An overview of the British motorcycle industry and its collapse

By the early years of the 20th century, almost everything in motorcycling has been invented, tested and used: from single to multiple cylinder machines in every possible layout; chain, shaft and belt drive; liquid cooling; front- and rear-wheel drive; telescopic and girder forks; kickstarts, electric starters, twist throttle, multiple gears, and more.

Despite some landmarks in its development, motorcycles donít have a rigid pedigree that can be traced back to a single idea or machine. Instead, the idea seems to have occurred to numerous engineers and inventors around Europe more-or-less simultaneously. In the decade from the late 1880s, dozens of designs and machines emerged, particularly in France, Germany and England, and soon spread to America.

It really began with the booming bicycle craze that swept Europe in the 1870s-1880s. Bicycles were inexpensive transportation that proved easier to maintain, and cheaper than, horses. Early designs were stylish but awkward and clumsy - such as the Penny Farthing, with its pedals on the tall front wheel. Later, smaller wheels and rear-wheel drive would make them even more practical, and mass production made them more inexpensive.

It wasnít much of a jump to put a motor on a bicycle. Engine technology was evolving and within a few years stable, dependable engines were being mass-produced, many small enough to be easily fitted onto a bicycle frame. The entrepreneurial spirit of the industrialized nations like Britain quickly grabbed hold of the idea and companies sprang up all over Europe. In England, many were concentrated around the industrial centres like Coventry.

"Most motorcyclists love to spend their Sunday mornings taking off the cylinder head and re-seating the valves."
Donald Heather, director of Norton, 1957.

Quoted by Bert Hopwood in 
Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?
 

Hopwood was chastised by the director for designing an advanced 250cc engine with one-piece cylinder .

By the turn of the century, in 1901, motorcycles were being manufactured for sale in several European countries. Most early models were either tricycles or based on bicycles - often made by bicycle firms. With only a few automobile manufacturers making cars, and the extra expense of a four-wheeler, motorcycles rapidly gained popularity, even among women who were enjoying the new political and social freedoms of the era. By 1913, there were 100,000 bikes registered in Britain.

Experimentation and innovation drove development right into the First World War. The new sport of motorcycle racing was a powerful incentive to produce tough, fast, reliable machines. These enhancements soon found their way to the publicís machines. By 1914, motorcycles were no longer bicycles with engines: they had their own technologies, although many still maintained bicycle elements like seats and suspension.

The war dampened development considerably, however. The armed forces of both sides demanded reliability and durability more than speed and innovation. Armed forces purchased thousands of bikes - a powerful economic incentive for manufacturers to be conservative. The output for public markets dwindled or ceased altogether. Many small companies didnít make it through the war years, closing their doors for good.

World War One did a great deal to develop the British and European motorcycle industries. It forced manufacturers to work hard to both meet production demands and to develop better, stronger machines. A strong entrepreneurial spirit drove the industries there. In the USA, which did not enter the war until 1917, car manufacturers got a head start on the market. The USA saw inexpensive, mass-produced cars much earlier, often competing in price against motorcycle-sidecar outfits. By 1920, the 200 American manufacturers that began the war were reduced to less than 40. By 1930, only three remained. When Excelsior closed in 1931, only Harley Davidson and Indian were left.

In the post-war euphoria, British production started again at an even faster pace. At the first Olympia motorcycle show, in 1919, there were 112 motorcycle manufacturers displaying their products. Many were still only assemblers: they bought parts and engines and built them into their own machines. The numbers grew steadily until about 300 companies had their own marques between the wars (about 700 British marques were registered in the first century of motorcycling). The peak year for motorcycle production in Britain was 1929, when 147,000 machines were made.

But the machineís popularity plummeted with the Depression and many companies closed as sales fell. There werenít enough customers for all the companies, and not enough money to support all of the models. Export sales plummeted, and Britain taxed larger engines, so manufacturers cut prices and produced inexpensive models.

England exited the Depression with fewer motorcycle companies facing new and growing competition from cheaper domestic automobiles. But the remaining firms were more competitive and aggressive. With a smaller market, racing and competition drove development. The motorcycle was still a utilitarian vehicle, inexpensive transportation aimed at the working man, but there was greater focus on design and style - and power.

