Volume 8, Issue 2: Fall 2012

    

Rethinking the Whole British Bike Thing: An Essay Bump-Started by Steve Koerner's The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry

James J. Ward  

Having just finished reading Steve Koerner’s exceptionally valuable new book, The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry (Crucible Books, 2012), I can’t help but conclude that it is time to re-think my decades-long enthusiasm for such icons of my youth as the Triumph Bonneville, the BSA Lightning, and the Norton Atlas.1  The machines themselves, of course, remain objects of interest and desire, as is verified by the prices they command at auction, from dealerships specializing in “classic” motorcycles, and on the open market.2  The discontinuation of Miller’s Classic Motorcycles Price Guide has deprived us of a single standard reference for changing market values; but the latter can be assessed easily enough from dealers’ notices in The Classic Motorcycle and Classic Bike and sales results published by Bonham’s, Cheffins, H&H, and Mid-America.  We can also attribute some of the success the “new” Hinckley-based Triumph has enjoyed with its “classic” models, e.g., the 800/865cc Bonneville in its various iterations, to the glamour attached to their half-century-old namesakes, qualified although that is by the disinclination contemporary buyers feel toward the non-user-friendly characteristics of those machines.3  

Large-displacement twins, the bread-and-butter of the British motorcycle industry in its post-World War II heyday, continue to draw their enthusiasts, and the specialist magazines that cater to the latter’s tastes are more than happy to assist them with buyers’ guides and timely maintenance and repair features.4  There is no denying the style, for those of us who still like to see the mechanicals unobscured by plastic panels, of a Norton Dominator (the 500/600/650cc predecessor to the 750cc Atlas), a Triumph Daytona, an Enfield Constellation, or an AJS or Matchless 650cc CSR.  Even more, the performance of a high-compression, dual-carb vertical twin fitted in, say, a Featherbed frame and equipped with Roadholder forks can still put a smile on the rider’s face, one that ignores such aggravations as the inevitable vibration that sets in at this speed or that and the frequently inadequate braking, at least before front-wheel discs were finally mounted.  In part it is the evocation of a storied, if partly mythologized, past that had to be enjoyed at a distance if you lived on this side of the Atlantic (save for the lucky few who actually got to London in the 1960s).  Better than I can describe it, one of the veterans of the Ace Café put it into words a few years ago for Classic Bike:  

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the rows of bikes nosed towards the wall of the building in the dark—I cannot recall a daytime visit.  I remember the polished paintwork, shining chrome and aluminum, and those hunched blue Bonneville tanks which stood out and always seemed so dangerously alluring, reflected in the half-light from the café interior and the car park illumination.  Goldies and Rocket Gold Stars (some with Eddie Dow alloy yokes and tanks and 190mm front brakes), Road Rockets, Tritons, Trophies (maroon tank tops), Tiger Ton-Tens (largely black and ivory, some, still older, in blue), Thunderbirds, Speed Twins, Dominators, Constellations, Meteors, CSRs, an occasional Ariel twin, Arrows, Ajays, and always one or two workmanlike older TR5 Triumphs. (Clayton)

The problem with this wistful image is that it conceals a couple of ticking time bombs, ones that would eventually go off.   

The death of the British motorcycle industry may have been strange, but there is little about it that is a mystery.  The story has been told before, most importantly by former Norton Managing Director and Triumph General Manager Bert Hopwood in Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?, a take-no-prisoners account that remains as relevant today as when it was first published thirty years ago. After nearly five decades in the business, Hopwood had accumulated more than his fair share of knocks and bruises and they show in his book, half autobiography and half hard-headed analysis of a few good decisions made and a far larger number of bad ones.  While histories of individual manufacturers abound (many of them written by the late Mick Walker), these are largely confined to accounts of model development, technical innovations, and sporting successes.  One or two memoirs strike a more critical note, providing a shop-floor perspective on decisions made in management offices.  The best of these, Hughie Hancox’s Tales of Triumph Motorcycles and the Meriden Factory and Bill Cakebread’s Motorcycle Apprentice: Matchless—In Name and Reputation, pull no punches in attributing responsibility for the failures of their respective employers, but do so with little detail.  Other histories, written with an attachment to their subjects, adopt an elegiac tone, one that leaves little room for an objective assessment of what went wrong and why.5  

