Reliant Robin, available used only
TO JUDGE from the letters I get and the remarks in the street, it seems the most memorable thing I did on Top Gear was a short segment about the Reliant Robin. You may remember: I drove it around Sheffield and it kept falling over.
Well, now’s the time to come clean. A normal Reliant Robin will not roll unless a drunken rugby team is on hand. Or it’s windy. But in a headlong drive to amuse and entertain, I’d asked the backroom boys to play around with the differential so that the poor little thing rolled over every time I turned the steering wheel.
Naturally, the health and safety department was very worried about this and insisted that the car be fitted with a small hammer that I could use, in case I was trapped after the roll, to break what was left of the glass. Not the best idea ever, because I distinctly remember seeing the hammer in question travelling past my face at about 2,000mph during the first roll. After that I invited the health and safety man to eff off home, with the hammer in his bottom.
Since then I’ve used similarly doctored and similarly hammer-free Reliant Robins in countless games of car football during our live shows. And as a result there’s probably no one on the planet who’s rolled a car quite as much as I have.
It makes me sad, if I’m honest, because rolling a Reliant Robin on purpose is a bit like putting a tortoise on its back. It’s an act of wanton cruelty. When you see it lying there with its three little wheels whizzing round helplessly, you are compelled to rush over and put it the right way up.
Rolling a Reliant Robin on purpose is a bit like putting a tortoise on its back. It’s an act of wanton cruelty.
I feel similarly aggrieved when people — and everyone does this — calls it a Robin Reliant. That’s like saying you worship Christ Jesus or that you drive an Acclaim Triumph. Or that your favourite Fifa presidential hopeful is Sexwale Tokyo.
I’ll be honest with you. I really like the Reliant Robin. I know that Del Boy did his best to turn three-wheelers into a national joke. And I know Jasper Carrott went even further — the bastard. But the truth is that the Reliant Robin has a rorty-sounding 848cc engine and the sort of snickety gearbox that makes you lament the passing of the proper manual.
Plus, it’s an absolute hoot to drive, partly because it’s light and nimble and partly because passers-by are genuinely fond of it. It’s like going about your business in one of the Queen’s corgis. Mostly, though, it’s a hoot to drive because you know if something goes wrong, you will be killed immediately. There’ll be no lingering and agonising spell in hospital. No priest with his last rites. One minute you’ll be bouncing up and down wearing a childlike grin and the next you’ll be meat.
In fact, I like the Reliant Robin so much that when Richard Hammond, James May, Andy Wilman and I formed our new production company, I rushed out immediately and bought one as a company car. Interestingly, the other three did exactly the same thing. So now we have a fleet sitting in the executive car parking spaces at our offices and we love them very much. Especially the fact that they cost us less than £15,000. That’s £15,000 for four cars.
Of course, they’ve all been fettled to suit our tastes. May’s is an ivory white estate model that is standard in every way, right down to the chromed overriders. Hammond’s is a lovely chocolate brown with whitewall tyres. Wilman’s is finished in racing green and inside is fitted with a wooden dashboard and lambswool seat covers — as befits, he says, the chairman of our enterprise. Mine — a coupé, naturally — is finished in winner blue and is fitted with an Alcantara dash and quad tailpipes. Minilite wheels complete the vision of sportiness.
A lot of people think we have bought the cars purely as some kind of weird publicity stunt but, actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Because we really do use them on a daily basis. Or, to be honest, we try to use them . . .
My first attempt had to be abandoned, because the engine decided that tickover should be about 5500rpm. Which meant that in fourth gear I was doing about 80mph without putting my foot on the accelerator. I say “about”, because the speedometer wasn’t working. For an accurate reading I’ll have to wait for a letter from the speed camera people.
Hammond’s has no functioning fuel gauge and he would therefore like to apologise to everyone on London’s Cromwell Road for running out of petrol the other night while turning right into Earls Court Road. Apparently the chaos he caused was quite spectacular.
Wilman’s hasn’t actually gone anywhere at all because as he tried to put it into reverse, the gearlever came off in his hand. I’m not sure what’s wrong with May’s. He tried to explain but after four hours I nodded off slightly.
We didn’t give up, though. And the other night I went all the way from our old offices in Notting Hill to our new offices, appropriately enough, in Power Road, in Chiswick, west London, and then — get this — all the way back to a party in Chelsea. Where the car spent the night, because its starter motor had broken.
Hammond said he’d come to the rescue, but annoyingly his ignition barrel came out as he turned the key, and Wilman was of no use because the gearlever popped out again when he went for first. So I rang May, who turned up in his Ferrari.
While there is a knob on the dash that says “Heater”, it doesn’t seem to do anything. The only other knob says “Choke”. Pull that and immediately the whole car fills with petrol fumes
Anyway, on my trek across London I learnt many things about my Reliant Robin. First of all, to get my right shoulder inside, I have to drive with the window down, which makes life a bit chilly. And there’s not much I can do to rectify that issue, because while there is a knob on the dash that says “Heater”, it doesn’t seem to do anything. The only other knob says “Choke”. Pull that and immediately the whole car fills with petrol fumes.
But despite the cold and the likelihood of it suddenly becoming very hot, the Reliant Robin is brilliant to drive. The steering is extremely light, possibly because there’s only one front wheel to turn, the acceleration is great, for anyone who’s used to, say, a horse, and in a typical London parking bay it’s so small and looks so lost and lonely, you are tempted to give it a carrot or some other treat.
This is what makes the Reliant Robin such a joy. My Volkswagen Golf is a car. The Porsche Cayenne I used over Christmas and will review next week is a car. You drive a car. But the Reliant Robin is not a car. It’s not even three-quarters of a car. It’s more than that.
It’s sitting in its parking space outside the office now, in the rain. And I’m worried about it. I hope it’s OK and isn’t missing me. Owning a Reliant Robin is like having a family pet. Yes, it’s a nuisance sometimes, and, yes, it can be stubborn and unreliable, but it scampers when you go out together, and if you play with its differential, it will even roll over so you can tickle its tummy.
Reliant Robin 850 specifications
- PRICE: £1,463.78 when new 40 years ago
- ENGINE: 848cc, 4 cylinders
- POWER: 40bhp @ 5500rpm
- TORQUE: 46 lb ft @ 3500rpm
- ACCELERATION: 0-60mph: 16.1sec
- TOP SPEED: 85mph
- FUEL: 60mpg at 50mph
- ROAD TAX BAND: Free (classic car exemption)
- RELEASE DATE: 1975