Three-Wheelin’: Reliant Robin Mk1

In time all Reliant 3-wheelers, including the earlier Regal and later Rialto, came to be commonly called “Reliant Robins,” (or worse – “Robin Reliants”) so familiar were they in the fabric of U.K. life. In actuality, the Robin was introduced in 1973, and by then Reliant had been making three-wheeled cars and trucks for 38 years.

In the 1960s and particularly the mid to early 1970s, the Tamworth company was at its peak, and Robin sales were very good from the beginning. At that time the company was building four-wheelers and flashy GTs too – churning out 350 cars a week. That was a tiny number by GM or British Leyland standards, but big number for a tiny company that catered exclusively to nichest of niches.

What Came Before

First, a preface. These words are generally from a U.S. perspective and Reliants generally never came to the U.S. after 1957. The only ones most people in North America have ever seen were the ones featured on TV shows like “Mr. Bean” and “Only Fools and Horses,” both of which featured the earlier Regal and it’s commercial companion, the Supervan.

This is a rare stateside Mk1 Robin, privately imported years ago. Reliants were rarely seen outside of the U.K. There was a brief effort to import the then-new Reliant Regal to the U.S. West coast in the mid-1950s. Franchise agreements were drawn up and there was a Hollywood press launch, but the whole thing had fizzled out by 1957.

The Regal was Reliant’s first true passenger car, introduced in 1953 and evolving into the definitive 1960s version (as seen on TV) in 1962. The company, however, dated back to 1935 when Tom Williams and E.S. Thompson founded it ostensibly to continue production of the by-then discontinued Raleigh Karryall/Light Delivery Van.

That vehicle was essentially a motorcycle with a van body on the back. In a sense, all three-wheeled Reliants were outgrowths of this basic vehicle. They evolved quite a bit over time – but always stuck to a basic formula.

The Robin was heavily modernized when it was designed in the early 1970s and in many ways it was a more modern vehicle than the aging Regal. It routinely came in for criticism on many fronts – style, dynamics, quality control (particularly on very early examples), but it actually was very up to date in 1973 given the constraints of the design brief.

Three-Wheelers

The appeal Reliant’s 3-wheelers, however, was primarily economics and simplicity, not flash or handling.

Like Kei cars in Japan, the appeal of all 3-wheelers in the U.K. (including those from rival manufacturer Bond, which Reliant took over in 1969) had to do with tax and licensing advantages as well as low costs.

They could be driven with a motorcycle license and had lower tax and insurance bills. To comply with the formula for such licensing they had to be very light (under 450kg/~1,000 lbs.) and by nature that meant they had to be very simple.

The Robin could return 70 mpg from its 750cc (850cc from 1975) four and cost about 20% less than a Mini 850. Plus, over time it would cost less to tax, less to insure, and you didn’t need a full car license for it. They were also meant to be easy to maintain for the DIY-er, not unlike a motorcycle.

For most people, the excellent figures were not enough to offset the social stigma of driving so obvious an economy machine. There plenty of used Minis and Anglias around, but the trikes had a cult following then as now with people who just liked them for their simplicity – and with the flintiest of skinflints.

The company had tried its hand at a 4-wheeled economy cars with the Rebel (1964-74) and Kitten (1975-82), but they cost more to make, more to buy, and more to insure and tax. Without economies of scale to make them on British Leyland or the Rootes’ Group’s levels, they weren’t cost competitive with the Mini or Imp.

Even though the Kitten ran alongside the Robin for years, it was the Robin that buttered Reliant’s bread, and economic circumstances and fuel crises helped keep the Robin quite popular in 1970s Britain. OPEC 1 may have been the worst thing to ever happen to Detroit land yachts and cars like the Jensen Interceptor, but it was great for Reliant.

The Robin Design

It’s spare lines were penned by Tom Karen at Ogle, who’d also designed the flashy Scimitar and wild Bond Bug trike. Karen was proud of the original Robin, which looked very modern compared to its ancient predecessor, the Regal.

To keep the car compliant with the “motorcycle” rules, it had to weigh less than 450kg (~1,000 lbs.), so he minimized excess – like drip rails – in the steel-reinforced fiberglass shell. Instead of a heavier hatch, only the glass opened – like the Volvo 1800ES.

It came as an Estate or Van, like the Regal, but the main passenger car body was a hatchback – with much more useful space than the outgoing trunk-backed Regal. In its stylistic approach, this hatch wasn’t so dissimilar to the crop of modern superminis coming on the market at that time.

Although all Reliant three-wheelers are stereotyped as being tippy (sometimes in patently rigged demonstrations), the Robin’s suspension was informed by the Bond Bug design according to lead engineer David Peek. It was less roly-poly than the older cars, but still leans alarmingly at speed like a 2CV or a motorcycle.

The Robin did very well for Reliant and sales were still good when it was replaced by the restyled (by IAD) but mechanically similar Rialto in 1981.

The Rialto looked heavily influenced by the Mk2 Ford Escort, and did well at first – but in the 1980s it became harder and harder for the company to compete with cars like BL’s Metro and the Fiat Uno. Reliant revived the Robin name in 1989 and built another decade or so worth of cars before production ended in 2001.

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