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Wednesday, 27 September, 2000, 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK
End of the road for Reliant Robin
Reliant Robin on the set at Only Fools and Horses
Reliant Robins featued in the classic comedy series Only Fools and Horses
by BBC News Online's Mike Verdin

When three friends challenged each other to speed from Glasgow to Crianlarich, the contest seemed more Wacky Races than Grand Prix.

It pitched a three-wheeled Reliant Robin, a car more famous for providing cheap laughs than inspirational handling, against a Ford Escort and an MG Midget sportscar.

The result? "I won by 90 seconds," said Brian Williams, who bought this Robin for 50.

"And the road was a lot more twisty in the 1970s, when we did the race."

Deluxe styling

But the chances of again seeing a Robin flying at top speed (more than 100mph according to Mr Williams) over Glasgow's Erskine Bridge have been cut with the announcement that Reliant Cars is ceasing production of the model after 27 years.

Reliant Robin outside factory
Reliant is set to scrap the Robin in December
The 65 special edition gold-coloured, alloy-wheeled, leather-upholstered, 10,000 Robins being manufactured until December will be the last three wheelers built at Reliant's factory in Burntwood, Staffordshire.

Reliant is instead to import four-wheeled vans from French manufacturer Ligier and Italian-based Piaggio, which also makes Vespa scooters.

"We need the space for our other projects," Reliant marketing manager Noel Palmer told BBC News Online.

New project

The company is also unveiling a four-wheeled Reliant car at October's Motor Show in Birmingham, where it has booked three times as much space as usual.


The Robins reflected the cheap tatty image they [the BBC] were after... it was good publicity

Noel Palmer, marketing manager, Reliant Cars

Mr Palmer declined to comment on reports that the new vehicle is a sports car, following in the tradition of Reliant's Scimitar model.

He confirmed, however, that the car is not connected to San, an Indian train builder, with which Reliant attempted to forge links two years ago.

Longstanding

The demise of the Robin ends a tricycle tradition which began in 1935 when engineer TL Williams developed a three-wheeled van in a garden shed at his home in Tamworth.

The power of three - Reliant's history
1935: TL Williams licences three wheel van
1953: Reliant enters passenger market
1973: First Robin produced
1980s: Robin production exceeds 300 per week
1988: Reliant ties-up with property firm, which later crashes
1996: Reliant saved by consortium
2000: Robin production stopped

The concept had developed by the 1980s sufficient for Reliant to produce more than 300 Robin and Rialto three-wheelers a week.

"They had the advantage that thanks to a technicality, you could drive them with a motorbike licence," said Peter Elliott, a member of the Reliant owners' club.

They were also long-lasting, thanks to a glass-fibre technology which Reliant pioneered for its three-wheelers, but led the company to work with Ford on rally cars, Metro Cammell on London taxis, and to produce Turkey's first passenger car.

TV success

The Robin appeared in the 1980s TV comedy barnstormer Only Fools and Horses, as the company car for the infamous Del Boy Trotter.

"They used six or seven Robins in all in the series," Mr Palmer said.

David Jason, star of Only Fools and Horses
David Jason at the wheel in Only Fools and Horses
"The Robins reflected the cheap tatty image they [the BBC] were after. I think they [the BBC] were afraid to go to a major manufacturer. We didn't mind - it was good publicity."

But then Reliant stumbled, and faced receivership three times within seven years. And Robins, which are handbuilt and twice the price of Ligier vans, declined in popularity such that now only 10-12 are made per week.

"Rules were changed so that you could drive more cars with motorbike licences," Mr Elliott said. "And more people have full driving licences now anyway."

Brian Williams said: "They cost 10,000, and you can get a lot of car elsewhere for that kind of money.

"It's a great shame they have stopped production. But it's no surprise."

Good to drive

Admirers are being comforted by the number of Robins still running.


You can't do a handbrake turn. The car will lift a back wheel in the air and laugh at you

Brian Williams, former Reliant owner
"There are about 40,000. And they will be around a bit yet," Mr Williams said. "With the glass-fibre body and now galvanised chassis, they do not corrode."

They are also, contrary to rumour, hard to crash, Mr Williams said.

"They handle very well if you treat them right. Sure, you can't do a handbrake turn. The car will lift a back wheel in the air and laugh at you."

Finest hour

Indeed football fans might say the Robin has yet to reach it finest hour, with the list of celebrity owners, which is currently thought to include only Princess Anne, who keeps at least one for estate use, set to be extended to an international striker.

Dwight Yorke
Dwight Yorke: set to become a Robin owner
BBC News Online can reveal that Reliant is to present Dwight Yorke, the Manchester United and Trinidad player, with a Robin in reward for his endorsement of the car.

"He apparently went on the record as saying he had always fancied owning a Reliant Robin. So Kevin Leech, the boss, who is a United fan, has had one built."

Perhaps Mr Yorke wishes he had praised Ferrari or Aston Martin instead.

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