AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham has produced this series on the great motoring men. Here, in the third part, he discusses the Engineer Lawrie Bond – the man behind the Bond Minicar and the Berkeley sports car – who had quite a thing for lightness.
I have to confess a deeper appreciation of this fellow than many of the others in this series. I was an impressionable seven-year old when my dad purchased our Bond Minicar. AROnline’s older readers will probably recall that the Bond Minicar was an aluminium-bodied, three-wheeler with a motorcycle engine hanging off the single front wheel. Early ones had no doors and no front brake. The early ones were all soft-tops, but later ones could be saloons, estates or vans. Some would boast almost 100mpg. Most could turn around in their own length.
It must be said that the crudity of finish and standard of equipment would be regarded as alien today – think in terms of slatted wooden seats in your new Kia. The old adage ‘you had to be there’ can justly describe the immediate post-Second World War period. It was a totally different world where we made do – and mended. (No violins – it wasn’t a worse world – just different!).
There was a need for basic family transport. The writer lived on a small estate in a tiny Hampshire village. When his dad bought the Bond, we were the fifth car owning family in our close of about 50 homes. Motorcycles, scooter and motorcycle combinations there were a plenty. Yet, almost every time we went out in our car – we’d see another Bond. They weren’t the curiosities that they are today.
The justification for most Microcars came from the Suez Crisis and the need to get the maximum number of miles for your pound sterling. The Bond pre-dated that event and was born from a desire to get a ‘chap and his loved one’ in the same machine. Motor cycle combinations were inherently unsociable!
The man Bond didn’t just design a clever little car that re-wrote the rule book. He also designed or was involved in the Berkeley Sports Car, several caravans, the Bond 875, a trailer tent, several motor scooters, the Unicar and the Stirling microcars, a scooter ski, a whole range of racing cars, a small boat, plus of course the Bond Equipe in various guises! The Bond Minicar was very successful and may have gone on for many years but, in 1959, a wiry little Argentinian fellow turned up with something called the BMC Mini. From that day forward all tiny cars (unless your name was Fiat) would be blown away.
Lawrie was born in 1907 in Preston, Lancashire and is believed to have served an apprenticeship with a firm of engineers and wagon builders before moving into the drawing offices of Henry Meadows Limited of Wolverhampton. After a while he moved into the aircraft industry, joining the Blackburn Aircraft Company at Brough. He married twice – his first wife was Mary Lambert and his second, in 1947, was Pauline Freeman.
Lawrie has been described as a genius – a genius who was ‘hell-bent’ on saving weight in vehicles. He had a younger brother Frederick, who outlived him. Their father was a clothing maker in Preston and was a well-known artist at the time. Lawrie was brought up in the Broadgate area of the town and attended Preston Grammar School. Our man has been recognised as a really outstanding designer of many machines and his original workshop at 43 Berry Lane, Longridge has been awarded a Blue Plaque.
After the war, he allowed his passion for motor racing to drive his first venture on his own. But times were hard and most racing circuits were not operating yet – and, sadly of course, Brooklands would never re-open as a race venue. The diminutive 500cc series was developed to provide some excitement in those restricted post-War years.
Passion for racing cars
Lawrie had a workshop in Towneley Road and here he developed his first race car which he took to the famous Shelsley Walsh hill climb. It received a lot of interest and was designed using many airplane techniques – and used aluminium, the most available material. The 499cc Rudge Whitworth Ulster motorcycle engine drove the front wheels and, despite a not outstanding first performance, Lawrie went on to win the 500cc class at a hill climb in Jersey in July 1947.
Lawrie’s story came close to ending at this point. On his next outing, he had a very serious crash at Shelsley Walsh. After losing control, he mounted the bank and rolled the car. Whilst it was not mandatory or very popular to wear crash helmets, thankfully, Lawrie did – and got to ride again!