Another factor accelerating the development of motorcycling was the change in roadways across Britain. In the decades before and after the war, governments launched road improvement programs, building or upgrading connecting links between towns and cities to improve internal trade and transportation. These led to the development of road cafes - initially intended as convenience stops for truck transport, they soon became favourite spots for motorcyclists. The sport of cafe racing grew from bikers who would race between stops, or between cafes and local landmarks. Cafe racing was in turn another enticement for improved performance and encouraged backyard mechanics to tinker with their machines. The Triton (a Triumph engine in a Norton frame) and Tribsa (Triumph engine in a BSA frame) are examples of their entrepreneurial efforts.

A similar road-building program in the post-war USA saw the development of more than 41,000 miles of highways across the country. Instead of encouraging a generation of bikers to race, it led to the development of suburban sprawl and the decline of inner city life in America. The result today can be seen in the SUV: a lumbering, ugly, gas-guzzling, and unsafe behemoth..

Machines in the UK continued to improve and evolve. The mid-to-late 1930s saw some of the most innovative designs in motorcycling, and some of the best machines come from the post-Depression period. But they were also more expensive. The role of the motorcycle as inexpensive public transportation devolved through the 30s: it became more of a hobbyist or competition machine. Use in police and armed forces also grew, providing a stable market for more utilitarian machines - especially as Europe rearmed. But motorcycling was increasingly an enthusiast's hobby.

The Second World War again brought a closure to many factories. A lot of firms went on to make products for the war effort, some simply closed. Only a handful continued to make motorcycles, mostly to supply the British Army. Export sales dwindled as shipping was strangled by U boat raids. German bombing raids in Coventry and London spelled disaster for some companies: they never recovered from the loss of plants and equipment. Others simply never returned to make motorcycles.

"Indeed, in the early 1960s, the Chief Executive of a world famous group of management consultants tried hard to convince me that it is ideal that top level management executives should have as little knowledge as possible relative to the product...

"...BSA, the early 1960s,... was embarking on  a madness of management consultancy, rather than getting on with the real job of work. It was the disaster of academic business thinking that finally crucified  British industry which was respected throughout the world...

"Far from getting to grips with the realities of life and absorbing a little of our customer attitudes, several of the top brass, in the last two decades of the BSA saga, disliked, if not openly hated, motorcycles. 
One of these gentlemen made some very disparaging comments about the two-wheeled world a short time before he graduated to the hot seat...."

Bert Hopwood in 
Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?
 

After the war, a battered and financially beleaguered Britain struggled to rebuild. Petrol rationing, the lack of resources for manufacturing and low consumer capital made recovery slow. Innovation was strangled by lack of funds and a deeply conservative mindset at the executive level of many firms. Innovative designs were produced, but many proved unsuccessful in the market, or just too expensive. The British Army put a lot of its motorcycles into civilian hands after the war, creating a brief glut of inexpensive, utilitarian motorcycles in the market at a time when other vehicles were scarce.

But the image of motorcycling was also changing, the result of servicemen returning home. Looking for some sense of identity and freedom, many turned to motorcycling. Cafť racing, the Ďton-upí crowd of leather-jacketed riders, and the newly emerging motorcycle gangs added a darker side to motorcycles that further turned away more conservative buyers. More and more consumers opted for cars as their family vehicle, and motorcycle sales - initially rising after the war, soon slumped again.

Export sales, especially to the USA, accounted for a large proportion of post-war British production. While good for business, it often made many models unavailable or scarce in the domestic market. The USA was a rich market, with only two motorcycle companies of its own in the 1950s: Indian and Harley Davidson. The lighter, faster Triumph, Norton and BSA machines became so popular that US firms fought unsuccessfully to have them banned or heavily taxed. After Indian collapsed, in 53, British machines became even more popular, especially in the race and trials circuits where they dominated the events.

