Reliant began producing the three-wheeled Robin in 1973 at its factory in Tamworth, England. Warwickshire Coalfield, one of Britain’s largest coalfields, is very close to Tamworth—this will be important later.
The Reliant Robin was conceived to replace the smaller three-wheeled Reliant Regal. Reliant partnered with Ogle Design for the project. The new Reliant Robin Mk. 1 featured more ‘car-like’ creature comforts and a more powerful 750cc four-cylinder engine. The Robin featured a fiberglass body (similar to the Duroplast Trabant 601) to reduce weight. In 1975, the Robin received a more powerful 850cc engine.
The original Mk. 1 Reliant Robin had a relatively long production run, lasting until 1981. In 1982, the original Robin was replaced by the Reliant Rialto. The Reliant name was renewed in 1989 with a facelift and additional improvements. The new Robin Mk. 2 featured typical 1980s ‘improvements’ such as square headlights and a boxy hatchback design.
The final regular production Reliant Robin was the Mk. 3. This small car was closely based on the Mk. 2 but featured another facelift and modern engine components. It was the first Reliant Robin designed on a computer and the last to be produced in large quantities.
The year 2001 marked the end of the Reliant robin era, as the design was licensed out, and production was limited to 250 cars per year. Only 40 cars were produced in 2002, and the company canned the project shortly after.
Reliant Robin Specifications
The Robin was a three-wheeled fiberglass car with a 748-848cc gasoline engine and a four-speed manual transmission. Reliant designed a rear-wheel-drive system for the car, as the single front wheel was used to steer.
The Robin weighed a mere 992lbs (450kg) and achieved fuel economy up to 70mpg. The Reliant Robin had a top speed of just over 80mph, allowing it to keep up with traffic on most British roads.
Why did People Buy the Reliant Robin?
What would compel someone to purchase a three-wheeled Reliant Robin? For one, you didn’t need a driver’s license to operate one. According to British law at the time, the three-wheel configuration and low (992lb) weight of the Robin made it legally closer to a motorcycle than a car.
Under the old rules, British citizens could operate this plastic car with a B1 license and save money with lower taxes and registration fees. It was a loophole that made the Robin so affordable. Unfortunately, the British government closed the loophole in 2012.
The Reliant was enormously popular with coal miners and other British working-class people in the 1970s. It helped them save money, and it was much better than a motorcycle (especially during winter). The lightweight Robin skimmed right on top of deep snow, consumed barely any fuel, and was reliable enough for daily use.
Could you Drive a Robin with a Motorcycle License?
This is a partly-true myth about the Reliant Robin. Technically speaking, you can’t drive a Reliant Robin with a regular Category A motorcycle license. Until 2012, anyone who received a Category A license automatically qualified for a B1 license, which required no further testing.
Unfortunately, the Reliant had some dangerous (or, for Top Gear, easily exploitable) design flaws. Wide weight distribution over a skinny front wheel meant that rollovers were common. Reliant owners quickly learned to avoid sharp turns. Some owners claimed they drove over roundabouts instead of around them to prevent rollovers.
Reliant Robin Today
Today, the Reliant Robin has a large regional following in the UK. The car became a cult classic after production ceased. Reliant Robin owner’s clubs periodically hold Cars and Coffee-style meetups, and parts exchanges are sure to keep the old tricycle car on the road for many years to come.
About THE AUTHOR
I rebuild & restore classic cars and trucks when I'm not researching and writing about all things automotive. My current project is a 1978 Ford.Read more about Joshua Weinstein