Classic cars are profoundly emotional things. The artistry in their design can make you feel a certain way or recall a forgotten thought; they can remind you of a person, or of a time, or of a place. They paint a portrait of the world in which they were made; often, looking at an old car means looking at much, much more. It’s living history, hewn from metal and wood, a relic of the 20th century.
Sometimes, though, you can stare at a classic for 15 minutes and come away asking yourself, “how was that even allowed to exist?”. The Bond Bug is one such machine, and when it appears at the Classic Car Boot Sale at King’s Cross next weekend, there will be hundreds of other millennials who are just as confused as I am.
For those of you whose only encounter with a Bond Bug is the picture on this page, let me reassure you – it really is as bonkers as it seems at first glance, if not more so. Essentially a bobtail Reliant Regal, the Bond Bug stemmed from Reliant’s acquisition of Bond Cars Ltd in 1969 and designer Tom Karen’s desire to build a cheap three-wheeler. It has a 700cc four-cylinder engine producing 29bhp, bright (usually) orange glass-fibre bodywork, and a sort of tilting canopy instead of conventional doors.
It’s in effect a bubble car. Unlike the post-war Messerschmitt-style three wheelers, the Bond Bug has its two-wheeled axle at the back, and its single wheel under the nose at the front.
Also unlike the post-war micro-vehicles of the Forties and Fifties, the Bond Bug was not created from the wreckage of Europe directly after a devastating six-year conflict. It was, instead, a sincere attempt to build a small, fun, cheerful little car for young people in Seventies Britain.
I wasn’t around for the Bond Bug’s launch, nor do I know much about its target sales market. But I have a hunch that buyers wanted more than just a chair, a body, an engine and (in the top-of-the-range 700ES model) an ashtray. This was basic motoring in an era when even the most plush cars were still pretty rudimentary, without the significant price difference that might encourage people to downgrade from their entry-level Mini.
Consequently, it was a commercial failure. It flopped in much the same way that “quirky low-cost runabouts” tend to flop today – it was broadly the same price as more practical models, and was hamstrung by its own physical and mechanical limitations. Later Bugs received an upgraded cylinder head and two further horsepower, as well as a bumper, but were still more expensive and impractical than established rivals.
It reminds me a bit of the modern-day Tata Nano, a tiny, cheap car designed for India, which was so bad that it failed to coax people away from their mopeds. Then there was the G-Wiz, an electric car with little crash protection or, indeed, any real selling points. Or the QPod, a tiny two-seater inexplicably promoted by Noel Edmonds in around 2004. Automotive history is littered with well-meaning but flawed microcars – we’ve yet to drive one that poses significant benefits over an entry-level Ford Fiesta.
Fewer than 2,300 Bond Bugs were built. Production ceased in 1974, at which point the Bond name also died.
Bond Cars Ltd, established as Sharp’s Commercials Ltd in 1922, had produced small, fetching three and four-wheeled cars since the Forties, and production figures were many times more than those achieved by Reliant with the Bug. Remarkably, however, around 10 per cent of the orange wedges manufactured are understood to still exist, which is remarkable for a car of this age, construction, and terribleness.
The dedication of Bond Bug fans is unrivalled. These little machines show up all over the world, often having been driven absurd distances by intrepid owners. Next weekend, one such individual, Roy Campbell, will be taking his beloved Bug to King’s Cross for the twice-yearly Classic Car Boot Sale, alongside his ultra-rare Bond WB 120, a striking prototype coupé.
“My first car was a 1952 Sunbeam Talbot 90, bought for £25,” says Campbell. “My father had a 1927 Bentley 3 Litre in the Fifties, and we always had old cars that needed constant work. I had a Bond Equipe Mk2 in the Seventies. I have always admired the Bug for its eccentricity and entertainment value. Young and old always smile when they see the Bug, and want to ask if it’s real.”
The Bond Bug was a curious blip in Britain’s manufacturing history. On paper, it was objectively bad, being cramped, impractical and expensive. But classic cars, and indeed everything else at the Classic Car Boot Show, are about more than that. This odd, orange wedge-shaped box is as much a part of our automotive landscape as the E-type or the Land Rover Defender. And without people like Campbell to keep the history alive, the world would be a far duller place.
The Classic Car Boot Sale is at King’s Cross, London on Aug 18 and 19. Entry £5; classiccarbootsale.co.uk