Powerful, strong-willed, sometimes truculent, and occasionally wrong-headed individuals have their part in this story, as do the Tory and Labour governments of the postwar decades.  Yet no single person, however influential his position, comes across as the principal villain, a role into which, among others, Donald Heather (AMC), Lionel Jofeh (BSA), Lord Hartley Shawcross (Jofeh’s successor at BSA), and Dennis Poore (Norton Villiers Triumph, the holding company that absorbed the remnants of the industry in 1973), have been cast.  One familiar charge, a favorite among the manufacturers themselves, that they were driven out of the home market by the arrival in large numbers of large-displacement Japanese machines at the end of the 1960s, placing them at a competitive disadvantage, cannot stand up to critical scrutiny.   Another, that opposition by the trade unions prevented firms from rationalizing production, eliminating redundancies, and cutting labor costs, has also proven unsupportable.  In fact, the unions representing motorcycle workers were, in the context of British industrial history, comparatively docile and inclined toward cooperation with management.  On the whole, wages were respectable, jobs were secure and often passed from father to son, and employees benefitted from discounted prices on the machines they made and easy access to spares and service.  Only the Triumph plant in Meriden, where theories of industrial democracy started gathering strength in the postwar period, was the scene of serious work disruptions, the most notorious of which, the employees’ sit-in of 1973, is of more than passing interest in British motorcycle history.  

For the last thirty years the story of the British motorcycle industry has centered on the seemingly sudden failure of the companies whose origins reached back to the dawn of the motorcycle era itself.  Looking at numbers alone, this impression appears warranted.  The examples of the two largest manufacturers, Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) and BSA/Triumph, are representative.6   AMC, for a time England’s largest motorcycle company and then a long-running number two, could trace its beginnings to 1899 when founder Henry Collier opened a shop to sell motorcycles under the Matchless name in London’s Plumstead Road.7   AJS, which became Matchless’s sister marque in 1931, was founded ten years later but only went into production in 1911.  Known for the quality of its products’ build, AMC benefitted from the Second World War, turning out over 70,000 single-cylinder machines for the British army, a total second only to that of BSA.  In the mid-1950s, AMC was producing 20,000 motorcycles annually under its several brand names and was returning profits in excess of £500,000.  By 1961 profits had dropped by half, and a year later the company reported its first postwar loss.  In 1963, after investing a quarter-million pounds in the revived Indian Motorcycle Company in the US, AMC suffered a loss of £350,000 and failed to declare a dividend.  These dire circumstances forced closure of the Norton factory in Birmingham and the transfer of Norton production to the main AMC works in Woolwich in South London.  A belated standardization of production resulted in so-called “hybrid” models, with Norton engines and forks fitted to Matchless/AJS frames and a bewildering variety of roadgoing and off-road machines arriving at dealers’ shops at home and in the far more important US market.8   Losses for 1965 totaled £1.5 million, an unsustainable burden.  In July 1966 Barclays Bank, AMC’s principal creditor, called in its obligations, sending the company into receivership.  The last motorcycles bearing AJS and Matchless badges trickled out of the Plumstead works over the next couple of years; production of the Norton Atlas and after 1968 its successor the Commando was transferred to a new factory in Andover, where it continued for another ten years.  Shortly after work ceased in Plumstead Road the factory was demolished, to be replaced by residential housing.9  

The failure of BSA/Triumph was even more startling, given the larger scale of the enterprise and the unrivalled popularity Triumph motorcycles enjoyed worldwide and especially in the vital US market.  Selling its first two-wheeled vehicles powered by combustion engines in 1910 (the company’s origins in the armaments industry, like those of Royal Enfield, went back to the Crimean War), BSA emerged from the Second World War as the largest motorcycle maker in the world.  Its factory, at Small Heath in Birmingham, was among the largest industrial plants in England.  Triumph boasted an even longer history, the first motorcycles to emerge from the Coventry firm going on the market in 1905.  By the late 1920s, Triumph was producing upwards of 20,000 machines a year.  In 1940 the Coventry plant was destroyed by German air raids, enabling Triumph to relocate, with government assistance, to a new facility in nearby Meriden.  As a result, Triumph entered the postwar period as the motorcycle maker with the most modern plant and equipment, matched only by AMC a few years later after a massive investment by the latter in updating its Woolwich factory.  BSA, during the same period, expanded production in the medium and large-displacement categories, turning out well-made, affordable machines to fit multiple riding needs.   

