Pushing Robin Reliant mid-morning ritual
1976 Reliant Robin showing its age. Every morning about 10 AM it refused to start and needed a good push to get it going again. The three-wheeled, 800-pound British-made car is powered by a 40hp gasoline motor. It's best fuel efficiency was 60 mpg at 55 mph.

My Yellow Robin's September 'Migration'

Plain-spoken Maine inventor recounts his trip across America in cranky but efficient Reliant Robin.

By Charles MacArthur

"Well, how was it?", you might ask. Mostly very pleasant. Except for the heavily populated parts, where shortly after dawn and prior to sunset the "swarming of the vehicles" takes place. Million of petroleum powered vehicles emerge, eating away at the roadways with their engine powered two hundred horsepower rubber buffing and pounding wheels. The roads away from the city/suburb sections, out in the uninhabited areas are generally in very fine condition, but those parts of the interstate system used for daily commuting have been horribly mutilated, and are undergoing sawhorse and rubber barrel barricaded rehabilitative surgery even as we pass.

The people who live near the bad parts of our roads are generally seen as grimly clutching the controls of their cars, and sometimes making obscene gestures toward each other, and particularly toward those of us strangers who do not know and respect the secret local customs of their lane changing.

But otherwise... what a magnificent, splendid and spacious land we have spread ourselves over. While I could cross the Plains at the rate of 55 miles accomplished in every hour, their Conestoga wagons, pulled by oxen would be lucky to go that distance, 55 miles in a week or a month. Perhaps distance during the westward migration was more deadly to the travelers than the hostile resident immigrants who’s forefathers had come previously there 30,000 years ago, when there had been nobody available to convey at title to the lands. No lawyers either!

When I was born before the Great Depression the world had only two billion of us, the homo sapiens species, but during my lifetime, we, the Fungus Erectus have spread alarmingly, to six billion or more individuals. Triple in just my times! Nature has not so far allowed such an alarming spawn among any species, and we should expect that the conventional means of population controls will be visited upon us too. Resources will be consumed, waters infested and elbow room gone.

We had set out to use a quieter road system, US Route 20, which begins in Boston on the Atlantic and ends at Newport, Oregon on the Pacific. I drove the Robin, Jim Bentley drove his Honda Insight, while Katie and John Greenman drove the Winnebago le Sharo, small motor home where we could sleep no matter how far from civilization we might be at nightfall. The plan was to see more of America by staying off the thundering trails of the Interstate System, and instead we were puttering along a route favored in the 1930s, said to be the longest in America. Route 20 still survives, much of it preservation of America between the Great Wars, a grateful recipient of benign neglect of the finest kind, its fate in the hands of locals rather than Washington’s capitalism run amok.

By going slower and stopping more often we could see American as it was in a kinder and gentler, less selfish time, just one war per generation.

I used a minimalist automobile, an "antique" 1976 Reliant Robin weighing 800 pounds and powered by a 40 horsepower gasoline engine. It has but three wheels, the one in front a single wheel to do all the steering, while the two aft wheels did all the pushing. On the best day it carried me just under 60 miles for every gallon of gas I put into its 7 gallon tank. On long jaunts between fascinating American topography, where we compromised our principles and used parts of the Interstate System, it pushed along, surfing the stern wakes of 18 wheelers, at 65 miles per hour, which seemed quite speedy enough. Everybody passed me, but then quite a number tooted or stuck arms out windows with thumbs up.

The Robin is tired, and has suffered some neglect in its over quarter century. I have no idea how many previous owners it may have had, nor why they chose to surrender it to others. It now shows 83,000 miles of travel history on its clock. It is post-menopausal by age according to engineering standards. Yet it carried me through 100 degree heat at high speeds in relative comfort (no air conditioning but good window openings). It ran all day without hardly stopping and would only ask for gasoline once that day.

It burns oil. It consumes water. Its temperature gauge likes to point to hot after the first fifteen minutes, but sometimes will unaccountably drop back to "normal", just for a minute of two. It early on suffered a "thermostat-ectomy" but still told the same story. Its front tire lost 15 pounds of air pressure every 24 hours.

If its engine was stopped at 10:00am on any day, it refused to restart. At other times it was OK.

Its front wheel is ten inch, while its rear wheels are thirteen inch, the original ten inchers replaced. This change was made to improve its long distance travel gear ratio without having to change any gears. The distance traveled per engine revolution was increased by 130%. It had more than enough power for this range change.

Right hand drive would make this a good postal mailbox delivery vehicle, but 59 years of driving habits often made me walk to the wrong side of the car, the left. Embarrassed to be caught, I pretended to be doing a walk around inspection of tires, and would kick one (gently). A car must know when it is being wrongly accused.

