Mini motoring before the mini

Today’s economy cars may look frugal, but 50 years ago you could buy equally abstemious transport

Among the enormous number of different cars that I enjoyed driving when I was Editor of Motor Sport was the Bond three-wheeler. It was a maximum economy vehicle of the sort which was popular after World War II, when cars, and money, were in short supply. I tested a 197cc Villiers two-stroke model over a two-month period in 1950. It had a flywheel magneto-cum-generator, a three-speed gearbox, and cable and bobbin steering as in pre-1914 cyclecars such as Bedelia or AV, although later Bond models used a rack and pinion system. The one-cylinder engine, which gave 8½bhp at 4000rpm and pulled a 4:1 top gear, was mounted directly on the single front wheel and turned with it. Being a motorcycle unit there was no reverse gear, but this was not necessary as on later cars the front wheel could turn to 90 degrees, so the car could turn in its own length. The Bond would cruise at 45mph for some 60 miles, doing just about 80 miles on one gallon of petrol. Admittedly you had to add half a pint of oil to every gallon, which raised the price from 3s 1d to 3s 10d (from about 15p to 19p), but then the annual tax saving of £5 would buy quite a number of half-pints.

There was something particularly fascinating about this minimum motoring. Once one had mastered the starting technique of an internal pull-up lever and discovered that you laid the thing on its side to change a wheel, it felt as though one was experiencing some of the atmosphere of the cyclecar age. The ride was trying over rough roads, but the quadrant gearchange was exceedingly easy, although second gear had a tendency to jump out. However, it was easy to stuff back in again without much mechanical protest. Brakes on the back wheels were only just adequate. An Exide motorcycle battery looked after the lighting, horn and windscreen wipers, but the Perspex screen became scratched and opaque, so that at night it was like driving in a perpetual mist.

I would use it for 5am starts from my home to Croydon airport to catch the Airspeed Consul which flew us to the Isle of Man races, and for trips down to the seaside, to Goodwood and for business calls in London. Over the road test several bothers intruded but as each one occurred it was dealt with. A front wheel collapsed and broke up, the engine tightened up and finally seized, the KLG F70 plug burnt out, the brakes grew weak so that pressing the pedal felt like squeezing an orange, and the shoes in the nearside wheel fouled the drum. The worst fault was the flywheel-magneto failure, parts of which were commandeered by some passing Sea Scouts after they fell out on to the road. However, a mechanic came down from Preston to repair the car, so that was service quality that Bond owners shared with Rolls-Royce buyers. Incidentally the mechanic came in a 122cc Bond giving some 100mpg, and when I remarked he had an interesting job driving around the country he replied that it would be if he did not have to use a slow 122cc.

Five years later I road-tested the Mk C model, much improved by suspending the back wheel on bonded rubber units, while the windscreen was now glass.