Nineteen fifty-nine was a peak year for the British industry: motorcycle sales and exports were at their highest levels. Flushed with their own success, most companies didnít bother to look at emerging trends, or take stock of their aging designs. Most of the executives and designers came from pre-War days: they looked back to the glory days of the 30s, not ahead. And as such, they created some beautiful, exciting machines - many were race-oriented, however, an increasingly smaller portion of the market than manufacturers seemed to realize.

Worse, few if any top level people came from within the motorcycle industry: the trend was to hire from outside the industry. The post-war paradigm in business management encouraged manufacturers to replace outgoing executives with graduates from business schools, generally people with financial backgrounds, instead of promoting from within. Engineers - never common in upper management - were increasingly scarce around the board room tables. Decisions were being made more and more by people far removed from the production side.

In the 1960s, middle- and upper-management levels became swollen with employees far removed from design and manufacturing. Management consultants made efficiency studies and wrote endless reports. Financial experts continually changed processes and set up new systems for reporting, stocking and testing. Marketing departments expanded as product lines shrank. Money was poured into studies and increasing management expenses.

Unions also helped the demise. Once powerful forces of social change, British trade unions had ossified into opponents of any change that they perceived as a threat to the workforce. Modern mass production techniques were one of those threats. Management found it easier to continue their labour-intensive 19th-century production lines than get embroiled in fights with aggressive unions determined to preserve the status quo.

The motorcycle industry was in the doldrums and financially in trouble by the early 1960s. Most companies continued to make bikes based on pre-war designs - designs that no longer interested a younger generation. Production quality fell as testing time was shortened by management eager to get bikes into the market sooner.

The scooter craze of the late 1950s-early 1960s helped boost sales, but not for long, and not enough, although it generated a production wave that seemed to presage richer days ahead. In fact, the rush to develop and market scooters cost a lot of motorcycle companies precious resources and capital. The craze crested and the demand dwindled, but the companies didn't seem to notice it until too late. The backlash was greater reluctance to re-tool for new motorcycle designs.

Consumers with more money wanted automobiles, not motorcycles for the family vehicle. The inexpensive Mini car was introduced in 1959, effectively killing sales for the sidecar market. Fifty nine was the last real boom year for British motorcycles - 127,000 bikes were built then. But the manufacturers didn't seem able to read the writing on the wall.

"It is difficult to understand why AMC bothered to expand and absorb Norton, James and Francis Barnett, for the new empire seemed to be far too much of a nuisance in a somnolent organization which took exception to, and vetoed any form of planning which was likely to further the business interests of any of the companies which had been absorbed."

Bert Hopwood in 
Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?
 

 

Slowly, companies were dying out or being bought. The amalgamation of companies like BSA-Norton-Villiers-Triumph might have made financial sense, but the consolidation of manufacturing and engineering into a small number of firms only made the industry stagnate. Too few designers and too little competition was the death knell for the industry. What had been friendly competition by independent firms became bitter internal rivalry after amalgamation. Racing was also losing its support as sponsors pulled out in favour of automobile racing. The public lost its previous passion for the marques.

The final blow to the British motorcycle industry came with the increasing import of Japanese motorcycles into the USA and European markets. Less expensive than domestic machines, they were more reliable, and showed more innovation and engineering development than their British counterparts. British companies were too slow to react to the competition: their roots were essentially Victorian in both management and production. Too many manufacturers were making bikes for a small group of enthusiasts or for racing, rather than as public transport. There was no real up-scale market for these motorcycles at the time, but most manufacturers continued to produce expensive machines - until their small market dried up and they closed. Many never appreciated the market for commuter bikes.

The Japanese rebuilt the image of motorcycling as the pastime of everyone, not just a clique of enthusiasts. Motorcycles were fun, friendly and ridden by the nicest people, as Honda's ads reported. They invigorated the market and pushed up sales, especially targetting the teen and young adult consumers. But the British industry was doomed. It couldnít even ride the coattails of the Japanese successes because it couldnít change quickly enough. Their products couldnít compare, they couldnít make enough, and the Japanese were winning the races that had been the pride of the British for so long. The CB 750, introduced by Honda in 1968, took the industry by surprise: it was bigger, faster and better than anything the British could offer. No one had really believed he Japanese could make motorcycles of this size, but they did and it blew the competition away.