He developed the race car considerably but then concentrated on other projects before returning to the sport seriously in 1960, entering his own designed and manufactured Formula Junior car. This used a 997cc Cosworth-tuned Ford 105E engine with two twin-choke Weber carburettors. In typical ‘Bond’ fashion, the car was revolutionary in the field, being front-wheel drive. The engine weight was ahead of the driving wheels for optimum traction. Unfortunately, the car was up against strong competition – mainly from Lotus – and suffered various mechanical problems. The one thing a racing car has to do to attract customers is to win, or at least finish consistently. Lawrie’s car failed to do either and he effectively wound up the racecar operation. The car itself appeared again in 1963 and subsequent years. Fifty five years later, Junior Bonds 001 and 002 were still racing, being driven by Mike Walker and other ‘guest’ drivers.
The ‘one-eighth-litre shopping car’
Persons of a ‘certain age’ will remember the ‘Bond Minicar’. It was announced to a war-torn Britain in November 1948. Lawrie had designed it and Sharp’s Commercials, which was a well-established company, previously specialising in commercial vehicles, manufactured it. Just like the racecars, the Minicar was designed on aircraft-influenced principles with a semi-monocoque all aluminium construction. The power unit was a 125cc Villiers motorcycle engine and the gearchange was a via a column lever. The car cruised at 30mph and gave an advertised 100 miles per gallon! (My father always said that was nonsense – he could never get more than 95!).
That ‘cruising speed’ might not sound very attractive for today’s driver but, in the days of petrol rationing, it meant you could go almost 2,000 miles in your Bond, versus around 500 in a conventional car!
Light weight is everything
Like a lot of inspired Designers, Lawrie tended to lose interest quite quickly and always wanted to move on to other things. However, he continued to update the Minicar whilst concentrating on his new MiniByke. Announced in 1950, this was a small and lightweight scooter, again with significant aluminium content. The bike weighed in at just under 92lbs and looked like nothing that had gone before. With wheels almost fully enclosed and the main frame of two large tubes, it was ‘space-age’ for sure.
Once launched and with production established in Leeds, Lawrie concentrated on a more conventional-looking machine but continued his dedication to weight saving. He wanted his fully operable 125cc JAP-engined motorcycle to be light enough for owners living in flats to carry it upstairs! The bike was marketed as the BAC (Bond Aircraft and Engineering Co.) Lilliput. A subsequent model, the Gazelle, used a 122cc Villiers engine and featured a considerable part of the chassis frame as part of the exhaust system!
Oscar the scooter
The Oscar Scooter followed and once again – to 1950s eyes – looked as if it had just landed from Mars. Like many ‘geniuses’ Lawrie was sometimes not great at getting the ‘company side’ of things sorted and various projects appear to have been abandoned, despite initial response from the public being very good.
The Oscar fell into this category. It was well received at the 1953 Motorcycle Show and journalists were keen to ride one. However, there was a reluctance to let journalists loose with one and, despite great enthusiasm for the appearance and finish of the machines, only a small number were built. No more was heard of the Oscar.
Sherpa the scooter
Another venture into the land of two wheels, was the Sherpa Scooter. This was still a futuristic looking machine, on which he arrived at the exhibitor’s car park of the 1955 Motor Cycle Show in Earls Court.
This model had a 98cc Villiers engine – but again was incredibly light, with glass fibre bodywork. This bike caused quite a stir and there was talk of the Police wanting to purchase them. However, Lawrie abandoned the Sherpa and it is believed only one was ever built.
The Berkeley delight
1956 saw the development of what has rightly been considered one of the best-looking microcars of all time. Charles Panter was the man behind Berkeley Coachworks. He had capitalised on the post-War housing shortage by designing and manufacturing a range of large living ‘vans’. Some of these were quite novel – including caravans with a ‘first floor’ bedroom and a rooftop balcony! Panter had begun to use fibreglass in a big way and his Europa caravan was a class leader. When the caravan business started to dry up a little, Charles had an idea for a small sportscar using a fibreglass body – and sought out Lawrie Bond to make it happen.
During its development from the initial model to the very last, the shape remained almost unchanged. The car used a semi-monocoque construction in glass fibre with steel and aluminium tubes bonded in. It was believed to be the lightest four-wheeled car on the market and performance from its 322cc Anzani engine was very good.
