The British manufacturers failed to modernize their factories, their bikes, and their business practices. High volume manufacturing of Japanese bikes produced lower prices, while their engineering quickly overtook the classic British designs. It was primarily just a failure to keep up with the times. In many ways, following the British examples of style and performance, Honda and others refined, improved, and modernized the entire motorcycle business. Riders today owe a great debt to these Anglo pioneers. It is a shame that the famous British brands have all but disappeared, except in the memory of motorcycle buffs.
The first true sport bikes were 1950s British motorcycles like the Triumph Tiger T110 and the BSA Gold Star. They also dominated off-road competition for two decades. The first modern superbikes were the Norton Commando and the Triumph Trident, the Trident triple being the first modern, multi-cylinder motorcycle, beating the Honda 750 Four to market by several months.
And “café racers,” possibly the first “choppers,” were invented in England on the frame rails of Triumphs, BSAs, Nortons, Enfields, and the rest. In the 1960's, the “British Invasion” wasn't just about Rock & Roll, it was about great British Motorcycles.
Motorcycle’s history is also tied to the United Kingdom with the famous Isle of Man TT. Many a significant speed record and many a successful advertising campaign began with this storied race.
The International Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Race is a motorcycle racing event held on the tiny British island, Isle of Man, that was, for most of cycling history, the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world. Motor racing began on the Isle of Man in 1904 with the Gordon Bennett Eliminating Trial. In 1907 the famous TT race was established by, among others, the Collier brothers, owners of the Matchless motorcycle company. Racing discontinued in 1939 due to the war and was reestablished in 1947.
The small island located between England and Ireland is also known simply as “Mann.” Don’t ask me why the Brits have so much trouble deciding how to spell it!
(Actually it comes from the “Manx Gaelic” language and means “mountain” or “island” and can also be interpreted as “man” or “men.” In any case, both “Isle of Man” and “Manx” are certainly terms embedded in motorcycle history thanks to these British fore bearers.)
The motorcycle event was part of the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship during the period 1949–1976 before being transferred to the United Kingdom after safety concerns and run by the FIM as the British Grand Prix for the 1977 season. The Isle of Man TT Races became part of the TT Formula 1 Championship from 1977 to 1990 to preserve the event's racing status. From 1989 the racing has been promoted by the Isle of Man Department of Tourism as the Isle of Man TT Festival. The great race goes on with the 2015 event starting on May 30.
Although my buddy Woody would refer to “TT” as “tavern to tavern,” it actually meant “tourist trophy.” Whether these customized café racers were truly designed for speed and racing or just the intention of the riders to park them outside the nearest tavern or coffee shop to “look cool,” they were part of the mystique of British bikes.
I’m reminded of the quip where a man walks into a bar and asks another man if that is his Harley parked outside. When the second man responds, “yes,” the first than asks, “Oh, so are you an accountant or a dentist?” Which is really mean. The rider could be an architect! You know that "you meet the nicest people on a Harley." It wasn't just the Japanese bikes that established that modern truism. From Marlon Brando to Steve McQueen, they weren't on a Harley, but a Triumph.
Let's list the famous Triumph and other British bike riders. Some known by me are: Lee Majors, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, Elvis, Brad Pitt (and Cate Blanchett), Robbie Coltrane, Jay Leno, Paul McCartney, Clint Eastwood, Evil Kneivel (he rode Harleys and other brands too), James Dean, Tom Laughlan (Billy Jack), Pamela Anderson, Diane McBain (Mini-Skirt Mob), and of course Les Harris.
Leslie Frederick Harris is the British businessman and motorcycle enthusiast who helped resurrect the Triumph Bonneville after it failed in 1983. The British press often refers to him as "saviour of the British motorcycle industry." He even had a go at resurrecting the Matchless brand, but that didn't pan out, and he died in 2009 at the age of 69.
Add in some more current names such as Alanis Morissette, Nick Cage, Steve Jones, Matt Adler, and Michael Chan … and don't forget "the Fonz" before Henry Winkler started selling reverse mortgages. Easy Rider may have showcased Harleys, but the Brits got their good press too.
Some rode in "real life" and some rode on film. Many did both. In the movies and on TV we saw James Brolin as Dr Kiley in the old B&W TV drama Marcus Welby and Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House on House on cable. The list goes on: Kate Hudson and Mathew McConaughty, Robbie Williams, Christina Aguilera, Heidi Klum. Richard Geer, Ann-Margaret, Tony Francisco, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, Antonio Banderas, and Harrison Ford. Plenty of leading men (and ladies). Even Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame rode a Brit bike. Oh, and one more: Mickey Cheatham.
Yet, despite all this, a brilliant history, leading market share, and some of the best engineers in the biz, the British Motorcycle Industry self-destructed in the 1970s and 80s. But interest in them has been greatly renewed of late, so much so that new motorcycles are being produced today by several legendary British marques like Triumph, Norton, and Royal Enfield.
