A Battle of Wills: A winters Robin tale.

Written by Mr Wills Barrie

The dear little Reliant Robin. This one is a jubilee model dating from 1977.

It was Jasper Carrott that reversed the name for comic effect when he was performing regularly in his comedy series Carrotts Lib on BBC1 television. As a committed Midlander, there always seemed a hint of fondness to the brand when he referred to it, which is more than could be said about a second far-less funny TV comedian who was to follow. More to come on him.

Ogle’s Tom Karen had been working on his ideas for a replacement for the Regal three-wheeler since 1963. His new design was a radical change from the increasingly dated Regal as was chief engineer John Crosthwaite’s approach to the rolling chassis. Available both as a saloon and a van, it was a brand new vehicle in every respect with the capacity of the all-aluminium engine increased to 750cc (later 850cc). 

Reliant sales & marketing director Roger Musgrave predicted the new design would appeal as much to women as the traditional cloth-capped male convert from motorcycle and sidecar combination, who represented Reliant’s stock customer. He proposed the model name Robin to an initially sceptical management team along with a range of attractive exterior body colours that included a shocking Carnival Pink. The cost of the pigment needed to be sourced by the supplier Pinchin Johnson (later renamed International Paints) to produce this was such that managing director Ray Wiggin agreed to its introduction only if Roger proved his prediction about sales to females otherwise the colour would be dropped from the range. It lasted six months.

One of the most radical features of the Robin interior was the introduction of injection moulded plastic instrument panel, centre console and door casings, enabled by the 330 per week manufacturing volumes which justified what for Reliant was a major investment in tooling. The new business was awarded to GKN Sankey Plastics, which had been created from GKN’s purchase of a London-based plastic injection moulder. 

After eight weeks, Reliant was shocked to discover little if any work had started on the mould tools, orders for which Sankey had placed with the UK division of a major Canadian toolmaker. The injection moulded components represented the longest lead time of any associated with the market introduction of the Reliant Robin and the delay would have a major negative impact on a successful launch unless a recovery could be achieved. 

Such was the seriousness of the situation, the assistance of the chairman of the GKN group, Sir Raymond Brookes was sought. He took the problem very seriously, after an internal investigation sacked Sankey Plastic’s managing director, appointed the dynamic Stan Jennings in his place and issued instructions to the effect no expense should be spared to minimise the delay and expedite the tooling programme. Despite that there was no alternative but to specify more expensive vacuum forming’s for the training build, pre-production and early production cars, the premium cost of which we recovered from GKN. An abject lesson never to assume a major supplier of such high reputation would automatically recognise the importance of the business awarded to them. 

The Robin body shell was something of a composites breakthrough too. A senior composites specialist at the Kettlebrook plant by the name of Doug Badhams was promoting the idea of using hot and cold press moulding as a technique to be used for the manufacture of door inner and outer panels, bonnets, the van door and a host of other infill panels that make up the body-in-white. The low cost nature of the Kirksite mould tools and the second-hand presses acquired, enabled Reliant to make a major stride forward in composites technology before sheet and dough moulded compounds (SMC and DMC), with their greater investment demands, were fully developed. A surface finish was also achieved that was vastly superior to the vacuum assisted resin injection (VARI) system being heralded as a breakthrough by Lotus at that time.

The Robin assembly line at the Two Gates plant in Tamworth

The production cost of the Robin also benefited from some clever thinking by riding on the back of the major economies of scale offered by the British Leyland Mini’s ten inch wheels, tyres and associated braking components – all proprietary supplier-developed and tooled systems. The wheels were supplied by Rubery Owen. The tyres were sourced from Goodyear, supported as was the norm by a press advertising campaign fully funded by the Akron, USA, headquartered company through its UK manufacturing base in nearby Wolverhampton. The braking system was competed for aggressively by Automotive Products’ Lockheed division but the business was won by their mainstream competitors, the Girling division of Joseph Lucas. Other high volume proprietary components to benefit from external economies of scale included the Smiths instrumentation and Wilmot Breeden door latch, locks and handles, and door glass dropping mechanisms and handles. All in all, the product material cost was held low ensuring a good profit margin within the vehicle sales price.

Other, more significant, manufacturing economies, greater efficiency and quality improvements were achieved through the construction of a new paint shop and assembly hall for the Robin on the south side of the A5. This was the first stage of a comprehensive £1.75 million plant reconstruction plan developed by the construction company IDC of Stratford-upon-Avon under Ray Wiggin’s direction, through which a second assembly hall was also planned to be built for the Scimitar GTE when funds allowed. The 1972-73 expansion increased the manufacturing area of the Two Gates site to 242,000 square feet. Whilst the second stage was deferred, the Scimitar GTE benefitted from the flexibility of the new paint shop allowing the larger car’s body to be painted within it. Further investment in the composites manufacturing plant at nearby Kettlebrook increased its floorspace to 131,000 square feet and the Shenstone plant underwent a comprehensive modernisation programme along with the construction there of a modern warehouse for replacement parts storage and distribution. With the introduction of the Robin, Roger Musgrave and his team introduced a new R-parts concept with specially designed attractive cartons bearing the R symbol prominently to cover the range of 9,000 replacement parts sold through a network of 16 regional parts distributors. 

