Tangerine Dream

The name is Bug. Bond Bug…

A wedge of Lancashire cheese from the garden. Image: Ruotevecchie.org

The town of Preston, Lancashire gave the world Arkwright’s dark, satanic mills; the town at one point becoming an engineering focal point for the entire North West of England. One such intrepid character being Lawrence (Lawrie) Bond (1907-74) who brought the minicar, amongst a host of other engineering feats to fruition. In similar fashion to Colin Chapman, Bond was obsessed with weight and the saving thereof; his original 1949 3-wheeled minicar 2/3 seater tipping the scales at a mere 310lbs (140Kgs).

Britain’s odd motor tax laws, which allowed for a three-wheeled vehicle to be run on a cheaper motorcycle license opened the floodgates for lightweight engineering oddities. Reliant of Tamworth, Staffordshire offered the Regal, which Bond acquired and modified into the Bond 875. Using a Hillman Imp four cylinder, 875cc, 34bhp engine, mounted in the rear, John Surtees took an example around Brands Hatch at speeds in excess of 100mph. The 1965 £500 fibreglass bodied saloon and van variants could also be run on cheaper 2-star, lower octane petrol, another plus point for the cash strapped customer. Just under 3500 were made.

The name Bond would continue but in a completely different aspect. Then owners Loxhams and Bradshaw were snapped up by the Dutton-Forshaw Group. Bond Cars Limited, the only manufacturer within L&B were to be sold off, surplus to requirements. The Bond management attempted an unsuccessful buyout with Reliant taking the three wheeled helm in February 1969. Change came swiftly.

The Preston factory continued with the 875 (along with Bond’s other wares) for a while with around 45 cars per week. With Reliant’s own Regal shifting 15,000 per year, the (dark satanic?) rumour mill upped the ante: dubious Preston build quality denoting drastic North Western reductions. Christmas 1970 witnessed the closure of the Preston facility for good, the majority of production already transferred to Tamworth by that summer.

A new Bond was to be made; the Bug. This tangerine, cheese wedge three wheeled sports car, “the Ferrari a 16 year old could drive” derived from the pencil of Czech wartime escapee, Tom Karen. Naturalised in the UK, he studied aeronautic engineering where in his spare time he created a three wheeled (single wheel to the rear) car called VIMP, an amalgamation of vamp and imp. Karen’s VIMP lay dormant until after a spell designing for Ford led him to David Ogle’s design studio, based in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.

Sadly, Ogle was killed, testing one of his own creations, the SX1000 in 1962. Tom stepped up to the plate, obtaining Reliant as a customer, beginning work on their Scimitar model. Whilst sculpting the coupé, Karen mentioned in 1963 to Tamworth management his idea of a three wheeled, two seater sports car, even building two 1/8 scale models, but was rebuffed.

Reliant’s tune soon changed once Bond had become their property. Given a shortened Robin chassis to work with, Karen and his team set to work garnering Tamworth approval, administering only minor changes to his 1963 sketches – a widened front end and a modicum of boot space. Aiming for simplicity along with lightness, Karen wanted to avoid bolting together panels as was Reliant’s way. Moulded fibreglass panels were glued in place. The development time came in a shade under twelve months. Both Ogle and Reliant felt excitement – then came the name; the prototype affectionately called Rogue, the Bug moniker fitted perfectly.

Markedly different from anything else at the time, the Bond Bug captured the zeitgeist of that groovy Carnaby Street culture with lurid shading. Karen sought to save money by offering the Bug in nothing but lustrous orange with black interior, although half a dozen white examples were made for a cigarette promotion. On seeing the badge, Tom quickly drew up the graphics which adorned the bodywork.

Motive power came from Reliant’s own front mounted 700cc 29bhp engine mated to a four speed manual gearbox. The pressed steel box section chassis contained tubular cross members, clothing that glass fibre wedge. Suspension upfront was leading arm, aft being trailing links with coil springs. A mere prop held open the canopy, with no side windows for this parsimonious original. Decadent reality soon took hold; a telescopic canopy, actual side screens, a form of heater, a drivers sun visor and interior light became the 700E, upping the weight to 868lbs (394Kgs).

The ES took extravagance to new levels; low profile tyres, rubber bumpers, better seating, engine cowl padding, an ashtray and of course an extra few horses – the 750cc now making 31bhp and allowing a speed limit busting 76mph.

Seen as a cheeky alternative to such cars as the Mini and the Lotus Seven, the Bond Bug remained a niche alternative. At the 1970 Woburn Abbey launch, the Bug received glowing adoration. Costing £629, nine more than the four seater Mini but over three hundred cheaper than Colin’s offering, the Bug’s £10 road tax (over the obese Mini’s £25) was a key factor. Described as a funabout, with unique looks, “the 12″ wheel offering the classic straight arm racing driver style”, excellent economy, with its all-aluminium engine, requiring no re-boring and perhaps most importantly for Britain, a rustproof shell.

