regal first entered production in the early 50’s, it was seen as a viable alternative to motoring in the dark and depressing days of fuel rationing. However, by the time the Robin was launched in the 70’s, people couldn’t believe that someone was actually attempting to sell it as a genuine production car; but sell it did, and it became a staple of UK motoring throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
The car was, and still is, seen as a joke, and its appearance in popular culture has only helped to secure its curious legacy. In Only Fools and Horses, the infamous Trotter brothers used a 1969 Reliant Regal Supervan III (often mistaken for a Robin) to amble about the streets of Peckham as they attempted to ply their dubious trade, while a blue 1972 Reliant Regal Supervan III was frequently and inadvertently bumped, knocked and tipped over by Mr. Bean due to his comedic antics.
It’s the car’s appearances on Top Gear, however, that have helped reinvigorate interest in these three-wheeled machines, starting with Richard Hammond and James May’s attempt to convert one into a reusable spaceship. Taking an old Robin, the pair mounted it to a pair of solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank and launched it into the skies above Northumberland. However, when the fuel tank failed to separate, the Robin’s flight ended as fast as it had begun when it crashed in a fiery explosion into the side of a hill.
Arguably more memorable though was Jeremy Clarkson’s attempt to drive a Robin the terrifying distance of 8 miles from Sheffield to Rotherham; resulting in the car tipping and tumbling over multiple times before falling into a canal. Clarkson later admitted that he had the Top Gear mechanics fiddle with the differentials in order to make the car incredibly unstable, thus causing it to capsize every time it went around a corner.
Just a little bit of trivia to help soothe the ire of Reliant’s dedicated legions of fans.
- Looks – 3/10 – These cars were odd looking from the start and never particularly handsome
- Comfort – 1/10 – They’re cramped and what little suspension there is puts every contortion in the road through your spine like an electric shock!
- Practicality – 2/10 – While bootspace on the Supervan and estate versions could be handy, these cars were far too small for any use other than that of two people
- Features – 1/10 – Aside from the limited edition versions at the end of production, these cars were truly the barebones
- Reliability – 5/10 – Fibreglass bodies meant the cars wouldn’t rust, but engine and mechanical fidelity was always a big worry
- Efficiency – 10/10 – Efficiency was the middle name of these cars, with mpg figures anywhere between 38 and 47 miles
- Quality – 2/10 – Cheap, plastic boxes
- Speed – 1/10 – 0-60 times never ventured below 12 seconds, and it wouldn’t even do 100mph (not that you’d want it to)
- Handling – 1/10 – Like sailing a small boat through a big storm, the car would roll and tumble around every corner. While it wouldn’t capsize per se, the experience was still one of utter terror!
- Price – 10/10 – The cheapest I’ve seen Reliants going for is between £100 and £200 (and these are minters!)
- Value – 1/10 – It’d be easier to part-exchange it for a cardboard box!
- Total – 37/110 – An icon of British culture and motoring history, and a joke for one and all. But take the wheel of the Reliant three-wheelers and you’ll soon see the smile wiped from your face.