Despite not quite fulfilling Roger Musgrave’s hopes for a significant breakthrough in sales to females, the Robin’s launch did succeed in winning over many converts from four-wheelers who were seeking greater fuel economy. The Robin could achieve 60 miles per gallon if driven sensibly up to 50 miles per hour. As a result, it was a significant sales success and sixteen weeks after the market launch on 30 October 1973 the dealer body reported sales topping the 6,000 mark with 60 percent of that retail total being filled by the premium priced Super Robin with a load of optional extras thrown in as standard and a rear logo to match. Weekly production of the iconic-to-be three-wheeler had by that time reached a record 330 vehicles per week, a manufacturing and sales volume that ran consistently at that level for the next three years or more.

“I drove all night” crooned the Big O…. One wonders if that was in his brand new Robin. Roy Orbison was a huge fan of three wheeled cars. Here he meets some of the Reliant girls at Tamworth.

A famous visitor made female hearts flutter when the American singer/songwriter Roy Orbison, ‘The Big O’, called in at Two Gates, complete with trademark dark glasses, to take delivery of his new Robin as a personal export to add to his extensive US-collection of three-wheelers, which already included a Bond Bug. Another significant Robin sale was to the Rolls-Royce owning millionaire founder and chairman of JCB Excavators Limited, in nearby Rocester, the legendary Joseph ‘Joe’ Cyril Bamford. Describing the Robin as ‘the ultimate in economy’, Joe ditched his ‘Roller’ for his daily commute to and from home and the plant for a brand new Super Robin. Other than having special seats fitted, his selected vehicle of choice was standard.

At the height of its popularity, in June 1977, to coincide with the silver anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, Roger Musgrave came up with idea of a limited edition of what were called Jubilee Specials of the Robin, all in royal purple with a silver coach-line and individually numbered from 001-500. The dealers sold them like ‘hotcakes’, so much so they demanded more and another 250 were manufactured, which soon attracted further retail orders. This model was so successful, in the autumn of the same year, Reliant conceived another special Robin, this time the Great British Special, or GBS, styled by Ogle Design’s Carl Olsen predominantly in white with blue and red highlights, even though many thought the blue looked ‘French’ rather than ‘British’. Regardless of the misnomer, like the Jubilee Special, the GBS models left the dealers at a fast pace.

By then, her majesty’s daughter, Princess Anne had become Reliant’s greatest champion. Apart from regularly hitting the newspaper, radio and TV headlines by receiving too many speeding tickets driving her Scimitar GTE, she ordered a Robin for use originally around the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later on the estate at Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire she occupied following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips. 

There were export markets for Robin too. Reliant’s three-wheeler imports into Holland were handled by the Vredenberg family and into Vienna, Austria by Ing Felber. Both national distributors imported Robin vans and saloons at a combined rate of 20 per week with great success for many years.

Now for the second TV comedian.The Robin suffered its greatest ever ignominy at the hands of the overgrown-schoolboy Jeremy Clarkson, shortly before he was fired from the BBC for punching his producer on the nose. The most widespread myth about the Robin, that it cannot go around corners without ‘falling over’, was spread across the world thanks to the BBC’s success in distributing the TV ‘comedy’ show Top Gear to a global audience. This ‘fact’ was supposedly demonstrated on the programme, but what was not made clear to viewers was that the Robin driven by Clarkson had a standard 10-inch wheel on the driver’s rear side, a 12-inch wheel on the passenger side and a 13-inch wheel on the front, guaranteeing the vehicle to be grossly unstable on the driver’s side. The rear differential was tampered with too. It was staged that way without declaration and the stunt repeated a number of times in the programme much to Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s delight. As a result many people believe it to be the truth to this day, despite Clarkson admitting his devious folly some years later.

In 2011, interesting statistics were released by the website confused.com which revealed the Robin to be the safest vehicle on British roads. Fewer than one per cent of them had been involved in a collision in the previous five years whilst ten per cent of the owners of Toyota’s upmarket brand Lexus had made insurance claims after inflicting self-induced damage upon their premium motors.

An unwelcome takeover by asset-stripper John Nash in 1977 kicked off the demise of Reliant and the Robin with it, although the strength of the indomitable three-wheeler business and the loyalty of its customer base were such, it took another 12 years, until 1990, for the company to enter receivership coincidental with that of its parent Nash Group. 

The last vestiges of Robin vehicle production came to an end in Suffolk as late as 2002, although a small parts business remains in place near Cannock in Staffordshire. The Two Gates and Kettlebrook sites in Tamworth are now full of affordable housing. Shenstone is alone in housing some form of minor industry. A sad end to what had once been the second largest British-owned vehicle manufacturer after British Leyland.

Still – for as long as TV viewers continue to mis-name Del Boy’s yellow Regal Supervan 3 in reruns of the comedy Only Fools & Horses, the model will live on, such has anything with three-wheels become generically known as ‘Robin’.

To learn more about Barrie’s incredible world-wide journey along the rocky roads of the automotive industry, you must read one of his rather excellent books – or both of them if you are feeling flush!

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