Two British vehicles manage to encapsulate popular culture of the early Seventies as much as T. Rex records and hitherto staid chartered surveyors unwisely adopting a Jason King hairstyle. The first is the Ford Cortina Mk3 in GXL specification, the car for the regional sales manager with fire in his blood and a spare bottle of Hai Karate aftershave in the glovebox. The second is a three-wheeler that, according to its manufacturer, was the first vehicle designed especially for the 17- to 25-year-old age group.
In the previous decade British three-wheelers tended to be austere as a British Rail waiting room but at the end of the Sixties, Reliant wanted a new form of an economy car. The Bug was the creation of the great Tom Karen, the managing director of Ogle Design, using the 701cc light-alloy engine from the Reliant Regal in a tubular chassis and covered by a quite remarkable, wedge-shaped body fabricated from GRP (glass-fibre).
At one point management considered using the name Rogue for the striking new machine but after Tamworth-based Reliant acquired its Preston-based rival Bond in 1969 they decided on Bug. The launch took place in June 1970 at Woburn Abbey – “It’s a funabout”, claimed the brochure. The choice of trim levels commenced with the 700 which lacked even side screens and was apparently the “simply-for-fun” version; the 700E offered better weather protection and a heater. The flagship 700 ES cost £628 19s and featured slightly more power, wing mirrors and a “racing steering wheel”.
The Bug was available in “Any colour you like as long as its Tangerine!” and the price included road tax and two years’ insurance. It was capable of 76mph; the prototypes achieved more than 90mph, but senior management regarded this as too fast. Motor magazine thought the Bond “might prove the missing link between the best of motorcycling and the minimum in car driving as up-to-now envisaged”.
For the 1970 Motor Show Reliant created a four-wheel version from two cars attached to a central section, accompanied by a sign that read “Sorry, you can’t buy this Bug, but we’ll sell you half of it”. The Bond maintained a high profile in the first half of the Seventies, with a cameo role in the acclaimed gangster caper Get Carter, while famous drivers included Roy Orbison, Bob Monkhouse and Dick Emery, whose car remains in daily use.
ATV’s The Golden Shot game-show once starred a Bug as its main prize while ice cream manufacturers, breweries and the like all employed the distinctive Bonds on PR duties. Rothmans used a white-liveried fleet for touring seaside resorts, where the driver might bestow Green Shield Stamps on a lucky holidaymaker, a scenario with faint overtones of of comedy films of the time such as Holiday on the Buses.
By 1973 the new top-of-the-range 750ES gained the 748cc engine fitted to the Reliant Robin, however the mechanically simple Bug was proving expensive to build, while the insurance premiums became too costly for its intended youthful buyers. The last of 2,270 Bugs left the factory in May 1974.
But the story wasn’t quite over, as two years later a Bug went on to gain international screen fame; Ogle Design created Luke Skywalker’s ‘Landspeeder X-34’ craft, which was based on the last car to wear the Bond name. In terms of road manners, Ron Biggin, the membership secretary of The Bug Club, regards the Bond as “very stable”. He finds piloting the three-wheeler “not that different from a go-cart. They do hold the road well due to the seating being low to the ground”.
Karl Russell, the club’s rally secretary, owns a 750 now fitted with an 850cc Reliant engine “to help keep up with modern cars. To drive it is amazing and the best experiences are when you take the side screens off on a warm summer's day and give it a good blast around the countryside”.
Fifty years ago, Bond sales copy for the Bug stated: “Draw up outside any pub or club you can think of; there won’t be another car in the car park with a bigger crowd around it.” That remains true to this day.
Biggin says: “They are always a crowd puller and they are never a dull moment when they are about.” Especially when perplexed members of the public asked Russell “Is it road legal?” and even “How did you get it here?” Driven as intended, if you have to ask.
For further reading visit www.bondbugs.co.uk
To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here