In 1966 BSA/Triumph reported profits of £3.6 million, its best performance in several years.  A year later profits had dropped to £3.2 million, but still represented a healthy return on investments, which included £750,000 sunk into improvements at the BSA plant in Small Heath.  These robust figures, however, concealed some worrisome patterns.  Despite efforts to expand into other industries like machine tools, the larger corporate group was becoming increasingly dependent on its two motorcycle companies to drive its profits.10   At the same time, the sales of BSA and Triumph motorcycles were increasingly concentrated in the US, where they retained the dominant share of the market for 500cc and 650cc machines but were losing ground in the smaller displacement categories.  By 1969 upwards of 80 percent of the motorcycles made at Small Heath and Meriden were going to America.  The growing dependence on the US market meant that BSA and Triumph could not ignore demands by their American dealers for still larger displacement motorcycles and for “new”—i.e., upgraded—models that could attract more buyers.  Although ambitious production increases were mandated to meet the American demand, a tight labor market—skilled machinists could earn higher pay in the automotive and aircraft industries—and delays in shipments from component suppliers prevented these goals from being realized.  On the American end, dealers complained that bikes were being shipped with faulty or missing components and that efforts to tweak existing models through increased compression ratios and dual carburetion were creating a servicing nightmare.  As a result, the dealers either stockpiled the machines they were receiving or had to sell them at a discount.11 Introduction of the 750cc three-cylinder Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket 3 in 1968 failed to reverse the situation, as the new models suffered from lack of development and departed from the traditional British styling that American customers had come to expect.  Early in 1969 Norton began selling the 750cc Commando with its vibration-suppressing “isolastic” frame construction in the US.  While otherwise the Commando differed little from its conventionally-framed predecessors, a clever advertising campaign succeeded in depicting it as a revolutionary breakthrough in motorcycle design.12  When Honda shortly later debuted its overhead-cam four-cylinder CB750 in the US, with electric start and at a lower price, the BSA and Triumph triples were left at a marketing disadvantage.  

By 1971 BSA/Triumph had accrued a debt of £8.5 million, with an additional overdraft on British and American banks of £10 million.  In the US, Triumph’s share of the market for large-displacement (500-750cc) motorcycles was down to 11 percent, while BSA’s had dropped below 5 percent.  Norton, despite the success of the Commando, held only 3 percent of the big bike market in America.  Honda, in contrast, controlled almost 40 percent of the US heavyweight market and was responsible for 90 percent of all motorcycle sales in the US (Brooke 142). The end, when it came, was quick although not merciful.  In July 1973 the Conservative government of Edward Heath helped bankroll the sale of BSA/Triumph to Manganese Bronze Holdings, a corporate giant that had earlier acquired Norton-Villiers out of the ruin of AMC.  The firm that emerged, Norton Villiers Triumph, represented all that was left of the British motorcycle industry.  Other than some lesser subsidiaries, production was concentrated in three plants (at Small Heath, Meriden, and Andover), where inefficiences and redundancies made a rapid downsizing all but inevitable.  The BSA factory at Small Heath was repurposed to manufacturing engines for Triumph and Norton, while the production of the Commando itself moved to Wolverhampton where it came to an end in 1977.  The Triumph factory presented a different story, for the decision by the much-maligned Manganese Bronze chairman Dennis Poore to end production met fierce worker resistance first with a sit-in and then with the formation of an employees’ cooperative that gained the support of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in 1974.  As a result a steady if small supply of Meriden-made Triumphs continued to reach the UK and US markets until 1983, when a cut-off of government funding brought an end to one of the more interesting experiments in postwar British industrial history.13  

The smaller manufacturers fared no better than did the industry leaders.  Royal Enfield had been absorbed by a multi-company conglomerate in 1962 and despite the introduction of a new flagship, the 750cc Interceptor, a year later, sales continued to weaken.  By 1970 operations at the Redditch factory had ceased.  Velocette, still family-owned after six decades of building motorcycles and with a racing history its bigger competitors could only envy, ran up losses in 1969 and 1970 totalling £200,000 and had to release most of its employees.  Last-ditch efforts to save the venerable firm went nowhere, and in February 1971 the gates at the Hall Green factory were locked and the receivers began the process of liquidating its holdings.14 All of this is familiar enough, as are the attributions as to who bears the blame.  The standard refrain is that the troubles really set in once control of the companies passed from the hands of enthusiasts and engineers to that of accountants and investment managers or, as one commentary describes them, “graduates from business schools, generally people with financial backgrounds” (Chadwick). While there is no doubt some truth to such accounts—several of BSA’s directors, Bert Hopwood reported, displayed an active dislike of motorcycles—they reveal a serious myopia, one that ignores the deeper causes behind the demise of motorcycle manufacturing in the UK (302).  