Matchless, AJS, and AMC
I’m starting with a company that will appear time and time again as we trace the history of the many British brands from birth to death. Yet this company is only recognized by serious motorcycle students. It is the British “AMC.” No, not American Motors, the former producers of such fine motorcars as Rambler, Metro, and Jeep before they disappeared into Chrysler Corporation. This is the British company “Associated Motor Cycles.”
The first Matchless motorcycle was made in 1899, and production began in 1901. Matchless Motorcycles was the brand name of Collier & Sons, the father Henry Herbert Collier and his sons Charlie and Harry. In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, the Colliers Brothers acquired AJS Motorcycles from the Stevens' Brothers. (A. J. Stevens & Co. Ltd, from 1909 to 1931, the early brand held 117 motorcycle world records.)
Then in 1937, Matchless acquired Sunbeam Motorcycles from Imperial Chemical Industries who had taken over the troubled company. This left the Colliers owning three different marques of motorcycles: Matchless, AJS, and now Sunbeam, each famous brands on their own account.
On October 12, 1937 the company re-registered as Associated Motor Cycles Ltd. as a way to encompass all three brands. Things went well under the new arrangement. By the close of the 1930's, AMC was being well-managed and was in sound financial shape.
Matchless Motorcycles were so well respected for their quality and reliability that several other companies, both within and outside the motorcycle industry, contracted Matchless to provide their engines. The most famous of these would be Brough Superior, regarded as perhaps the finest motorcycle of its day and made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.
During World War Two, all civilian motorcycle production halted and AMC, along with everyone else, began producing motorcycles for the British War Department. These AMC products were all branded “Matchless.”
Norton and BSA were the primary suppliers to the British Army since the Triumph factory was bombed in 1940. Bad for Triumph, good for Associated Motor Cycles, who had been trying to win a major military contract. AMC produced a fairly advanced machine to British government specifications and made over 55,000 bikes during the war.
With all this prosperity, it was time for the AMC empire to expand. This began an era of acquisitions. It started in 1947 with the takeover of the Francis-Barnett company of Coventry, who were building Villiers-powered lightweight motorcycles. They followed up with the 1950 takeover of the James Motorcycle Company, Birmingham.
Next was the crown jewel: Norton Motorcycles in 1953. But this one was different. Unlike James and Francis-Barnett, Norton had real market reputation and brand, so AMC wanted to focus on this fame. It was decided to leave the existing management in place and allow Norton to operate as a separate entity, albeit part of the AMC empire. In retrospect, the entire move to acquire Norton wasn't all that that well thought out. Other than the Norton Dominator, their entire product line was obsolete, with much investment required.
In August 1954, Managing Director Charlie Collier, the last of the original Collier family who started the Matchless company, died at age 69. He had devoted his life to the company and had great knowledge and skill that the company would sorely miss. A few weeks later, H.J. (Ike) Hatch, AMC chief development engineer, passed away at age 68. Later in 1954, AMC announced they would discontinue their factory racing efforts, although they would continue to support a few selected privateers, riding the AJS 7R, Matchless G45, and Norton Manx. Through the efforts of Jock West, AMC succeeded in restoring the Norton brand, starting with the Dominator 88, then the Dominator 99.
Jack Williams had filled the void as chief development engineer left by Ike Hatch's death. He was instrumental in the improvement he made to the AJS 7R and in bringing the Matchless G50 to production. In a road test of their new Matchless G11CS Sports Twin 600 by The Motor Cycle magazine, after achieving nearly 104 mph on a closed circuit, they they tore the engine down for inspection, revealing it to be in excellent condition. It was a true marketing coup for AMC.
By 1959, AMC had acquired the Brockhouse Engineering Group, who themselves had purchased the ailing Indian Motor Cycle Co. of Springfield, Mass in 1951. Indian had discontinued production of it's legendary V-twin in 1953 and had since been engaging in importing British motorcycles to America, including Norton, Vincent, Royal Enfield, AJS, and Matchless. This arrangement ended in 1960. The US distributorship was awarded to Berliner Corp. in New Jersey. Berliner also imported Zundapps from Germany and Ducatis from Italy.
AMC had been producing the Matchless and AJS Motorcycle lines for years. The two brands shared essentially the same basic machinery, with a few detail and cosmetic changes to differentiate them. Similar to Ford and Mercury or Dodge and Plymouth, there were little difference between the two bikes other than the logo on the tank. So, when Matchless launched its first vertical twin, AJS soon followed with a sister-bike. The first twins were the 498cc Matchless G9 and it's twin, the AJS Model 20, introduced in 1948 at the Earls Court Show.
These were bumped up to 593cc in 1956, creating the Matchless G11 and AJS Model 30, then again to 646cc in 1959 for the G12, and again to 745cc in 1965 for the Matchless G15.
