Britain By Car - A Motoring History

Berkeley Cars Ltd.

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Made by a company better known for its caravans, the first Berkeley was Britain’s only front-wheel-drive four-wheeled car.

Berkeley Cars Ltd, Hitchin St., Biggleswade.

1956 - 1961.

Amongst the many emergency measures put into place by the British government following the outbreak of war in 1939, was the creation of the Civilian Repair Organisation.  Headed by Lord Nuffield, founder of Morris Motors, it was set up to co-ordinate the repair and maintenance of military aircraft by civilian firms. 

Most of the companies involved were already part of the aircraft industry, but a small number came from other sectors, including furniture making.

One such company was Shrager Brothers, makers of Art Deco bedroom furniture, based on Bridport Road, Edmonton, north London.  With the ever-present threat of enemy bombing, their location was clearly unsuitable for such work.  As a result, in 1941, the company moved its factory 40 miles north to Old Warden Aerodrome in Bedfordshire where they specialised in repairing civilian aircraft that had been taken into service for RAF training. 

With the end of the War in 1945, the demand for this work began to decline, and although Shrager’s did eventually return to furniture making, they also began to look around for alternative work using the skills and resources at their disposal.  

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In early 1946, they began to recruit new workers at the Aerodrome as joiners, panel beaters and pattern makers for the construction of temporary mobile homes in response to the country’s acute housing shortage.  Their first design was launched in July 1946, and named the Berkeley Carapartment; a two-room caravan, 17’ 6” in length, and built of plywood and aluminium, with a toilet and dressing room sited in the van’s V-shaped front. 

Three months later, the company announced its move to larger premises on Hitchin Street, Biggleswade, formerly used by the aircraft engine manufacturer, Pobjoy. 

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Now trading as Berkeley Coachwork Ltd., the company grew from strength-to-strength.  By 1949, they had 500 employees, and a year later were described as the largest manufacturer of caravans in the world.  However, by the mid-50s, the market had become increasingly competitive, forcing Berkeley to look for ways of cutting costs in order to maintain sales. 

In 1956, they launched the Berkeley Delight, their first caravan made entirely from glass-reinforced plastic (fibreglass). Although, apparently, not a great sales success, the new caravan did give Berkeley valuable experience in working with this relatively new material; something that they put to good use in their next project.

Possibly because of the seasonal nature of the caravan market, Berkeley’s managing director, Charles Panter decided to branch out into motor vehicle production, building on the company’s experience with glass-reinforced-plastic. 

Over the previous ten years, Lawrie Bond, an engineer and prolific inventor, had established a well-founded reputation for designing lightweight, two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles.  He is probably best known as the creator of the three-wheel Bond Minicar.

In 1950, he stepped back from day-to-day involvement with the company that he had founded, to concentrate on freelance design, and it was in this role that he was approached by Charles Panter who was looking to manufacture a small, attractive, lightweight sportscar – in fibreglass. 

During the summer of 1956, Lawrie Bond and Charles Panter, tested two prototypes in and around Biggleswade, with the car being formally launched in September. 

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Known as the Berkeley Sports, the SA 322 model had a two-cylinder, 322cc British Anzani two-stroke engine, driving the front wheels through a three-speed column-mounted gearbox.  The body, was made out of glass-reinforced plastic with steel and aluminium strengthening tubes and box sections. 

Press response to the car was universally favourable: “remarkably smooth and silent up to 40 mph, and not over-noisy or rough up to its full maximum of 70 mph”, commented the Western Mail. Costing £575, including purchase tax, the car, in the words of Charles Panter, would “bring sports car ownership to a much wider section of the population.”  

In a vehicle just 10ft 3in in length, and 4ft 2in wide, a Berkeley driver and passenger were in close company.  Two small children could also be carried in the rear compartment, although this meant either jettisoning the spare wheel or moving it to a tray underneath the dashboard.

Just over a month after car’s launch, Berkeley announced their intention to offer the car with a larger 500cc engine “early in the following year”.   Although progress was not as swift as anticipated, a slightly larger 328cc Excelsior engine became available from January 1957.  Known as the SE328 model, it had three more brake horsepower than its predecessor - an increase of 20 per cent.  

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It didn’t take long for the little car to establish a sporting reputation, with racing at Goodwood, Brands Hatch, Aintree and Snetterton.  In a handicapped race at Silverstone, in the summer of 1957, amongst a field of much larger cars, the Berkeley team were placed 14th overall, with three of their cars lapping the track at an average of 61 mph. 

In October 1957, the Berkeley finally did get its 500cc engine; a 492cc, three-cylinder unit, again from Excelsior, giving 30bhp and a top speed of 80 mph.  By this stage, cars were now also being sold overseas, particularly in the U.S., where they were initially fitted with frogeye pod-style headlights, in order to meet U.S lighting regulations. 

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However, despite buoyant sales, not all was well.  There were worrying reports that the Sports SE 492, as the new model was now known, was having problems with overheating.  However, the availability of the larger engine had led Berkeley to consider developing a four-seater version of the car.  Known as the Foursome, it was launched at the 1958 Earls Court Motor Show, at a list price of a just under £700; not expensive for a sports car at the time, but costing significantly more than the then current Ford Anglia, Morris Minor or Standard Ten.