Although not unusual elsewhere, most of England’s first motorcycle companies were started by sportsmen, enthusiasts of the machines they built with a competitive streak that had to be tested first on public roads and then on purpose-built racetracks.  Henry Colliers’ two sons, Charlie and Harry, began racing their father’s Matchless motorcycles almost at once and were instrumental in getting the first Tourist Trophy race organized on the Isle of Man in 1907.  In the first four TT races, the Collier brothers won three firsts and two seconds; in the 1910 race they finished one-two, Charlie taking his third overall win (Ward, “The Flying ‘M’”). The four sons of Joe Stephens, whose engine-building shop in Wolverhampton grew into the AJS factory, participated in speed trials in the first years after 1900.  James Landsdowne Norton, founder of the Birmingham company that bore his name, competed in speed and reliability trials before he began building motorcycles, providing the foundation for what would become the most prestigious racing history of all the British manufacturers.15   Although not a racer himself, Siegfried Bettmann, Triumph’s founder, was quick to commit motorcycles from his firm to international competition, to the extent that the Coventry-made bikes became a force at the TT—a Triumph won the single-cylinder class in 1908—and scored the first wins in speed trials held at the new Brooklands racetrack.  Once in the blood, the racing passion proved irresistible.  As Mick Walker wrote:  

Once there was a time when virtually every manufacturer in Great Britain listed a racing motorcycle in his catalogue and every firm was anxious for the publicity resulting from success in a major event.  And for a long time British machines dominated the scene.  In the years between the two world wars, Norton, Rudge, Sunbeam, AJS, and Velocette shared the spoils of victory despite the efforts of manufacturers in Italy, Germany, Sweden, France, and Belgium.  It was not until the mid-1930s that success began to come the way of the Continentals, firstly in the lightweight class. (Walker, British 4)  

Even when a British company could no longer sustain an official racing effort, more likely than not it continued to produce competition bikes for privateers to campaign.  AMC, for example, stopped fielding a factory team at the end of the 1956 season, but made the services of its race shop available to private owners who purchased over-the-counter 350cc AJS 7Rs and 500cc Matchless G50s until the firm itself folded ten years later.  For years BSA produced “hot” versions of its 500cc single-cylinder Gold Star road bike, with the result that the so-called Clubman’s Races on the Isle of Man became a BSA monopoly and were eventually discontinued for lack of interest.  When BSA stopped making the Gold Star in 1963, there were more than enough engines around, especially in the US, for BSA-powered machines to remain a force in off-road events and flat track racing for years.  

The commitment to competition may by itself not have been especially damaging; the Italian companies were at least equally implicated.  But it preconditioned and reinforced another characteristic that had more adverse effects on the British motorcycle industry.  Almost from the start, the British manufacturers conceived their primary market to be young (and not so young) men who were attracted to motorcycles boasting a sporting allure and who had the means to afford them.  As only one indicator, England’s most famous motorcyclist in the interwar years was not a TT winner or a land speed record holder, but T. E. Lawrence (of “Arabia” fame), who possessed no fewer than seven twin-cylinder Brough motorcycles, the fastest and most expensive bikes available at the time, and who was killed on one of them, a 1000cc SS 100, in 1935.  Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the same year that criticism in the press and in the general public against large, noisy, and dangerous motorcycles peaked in the UK, with the result that the manufacturers closed ranks to defend both their commitment to racing—essential, they claimed, for testing the performance and reliability of their products—and the patriotic contribution they were making by putting British bikes up against their German and Italian rivals.16  