Matchless built a very good vertical twin, at least when compared to the other British marques. Things like a center main bearing and full-length studs fastening the head and barrels, were unique at the time. They were sound machines and should have done better in the market place. As far as AMC bikes go, however, most of the attention was being lavished on the Norton models, as they were seen to have the best chance of success.
It seems that AMC got caught in the same time warp that swallowed up every other once-successful British motorcycle maker. When things were going gangbusters in the 1950's, they failed to reinvest any of the money into new designs or modern manufacturing equipment. They seemed content and intent on soldiering through by buffing up ancient outdated designs. That might have worked had it not been for a person name Soichiro Honda, who showed the motorcycling world what was possible. Suddenly, every British design looked sadly out of date.
Another thing that hurt AMC was a loss of direction, caused by the deaths of the Colliers and the exodus of much-needed talent like Bert Hopwood and Jock West.
In 1960, after roaring success in the 1950's, things had sunk so low that shareholders revolted and demanded changes in management. Financial losses continued. In 1962, AMC announced it's new “Standardization Program” in which they would close down several plants and merge production of Norton and other brands.
Always known as one of the most blatant brand-engineers, having placed both AJS and Matchless logos on essentially the same machines for decades, the implications of “standardization” were immediately obvious to the motorcycling public. It disenchanted many brand-loyal enthusiasts who never returned.
There were other engineering failures and management changes, including involvement of the British government officials. By 1965, the model lineup included mostly a jumbled collection of AJS, Matchless, and Norton engines being swapped into Jubilee and Featherbed frames, trying to hit the magic combination.
By 1966, AMC slipped into receivership. In September, Manganese Bronze Holdings took it over, renaming it Norton Matchless Ltd. This later became a part of Norton Villiers, who a few years later would also take over the ailing BSA empire, including Triumph, renaming itself Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT).
By 1967, the last of the Matchless-AJS motorcycles were built. From then on, of all the companies that Associated Motor Cycles had originally thrown into the pot together — Matchless, AJS, James, Francis-Barnett, and Norton — only Norton would survive, for a few more years, at least.
Sunbeam was a British manufacturing marque that produced bicycles, motorcycles, and cars from 1912 to 1956. Originally independent, it was owned by BSA from 1943. Sunbeam is perhaps most famous for its S7 model, a balloon-tired, shaft-drive motorcycle with an overhead valve in-line twin engine. Rather advanced for British bikes.
In 1937 the Sunbeam motorcycle trademark was sold to Associated Motor Cycles Ltd (AMC) which continued to make Sunbeam bicycles and motorcycles until 1939.
In 1943 AMC sold the Sunbeam name to BSA and Sunbeam Cycles Ltd came into being. Three Sunbeam motorcycle models were produced from 1946 to 1956, inspired by BMW motorcycles supplied to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. They were followed by two scooter models from 1959 to 1964.
When Sunbeam production came to an end, BSA sold the remaining stock of parts to Stewart Engineering, and this company is now the sole supplier of spares for late-model Sunbeam motorcycles. The Triumph Tigress, also sold as the BSA Sunbeam, was a scooter designed to have good performance and handling for the motorcycle enthusiast. These final Sunbeam two-wheelers discontinued in 1965.
Ariel Motors was a British motorcycle manufacturer based in Bournbrook, Birmingham. It was one of the leading innovators in British motorcycling. The company was sold to BSA in 1951, but the Ariel brand survived until 1967. The last motorcycle-type vehicle to carry the Ariel name in before disappearing entirely was a short-lived 3-wheel tilting moped launched in 1970.
The original company was established in 1870 by James Starley and William Hillman. They built wire-spoke wheels under the first British patent. This allowed them to build a lighter-weight "penny farthing" bicycle which they named 'Ariel' (the spirit of the air).
The Ariel Square Four with a 500 cc engine designed by Edward Turner first appeared for the 1931 season. Around this time the company went into receivership and then a new company was formed. The Square Four became a 600 cc. The Square Fours had overheating problems with the rear cylinders which resulted in distorted heads throughout their history. A redesign in 1937 resulted in a 995 cc OHV version designated the 4G.
In 1951 Jack Sangster sold Ariel and Triumph (bought in 1936) to the Birmingham Small Arms Company group (BSA), and joined their board. Ariel began making the 500 cc KH model and the 650 cc Huntmaster, with engines based on BSA parallel twins. Reliable and capable of 100 mph, the Huntmaster proved popular with sidecar enthusiasts.
By 1956 Edward Turner became head of the automotive division, which then included Ariel, Triumph, and BSA motorcycles, as well as Daimler and Carbodies (the manufacturer of London Taxicabs).
BSA closed the Ariel factory at Selly Oak in 1962 and moved production of the Leader and the Arrow to the BSA factory at Small Heath. Production of the 50 cc Pixie began in 1963. In 1965, Ariel produced its last motorcycle, the Arrow 200 with capacity reduced to 200 cc introduced earlier during 1964 to qualify for lower UK rider insurance. Ariel motorcycles ceased production in 1967.