In view of the overall cost of the car and continued problems with body-flexing and the new engine, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that only 22 Foursomes were sold.   

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In an attempt to improve reliability and meet customers’ demands for more power, Berkeley selected yet another powertrain; this time a 692cc twin-cylinder, four-stroke unit made by Royal Enfield.   

This unit, with a four-speed gearbox, was offered in two states of tune, with either 40 or 50 bhp; the latter enabling the car to reach the magic 100 mph!  Known as the Berkeley B95 and B105, respectively, and sporting a higher bonnet line and deeper grill, they were launched in March 1959 at the Geneva Motor Show. 

Hot on the heels of the new, faster four-wheel cars, came the announcement of the three-wheel Berkeley T60.  Similar in appearance to the original Berkeley Sport, save for the modified rear section, the T60 used the 328cc Excelsior engine, with front-wheel drive and a four-speed gearbox, controlled via a straight-through floor-mounted gear lever. 

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In some ways it is surprising that the model was not introduced earlier.  At the time, three-wheeled vehicles could be driven in Britain on a motorcycle licence and were relatively cheap to run, with purchase tax and road fund licence rates charged at around 50 per cent of their four-wheel counterparts.  With a top speed of 60mph, and a claimed fuel consumption of around 48 mpg, the new Berkeley sold extremely well, notching up about 1,750 sales in just over a year.  The T60’s sales’ potential was further improved in October 1960, with the introduction of a revised four-seater version of the car. 

However, one of the main headlines that month at the 1960 Earls Court Motor Show was the announcement of the Berkeley Bandit, a completely new sports car, built around the Ford Anglia 105E 997cc engine and running gear with an attractive fibreglass body. 

The original Berkeley, designed by Lawrie Bond, had probably reached the limit of its development, and in order to compete with the likes of the new Austin Healey Sprite, Charles Panter asked chassis engineer John Tojeiro, probably best known for his creation of the prototype A.C Ace, to design a lightweight sports car using the Anglia engine.  

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The result was the two-seater Berkeley Bandit.  Capable of speeds up to 80 mph, it was a stylish, modern design, with all-independent suspension and Girling front disc brakes.  The chassis was built of fabricated steel fitted to a fibreglass moulding, on which the body of the same material was fitted.   Unusually, from such a small manufacturer, the interior was quite luxurious for its time, with adjustable bucket seats, a heater, fitted carpet (extending to the luggage compartment), seat belt mountings, a padded fascia, a collapsible and adjustable steering column, and a central armrest with a lockable lid.   

The Bandit’s body was designed by Cavendish Morton, a painter, teacher, printmaker and member of the Royal Academy of Arts.   As a young man, he had shown a special talent for drawing ships and aeroplanes and, during the Second World War, worked as an illustrator in the aircraft industry. 

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In the 1950s, he went back to painting and illustration and began teaching art at a school in Hethersett, just outside Norwich.  However, he continued to produce technical drawings, working frequently for the Sphere Magazine.  A set of illustrations he produced for an article on “Cars of the Future” led to him meeting John Tojeiro and then collaborating with the engineer on a number of projects.  

Typically, Cavendish Morton would produce several sketches and paintings of his proposed design which, if accepted, would be used as a blueprint from which the body would be built.  Getting it to look right was a key characteristic of all “Cavy’s” work, which included styling the 1956 Jaguar-powered Tojeiro, the Britannia GT Coupe in 1958 – and of course the Berkeley Bandit in 1960. 

Despite an overwhelmingly positive response to the car from the press, the only Bandits built were the two cars put on display at the Motor Show.  Less than a month later, it had become apparent that both Berkeley Cars and Berkeley Coachworks were in financial difficulties.  Warranty claims from failures in the Excelsior-powered models had damaged the company's finances, and the range of caravans offered by Berkeley Coachworks were not the modern lightweight models that the public were now buying.  These problems were compounded when the banks withdrew their support and called in their loans. 

On December 9th 1960, the company’s 350 workers were told that the firm had gone into liquidation, and paid off with part wages. 

During January 1961, attempts were made to find a buyer for the company.  Lawrie Bond reportedly approached Col Reg Gray seeking a merger with Sharp’s Commercials Ltd (manufacturers of the Bond Minicar), but without success.  Berkeley Cars was wound up a month later.  The caravan-side of the business was re-launched, but unable to sustain enough sales, closed for the final time in January 1967. 

A number of attempts have been made to revive the Berkeley name and to produce a car in the image and spirit of the original sports car.  One of the most recent is the new Berkeley Bandit, announced in 2021, to be available with either petrol or electric engine. The company’s head office is, once again, in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.
Much of the information in this article is drawn from Nick Wotherspoon’s two excellent books, listed below.

Further details    
• Lawrie Bond, the Man & the Marque, Nick Wotherspoon, Bookmarque Publishing, 1993.
• Lawrie Bond, Microcar Man, Nick Wotherspoon, Pen & Sword Transport, 2017.
• The Berkeley Owners’ Club:

Made by a company better known for its caravans, the first Berkeley was Britain’s only front-wheel-drive four-wheeled car.

Hitchin Street, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. 

Made by a company better known for its caravans, the first Berkeley was Britain’s only front-wheel-drive four-wheeled car.