Mostly thanks to Top Gear, Reliant’s three-wheel cars have become something of an automotive joke. While it’s always fun to watch Jeremy Clarkson roll over in a car, this isn’t really fair to the Robin, which was quite successful at its job. There was once even a short-lived but valiant attempt to bring them to the U.S., which is what I want to tell you about today.
Back in the 1980s, a company called Zoetrans had the idea to bring the Reliant Rialto (the successor to the famous Robin) to the US as an ultra-cheap economy car.
This really wasn’t a terrible idea, as the 80s was the era when fuel economy really started to take off as a major selling point for cars, and the Reliant’s 50 or so MPG (estimates vary pretty wildly, but it was no joke regardless) made it quite competitive.
Crash standards were, of course, a lot more lax back then, and while the Reliant probably wouldn’t have fared so well even back in the life-is-cheap ‘80s, it didn’t matter because as a three-wheeler, the Reliant Rialto was exempt from all the requirements of a four-wheeler car.
Zoetrans sold the Rialto, slightly modified, as the Zoe Z/5000 in the US. I haven’t been able to find out how many were actually sold, but I can imagine a 1980s version of myself being tempted by something like this.
Cheaper and weirder than a Dodge Colt, with better mileage? More exciting tape stripe kits? Presented by Dennis James (see the top of the ad)? Dennis fucking James? Sign my ass up!
I actually had to look up who Dennis James was just now, and I’m not disappointed. The Dean of Game Show Hosts endorses this car! His catchphrase was “Okay? Okay!” And there’s this insane tidbit:
James often addressed the TV audience as “Mother”, a practice he had begun when discussing the finer points of wrestling during his sports broadcasts.
He called the viewing audience for wrestling broadcasts “mother.” If you’ve been searching for a new dead guy to idolize, I think your search is done.
Anyway, back to the Reliants. Sure, the Z/5000 was fine, but this is America, dammit, and we don’t want some Brit’s old three-wheeler. We want something bigger, bolder, more American. So, in 1986, Zoetrans took the Rialto and gave it something associated with Americans across the globe: a fat ass.
Technically, they widened the rear axle, ostensibly for stability, but some sources suggest this was to make a ‘rally’ version. They also tweaked the interior as well, and did some bodywork to accommodate that wide rear axle, namely massive fender flares. They called their new badass Rialto the Zoe Z/3000 ST.
That video about the company up there suggests that Larry Shinoda, the man who designed the Corvette, is involved with the company as a “Design Consultant,” which is a pretty remarkable name to have on the company’s roster, even if the car just looks like a three-wheel Reliant wearing pants stolen from a Renault 5 Turbo.
The widened rear axle very likely would have made the Reliant much more resistant to rollover, which would be reason enough to do it, even if the ‘rallying’ angle isn’t exactly true. But I bet it would be a blast to take in a rally, whether that was the point or not.
In the end, only five of the Z/3000 STs were built, and the Zoe company seems to have faded into obscurity, or at least the obscurity that comes with not building Americanized wide-body Reliant three-wheelers.
In a way, the Zoetrans saga is a bit reminiscent of what’s currently happening with Elio, in that it was an attempt to enter the entry-level, hyper-efficient car market by getting around car regs with the sacrifice of a wheel.
Though, to be honest, I think Zoetrans’ plan of modifying an existing and proven three-wheeler to make a hell of a lot more sense than re-engineering a Metro engine, but that’s just me. And, I mean, Zoetrans didn’t exactly work out, so there’s that.
(thanks for making me aware of this, Myron!)