In 1999 a new company was formed in Somerset, England, using the old "Ariel" name. This incarnation of the Ariel Motor Company currently manufactures the Ace model motorcycle and the Atom, a road legal high performance sports car that looks a bit like a Formula 1 or Indy race car, although a two-seater. Since both bike and car are powered by Honda engines, I don't include this latest versions of Ariel as part of the British tradition, but a modern merging of national technologies.
Royal Enfield was the name under which the Enfield Cycle Company made bicycles, motorcycles, lawnmowers, and stationary engines. The legacy of weapons manufacture is reflected in the logo, a cannon, and their motto "Made like a gun, goes like a bullet.” Use of the brand name Royal Enfield was licensed by the The Crown (U.K. royal government) in 1890. The original Redditch, Worcestershire based company was sold to Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT) in 1968.
In 1893, the Enfield Manufacturing Company Ltd was registered to manufacture bicycles, adopting the branding Royal Enfield. In 1948, a groundbreaking development in the form of rear suspension springing was developed, initially for competition model "trials" models (modern enduro type machines), but this was soon offered on the road-going model Bullet 350 cc, a single cylinder OHV. This was a very popular seller, offering a comfortable ride. A 500 cc version appeared shortly after. A later 1950s version of the Bullet manufacturing rights and jigs, dies and tools was sold to India for manufacture there, and where developed versions continue to this day.
In 1949, Royal Enfield's version of the now popular selling parallel twins appeared. This 500 cc version was the forerunner of a range of Royal Enfield Meteors, 700 cc Super Meteors, and 700 cc Constellations. Offering good performance at modest cost, these sold widely, if somewhat quietly in reputation. The 700 cc Royal Enfield Constellation Twin has been described as the first superbike.
During the onslaught of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers in the late sixties and early seventies, the English factories made a final attempt with the 1962–1968 Series I and Series II. Made largely for the US market, it sported lots of chrome and strong performance, completing the quarter mile in less than 13 seconds at speeds well above 105 mph. It became very popular in the US, but the classic mistake of not being able to supply this demand added to the demise of this last English-made Royal Enfield.
Established in the 19th century, it would appear that Royal Enfield along with Triumph is the only motorcycle brand to span three centuries, and still going, with continuous production. A few of the original Redditch factory buildings remain (as of 2009) and are part of the Enfield Industrial Estate.
From 1955 to 1959, Royal Enfields were painted red, and marketed in the USA as Indian Motorcycles by the Brockhouse Corporation, who had control of the Indian Sales Corporation (and therefore Indian Motorcycles) and had stopped manufacturing all American Indians in the Springfield factory in 1953. But Americans were not impressed by the brand engineering and the marketing agreement ended in 1960, and from 1961, Royal Enfields were available in the US under their own name. The largest Enfield Indian was a 700 cc twin named the Chief, like its American predecessors.
Royal Enfield motorcycles had been sold in India since 1949. In 1955, the Indian government (not to be confused with the American “Indian” brand”) looked for a suitable motorcycle for its police and army. The Bullet was chosen as the most suitable bike for the job. The Indian government ordered 800, 350 cc model Bullets, an enormous order for the time. In 1955, the Redditch company joined Madras Motors in India in forming Enfield India to assemble, under license, the 350 cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle in Madras (now called Chennai). Under Indian law, Madras Motors owned the majority (over 50%) of shares in the company. In 1957 tooling equipment was sold to Enfield India so that they could manufacture components.
Royal Enfield India manufactures and sells in India, and also exports to Europe as well as America, South Africa and Australia. Recently Royal Enfield has undergone a major retooling particularly in the engine department on their flagship 500 cc model. This retooling has sparked such an interest in these bikes that they have started double shifts at the plants.
Norton Motorcycle Company (formerly Norton Motors, Ltd.) is a British motorcycle marque, originally from Birmingham, UK, founded in 1898 as a manufacturer of "fittings and parts for the two-wheel trade.” By 1902, they had begun manufacturing motorcycles with engines purchased externally. In 1908, a Norton-built engine was added to the range. This began a long series of production of single and eventually twin-cylinder motorcycles, and a long history of racing involvement.
In 1902, Norton began building motorcycles with French and Swiss engines. In 1907, a Norton ridden by Rem Fowler won the twin-cylinder class in the first Isle of Man TT Race, beginning a sporting tradition that went on until the 1960s. The first Norton engines were made in 1907, with production models available from 1908. These were the 3.5 hp (490 cc) and the “Big 4” (633 cc), beginning a line of side-valve single-cylinder engines which continued with few changes until the late 1950s
Norton struggled to reclaim its pre-WWII racing dominance as the single-cylinder machine faced fierce competition from the multi-cylinder Italian machines and AJS from the UK. In the 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing season, the first year of the world championship, Norton made only fifth place and AJS won. That was before the Featherbed frame appeared, developed for Norton by the McCandless brothers of Belfast, and used in 1950 on the legendary Manx Norton and raced by riders including Geoff Duke, John Surtees, and Derek Minter. Very quickly the Featherbed frame, a design that allowed the construction of a motorcycle with good mass-stiffness distribution, became a benchmark by which all other frames were judged.