Reliant’s brio cut little mustard. Over their four years production run, just 2270 Bug’s left Tamworth, but as is the way with such creations, over time, love for the tangerine wedge blossomed. Clubs and information abound. Even non-enthusiasts have heard of and can appreciate a Bond Bug, if only for the obvious 1970’s connotations. Currently, the UK has over 150 licensed Bugs, another hundred or so on SORN, tucked away, hopefully in preparation for a new lease of life.

Tom Karen, now aged 94 retired from Ogle after 37 years of innovation. He retains his childhood innocence as this short interview reveals. As for Lawrie Bond, later life saw him combine freelance design work with being a Yorkshire publican. He passed away shortly before the final car bearing his name ceased production.

www.tjmortimer.com for the Bug brochure

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

25 thoughts on “Tangerine Dream”

  1. A brief experience some fifty years ago of trying drive a Bug I found it impossible to operate the clutch as the steering wheel brace competed with my rising knee! The footwell is very narrow so no chance of splaying ones legs to accomplish lift-off, Definitely a car for those of shorter stature.

  2. Thank you Andrew for marking the 50th birthday of this ridiculous but inspired piece of machinery – which, as you note, could only have happened in a land of obtuse and convoluted taxation.
    Those rules were actually not as simple as you make them sound: the driver of a motor vehicle has to have a licence qualifying him to drive the particular type of vehicle and the vehicle itself has to have what was then called a road-fund licence. All driving licences cost the same, it was the road fund licence which varied with the cheapest being motorcycle. 3-wheelers were classed as ‘motor tricycles’ and provided that they had an unladen weight which did not exceed 7cwt (355.6kg) were taxed at rather less than half the cost for a 4-wheel car. Hence their attraction for motorcyclists wishing to come in out of the rain.
    As always, there was a big but. A motorcycle licence only permitted you to drive a motor tricycle if it had no reverse gear (like a motorcycle & sidecar) – giving rise to the urban myth that 3-wheelers didn’t have a reverse gear. This was nonsense – but motorcyclists did have to blank off reverse to drive one legally, unless they took another driving test in one.
    I passed my test (at 16) in a 3-wheeler and thus gained a motor tricycle licence (which did NOT allow me to ride a motor bike!) and a whole new world opened up before me…

  3. Good morning Andrew. A great story and well told, thank you. Could there be any car more emblematic of the 1970’s than the Bond Bug? The period advertising was great, if shockingly un-PC:

    Imagine any car today being advertised with the strap-line “the bird puller”!

    There was even an element of practicality to the Bond Bug, with a boot of sorts:

    The wide (relative to its height) rear track and low centre of gravity should have made it more stable than the Robin too, one would think.

    Tom Karen’s story is an interesting one too. His autobiography has recently been published and would be a good read over Christmas:

    1. As I am not a native Brit, the slogan “The Bird Puller” means nothing to me. Is there a translation for it in Kraut?

  4. Excellent article Andrew and thank you for taking me back to my college days!

    A class mate had one and turned up with it at my house. Never really considered the inherent danger of driving around in a 3 wheeler in those days. Biggest issue for me was getting in and out of the thing as I was over 6 feet tall.

    Still did that and off we went into central London as I recall although traffic was relatively light then. The sensation of being so low to the ground was strange but again we were mobile so what the heck.

  5. It was a remarkably stable device. Received wisdom was that to be stable a 3-wheeler should have the single wheel at the rear (as in Morgan, BSA, Berkeley, Messerschmidt, etc.) but the Reliant chassis (and the Bug was really a Reliant Regal 21E in a party frock, pre-dating the Robin by a couple of years) challenged that belief by placing the engine behind the pivot point for the front suspension, which in turn is behind the front wheel. This accounts for the very narrow footwell, of course but it makes for a very low centre of gravity. The Regal body, although taller (and longer) than the Bug was very light and by that time all glass-fibre (up to the Mk 6 it had a degree of ash framing) and did little to raise the level of the c.o.g.
    To get one to fall over took deliberate and determined stupidity – plus, as a certain Mr Clarkson well knows, some trickery involving tyre pressures. In real life, 3-wheel drifts were much more fun!

    1. Hi JTC. I guess the Bond Bug would these days be described as ‘front mid-engined, given that the engine is well behind the front axle line. Another Ferrari-like characteristic!

  6. While they were low volume carmakers, would have been fascinating to see what the likes of Reliant, Bond and others could have achieved under less restrictive post war tax laws allowing them to produce 4-wheeler 2+2 microcars below the Mini (of approximately similar dimensions and displacements as the Fiat 500 and Honda N600 prior to growing up to 700-850cc) in tandem with the existing 3-wheelers.

    As for the Bond Bug itself prefer the 4-wheeler conversions and prototypes, more for aesthetic reasons then due to the flaws of the 3-wheeler layout.

    Bond Bug 850ES 4-wheeler (1971)

  7. I should have added “and near-perfect weight distribution” after “very low c.o.g.” And unlike any Ferrari, not in need of constant high-cost maintenance. Unbeatable in the urban traffic lights grand prix, too!

