Tipping Point: Designing a Great British Underdog

Tipping Point Golden Jubilee Edition

This year is the 50th anniversary of the iconic Reliant Robin and to mark the occasion, author Andy Plumb has produced a special Golden Jubilee limited edition of his book Tipping Point: Designing a Great British Underdog. Each of these 50 hardback books is numbered and signed with a dedication by the author on request.

This anniversary edition has a unique gloss cover with gold anniversary accents specially produced for this small print run, with the inside featuring unique fly-pages and page numbers. There are also some content images that have been digitally enhanced to add to the high quality feel of this limited edition book.

The 50th anniversary of the Reliant Robin will be celebrated at this year’s Classic Car Show at the NEC Birmingham on 10th to 12th November, where author Andy Plumb will be supporting the Reliant Owners Club with the special limited edition of his book along with stickers and bags that will be on sale at the club’s stand.

First published in 2021 and winner of the Royal Automobile’s Motoring Book of the Year award for books under £50, Tipping Point was also Octane Magazine’s Book of the month in August that year.

Although it’s been 50 years since the introduction of the Reliant Robin in 1973, it seems like this iconic car has been embedded in our culture for much longer. The butt of jokes, the Reliant Robin today raises a smile and goodwill from just about everyone.

Early Reliant Robin models

The car was designed by the worldclass design house OGLE Design headed up by Tom Karen OBE and engineered by John Crosthwaite who was Graham Hill’s Chief Engineer in Formula One, and fitted with Europe’s first all-aluminium engine which was Reliant’s own design. The car weighed just 450kg and seated four people, capable of reaching the national speed limit, all in all it was a piece of brilliant design.

Author Andy Plumb took on the task of not only writing Tipping Point but also designing and self-publishing it, which as he says, was quite a task and was not sure whether to expect it to be taken seriously. There were contributions from one of the world’s most famous car collectors in Brunei as well as every designer of this infamous three-wheeler, including Tom Karen OBE with Plumb only playing a small but significant part in the history of this once-great company, sadly being their last designer.

Obsessed with cars from an early age, Plumb always knew he wanted to draw them and even wrote to Ford to ask how to be a car designer. They replied with a detailed list of the qualifications needed along with educational establishments. Sure enough, Plumb followed his passion and graduated from Coventry University’s Industrial Design (Transportation) degree course in 1994 and landed a job at Reliant at the age of 25 as a design consultant. Returning to Coventry to obtain his Postgraduate Degree in Auto Design, he went on to work at Mitsubishi, Ford, Bentley, VW/Audi, Jaguar, TATA, MG, Dyson and Morgan. Today, he is back designing at Bentley.

The book’s preface was written by Patrick le Quément, the French yacht and car designer who says:

“I would never have imagined that one day I would write the preface of a book dedicated to Delboy’s Regal. I’m not really doing that, instead I’m writing about a myth, about a company named Reliant who defied both automobile culture as well as the laws of physics.”

As he goes on to say:

“This is not a nut and bolt story, neither is it technical in conventional terms. Andy Plumb’s book will not just confirm what you already know but also tell you the story behind the story through the keen eye of a designer, who knows, who was there, and did it. Tipping Point, Designing A Great British Underdog makes for a most enjoyable read, mark my word!”

Reliant Robin design drawings

This quality coffee table format book is packed full of colour illustrations, facts, figures and anecdotes about the Reliant Robin, from its conception to its unfortunate demise. And despite the fact that this British underdog of a car has become a joke around the world, a huge amount of work went into making what was a very popular and ultimately iconic car. The book contains original sketches, interviews with the designers along with facts and figures, and gives answers to the myths around this notoriously unstable car.

Written with a sense of humour, the book guides you through not only the life of the Reliant Robin but also the other secret Reliants that never made it to production.

In many ways Reliant were ahead of their time, being pioneers in the UK with the use of Glass Reinforced Plastic for large scale motor vehicle production, continuing to use fibreglass body construction until the end of production in 2001. Even an electric version of the Mk3 car had been prototyped and tested on the road in 1997 with a range of 60 miles and top speed of around 50mph.

Reliant did in fact also make a four-wheeled version of the Robin and direct successor to the Reliant Rebel, which was the four-wheeled version of the Regal. As Plumb says:

“It is a mystery why they chose to scrap the ‘Rebel’ nametag though, as it really does sum up the little car’s plucky character. The first letter isn’t an ‘R’ of the chosen name, and so seems also at odds with naming strategy of Reliant at the time for their small cars.

“Was ‘Kitten’ chosen because they wanted to appeal more to women, as they did with the Robin, and as befits the era, the softer name was deemed better for this?”

Reliant Rialto

Reliant were very much followers of the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) philosophy, using numerous parts such as the frame, engine and body panels in a succession of models of the car, the estate, and the pick-up truck version. This enabled Reliant to sell their expertise to other companies such as Ford, who contracted them to build the RS200 Group B rally car in 1984.

Plumb gives a mention to a number of industry figures who were involved with Reliant over the years, including Ogle and John Crosthwaite who designed for Lotus and BRM and of course designed the chassis for the superb Reliant Scimitar sports car. He also talks about Reliant’s success in overseas markets with variants sold or made in countries such as Greece, India, Israel and Turkey.

Despite only having three wheels, Plumb talks at length about how hard it would be to actually tip a Reliant Robin over in normal day-to-day driving.

And as we have seen with many small manufacturers, Reliant was owned by a several companies over the years and one can’t help but feel that successive owners really didn’t take advantage and exploit the abilities and reputation that had been successfully built up by Reliant, which is a great shame, as in many ways, Reliant was a very innovative company and employed some extremely talented people.

The final word goes to author, who says at the end of the book:

“It is funny. Reliant was a company built from a single prototype made in the shed at the bottom of Tom Williams’ garden from an opportunity and taking an educated risk. Reliant grew and made millions of pounds as the second largest independent British manufacturer, but after his retirement, and the retirement of his successor, Ray Wiggin, Reliant began on its downward slope. Through changing public needs, market forces and catastrophic management decisions, the very car that build the company, broke it.”

Tipping Point book cover

Publication date: 15th January 2021
UK price: £32.99
ISBN: 978-1-5272-5619-4
Format: Hardback with no dust jacket in A4 landscape format
Pages: 264 pages in full colour on quality paper

Tipping Point: Designing a Great British Underdog
By Andy Plumb
Published by Lead-in Design Limited

Tipping Point: Designing a Great British Underdog is available from the publisher Lead-in Design, at Waterstones and on Amazon, priced at £32.99. Each book is individually numbered and printed in Great Britain, and if you order it from Lead-in Design you can even ask Andy Plumb to dedicate your individual copy to make it a unique collector’s book.

Author Bio:

Simon Burrell is Editor of Our Man Behind The Wheel, a professional photographer and former saloon car racing driver.

Images courtesy of Lead-in Design Limited

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