McCandless' finished design was expensive, as it required over forty feet of the best Reynolds steel. It was a welded twin loop with a swinging arm fitted with their Norton's own design of shock absorbers, with a heavily braced cross-over headstock. The British company, Reynolds Cycle Technology a bicycle manufacturer well known for its tubular steel alloy production including the famous Reynolds 531 Steel alloyed with Manganese and Molybdenum and the current Reynolds 953.
Norton also experimented with engine placement, and discovered that moving the engine slightly up/down, forward/back, or even right/left, could deliver a "sweet spot" in terms of handling. Motorcycle designers still use this method to fine-tune motorcycle handling.
In 1951, the Norton Dominator was made available to export markets as the Model 88 with the Featherbed frame. Later, as production of this frame increased, it became a regular production model, and was made in variants for other models, including the OHV single-cylinder machines.
Manx Nortons also played a significant role in the development of post war car racing. At the end of 1950, the English national 500 cc regulations were adopted as the new Formula 3. The JAP Speedway engine had dominated the category initially but the Manx was capable of producing significantly more power and became the engine of choice. Many complete motorcycles were bought in order to strip the engine for 500 cc car racing, as Norton would not sell separate engines.
The racing successes were transferred to the street through café racers, some of which would use the Featherbed frame with an engine from another manufacturer to make a hybrid machine with the best of both worlds. The most famous of these were Tritons — Triumph twin engines in a Norton Featherbed frame.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the racing successes Norton was in financial difficulty. Reynolds could not make many of the highly desired Featherbed frames and customers lost interest in buying machines with the older frames. In 1953 Norton sold out to AMC. In 1962 the Norton factory in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham was closed and production was moved to AMC's Woolwich factory in southeast London.
Villiers Engineering was a manufacturer of motorcycles and cycle parts, and an engineering company based in Villiers Street, Wolverhampton, England. Prior to the turn of the century (the twentieth century, not the current), Villiers was manufacturing parts for the Sunbeam Motorcycle Company.
The were well known for the quality of their products. Manufacturing more parts than were needed by Sunbeam, they also sold to other companies and were a very prolific producer of engines.
Villiers developed and patented the cycle free-wheel, which every cycle manufacturer required. The production of free wheels reached its peak just after WWII, as the company produced 80,000 per week or 4 million per year. Most readers would recognize this mechanism in their bicycle’s where it allows one to coast and not have to pedal while the rear wheel coasts on its own.
Villiers manufactured a range of single and twin two-stroke engines (from 98 cc to 325 cc) for light motorcycle and vehicle manufacturers until the 1960s.In 1956, Villiers produced its two millionth engine. In 1957 Villiers absorbed JA Prestwich Industries, makers of the famous and popular J.A.P. engines.
In the early 1960s, the company was taken over by Manganese Bronze, and in 1966 together with AMC became part of Norton Villiers.
JA Prestwich Industries, was an English engineering company named after founder John Alfred Prestwich, which produced cinematographic equipment, internal combustion engines (for which the company was generally abbreviated to "J.A.P."), and other examples of precision engineering.
John Alfred Prestwich (1874 – 1952) was an English engineer and inventor. He founded the company in 1895 and was a pioneer in the early development of cinematography projectors and cameras.
From 1904 to 1908 complete motorcycles were produced by J.A.P. based on the development of the first overhead valve (OHV) motorcycle engine to be produced in the UK.
After that the factory concentrated on supplying its engines to other manufacturers, including Brough Superior, Triumph Motorcycles, A. J. Stevens & Co. Ltd, Enfield Cycle Co, Hazlewoods Limited, Zenith Motorcycles, and HRD Motorcycles, the forerunner of Vincent Motorcycles. Machines that incorporated its engines included the AJS Model D, fabricated for the Russians in the First World War.
J.A.P. exported significant numbers of engines to foreign motorcycle manufacturers including Dresch and Terrot in France, and Ardie, Hecker, and Tornax in Germany.
J.A.P. engines continue to used in motorcycle racing, and most commonly speedway or dirt track.
Motorcycle speedway, usually referred to simply as speedway, is a motorcycle sport involving four and sometimes up to six riders competing over four counter-clockwise laps of an oval circuit. Speedway motorcycles use only one gear and have no brakes and racing takes place on a flat oval track usually consisting of dirt, loosely packed shale, or dolomite (mostly used in Australia and New Zealand). Competitors use this surface to slide their machines sideways, powersliding or broadsiding into the bends. On the straight sections of the track the motorcycles reach speeds of up 70 miles per hour.
