The Force is strong with this three-wheeler from Preston

A long time ago, in a factory far, far away a vehicle was built that would one day propel a young Jedi toward his destiny, writes Andrew Roberts

Learning the awful truth about a notable automotive film star can be a deeply traumatising experience. It's a process that usually starts in early childhood, when you realise just how many VW Beetles were used in The Love Bug. This disillusionment continues to build into adulthood on discovering the Ford Zodiac underpinning Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the realisation that the "exotic Italian" sports car prototypes in Checkpoint are Fairthorpe Atoms. But worse still is the awful truth about Star Wars; Darth Vader's real Bristolean accent can be coped with, but the fact that Luke Sykwalker's Land Speeder is based on Preston's very own Bond Bug can cause instant meltdown in many sci-fi enthusiasts.

All of the young, hip Britons who had a valid motorcycle licence in the 1970s could invest £629 in the latest automotive sensation: the Bond Bug. In a year that saw the debut of the Citroën*SM, the Range Rover and the Triumph Stag, the Bug earned the rare distinction of being the grooviest vehicle to ever hail from Preston. Here was a vehicle that had it all, from a singular choice of colours – tangerine orange with black trim – to that iconic swing-canopy door. "Something new under the sun" proclaimed the brochure, but the happy couple on the front cover were far too preoccupied with their loon trousers to realise that their new car would play a major role in Star Wars in six years' time.

Prior to the Bug, Bond Motors had followed the path of many British three-wheeler manufacturers, building conventional-looking saloons that were seemingly ashamed of their tricycle status. From 1948 onwards, the Bond factory had produced the Minicar, which was aimed at the sort of respectable middle-aged motorists who favoured various combinations of flat caps, Uncle Joe's mint balls and whippets. In 1952, the Minicar faced its most formidable challenge from Reliant of Tamworth in the niche market that catered for motorists who held only a motorcycle licence but who needed transport less likely to induce pneumonia in their families than a motorcycle and side-car combination.

For more than 10 years, the Reliant Regal (originally sold under the wildly misleading slogan of "luxurious motoring") and the Bond Minicar formed the backbone of the respectable three-wheeled market, with the emphasis firmly on low-key austerity. Their approach sharply contrasted with such imported bubble-cars as the Heinkel Cabin Cruiser and the BMW Isetta, which positively revelled in their three-wheeled status, while the Messerschmitt KR200 even gained a small pre-Mini following as chic urban transport.

Ironically, it was the seemingly staid Reliant that eventually set in motion the first ever British three-wheeler aimed at the affluent youth market. In 1963, they hired David Ogle Ltd to devise a replacement for Regal. Ogle's then managing director and chief designer was Tom Karen, who, in 1955, had already envisaged an aesthetically pleasing three-wheeler with "girl appeal" – and made no attempts whatsoever to disguise its three wheels. Such a plan did not please Reliant. Their latest Regal 325 with its vestigial tail fins and Anglia 105E-style reverse angle rear screen was about as radical a step as the firm was prepared to consider at that time, and so Karen's designs were initially rejected.

Three years later, the possibility of a three-wheeled alternative to the Mini Cooper caused Reliant to change their minds. The first full prototype was built in 1968, complete with an upward opening canopy for ease of access and even a boot. The Bug, as the new car was to be known, was based on the Regal chassis, apart from the rear coil spring suspension, with a front-mounted 700cc Reliant engine driving the rear wheels.

By this time, the latest Bond three-wheeler, the Imp-engineered 875, was not proving a commercial success and the company was ripe for a takeover by Reliant in 1969. The move gave the Tamworth firm more factory space and the opportunity to revitalise the Bond marque. From 1970 onwards, the only Bond model was the Bug, re-establishing the brand as the maker of two-seater fun cars that would in no way resemble its Regal cousin or, indeed, any other vehicle on the planet.

In June 1970, the first Bugs hit the showrooms, with Reliant declaring them a "new form of transport". The Bug received a welcome publicity boost when it was banned from appearing at the 1970 Motor Show, because it was technically a motorcycle. As the story goes, this prompted Reliant to build a Super Bug with a conjoined back-to-back body, thereby making it a four-wheeler.

In a Britain of HC Vivas and Hillman Avengers, the Bond Bug could never be accused of blending in with the background. The entry model was the plain 700 which had essentially nothing as standard, even the side-screens were missing; only one example was actually built. Rather more popular was the 700E, which boasted hubcaps, a heater, a driver's sun visor, an interior light and a rather vital telescopic canopy damper. Top of the range was the 700ES, the three-wheeler that had it all, from wing mirrors and headrests to a spare wheel and a "Formula One" steering wheel.

The Bug was deliberately aimed at the 17-to-25 age group, to the extent that insurance was included in the price. Previous Bonds were marketed under such enticing slogans as "weather protection exceptionally good", but the Bug vanquished all memories of black and white small ads featuring Minicars driven by depressed, tweed-jacketed chaps. For £9 more than a base Mini 850, this was the Bond three-wheeler that promised entry into a swinging Jason King-type lifestyle, especially after specifying optional rear alloy wheels.

On the road, Bug occupants soon learned that travelling 78mph in a fibreglass-bodied, tangerine orange three-wheeler was only marginally less thrilling than a trip on your average racing circuit. A hard-driven 700ES could not exactly be compared to a Mini in terms of stability. When driving on a blustery autumn day, there was the faint but exciting prospect that your new Bond might actually take off. To witness a Bug at full speed in a rear view mirror could be a traumatic experience. Retired sales reps still quake at the memory of that night on the M1 when their Cortina 1600 XL was under siege from a gigantic, airborne wedge of Red Leicester.

Had the Bug been launched in 1965 rather than 1970, its charm and style might well have captured the Carnaby Street market as an urban runabout that made a Mini Moke look comparatively staid, but in the early 1970s, with Britain rapidly facing economic meltdown, a not-so-cheap three-wheeler that offered space for only two reasonably compact adults and a toothbrush was never destined for commercial success. Bug production transferred to Reliant's Tamworth works at the end of 1970, but despite an engine upgrade to 750cc in 1973 and some clever PR with Rothmans Cigarettes (who used a fleet of white Bugs) production was reduced to 15 units a week.

The last of 2,268 Bugs was made in 1974 and the factory space turned over for production of the thrilling new Reliant Robin. Today, there are many survivors, thanks to their devoted owners' club and their design. Twenty five years before the Smart car, Karen really had created a new form of transport. It was the Bug that introduced the radical idea that British three-wheeled motoring could be a viable alternative to the Mini in terms of sheer fun. For that reason, it deserves to be ranked alongside his classic designs for the Reliant Scimitar GTE, the Bush Radio TR130 and the Raleigh Chopper.

And there was was one final hurrah for the Bug, in the form of major screen stardom. Prior to 1976, the Bug's career in mainstream cinema had been restricted to a cameo in Get Carter (it appears just before Michael Caine informs Bryan Mosley "You're a big man, but you're out of shape"); but it was Karen who oversaw the design and production of Luke Skywalker's Land Speeder in Star Wars. So well-devised was the future Jedi Knight's everyday transport that few cinemagoers realised the power of the Force was with a customised Bug with its three wheels hidden by mirrors angled at 45 degrees to the ground.

Yes, the Bond marque may have died with the Bug, but its legacy lived on in the form of a young warrior crossing the bleak plains of the planet Tattooine in a three-wheeler powered by a Reliant Regal engine. Alas, George Lucas, never realised the Bug's full potential on screen, missing the potentially brilliant scenario of Darth Vader being harried by a nightmare-sized slab of supermarket cheese.

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