The driver’s seat is original, and some person or persons must have hugged the right hand window, as the seat cushion was mashed flat to the right. Either that or English drivers are single buttocked. Most of the way through the trip I found a ubiquitous WalMart and for five dollars bought a chair cushion to fill in the collapsed caldera.

The windshield wipers were magnificent, but then England is often a misty land, and much attention must have been paid to this essential piece of driving equipment. At one stop in Idaho it threw off the left hand blade, but I found it on the hood (bonnet) and put it back in place.

It had a locking gas cap at first, but then we are not yet like England where I am told gas (petrol) may cost the equivalent of our $6.00 per gallon, and thus require locking up. Funny my eyedrops (by unit pricing like in the food store) would cost $75,800 a gallon, and I had never though to a safe deposit box for them.

After I replaced the cap with a uncomplicated regular cap, I lost that one, driving off leaving it on the roof after a flustering visit by a photographer. For about 2000 miles I used duct tape to keep the gas from slopping out, but then in a NAPA auto parts store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, managed to find one which fit the foreign filler pipe. The new cap is of immense size and looks somewhat like a "flying saucer", too big to fit in my pocket during fillups, but if I should leave it on the roof again, the clang it would produce on falling to the pavement would likely be detectable.

The hot water heating system on the car is almost larger than the engine, the first thing seen when the "bonnet" is flipped up. Feeling the rubber hoses which feed the heat exchanger, one is hotter than the other, suggesting heat is being reclaimed, but where is it going? It produces no heat whatsoever, even though the original aged flexible hose to the dashboard has been thoroughly hidden in duct tape. When the windows are fully fogged up I turn on the defrosting fan and feel the under window vents for a baby’s breath of warmth. There is none, so I open my side window, at the same time applying paper towels vigorously. I do not believe that the English driver needs or wants heat. It is an affectation required by soft former colonists.

Driven almost four thousand miles in less than two weeks, the Robin has complaints, most of them in the form of strange new noises. Coming down the long twisting road, Route 20 down off the western Oregon Cascade Range, the Robin suddenly began to grumble loud enough to shake the whole frame. It would tolerate speeds up to forty miles per hour, but no more. Soon a kites tail of cars would collect behind me, and where the road allowed a shoulder wide enough for bicycles, I would edge over to let them pass. But time after time the Robin was so novel and interesting to them, that they would sit back and contemplate it incongruities. Sometimes their studies would go on and on, for half a mile or more. I would have stuck my arm out the window to angrily wave them onward, but as I sat on the opposite side from their drivers, I suspect the angry gesture would not have been seen.

If I sound critical of the Robin, please don’t take it that way. I am in love with the valiant little machine, which is a step we might take in emulation, of sustainability in transportation. It has carried me across the entire continent, expeditiously and economically. It does not waste its substance on being half automobile and half movie theatre like its more popular descendants. As a "container for the thing contained" it will carry 800 pounds of passenger (plus some freight) in an 800 pound frame, better than one to one, while most of our towering siege castles of road machines, the SUV, lug a 85 pound soccer mom in a four ton frame, a pitiful ratio of about one percent, cargo to carrier.

Robin’s weight to horsepower ratio makes it very agile. It corners and steers easily, and should it roll over, I suspect it might lie on its side rather than barrel roll over and over like the cumbersome and ungainly SUV.

Mechanics love its elegant simplicity. It was born before computers, when wires were things one could trace from point to point. Verily, it hath not computers of any sort. It maketh not subtle complaints or whining. It is forthright, and takes no offense at duct tape repairs.

Every time Detroit, Tokyo, Berlin, Rome or Seoul attempts the car of the future they turn out to be faint hearted, kow-towing to the board of directors and their greedy stockholders, who care nothing for anyone’s future but their own.

If we are going to have a future, we will need another automobile and truck, one which sips rather than gulps from the shriveling oil pools under the earth. Our population grows while our oil discoveries shrink.

I drove this car across the continent one hundred years after the first self propelled wagons accomplished that feat, to see how it works after 100 years of development. I did not find my gasoline in drugstores as they had done. I did not have to make my own roads, nor sleep under the stars out in the desert. My roads were paved (in some places grandly, in others barely) while in their time only 100 miles of all US roads were clad in concrete or tar.

My guess is that petroleum, which took one hundred million years to make, has passed its production peak, and shortage is in sight, to be followed by exhaustion. The next batch will be ready in 100,002,004AD, so we better get cracking finding alternatives. War, which gobbles petroleum is probably not the answer.

We raise our crops with energy, I think it was Bartlett who said, "Modern Agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food."

If we don’t have oil, and its cousin, electricity, WE WILL NOT EAT!

To read more about MacArthur's journey across America, visit his web page at www.seatosea2003.org. Also be sure to listen to EV World's interview with the author and inventor as he prepares for the trip.

Times Article Viewed: 4580
Published: 15-Nov-2003


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