The Berkeley had a worthy competition history and what they lacked in power, they overcame with their light weight. Later cars had a 328cc Excelsior Talisman twin two-stroke power unit mated to the original Albion three-speed gearbox with a column mounted control. At this time, Berkeley’s were exported to the USA but very soon the Americans were looking for more power and, thankfully, an Excelsior 492cc engine had been developed and this provided a top speed of 80mph for the B90 model.
International competition work included the Monza 12 Hour race, the Millie Miglia Rally and the Liege-Brescia-Liege. Drivers included Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom amongst others.
A four-seater and a hardtop were later additions to the range as well as the renowned three-wheeler. Today, Berkeley’s are often represented by an outstanding selection of cars owned by members of the Berkeley Enthusiast Club. Many are kept original although the BMC Mini engine is often seen under that pretty little bonnet. The final official car from the stable was the Bandit – another really pretty little machine, this time fitted with the ever-tuneable Ford 105E 997cc engine.
The demise of the company came after struggling to develop new caravans that were popular and the plug was pulled by the banks in December 1960. Whilst the inspiration for this champion range of miniscule cars was Charles Panter, the ‘enabling’ and detail was from our man Bond.
Opperman was ‘as old as the hills’ – well, certainly went back to the 1860s. The Opperman ‘Motocart’ was a mono-wheel tractor that still has an enthusiastic following at many steam and retro rallies in the UK. (The Motorcart has two wheels at the back and a single driven steering wheel at the front. The driver normally stands on a platform just behind the front wheel.)
In the mid-Fifties, Opperman management were looking to diversify and needed a fairly quick development project to keep them busy. Despite there being a number of micro-cars on the market, they opted to ask Lawrie Bond to develop a small four-wheel family car. The result was a fibre glass monocoque with integral box section stiffeners, powered by the ubiquitous 322cc Anzani engine – and called the Unicar. Performance was good, but the company majored on reliability as demonstrated by testing which included 35,000 miles of gruelling roads – chosen to be some of the poorest in Europe. The car managed 38-40 mph and gave 71mpg.
A unique car
The Unicar was rear engined and had independent front suspension. It was always a fully-enclosed model – no soft top being available. It had no bonnet or boot lid, but two children could be accommodated in the back. Towards the end of its life, the car was available as a kit.
The Unicar was one of those unfortunate models we see every now in then in automotive history. On paper it was, for the period, just what the impoverished family wanted. All the motoring magazines rated it highly and it had proved itself amazingly reliable – yet its sales overall were disappointing and only around 200 were sold.
The Stirling effort
There was a view that the Unicar was not pretty – perhaps that was part of its problem. Lawrie Bond took all the good points and developed the Stirling which was certainly much more attractive. It was also much better equipped with ‘wind-up’ windows and a separate luggage area. Engine power was up by virtue of fitting the larger 492cc Talisman Twin – pushing the top speed to 70mph!
Lawrie had been noticed as a Designer by some of the ‘big boys’ including Jaguar which, at the time, was keen on building a lightweight sports car. Sir William Lyons invited Lawrie to work with them on the project and work started but when ‘Lofty England’ began to talk of a ‘permanent arrangement’ Lawrie made a sharp exit. Clearly, being tied to a major manufacturer was not his idea of fun!
The A to G of minicars
Meanwhile, the Bond Minicar continued apace. The early Mk A had a large curved slatted grill and headlamps situated well back along the sides of the long bonnet. Starting at less than £200 in 1949 the car developed through the Mk B, C, D, E, F and finally the Mk G model. More than 2000 of the Mk As had been produced, some finding homes abroad.
The Bond was not just a ‘shopping car’ and many were taken abroad on extended trips – and much has been written about these adventures. One such included taking in nine countries and just under 10,000 miles. The cost of fuel was £33 and the car averaged 70mpg. The simplicity of the engineering paid off in exceptional reliability. This kind of publicity did Bond no harm at all and a commercial variant was made having just one seat and a payload area extending into the ‘cab’. The Mk B was a slight upgrade of the first model but looked almost identical.
Lawrie kept up with the latest trends and a Mk C was introduced in 1951/2. This looked considerably different to the previous models.