The values British motorcycle manufacturers both preached and practiced—speed, handling, technical proficiency—from literally the start of the industry to its end created a kind of iron frame from which, with a handful of exceptions, there was no escape.  Combined with an unflagging preoccupation with results achieved in competition, this paradigm inevitably dictated what kinds of machines the factories were going to ship to the dealerships.  There was sound (if short-term) economic sense in staying with this model.  The factories, whether large as in the case of AMC and BSA/Triumph or small as in that of Enfield and Velocette, made their money by selling fast performance models, especially if these could be kitted out with go-faster modifications.  Small and medium-displacement motorcycles were not moneymakers and in fact were often loss-leaders.  Especially in the late 1950s and the 1960s, when the US market began to surge, performance and looks were everything.  Re-showings of The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando straddling a 650cc Triumph Thunderbird, on American college campuses, followed by Steve McQueen’s bravura attempt to jump German border fortifications on a barely disguised Triumph TR6 Trophy in The Great Escape (1963), set off a testosterone-fueled buying frenzy for big British twins that only faded when draft deferments were eliminated due to the Vietnam War.  Even then, only a prescient few recognized that, in performance terms, there was little to be lost by going over to Honda’s ultra-smooth 305cc Super Hawk or for that matter Yamaha’s buzzbomb-like 250cc YDS-series two-stroker.    

Success in competition spurred sales, as the British manufacturers regularly told both their critics and their shareholders.  Certainly this was the case in America, where market leader Triumph fielded not only the Bonneville and the Daytona but also the 650cc TR6 Trophy off-roader, referencing its wins in the International Six Days Trials in the early 1950s.  For a couple of years Triumph also sold a competition-intended Thruxton version of the Bonneville, which was a kind of gilding of the lily.  The last big sporting single to come out of the Velocette works was also a Thruxton, similarly named for the former RAF base where hotly-contested 500-mile endurance races for production bikes were run between 1955 and 1964.17   Just over 1,000 of these black-and-gold high performance machines—one or two other color combinations were available—were produced before the company closed.  When Norton resolved, in the early 1960s, to enter the American market in force, it did so with a new 650cc twin-cylinder model named—for obvious reasons—the Manxman.18   A quarter-century later, Honda offered up its single-cylinder GB500, an intentional homage to the British racers of the postwar period, making sure it got things right by appending “Tourist Trophy” on the bike’s side panels.19  

Given their attention to the racetrack, the British motorcycle makers have to be faulted for failing to recognize that what was happening there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when first the Italians and next the Japanese challenged and then upended their dominance, would soon be carried over to the consumer market.  What has somewhat inaccurately been described as “segment retreat”—where the British factories conceded one displacement class after another—reiterated what had already happened in international competition, most visibly at the TT races.20 Already all-conquering in the lightweight classes, Honda captured its first junior win in 1963 (with Jim Redman on board) and repeated the victory in 1964 and 1965.  A year later Mike Hailwood won the first of two successive senior races for Honda, before Giacomo Agostini put MV Agusta back on top.  When Honda, soon followed by Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki, challenged the British companies’ hold on the 650/750cc class in the UK and the US, the sheer scale of resource and the production efficiencies (which allowed lower prices) the Japanese manufacturers brought to bear foreordained the result.  A glorious competition history, even like that of Norton, could not withstand the advantage in technical innovation, owner friendliness, and reliability the Japanese enjoyed.21  

High performance (by the standard of the day), good looks, and a sporting tradition kept British bikes at the head of the pack for only so long.  When the Japanese matched two of those qualities and began contesting the third, things were bound to change.  Smoother and higher-revving engines, ease of maintenance or no maintenance at all, superior electrics, styling that borrowed unabashedly from the best of the British before evolving a distinctive lexicon of its own, a rapidly expanding dealer network with spot-clean showrooms and service areas—all these put the handwriting on the wall had the right people been reading.  Edward Turner, Triumph’s veteran design guru, and Bert Hopwood had, including an extended trip to Japan in 1960 by Turner; many others in the 1960s and 1970s managerial class had not.   

The real failures, however, had occurred years, even decades earlier and reflected the sporting origins of British motorcycling.  Unlike the Italians, the Germans, and especially the Japanese, British motorcycle manufacturers never succeeded in building a mass consumer base for whom two-wheeled vehicles represented a cheap and reliable mode of transportation rather than a form of recreation and a means of self-definition.  Those efforts which were made, Velocette’s ingenious LE (“Little Engine”) with its water-cooled, horizontally-opposed 200cc twin-cylinder engine and shaft drive, and BSA’s clumsy Ariel 3 moped, with a 50cc two-stroke single-cylinder engine, failed in the marketplace.  BSA did sell more than a quarter-million examples of the Bantam, a single-cylinder two-stroke with displacements of 125 to 175cc, but the lightweight bike was in fact of German origin and had come to Britain as part of war reparations.  No British manufacturer ever came up with something to match the Honda Super Cub, whose singular contribution to motorcycle history was confirmed in the Guggenheim Museum’s 1998 “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibition and whose descendants continue to be sold around the world today (Drutt 282-83).  