Speedway uses a unique type of motorcycle, governed by the FIM's "Track Racing Technical Rules." In the past, bikes with upright engines were used. With their very low mounted pegs, tiny fuel tanks, and frames and wheels that look more like bicycle than motorcycle, speedway bikes look very unique. As speedway bikes do not use brakes, the clutch is used as a release mechanism at the start of races. FIM regulations state that the motorcycles must have no brakes, are powered by pure methanol, use only one gear, and weigh a minimum of 170 pounds, still a very light bike.
Speedway racing is popular in Europe and in California with several large tracks, but there are tracks in New York and Indiana too. A very specialized form of racing, modern speedway isn't as popular as it once was in the hay-day of J.A.P engines.
BSA and Norton-Villiers-Triumph
The Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited (BSA) was a major industrial combine, a group of businesses manufacturing military and sporting firearms; bicycles; motorcycles; cars; buses and bodies; steel; iron castings; hand, power, and machine tools; coal cleaning and handling plants; sintered metals; and hard chrome process.
At its peak, BSA was the largest motorcycle producer in the world. Loss of sales and poor investments in new products in the motorcycle division, which included Triumph Motorcycles, led to problems for the whole group.
BSA produced the first Sunbeam bicycle catalogue in 1949 and produced its own “4 Star” derailleur gear with an associated splined cassette hub and 4 sprocket cassette. BSA bought New Hudson motorcycle and bicycle business in 1950 and followed this up in 1951 with the purchase of Triumph Motorcycles which brought Jack Sangster onto the BSA board. The effect of this acquisition was to make BSA into the largest producer of motorcycles in the world at that time.
The Group continued to expand and acquire throughout the 1950s, but, by 1965, competition from Japan (in the shape of companies like Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki) and Europe from Jawa / CZ, Bultaco, and Husqvarna was eroding BSA's market share. The BSA (and Triumph) products were no longer aligned with the markets; mopeds were displacing scooter sales and the trials and scrambles areas were now the preserve of European two-strokes.
Some poor marketing decisions and expensive projects contributed to substantial losses. For example, the development and production investment of the Ariel 3, an ultra stable 3-wheel moped, was not recouped by sales; the loss has been estimated at £2 million. Furthermore, BSA failed to take seriously the threat that key-start Japanese motorcycles might completely destroy the market for kick-started BSA motorcycles.
In 1968, BSA announced many changes to its product line of singles, twins and the new three-cylinder machine named the Rocket Three for the 1969 model year. It now concentrated on the more promising USA, and to a lesser extent, Canadian, markets. However, despite the adding of modern accessories, for example, turn signals and even differing versions of the A65 twins for home and export sale, the damage had been done and the end was near.
Reorganization in 1971 concentrated motorcycle production at Meriden, Triumph's site, with production of components and engines at BSA's Small Heath. At the same time there were redundancies and the selling of assets. Barclays Bank arranged financial backing to the tune of £10 million.
Upgrades and service bulletins continued until 1972, but the less service-intensive Japanese bikes had, by then, flooded the market on both sides of the Atlantic. The merger with Norton Villers was started in late 1972, and for a brief time a Norton 500 single was built with the B50-based engine, but few if any were sold publicly. The 500 cc BSA B50’s enjoyed much improvement in the hands of the CCM motorcycle company allowing the basic BSA design to continue until the mid to late 1970s in a competitive form all over Europe.
Clews Competition Machines or CCM for short, is a British motorcycle manufacturer based in Bolton, England. CCM was born out of the collapse of BSA's Competition Department in 1971.
By 1972, BSA was so moribund that, with bankruptcy imminent, its motorcycle businesses were merged (as part of a government-initiated rescue plan) with the Manganese Bronze company, Norton Villiers, to become Norton-Villiers-Triumph with the intention of producing and marketing Norton and Triumph motorcycles at home and abroad.
In exchange for its motorcycle businesses, Manganese Bronze received BSA Group's non-motorcycle-related divisions—namely, Carbodies, the taxi cab producer. Although the BSA name was left out of the new company's name, a few products continued to be made carrying it until 1973. The final range was just four models: Gold Star 500, 650 Thunderbolt/Lightning and the 750 cc Rocket Three.
However, the plan involved the axing of some brands, large redundancies, and consolidation of production at two sites. This scheme to rescue and combine Norton, BSA and Triumph failed in the face of worker resistance. Particularly the Triumph employees who protested the changes and held a two-year sit-in until the English government took notice. Norton’s and BSA's factories were eventually shut down, while Triumph staggered on to fail four years later.
Triumph Engineering Co Ltd was a British motorcycle manufacturing company, based originally in Coventry and then in Solihull at Meriden. A new company, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd based in Hinckley gained the name rights after the end of the company in the 1980s and is now one of the world's major motorcycle manufacturers.
