Reliant Robin … The End of an Era
Octagon Newsletter … March 2001
By Peter Lee
It should have read like an obituary. February the fourteenth, two thousand and one, the last one rolls off the assembly line, there will be no more built, the Robin is dead, long live the Robin.
So came the announcement from the Reliant works of Tamworth, a small town in the industrial midlands of England. The name of Reliant never reached the dizzy heights of some of it's neighbours. The likes of Jaguar, Bentley, Austin and Standard all hail from this general area, but those names are known to people world wide. Reliant had a much smaller following, it was after all designed for the economic necessities of the British Isles. Anyone who recognises the name Reliant, will probably have an instant recall of a small three wheeled vehicle and, of necessity, one accepted and even loved for it's faults and shortcomings.
To those who cannot bring a picture of the Reliant Robin to mind, I offer two television series in which they have appeared. It was the steed of David Jason in "Only Fools and Horses", the battered van bearing the legend "Trotters Independent Trading" into which granddad was often unceremoniously bundled. Perhaps it was more memorable as the nemesis to the lime green Mini of Mr. Bean, but scorned or revered, it was a stalwart of British motoring for many years. Well perhaps I exaggerate, but they survived the passage of time when more auspicious makes fell by the wayside.
The first three wheelers to come from Reliant were purposely aimed at the budget end of the market, for the same reasons as the Morris Minor and Austin Seven were fitted with a small displacement engine, not to combat fuel consumption, although that was a consideration, but to incur the lowest taxation. The 'Road Tax' levied on all vehicles was decided by the R.A.C. rating of horse power, consequently the lower the rating, the less the tax. The other part of the equation is the number of wheels, a vehicle having only three paid less tax. It came under a similar class as a motor cycle and sidecar.
So, the first of the breed utilised an Austin Seven engine, transmission and rear axle, with the single wheel at the front. The basic layout was unchanged for over sixty years. It offered even cheaper motoring to the public than Austin or Morris, with the advantage of 'all weather protection' no motor cycle could.
Born in the same era as Morgan and, initially for the same reasons, the Reliant never aspired to the sporting excellence of it's fellow three wheeler. It left all of that to it's bigger four wheeled brother, the Sabra and later, the Scimitar.
Unlike Morgan, with it's single wheel at the rear, the Reliant's handling qualities could never be one of it's selling points. Once a spate of enthusiastic driving had lifted a rear wheel, the phrase 'two wheel motoring' gained a whole different meaning.
Like politicians and royalty, some are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them. Such was the humble Robin. When Austin discontinued their small sidevalve engine, Reliant had little choice but to design and build their own version, but their sights were far above the outdated Austin unit. The crankshaft was now carried in three main bearings instead of the previous two, and boasted a pressure oiling system, a far cry from the 'squirt and catch' method previously used. The two other refinements were overhead valves and a water pump, which besides a more efficient cooling system allowed a heater in the vehicle, but I have no idea when this was offered as a 'factory option'.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, sports cars were scarce and expensive. Two clubs were formed, the Seven Fifty club and the Eleven Seventy Two club; the primary purpose was to offer a club racing formula using production parts, similar to the formula Vee of later years. The Eleven Seventy Two was Ford Ten based, while the Seven Fifty was the Austin. This engine, because of it's two bearing crankshaft, had a short life span when used for racing.
Rules were changed to allow the Reliant engine to be used. This gave a new lease of life to the formula, a certain Colin Chapman's first specials were Seven Fifty powered, that was many years before Coventry Climax took up the challenge.
The memory of a Robin loaded to excess with parents, children, dogs and luggage piled on a roof rack, heading off for the annual vacation will always remain with me. I can only imagine how the well laden roof rack must have affected the handling, especially in a side wind, but like the logic applied to a bumble bee, it shouldn't be able to fly, but somehow it did.
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