British manufacturers had always been hesitant to reinvest in more modern machinery, so production was often based on pre-WW2 equipment; slow, outdated and expensive to maintain - often using hand tooling instead of production line processes. Company owners and directors continued to take dividends out of the firms, at a time when the Japanese were borrowing heavily to invest in the most modern production equipment. The Japanese put their earnings back into the companies. The result was that British motorcycle quality was visibly deteriorating; styling was antiquated. Meanwhile the Japanese motorcycles were reliable, inexpensive and visibly modern.

Production was often limited, and sometimes focused on more lucrative export sales rather than domestic. BSA made 100,000 lightweight Bantams from 1948-53, but that was a small fraction of the one million small 50cc Quickly mopeds made by NSU from 1953 to 59. Plus, the Bantam had none of the styling of the Italian or German vehicles that attracted consumers. Since 1958, Honda has produced more than 26 million Super Cubs, proving that there is a market for small, lightweight two-wheelers.

BSA was one of the few firms to upgrade equipment and install new machinery after WW2 - including a semi-automated computerized assembly line considered to be the most advanced outside of Japan. But a series of market failures (including the pathetic Ariel Three moped, 90cc Dandy scooter and 75cc Beagle) lost the company considerable money in the 1960s, so BSA was forced to sell off their assets. The company was left with only enough to continue to make the Rocket Three, and soon closed its doors.

The role of the motorcycle shifted in the 1960s, from the tool of a life to a toy of a lifestyle. It became part of an image, of status, a cultural icon for individualism, a prop in Hollywood B-movies. It also became a recreational machine for sport and leisure, a vehicle for carefree youth, not essential transportation for the mature family man or woman. As the motorcycle riders of the Sixties aged, took on families, careers and homes, they purchased cars and put away the motorcycle, or simply sold it. Sales began to fall after the brief euphoria of the 1960s and the Hippie movement dimmed.

The British industry staggered along into the 1970s with fewer companies and more mergers - only nine firms were left by 1969. Some half-hearted attempts were made to create new machines to compete against the Japanese - the Triumph Trident, for one - but they were too little, too late. The last British motorcycle manufacturer - Triumph (by then part of the conglomerate NVT) - closed in 1983, a century after it had begun.

"The story of our failure is indeed one of gross mismanagement, for at no time in the last twenty years did we master the arts of assembling the right expertise and planning management strategy based on the collected knowledge and advice of those people who are always to be found within a company with any background...

"...with a further influx of experts from other fields, we were finally overrun by an upper/middle management who... were now in consumer durables. 
Never for one moment did they seem to grasp that these particular things were motorcycles and that we were supposed to be earning a living making them."

Bert Hopwood in 
Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?
 

 

There were some abortive attempts at revival - Norton, Hesketh, Quasar - in the interim, but it wasnít until John Bloor resurrected Triumph a decade later that the British motorcycle industry made a real comeback. Bloorís success came because he continues to upgrade and improve his production line equipment, has stringent quality control and keeps his company focused on the competition to find new trends, technologies and styles. Triumph has also identified owner loyalty as a large part of the marketing, and catered to it through its own line of branded products, magazines, web site and ridersí clubs - taking a page from the very successful Harley Davidson.

Motorcycling is enjoying a boom in the new millennium. Sales have risen (in Canada alone, sales for 2000 were up 28 per cent over 1999 and up 28 per cent again in 2002), as a generation of baby boomers with disposable incomes want to recapture their youth turn to motorcycles as the time machine to bring it back for them. Triumph, recognizing this market, has in its mix several models that provide the nostalgic styling and evocative lines that recall those younger days, including a newly launched Bonneville. Ironically, trading in the now-vintage and classic bike market is stronger than ever, propelled by enthusiasts trying to keep alive the spirit of British motorcycling in its heyday. It was a special time, and it should never be forgotten.

Ian Chadwick, June 30, 2001 ichadwick@rogers.com

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