The company began in 1885 when Siegfried Bettmann emigrated from Nuremberg, part of the German Empire, to Coventry in England. In 1884, aged 20, Bettmann founded his own company, the S. Bettmann & Co. Import Export Agency, in London. Bettmann's original products were bicycles, which the company bought and then sold with its own brand name. Bettmann also distributed sewing machines imported from Germany.
In 1886, Bettmann sought a more general name, and the company became known as the Triumph Cycle Company. A year later, the company registered as the New Triumph Co. Ltd. now with funding from the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company. During that year, Bettmann was joined as a partner by another Nuremberg native, Moritz Schulte.
In 1902, the first Triumph motorcycle is produced, powered by a 2.2hp Minerva engine and subsequently known as No. 1. By 1927, the Coventry factory, now consisting of 500,000 square feet and employing 3000 people, produces 30,000 units per year. In 1937, Triumph’s car and motorcycle businesses were split, and Edward Turner was appointed as chief designer.
Motorcycles were produced at Coventry until World War II. The town of Coventry was virtually destroyed by the "Coventry Blitz" (September 1940 to May 1941). Tooling and machinery was recovered from the site of the devastation, and production restarted at the new plant at Meriden, West Midlands in 1942.
The Triumph Speed Twin designed by Edward Turner before the war was produced in large numbers after the War. Efforts to settle the lend-lease debts led to nearly 70% of Triumph's post war production to be shipped to the United States. Post War, the Speed Twin and Triumph Tiger 100 were available with a sprung rear hub, Triumph's first attempt at a rear suspension.
Privateers put wartime surplus alloy barrels on their Tiger 100 racers and won races, inspiring the Triumph GP model. By 1950 the supply of barrels was exhausted, and the GP model was ended. The American market applied considerable demand to reverse this action, and a die cast, close finned, alloy barrel was made available. The alloy head made the valve noise more obvious, so ramp type cams were introduced for alloy head models to reduce the noise.
Another motorcycle based on the wartime generator engine was the 498 cc TR5 Trophy Twin, also introduced at the 1948 Motor Cycle Show. It used a single carburetor, low compression version of the Grand Prix engine. Britain won the prestigious 1948 International Six Days Trial. The Triumph works team had finished unpenalized.
To satisfy the American demand for motorcycles suited to long distance riding, Turner built a 650 cc version of the Speed Twin design. The new bike was named the Thunderbird, a name Triumph would later license to the Ford Motor Company for use for a car model. Only one year after the Thunderbird was introduced, a motorcyclist in Southern California mated the 650 Thunderbird with a twin carb head intended originally for GP racing and named the new creation the Wonderbird. That 650 cc motor, designed in 1939, had the world's absolute speed record for motorcycles from 1955 until 1970.
The Triumph brand received considerable publicity in the United States when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird 6T in the 1953 motion picture, The Wild One.
The Triumph Motorcycle concern was sold to their rivals Birmingham Small Arms Company by Sangster in 1951. This sale included Sangster becoming a member of the BSA board. Sangster was to become Chairman of the BSA Group in 1956.
The production 650 cc Thunderbird 6T was a low-compression tourer, and the 500 cc Tiger 100 was the performance motorcycle. That changed in 1954, with the change to swing arm frames, and the release of the alloy head 650 cc Tiger 110, eclipsing the 500 cc Tiger 100 as the performance model.
On September 6, 1956, at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, American racer Johnny Allen secured the motorcycle land-speed record on a heavily modified Triumph T110 with a top speed of 214.17 mph. This success led to the development of the Tiger T110's successor — the Triumph Bonneville. Soon the T120, a tuned double carburetor version of the Triumph Tiger T110, came to be known as the Bonneville.
As Triumph and other marques gained market share, Harley became aware that their 1 liter-plus motorcycles were not as sporty as modern riders would like, resulting in a decreasing share of the market. The Triumphs were models for a new, "small" Harley Davidson as a result: the now-fabled Harley-Davidson Sportster, which started as Harley's version of a Triumph Bonneville. With its anachronistic V-twin, the Sportster was no match for the Bonneville, but the Harley proved a solid competitor in US sales and eventually also in longevity.
During the 1960s, despite internal opposition from those who believed that it would reduce the macho image of the brand, Triumph produced two scooters; the Triumph Tina, a small and low-performance 2-stroke scooter of about 100 cc with automatic clutch and a handlebar carry basket, and the Triumph Tigress, a more powerful scooter available with either a 175 cc 2-stroke single or a 250 cc 4-stroke twin engine for the enthusiast.
In 1969 Malcolm Uphill, riding a Bonneville, won the Isle of Man Production TT Race with a race average of 99.99 miles per hour per lap, and recorded the first ever more than 100 miles per hour lap by a production motorcycle at 100.37. For many Triumph fans, the 1969 Bonneville was the best Triumph model ever.