This time, two ‘false’ wings were added so that the car’s footprint was more rectangular than triangular. Modifications were made to the rear as well giving greater room for the rear passenger (who still sat sideways, as on all previous versions). The headlamps were now mounted in the front wings and the whole thing looked very modern to the 1950s eye.
Again, the car was used for some serious competition work with the 1954 Monte-Carlo Rally route being followed by a ‘works’ car. The 2,000 mile course was completed and the car then driven the 1,000 miles home, despite heavy snow and freezing conditions. (As the writer discovered when he owned a Heinkel Microcar, a tiny single driven wheel always travelling in ‘virgin’ snow – is almost unstoppable!).
Around 7000 Mk Cs were produced up until 1956 and even Stirling Moss added his name to the illustrious list of supporters.
Lawrie continued the upgrades and the Mk D followed with a different grill and other subtle changes including 12 volt electrics and a Dynastart unit. (This latter was fitted to the writer’s Heinkel – an absolutely brilliant bit of kit! Unfortunately, it was not fitted to his dad’s car – but more of that later!).
There were upgrades to the starting mechanism, easier chain adjustment and improved rear suspension. The next step, the Mk E, was admittedly a bit of a ‘blip’ on the design stakes. It looked superb with its smooth and full bodywork but unfortunately it was a bit too narrow and handling problems ensued. The Mk F was hastily released a year later and corrected the mistake. This model was offered as a four-seater family saloon, three-seater convertible and as a three-seater coupe.
These new Mk Fs were a considerable success and orders were heading towards 100 a week when industrial action put a spanner in the works. Sixty of the firm’s two hundred workers decided to strike! Thankfully, the stoppage didn’t last too long but any stoppage is bad news when production levels and profit margins are critical.
In 1960, the Bond Ranger van was added to the range at £295.00 and then, a year later, the new Bond Mk G saloon arrived sporting a Ford Anglia-style raked rear window whilst the attractive ‘Estate’ model became very popular too.
However, sales were down in the early 1960s compared to previous years and, as mentioned elsewhere, the BMC Mini seriously affected Bond sales by offering a full four-seat ‘proper’ car, although admittedly at a price premium.
A new lower purchase tax on cars – down to 25% from over 50% – was great for the Mini. However, all three wheelers lost their tax advantage and sadly the market for Bond began to evaporate. Hasty attempts to retain sales by fitting a 250cc Twin giving the Bond a top speed of 60mph were tried but the final model was the 250G Tourer. Good efforts came from Reliant with their much improved Regal, but the BMC Mini was really the car to have. Production ceased in 1964 with a total of over 24,000 Bonds having been sold.
The Bond Scooter
Released in January 1958, the Bond Scooter was very well received at the Motorcycle Show later in that same year. This was at a time when the UK was importing a lot of foreign scooters a year and was not manufacturing a serious contender. (British ‘bike manufacturers were mostly making traditional motorcycles). But this was a significant market and Bond intended to fill it – and fill it well. A new factory provided almost 100,000 square feet of extra production space and figures of one machine every four and a half minutes were envisaged. As with some of the Bond Minicar components, fibreglass was used for the bodywork of the new scooter. Interestingly (and absolutely not allowed today), females were specifically recruited to work with fibreglass – on the basis that they were ‘good with it’!
The initial model, the P1, was launched with a 148cc Villiers engine and gave 55mph and just over 100mpg. Push button starting and a SYBA Dynastart with 12v electrics was a high specification for a scooter of this period. At £184 it was considered good value and was well received. However, it appears that Lawrie was not much involved with this model as the signature light weight was not much in evidence! This scooter had a steel frame and the upgraded P2 model fared better with more power from the 197cc Villiers Mk9E engine. Minor changes were made through P3 and P4 models and the final examples were built in 1962.
Despite a presence at the Isle of Man Scooter Rallies, the model never really made its mark – and always underachieved sales wise. Excessive weight and underwhelming performance were sighted as the main cause and an oft fallen into trap of cutting costs resulted in the inevitable loss of quality. The Bond scooter was finally discontinued.
