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Friday, 2 February, 2001, 11:59 GMT
In defence of Reliant Robins

It may be short on wheels - boasting a mere three - but the Reliant Robin is long on history. That is now all coming to a close as the last "pig" trundles off the production line.

A piece of automotive history is currently rattling around the Reliant Motor Company's Staffordshire production line - the last of its three-wheeled cars.

Robin Reliant on the production line
"Connect rubber band A to inverse sprocket B"
After 65 years, Reliant is turning its back on motor manufacturing.

Since the company decided to end production of the often-derided Robin, it has been inundated with orders, says marketing manager Noel Palmer.

"In the three days after we made the announcement, 97 orders were placed. We only make 10 or 12 cars a week."

Robin the rich

Considering a buyer won't get much change from £10,000, surely this last-minute rush is testament to the esteem in which the Robin is held? Perhaps not.

"Robins are not owned by people who say: 'I want a new car. Shall I get a Volkswagen or a Robin?' Since you only need a motorcycle licence for a Robin, many owners actually can't drive anything else."

A police speed radar gun
"Come on plastic pig, make my day"
Mr Palmer pays tribute to the "loyalty" of Robin owners, especially considering what they've had to put up with to indulge their motoring tastes.

An entirely mundane event, like the giving of a speeding ticket, can tickle the readers of the national press if the offender is behind the wheel of a Reliant.

"I didn't think the three-wheeler Robin could reach 43mph," said milkman Peter Jeffs after receiving his £40 fine. "I only speeded up to overtake a cyclist."

Pig ignorant

"The Robin has been the butt of comedians' jokes for years. The owners and the workers here have always taken it in good humour," says Mr Palmer.

But who can blame the wags? There is undoubtedly comic potential in a car whose design goes back to the 1930s Safety 7, a model built by the push bike maker Raleigh.

The name Reliant - a temptation to fate if ever there was one - only serves to heighten the comic effect.

The Trotter Robin Reliant from Only Fools and Horses
"Well we can't all sit in the front, Granddad"
But don't laugh too soon. During the pioneering decades of British motor industry, Reliant stood alongside equally unabashed car makers, such as Matchless and Endurance.

Reliant has at least survived into the 21st century, and can claim the honour of once being the second largest all-British car maker.

The company scorned for making the "plastic pig" - the fibre-glass Robin's other moniker - even made the high-performance RS-200 rally car for Ford.

Sporting chance

The Robin itself made a contribution to motor sport history, if indirectly. With the Robin as a cash cow - it sold 300 a week in its heyday - Reliant could finance its own sports car design.

The result, the Scimitar, took the British car industry by storm and attracted the attention of Europe's quality car markers, says Angus Frazer, motoring editor of Top Gear magazine.

A motorbike and sidecar
"It's the Robin rally special edition, honest"
"The Scimitar was certainly iconic. You could argue that European cars such as the BMW Z coupe were spiritually influenced by the Scimitar's design."

Mr Frazer is no fan of the Scimitar's little brother though. "The Robin? Horrible. You really have to drive it for what it is. If you turn a corner too fast the back lifts up."

But perhaps it is familiarity which breeds our contempt for the Robin. After all, there are 40,000 on our roads.

Three wheels good

Abroad the car has less of a rough ride, says Californian Robin owner Dick Tuttle.

"The car is very well received here. Americans in general have no idea what it is and none of the prejudices that cause the disdain in the UK."

Mr Tuttle says his "bizarre" three-wheeler is particularly popular with children. "I am often asked if it is amphibious."

Happy children
Reliant Robins are ace, say children
Austrian Reliant enthusiast Wolfgang Groebner says children in his country are less generous to his "exotic" vehicle.

"They are always pointing at the Reliant and laughing, since they didn't know that cars on three wheels existed."

However, on trips to the former Eastern Bloc, Mr Groebner has found a warmer welcome for the car he paid £25 for.

Plastic fantastic

"The Czechs wanted to know everything about it. In eastern Germany many people asked me if it was a home-made conversion of the Trabant. The rear lights look similar, and both are plastic."

American Reliant owner Shaun Brachmann says his car "is either loved or hated, but never ignored." Its fantastically low fuel consumption - 70 miles per gallon - wins over many waverers, he says.

An East German Trabant car
"It is I tell you! Look at the back lights, woman!"
Hikes in the price of oil have always benefited sales of small cars like the Robin, says Stephen Lange, curator of the Heritage Motor Museum.

Both the Suez Crisis and the 1973 Fuel Crisis were boom times for Reliant sales. The UK's recent fuel blockade also saw Robin drivers better off than their gas-guzzling peers.

If the pumps run dry again, says Mr Palmer, the Robin's fans - rather than its detractors - "may have the last laugh".

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