Berkeley is Back
Fancy a lightweight, powerful British sports car but don't want a Lotus? Bedfordshire has the answer for you!
Berkeley Cars are a small sports car company from Biggleswade, about 15 miles from my house. They manufactured a series of microcars and superlight sports cars through the 1950s and 1960s powered by small motorcycle engines.
The SE492, powered by the 492CC Excelsior two-stroke, twin-cylinder motorcycle engine.
What? Did that work?
Well, the company started out making caravans, stop groaning at the back, and decided to use their fibreglass skills to make cars to fill the gaps in the fairly seasonal caravan market. A sensible idea with a solid underpinning from Charles Panter and Lawrence "Lawrie" Bond who wanted to achieve "something good enough to win World 750cc races... but cheap, safe, easily repairable and pretty."
And so in 1956 the company set about making sports cars, unveiling the SA322 in with Stirling Moss at the helm at Goodwood, and then at the London Motorshow. A year before Lotus showed us the Elite, another car with fibreglass and monocoque construction.
Bond's attractive 2-seater open tourer design capitalised on Berkeley's GRP experience and consisted of three simple mouldings; the floor or 'punt' a nose unit, and the tail, with no conventional chassis. The front edges to the doors slanted forward so that when the doors were opened they hinged upwards, a bit like a butterfly wing door, this meant that the doors closed by themselves, no gas struts or stays here, they are heavy.
Although usually configured as a two-seater with a simple bench seat in the cabin, a hatch could be removed from behind the front seat, revealing a compartment normally for the spare wheel and a bit of luggage but this could double as a basic seat for a small child. It was the 1950's after all, and ISOFIX wasn't a thing. Equipment was basic, even the fuel gauge was an optional extra.
And these things sold?
Yeah, Berkeley's three and four-wheel models sold fairly well, with 4100 units leaving the Bedfordshire factory over the companies four-year lifespan. Yeah, they went bankrupt in 1960 and shut up shop. The factory was later used by Kayser Bondor Ltd to make ladies' underwear, but it was demolished in 2002 with the site turned over to housing. A road named 'Berkeley Close' in the housing estate provides the only obvious link to the car factory. A not atypical trace of Britain's once chaotic and broad spread automotive industry.
So did the caravan people make engines?
No, power for these cars came from a variety of places; British-Anzani; who made engines for Frazer-Nash, AC, Morgan, lawnmowers and outboards, Excelsior; a motorbike company from Coventry, Royal Enfield's Super Meteor; again a motorbike, and Ford, from whom they used the 1-litre four-cylinder from the Anglia. All varying in displacement, arrangement, and whether they were two or four-stroke.
The Excelsior Talisman engine found in many Berkeley cars.
Odd, but fair enough. So they are coming back?
Yeah, in a surprise Instagram post they announced that they are coming back in April 2021 with a revival of their last model, the Bandit.
The new year will see Berkeley unveil the Bandit Roadster and Bandit GT. Power comes like it's predecessor, from Ford, but no 1-litre powerplants here, no! Berkeley has gotten their hands on the 2.3-litre turbo unit from the Blue Oval, the same one found in the Focus RS and the Ecoboost Mustang, but here it's turning out a stonking 400 horsepower. Oh, and the car is set to tip the scales at 700 kilos. That comes to a power to weight ratio of 571 horsepower per tonne. Hold in your mind that the Mclaren 765LT has a ratio of 563.8! That little unit will be mounted amidships and send it's grunt to the rear via a six-speed transversely mounted 'box. 0-60 is set to take a blistering 3.5 seconds! And boy would I like to experience that Bedfordshire brute on my home county's roads!
I want a go in this, so bad!
The materials are the on-brand off-kilter style as to be expected from Berkeley, with them "using our own bio-chassis design made of plant-based materials, with flax replacing carbon fibre and sticky tree resins replacing the chemical resins used traditionally"
Don't fancy getting wet, well there's the fixed roof GT to suit your dryness, which looses out to the Roadster on the 0-60 sprint. And this is where it gets very interesting, there will also be an electric option. Berkeley says they'll be "fitted with the electric motors and batteries developed in our AirRaceE electric pylon racers". There's also rumour of a hydrogen fuel cell set up too!
OK, I'm sold! April 2021 you say?
Yup, that's when the cars will be launched, so better start saving £40-60k for one, and get your name on the list as there'll only be 60!
Probably shot at Old Warden airfield near Biggleswade. Stolen from Berkeley's Instagram.