A return to a theme I haven’t explored since I wrote about my beloved Ford Popular 100E – another tale of… cars I have owned!
Many and varied were the jokes made (mainly in the 1980s) about quirky British car manufacturer Reliant. For those unfamiliar with this now sadly deceased marque, their stock in trade was twofold – they made a plush grand tourer called the Scimitar, endorsed by no less a personage than Princess Anne; and they made small three-wheeled cars that were the reason for all the jokes.
In the 1930s, three-wheeled cars were less unusual, notably the sporty ones made by Morgan (who now make them again). But unlike Morgans, which took the sensible stability-enhancing approach of two wheels at the front and one at the rear, Reliant (and its rival Bond) always had one wheel at the front and two at the rear, making their handling… interesting. As you’ll know if you’ve ever seen Mr Bean’s Mini encountering one at a roundabout.
The main reason people kept buying these peculiar things, ensuring their survival right up to the 21st century, was a peculiar legal loophole in British law whereby, for tax purposes, they were classed as motorbikes. This meant that the road tax was orders of magnitude cheaper than a more logical four-wheeled car. It also meant that you didn’t need a full car licence to drive one – a motorbike licence or a provisional one would suffice.
By the end of the 60s, Reliant had acquired its main rival Bond, making it the sole player in the less-than-coveted ‘three-wheeled cars made out of plastic’ market. Clearly this exalted position went to the management’s head, and against all sanity they decided that what people wanted was a two seat sports car with three wheels. And so, the Bond Bug was born.
Utilising their old rival’s name, which was associated with rather faster three-wheelers than their own, Reliant hired Tom Karen of Ogle Design to produce one of the more deranged vehicles ever seen on British roads. Quite simply, there was nothing else like it. It was smaller than a Mini, shaped like a wedge of cheese, and in a perversion of Henry Ford’s famous philosophy, was available in any colour you liked provided it was bright tangerine with black stripes.
Its tiny cabin and low roofline would have made getting in and out very difficult. So, rather than installing anything as mundane as ‘doors’, Karen designed the vehicle so that you got in and out by the sensible means of lifting off the entire windscreen and roof assembly, which hinged at the front. For added terror, the sides of the car were removable vinyl screens with plastic windows you couldn’t open – meaning that every time you entered a car park, you had to raise the entire roof just to grab the ticket from the machine at the entrance. Unless you drove everywhere with the screens removed, which was terrifying and potentially very wet in the British climate.
I owned one of these bizarre creations in the mid-90s. I’ve always been attracted to unusual cars, and had been fascinated by Bond Bugs since having a Corgi toy model of one as a child.
At that point I already owned one of Reliant’s earlier creations, a Regal 3/30, which I sawed the roof off of shortly before the cylinder head gasket blew (but that’s another story). Here I am, posing proudly with it when it still had a roof:
So when I found a Bond Bug needing a bit of work for a few hundred quid, I jumped at the chance. A good friend helped me trailer it back, and it went into the drive of our shared house, where it sat for a few weeks until we could be bothered to do anything with it.
When we finally could, it was handy to be able to plunder bits from the increasingly derelict Regal. For all its weirdo looks, underneath the Bug were standard Reliant mechanicals, meaning that those hard to find bits like clutch linkages and steering rods could be taken straight off the Regal and bolted to the Bug. It was surprisingly easy to work on, mainly because there wasn’t actually very much to it. Changing the rear shock absorbers was spectacularly easy, since they were exposed at the back of the car and all you needed to take the weight off a wheel was a mate to lift it up by the wheel arch.
Working on the engine, though, was less easy. Due to the car’s shortness, the engine was placed almost exactly in the centre – behind the single front wheel and between the legs of the unfortunate occupants. The corollary of this was that the extreme front of the car was where your feet ended up, making your legs effectively the car’s crumple zone.
Once I’d finally got it working and road-legal though, the benefit of that engine position became clearer. In effect, I was driving a mid-engined sports car, with all the inherent front-rear balance that conveys. Like a Ferrari. Only with fewer wheels.
OK, its tiny 700cc engine, sourced from the company’s more humble vehicles and originally designed for the Austin Seven, lacked the power of a mighty Italian supercar, producing a modest 31bhp. Yes, that sounds laughable – until you bear in mind that the car was made of plastic, and so light that it could be picked up and moved by two people. 31bhp in a tiny car that weighs almost nothing, with no sides to it, where you sit on cushions that rest on the bodywork itself like a fairground ride, is quite terrifying enough, thank you very much.
In actual fact though, it drove surprisingly well. Despite the running gag in Mr Bean, even the basic Reliant three wheelers don’t handle that badly round corners (providing you’re careful), but the Bug’s short profile and rock-hard suspension meant that it actually took corners better than some four-wheeled cars I’ve had (I’m looking at you, Ford Zodiac MkIV). It also accelerated pretty sharpish, and had an impressive (and scary) 80mph-ish top speed, at which I almost never dared drive.
Comfort levels – none. Aside from the previously mentioned unyielding suspension, the ‘seats’ were actually nothing of the sort; they were black ribbed ‘cushions’ less than an inch thick, which sat directly on the sculpted plastic base of the interior. Obviously this meant that the ‘seats’ couldn’t be adjusted, so if you couldn’t reach the tiny, tea-plate sized steering wheel in front of you, that was too bad.
Legroom was pretty good – lengthwise at least. If you had wide legs though, too bad – the space in front of you was pretty narrow, due to the engine being there. In order to make that slightly less of a noisy proposition, the engine cowling was covered with a thick, black vinyl-lined bit of padding, which was probably the softest thing in the whole car.
In car entertainment? Well, sort of. There’s no room in front of you for a stereo, so I rigged one up on the tiny shelf behind the seats, along with two self-contained speakers, which reduced the already tiny rearward vision to nearly nothing. It also took up about a third of the car’s tiny luggage capacity – the rest could be reached by opening a wooden, black-painted flap in the car’s flat rear, leading to a tiny cubbyhole which had about enough space for a handbag. The battery was in there too, which didn’t help.
Beneath the charming horseshoe-shaped speedo, which also housed miniscule fuel and temperature gauges, were a series of fragile plastic toggle switches that operated the lights (candle standard), wipers (one only, and one speed only) and the heater. Still, at least it actually had a heater, for all the good it did. On wet mornings, the puny demister would clear a V-shaped area on the fog inside that steeply-sloped windscreen, through which you would peer vainly in the hope of spotting other traffic.
I did a few long journeys in the Bug, mostly from Banbury to London, which is about 70 miles and includes a long stretch of motorway. This is an experience I would not recommend. Where the Bug is truly at home, however, is on winding country roads (where every pothole resounds up your spine) and round town, where it always drew the attention of an amazed populace. At least I assume they were amazed – they certainly pointed and laughed a lot.
In those faroff days I rarely kept my bangers long, and after about six months I sold the Bug on for, if I recall, about £600 – a profit of £300. Woo-hoo! The joke’s on me though; these days there are only about 200 Bugs left, and on the rare occasions they come up for sale, they command prices between £4000 and £8000. Another one I wish I’d kept, though I could say that about so many cars I’ve owned. Would I buy another one? Well, if I had that sort of spare change lying about… yes. In a heartbeat.