Oh this is about as stupid a vehicle you ever did see. I don’t normally like to step on people’s toes as this is quite a popular cult car, but because I look at everything in life with a little bit of objectivity, there is nothing really redeemable about this car apart from the strange economic reason that resulted in its conception.
So what’s the story?
Basically it’s 1950 and most of Europe is destroyed, millions are homeless and millions more are out of work. The entire continent is gripped by a recession and thus money is hard to come by, meaning that many people couldn’t afford a car. Because of this, most people turned to motorbikes as a mode of transportation, but of course these are hampered by the fact that there’s little to no protection, both from the elements or anything else for that matter!
Eventually, some bright sparks in Germany felt that perhaps they’d be able to give motorbikes a roof, and thus brought about some of the strange and esoteric three-wheelers of the 1950’s, including the BMW Isetta and the Messerschmitt KR200, which could be bought cheap and driven under a motorbike license with a saving of £50 per year (£675 in today’s money). Of course here in the UK we wanted in on this action too, and several companies including Peel, Bond and Reliant began work on their own money saving three-wheelers. Although cars such as the Peel P50 and the Bond Bug are fondly remembered, it’s Reliant’s contribution that has gone down in history as the most notorious.
First to wander blindly into the fray was the Reliant Regal, unleashed upon the masses in 1953. The car was powered by a 30hp motorbike engine, and consisted of quite a basic interior surrounded by a fibreglass body with the structural rigidity of a sponge pudding, but when you’re strapped for cash I guess beggars can’t be choosers! The most jarring thing for me however is the positioning of that infamous wheel. Why is it at the front?
European equivalents had the single wheel at the back, allowing for the front two wheels to provide balance when going round corners. Reliant chose to do it the other way around, failing to take the laws of centrifugal force, weight and balance into account. The lack of stability at the front would leave you wailing and flailing, before capsizing completely on a roundabout, of which Britain has many! The Regal however is remembered more fondly for its place in British TV, with a grubby 1966 Reliant Regal Supervan being the prime mode of transport for stars of the legendary comedy seriesOnly Fools and Horses. The car’s silly engineering was exploited in the series Mr. Bean, where a blue Regal Supervan would constantly be tipped over by the eponymous hero in his British Leyland Mini.
In 1973 the Regal was replaced by the even more notorious Robin, which was more compacted and angular to fit with the times. Basically the formula remained unchanged, with a flimsy fibreglass body, a poorly equipped interior and a wheezy little moped engine that could whisk you to the dizzying speeds of 45mph! Although later engines could take you to 80mph, you darn’t go there unless you intended to take a tumble and end up on your side!
The only real reason such a flawed little contraption worked was because of the Oil Crisis, and that wheezy little moped engine quickly became a financially viable alternative when the ability to run conventional cars became too expensive, and so the little Robin went on to become the second most popular fibreglass car in history.
In 1981 the original Robin was replaced by the Rialto, again repeating the formula but with a different, more angular styling to help improve stability at speed. This was the primary 3-wheeler of the company until 1989 when Robin construction was resumed. Together both cars became the butt of many jokes but still managed to garner themselves a sales base amongst enthusiasts and people wishing to get a bit more than a motorbike, but not as much as an actual car. The Robin has however mostly found fame in Top Gear, where one Robin was almost rocketed into space (but ended up crashing into a nearby hill with an ensuing fiery explosion), Jeremy Clarkson took one on tour around Sheffield which tipped over constantly, being rescued by many local celebrities, a gaggle of Robins went head to head in the Top Gear Live Reliant Robin football game against Top Gear Australia (but most of the game was spent righting the cars that upturned), and neither the Stig or Ken Block could make it round the first corner of the Top Gear Test Track. According to Jeremy Clarkson, when the Robin does tip over, it’s apparently a very smooth capsizing, the car gradually falling on its side rather than just an abrupt smash to the ground!
In 1998 the Rialto was axed, and the Robin was given a final styling change that made it look similar to a Rover Metro, although the headlights came from a Vauxhall Corsa. These later Robin’s were probably the ‘best’ of the flock, being built of better quality and being a little more well-equipped, and indeed sold well. Eventually the end of the Robin was announced in 2000, with the last 65 being ‘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. Gee, it almost sounds like the stuff you’d get on normal cars!
The Robin finally died the death in 2001, and the Reliant company was soon to follow in 2002, but B&N Plastics (what a gripping car company name) continued to build a selection of Robins with an intention of building 250 per year. However, financial trouble and production faults meant that only 40 of these cars were ever built, and that was very much the end of the Reliant Robin, and indeed mass-production 3-wheelers as a whole.
Today you can still see many Robins and Rialtos on the roads of Britain, primarily around the West Midlands where they were originally built. Greece is also another place you’ll find plenty as a selection of cars were built under license by MEBEA between 1974 and 78, as well as India by Sunrise Automotive Industries Ltd. But when you see the Robin or its family members, you really can’t help but laugh, or at the very least chuckle. They are the essential comedy car, something you really can’t take seriously because just seeing this 3-wheeled little motor ambling up the road is absolutely hysterical. But I will say I don’t hate this car, in fact I don’t truly hate any car with a passion, so much so that seeing one drive down the street makes me wince, but I do have cars I’m indifferent to, and this is definitely one of those cars. It could have been a good idea, if they’d just decided to put that wheel in the back!
However, as mentioned, Robins have become one of the most sought after cult cars of the modern age, for their sense of danger, their curious design, their economy, and our British love of the underdog, and this fandom is protective with more rigour and fanatic dedication than MLP (and as someone who’s frequently on the receiving end of their wrath, that’s a tough act to beat!)
In fact, after Jeremy Clarkson’s famous run around in a Robin, smashing into everything in sight and tipping it over wherever he went, one man was so infuriated by his antics that he actually built a Robin Tank, fitting it with caterpillar tracks, painting it in military grade Olive Drab, and mounting a Browning 50 Calibre Machine Gun on the roof!