A British First
Still obsessive about weight, Bond introduced the first British trailer tent in 1962 – typically, this was a very lightweight and simple design. Folding caravans of course are a different animal and their history goes back to the 1920s.
The problem was that other manufacturers, such as Dandy, followed up quickly with better equipped and more luxurious models. The fact that the Bond could be towed by a ‘Bond’ three-wheeler or a BMC Mini appeared overlooked somewhat – and sales struggled towards the 200 mark. But the trailer tent we see on our roads today was a product of Bond’s fertile brain.
Power Ski and Sea Ranger
Lawrie’s partners Sharps Commercials, following negotiations with a Californian company, introduced the Bond Power Ski. The initial production run of 1000 units may have been a little optimistic. At the same time, the Bond Sea Ranger motor boat was developed, but very few were built. It is not quite clear how much input (if any) Lawrie had in to these two ventures.
The Bond 875
Lawrie was again commissioned to assist with a new three-wheeler. A Reliant Regal had been obtained and the design closely examined before developing the new Hillman Imp-engined Bond 875 saloon – released to the public in 1966. The 875’s gestation period was truly painful. It seemed that everything that could go wrong, went wrong. When announced, the Imp engine caused much excitement due to its high revving, high performance characteristics – and light weight. The latter of course excited Lawrie!
Rootes Special Products Division, Tilling Stevens, were comfortable with the development and Rootes felt the 875 would not take sales from their traditional range. Lawrie had come up with three basic designs; saloon, GT and a van. The front suspension was Lawrie’s own design and this allowed for the wheel to ‘lean’ into the corner. However, there were a lot of delays for lots of reasons and ‘release dates’ were constantly put back.
During extensive testing in the Lake District the engine temperatures were higher than Rootes were happy with whilst keeping the weight below the Government’s 8cwt weight limit was proving a nightmare. Further delays occurred concerning suspension components but eventually a car was available as a pre-production model. With the help of John Surtees who recorded over 100mph at Brands Hatch, the car made a name for itself very quickly.
The car was obviously too quick! The decision to use the lower compression Imp ‘van’ engine was taken. (It always occurred to the writer that the first thing to do when you bought one was to get hold of a good ‘car’ engine – but then, he was young!) Even in this form the 875 could attain 80mph and do 0-60 in sixteen seconds – which was not bad for the day! (About the same as a US-spec. MGB of the day!)
Early pre-production models had been seemingly well-equipped, but the excessive weight continued to haunt Bond and the actual production models disappointed many with tiny seats and miniscule trim.
Similar to a Mini-Cooper!
Reviews were impressive. Autocar was very impressed with the 875’s performance and thought it similar to the BMC Mini-Cooper! However, they lambasted much of the car, criticising the horrible sound of the doors ‘crashing shut’, the tiny seats more suited to a ‘kiddy-car’, a very high engine noise and virtually no sound deadening or trim.
A Mk2 Model appeared in March 1968 with various improvements and it is believed that Bond thought they had the thing sorted – and with further supplies of Imp engines guaranteed. Production was never great but around 45 cars a week were leaving the factory. In 1969, arch rival Reliant took over Bond and of course the 875 had to go – as it was in direct competition with Reliant’s own three-wheeler. Around 3400 875s were built whilst Reliant’s own car was selling at the rate of 15,000 a year. The last 875s left the factory in 1970.
Thankfully, the 875 is now appreciated by many enthusiasts who bring them to classic shows in both standard and much modified form. The writer has driven one and, while not as invincible as a Heinkel which was all but impossible to roll, the limit was very high.
Early in the 1960s, Sharp’s Commercials decided they needed a new venture and were keen to develop a sports car – but clearly this would have to be based on established mechanical bits from a major manufacturer. Lawrie Bond was asked to come up with the design and he later worked with Sharp’s Chief Designer – both working with Triumph’s Special Products Division.
The first Bond Equipe GT was announced in 1963 following a surprising deal that would ensure that the car was covered by the full Standard-Triumph warranty and servicing arrangements. A contract was signed for a three-year licensing deal and the car certainly filled a gap in the market in the UK: a well-built, attractive little coupe for not much money!