  8. Thanks for unraveling the tax information there, JTC. Tax and my brain don’t mix well. As for the mentioned experiences, the car (very rarely seen in my childhood never mind now) certainly sounds amazing; ingress, sat in, egress – never mind the actual drive. When you consider the Bug’s size, vans and even lorries of the day were much smaller (though probably no less intimidating) but can you imagine a Bug tackling the average courier van today? Or the artic removing from the torn down car accessories shop all those recently unearthed medallions as they dig out the latest retail park? It’d be squashed like a …I’ll get me coat.

  9. Thanks for sharing this article, Andrew. I’ve known about the Bug for ages, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. I stumble across one of Tom Karen’s designs almost everyday though. It’s a Scimitar GTE that’s parked on the border of industrial lot and a residential lot. The car hasn’t moved for years. Wonder if it will ever ride again.

  10. Fred. Google offers this: Vogelzieher which sounds awful. Almost as much as bird puller does in English today. Back in the day, a “dolly bird” was an often used phrase for an attractive female. Often shortened to “bird” as in “on your arm.” Thus, a car that was a bird puller would guarantee envious looks from all around as you perambulate from your Bug to the pub with a delectable female at your side.

    1. Yes, the data octopus does not help to understand anything in real life. Thank you for the explanation.

    2. Hi Fred. To add a little more British colour and humour, there’s a ‘chat-up line’ by which certain endlessly optimistic gentlemen introduce themselves to members of the opposite sex in pubs and night clubs. It goes:

      “Get your coat, love, you’ve pulled!”

      Having never employed it, I cannot comment on its effectiveness or otherwise…

    3. Hi Eóin. You found another one! The one I mean is black. I will try and take a photo and post it here later this week.

  11. Freerk, the Sciimitar doesn’t appear to have had much air time on this show. There used to be an example sat Ona drive when I was a child. The car was the dullest of browns but whilst always looking forlorn, always intrigued me as I thought it a super looking shape. I’ll have a word with the powers that be; once they’ve reawakened from their (well deserved) festive slumbers

    1. Hi Andrew, that would be great. First time I saw the Scimitar was in one of those yearbooks that the car magazines had, I believe in the 1983 edition of Autovisie. Do these books still exist in these digital times?

      I remember being quite intrigued by the Reliant and also the Lancia HPE. At the time I was unaware of the Volvo P1800 ES . Cars like that were nowhere to be seen in the small village I grew up in. There were two people who owned a Rover SD1 though, and one day I saw a black Scimitar in the parking spot where the blue Rover 3500 with black vinyl roof used to be. Not sure who’s car it was, but it was gone the next day, never to be seen again in the little village.

  12. I do hope you succeed with your Scimitar suggestion – a shamefully neglected and under-rated car. And while you’re at it, you might include the contemporary small Reliant 4-wheelers, the Rebel and the Kitten…..
    A final note on the raison d’etre of 3-wheelers in post-war Britain: few people rode motorcycles because they liked them, most did so because they could not afford to run a car. A working man with a family progressed to adding a sidecar, and then to a 3-wheeler. It was all down to cost in an age where there was still fear of getting into debt and a general reluctance to buy on the never-never. By the ’60s all that was changing and once the US abandoned the Bretton Wood agreement (1972, was it?) living beyond one’s means was the norm. But we don’t do politics here so I’ll just deny having written that!

    1. Oh dear, that’s a bit sad. It seems to have mismatched wheels too, Wolfrace on the rear, something non-standard on the front. It’s an SE5A, manufactured between 1972 and 1975. It might make a nice restoration project for someone.

      (Freerk, I altered your photo URL to display full size without the Imgur frame. Hope that’s ok.)

  13. Yes, of course, Daniel. I haven’ gotten the hang of posting photos, so by all means you can alter it to lose the frame 🙂

    I ran a little check on the license plate: It’s a Scimitar GTE overdrive, It’s been registered since August 1st 1973, had 3 owners in the last 9 years, last owner since October 31st 2014. It failed to pass it’s APK (That’s the Dutch version of MOT) on October 21st in 2016, so I presume it just said there for the last four years.

    The DAF 1600 truck in the back is in a similar, but slightly worse state. The car and truck are parked in a sort of driveway that’s behind a few industrial estates bordering on a residential area. The area around it will be redeveloped somewhere in the next few years, I reckon, so for the time being the city council hasn’t bordered with these vehicles. I do hope someone will bring it back to life as it would be sad to see the Scimitar going to the scrapheap.

  14. I always thought it was a sad end for Bond, putting their name on a chopped Reliant. Their special-bodies Triumph Heralds suggested they were heading for greater things than 3-wheelers, but it is hard for a small manufacturer to be price competitive. My Bond experiences were confined to the genuine Villiers engined ones, which were even lower than the Bug. Since the Villiers motors were two-stroke driving through a motor-cycle gearbox lacking any reverse gear, there was a provision for going backwards by starting the motor in anti-clockwise direction.
    I would assume that since these things were taxed as a motor-cycle combination, insurance was similarly inexpensive.

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