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A Car That Turns Head For The Wrong Reasons: The Reliant Robin

And on top of the other weirdness, the bonnet opens backwards.

And on top of the other weirdness, the bonnet opens backwards.

There are some cars that turn heads for the right reasons. You look at them and think “Wow!” I remember nearly going off the road the first time I saw a vehicle that I loved the styling of (it was a 2000 model Ford Falcon XR6, by the way – although I mistook it for a Jaguar at first glance).  Others are a pure dream to drive and seem to have been created by designers who really think about what people need and want (something I’ve experienced with the Volvo and the Saab I’ve owned over the years – bravo, Sweden!).

Others turn heads for the wrong reasons. They leave you wondering what on earth the design team was thinking. You wonder how on earth the cars in question got off the drawing board, let alone the sales yard. One car in particular stands out as a real head-turner (for the wrong reasons) and head-scratcher: the Reliant Robin.

redrobinIf you’ve seen a Mr Bean episode, you’ve probably seen a Reliant Robin. It’s the three-wheeled blue thing that perpetually gets shunted out of the way by Bean’s beloved yellow Mini .  This vehicle wasn’t, as I once thought back in my teen years, specially created by the producers of the Mr Bean series as a joke. It is for real. A design team really did sit down and a car company really did make a car with three wheels. What’s more, it sold.  Apparently, the “Plastic Pig”, as it came to be called, is the second-most popular fibreglass vehicle. It also went through three facelifts (all of which kept the three wheels) and was produced up until 2001.

The idea behind the Reliant Robin was frugality and innovation.  It was developed back in the 1970s during the oil crisis, so cars with small engines were highly desirable (some things don’t change). This had the benefit of bringing the Mini and the Fiat 500 to public attention but it also produced some right horrors. As well as the Reliant Robin, another mid-1970s horror was the Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, an electric vehicle (yep, things haven’t changed) that was great in the fuel consumption department but looked singularly hideous and had windows that zipped up.

The Sebring Citicar.

The Sebring Citicar.

But why, oh why did they make it with just three wheels?  It doesn’t make for better aerodynamics to increase the fuel economy. It certainly doesn’t make for better handling. Out of all the three-wheeled car designs (the Reliant Robin isn’t the only one in existence), the delta layout (one wheel at the front, two at the back) is the least stable and is prone to rolling when braking   The “tadpole” layout – one at the back, two at the front, as seen in the BMW Isetta – is somewhat more stable.

The reason why they made it with three wheels was to make it more accessible: because of the engine size and because it had less than four wheels, it was classed as a motorbike for licensing and registration purposes. If you were a miner working in the north of England who needed to get to work cheaply but didn’t want to freeze your buttocks off on a motorbike, and you didn’t want to pay a packet for car registration, something like the Reliant Robin kind of made sense, especially as you could fit the family in the back, like you would with any three-door hatchback.

Specifications-wise, the Reliant Robin achieved its aim of good fuel economy. The 1970s model’s teeny little 750 cc engine (with 29.5 kW of power and 63 Nm of torque and a 0–100 km/h time of 17 seconds, depending on who you ask) could do 70 miles per gallon (that’s 4 L/100 km).  The top speed of the Robin was 136 km/h, although given its performance when braking and cornering, you probably wouldn’t want to flog the little thing that hard. Especially as the body was made of fibreglass to keep the weight and fuel consumption down.  Needless to say, the Reliant Robin has a rear-wheel-drive powertrain.

The Robin is notoriously unstable, with a tendency to lift rear wheels off the ground during hard braking or cornering. This is probably the main reason why it ended up being the patsy in the Mr Bean episodes: it was easy to roll, push, tip and otherwise abuse. Top Gear episodes have also taken the mickey out of the Robin. And the three-wheel design makes it look just plain weird.

However, as with all very distinctive cars, there are going to be a few people who are passionate about the quirkiness of the vehicle in question. Some people love the Robin. Heck, one specialist website claims that HRH Princess Anne once owned one. Owners say that they like the way that people stop to stare and smile at the car. Small children have been known to burst into laughter at the sight of a Robin. So I guess the Robin has the advantage of bringing more smiles and laughter into the world. If you want to do this, fine. Just remember two important things: (1) take it very, very easy around the corners, and (2) have another vehicle for taking the kids to school unless you want them to die of embarrassment (although it would make a good parental threat).

Safe and happy driving, whether you prefer two, three or four wheels,

Megan

2 comments

  1. Michael Hayman says:

    I knew it when it was the Reliant Regal. You haven’t got a Morgan 3 wheeler , have you ? The one with a V (2) air-cooled JAP engine onits nose. I once saw one of those tipped over on a corner, with potatos all over the road – it had been full of loose potatos – haveyou ever driven on a road with a potato surface ?

    September 24th, 2015 at 3:15 pm

  2. Mike says:

    Princess Ann actually had a Reliant Scimitar, which was a totally different vehicle (4 wheels).
    She was always getting picked up for speeding in it, causing a great deal of embarrassment to the Royals !

    September 25th, 2015 at 8:23 pm