Later, a 2+2 was launched and, at £822 including purchase tax, the car was an attractive proposition in 1963. Uprated versions followed and the basic Triumph Herald chassis and power train proved (as it did in the standard car) to be reliable and robust. Many sporting events were entered including the Monte Carlo Rally, Tulip Rally and endurance runs at Oulton Park – and all produced very acceptable results. The GT4S followed before the company decided to develop a new car that could use the larger 2.0-litre six-cylinder engine from the Triumph Vitesse.
A shortlived new dawn
Bond decided on this occasion to go to a renowned stylist of the time – Trevor Fiore – more famous for his work with TVR. The resultant Bond Equipe 2-Litre was available as a coupe or convertible. Capable of 100mph, it had what were classed as ‘knock-out’ looks for its day. Around 1400 cars were produced in a three-year period and covering several versions.
At this point (as mentioned in the Minicar section), Bond were in trouble and Reliant were in a position to take over the company. Whilst there was talk of a new Equipe and other ventures to keep the Bond factory operating, the merger of BMC and Leyland in 1968 was the final nail in the coffin, essentially cutting off the chassis and engine supply chain. The Bond Bug – a wholly Reliant-developed car, was designed by Tom Karen, and hence not covered in this article.
There is a considerable depth of information on Bond products on the internet. The writer has researched this article from various motor books including the definitive and very excellent Lawrie Bond, Microcar Man by Nick Wotherspoon.
Bonds can be seen at many classic car events (when they resume) and the Bond Owners’ Club consists of many friendly folk, happy to talk about their very interesting cars.
Taken from the writer’s ‘autobiography’
The year is 1956. Dad had apparently seen the car previously and we had now come to pick it up and drive it home. It was in Eastleigh near Southampton and the ‘adventure’ began with the 14-mile journey home in this little contraption called a Bond Minicar Mk B. It is winter. It is very cold. As the journey progresses, the weather worsens. The mist has become a fog so intense that we cannot see more than ten feet in front of us. It is now 4 o’clock it’s almost dark and now the fun has started.
Our little car has decided that we can have power from the engine and the wiper working – but then we have no lights. We can have lights and the wiper – but no engine. The result is that in this thick fog we are travelling in a car with no lights most of the time – but, when we get level or downhill, we have lights but no power. At any event, mum is walking alongside the car in total darkness directing dad with a commentary of ‘left a bit’, ‘right a bit’, ‘keep it straight’ etc. She also has to try and warn him of approaching hills, crossroads, lack of verges etc. If the engine has been stopped – to give us some lights and some bearings – re-starting consists of pulling on a mighty lever under the dashboard…and starting was not our Bond’s strongest point.
The things I am loving as a seven-year old: we have a car; we can go out as a family again, I can go to Sunday School again. I imagine it in the summer with the soft-top roof down – it’ll be like having a sports car. Okay, so it’s only got three wheels and only one door – and a tiny motorbike engine – but, to me, it’s a sports car all the same!
I love the little seat in the back for me. It’s like a deck chair and it faces towards the pavement – so I’m sitting behind my dad. The noise is horrendous and, as far as I can see, there is no trim – just bare aluminium everywhere. The fabric roof is keeping us dry – well, mostly dry. The gearchange is extraordinary – this great big lever to the left of the steering wheel puts us into one of three gears – there is no reverse because it’s easier to just get out, lift up the back and turn it round. The salesman demonstrated this for us before we left him.
What ‘scares me to death’ is when we are travelling with the engine running and no lights – in the dark – in the fog. I keep imagining some monstrous great coach flying up behind us and devouring us like a brontosaurus. I keep imagining some ‘breakdown’ or unlit pedestrians in the road and dad running them over and being in jail for ever. None of this (apparently) occurs to mum and dad. Dad is as ever, calm and even and mum has gone into what I call her ‘war-time’ mode – totally in control, assertive, commanding, cool – amazing!
We arrive home at just before eight in the evening. Wow, what a day. I’m very tired.
Once the charging system had been sorted the car was totally reliable and we kept it for a couple of years! When the front tyre burst one day, dad discovered he had a spare wheelbarrow tyre that fitted. Try that with your new Kia!