During the 1960s, 60% of all Triumph production was exported, which, along with the BSA's 80% exports, made the group susceptible to the Japanese expansion. By 1969 fully 50% of the US market for motorcycles more than 500 cc belonged to Triumph, but technological advances at Triumph had failed to match those of the foreign companies. Triumphs lacked electric start mechanisms, relied on push-rods rather than overhead cams, vibrated noticeably, often leaked oil, and had antiquated electrical systems; while Japanese marques such as Honda were building more advanced features into attractive new motorcycles that sold for less than their British competitors.
Triumph motorcycles, as a result, were nearly obsolete even when they were new. Further, Triumph's manufacturing processes were very labor-intensive and largely inefficient. Also disastrous, during the early 1970s, the US government mandated that all motorcycle imports must have their gearshift and brake pedals in the Japanese configuration, which required expensive retooling of all the motorcycles that didn't match this requirement for US sale.
The British marques were badly equipped to compete against the massive financial resources of Japanese heavy industries that targeted competitors for elimination with long-term plans subsidized by the Japanese government. Triumph and BSA were well aware of Honda's ability, but, while the Japanese were only making smaller engined models, the large engine market was considered safe. When the first Honda 750 cc four cylinder was released for sale to the public, Triumph and BSA had trouble. A 3-cylinder engined motorcycle was developed to compete against the Japanese fours: the BSA Rocket 3 / Triumph Trident.
The parent BSA group had losses of £8.5 million in 1971, £3 million for BSA motorcycles alone. The British government became involved. The company was sold to Manganese Bronze Holdings, which also owned Norton, AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett, James-Velocette and Villiers. After many consultations with the factory personnel explaining the consolidation necessary to compete with the Japanese, in September 1973 Norton-Villiers-Triumph group chairman, Dennis Poore, finally announced the closure of Meriden works effective February 1974. Of 4,500 employees, 3,000 were made redundant.
Worried about unemployment and having their products given to a rival firm, the workers at the Meriden factory demonstrated against a relocation to Small Heath, Birmingham, the BSA site. They staged a sit-in … for TWO YEARS! With political aid of the newly elected Labour government and, in particular, the then-minister for trade and industry, Tony Benn, the Meriden worker's cooperative was formed, supplying Triumph 750 cc motorcycles to its sole customer, NVT.
After the collapse of Norton-Villiers-Triumph in 1977, the cooperative bought the marketing rights for Triumph with more government loans, later becoming Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Limited. The venture, with only two 750 cc models, the Bonneville and Tiger, started well with a successful variant, the 1977 Silver Jubilee Bonneville T140J and by 1978 was the best selling European motorcycle in the vital USA market.
Meriden introduced several new models during its last years, but none were able to stop the decline, worsened by a UK recession and a continuing strong pound harming their US market.
In 1983, the debt-ridden company briefly considered buying the bankrupt Hesketh Motorcycles, and even badged one as a marketing trial. Despite also touting a 900 cc prototype water-cooled twin at the 1983 National Exhibition Show to attract outside investment, Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd itself became bankrupt on August 23, 1983.
Triumph Motorcycles (Hinckley) Ltd is the largest surviving British motorcycle manufacturer. When Triumph went into receivership in 1983, John Bloor, a former plasterer who acquired his wealth from building and property development, became interested in keeping the brand alive, and bought the name and manufacturing rights from the Official Receiver. The new company, initially Bonneville Coventry Ltd, ensured that Triumph has produced motorcycles since 1902, winning it the title of the world's longest continuous production motorcycle manufacturer. A licensing agreement granted to motorcycle spares manufacturer, Les Harris, kept the Triumph Bonneville in production until 1988 when Triumph re-initiated a new product line for 1990 and 1991. Triumph now makes a range of motorcycles reviving model names of the past, including a newly designed Bonneville twin with a 865 cc engine and including a model, T-100, that duplicates very closely the style of the old ’65 Bonny. (This author rides a 2014 Bonneville T-100 "Black.")
Earlier this year, while visiting my sister in Montana, I noted a UPS delivery that said “B.S.A.” on the box. Wondering if the famed brand was back in business selling motorcycles, I looked closer. Of course, B.S.A. stands for Birmingham Small Arms, and the box was a rifle scope her son had ordered.
No, it’s still up to Triumph to continue the heritage of the great British bikes. The Magelli brand of small bikes comes from the U.K., but this is a new company formed in the 21st century. Norton limps on as the so-called “Donnington Park Revival,” and makes around 500 to 1,000 bikes in its current factory, which has been expanded, so we may yet see that storied brand return to the US market. Rickman Motorcycles, a brand started in the ‘60s, is still in manufacture and best known for putting Honda engines in racing frames.
So that really leaves the Triumph company to be the final representative of the British Motorcycle Empire. Perhaps echoing the history of the British Empire, the flag has fallen around the world … and now we await the result of a vote to determine if Scotland will move for independence. As a wise person once said, “The only constant is change.” But it is still hard for us older folks whose memories are now classified as “history” to accept this maxim.