It is hard to evade the conclusion that the cubes, chrome, and color that gave big British twins their allure in the 1950s and 1960s and that, together with a strong dose of nostalgia and an increasingly avaricious investment-oriented mentality, now inflate their value came with a built-in self-destruct mechanism.  The reference, to be clear, is not to the rod-throwing habits of the late-issue 750cc AMC roadsters that allegedly contributed to that venerable firm’s downfall or to the notorious bearing failures of the Commando’s “Combat” engine.22 In other words, the buyers who flocked to the Bonneville and the Lightning and (later) to the Commando entered into a Faustian bargain; they did not necessarily sell their souls, as the fable goes, but they opted into a short-term arrangement with an industry that lacked the capacity to re-invent itself when the world it inhabited changed several times over, and in a surprisingly short period of time.  Long before the ubiquitous “Made in England” decal became a source either of black humor or painful regret, the self-congratulatory tradition of hand-crafted motorcycles, round-the-local-streets road testing, and tape-a-number-over-the-headlight-today-and-race-it-tomorrow was well on the way to crashing and burning.  

What, then, are we to make of the reappearance of the high-performance British twin, a proven market success in the case of the “new” Triumph Bonneville and prospectively in that of the “new” Norton Commando, whose production in numbers is yet to commence?  Admittedly the current Bonneville, even with the Thruxton-edition upgrades, is no thinly disguised sports racer, as some of its Meriden-made predecessors definitely were.  In a comparison road test with a first-year-ever T120 and a 1967 TT Special, Classic Bike called the Hinckley-produced Bonneville “a competent mid-speed cruiser,” as though Triumph’s most famous motorcycle “had been to finishing school” and emerged “extremely smooth and well mannered” (Duckworth and Moore). If that sounds like a bit of a rebuke, there is no quarreling with the numbers.  In May 2011 Triumph celebrated its 500,000th motorcycle coming off the line—appropriately enough a “modern” Speed Triple—and closed out a year in which total production finished just under 50,000, better than the old company did at the height of its success. Annual revenues were £345 million, a better than ten percent increase over the previous year, and pre-tax profits cleared £20 million, not bad for a company that has been selling motorcycles for little more than twenty years. The Hinckley company’s “classic” range accounts for a quarter of total sales and twenty percent of those in the UK.  With two production facilities in England and three more in Thailand, the revived Triumph is far more than a specialty manufacturer (as Norton looks to be, assuming it can get off the ground).  Sales have remained strong in the UK and the US, despite the economic downturn since 2009, and are growing in Europe and in the Commonwealth countries.  Nearly 750 dealers comprise an increasingly global retail network (Madson). This is a degree of market penetration that distinguishes today’s Triumph from its famous predecessor, which toward the end was entirely dependent on North America—wherein lies a whole other story of missed opportunities and regrettable managerial decisions.23  

By any standard, John Bloor’s Triumph has found a successful market strategy by offering a wide range of models directed toward clearly demarcated sectors of the motorcycle buying public.  Yet old habits die hard, or—to change clichés—because the DNA of one of the most famous names in the history of British motorcycling still proves indelible—the new Triumph produces no engines smaller than 600cc and is unlikely to do so.  The case of Stuart Garner’s revived Norton company appears to reinforce this law of motorcycle genetics.  At the moment putting only three models on the market, all of them high performance and each built on a customer-order basis, the new Norton seems set on following a different commercial strategy, one that in fact harkens back to such illustrious predecessors as Brough and Vincent, i.e., motorcycles designed for the knowing few.  Recent promotional releases describe investments in expanded facilities, machining and finishing equipment, and a carefully screened work force of engineers and assemblers, perhaps suggestive of ambitions beyond what are essentially bespoke motorcycles (Norton). Yet again, that old genetic material raises doubts.  Twenty years ago, one-time racer and veteran motorcycle historian Mick Woollett was still echoing deeply engrained feelings when he wrote in his Norton history:  

[T]he real sensation of 1958 was the launch, at the Earls Court Show, of the twin-cylinder 250cc Jubilee—so called to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the founding of the Norton company….The price was £216 and [Bert] Hopwood’s idea was to expand the range down into the utility/touring market.  Even at the time that seemed wrong.  Norton was a prestigious motorcycle with a hard-won reputation.  What we Norton fans wanted was rip-snorting road-burners.  Yet one after another the British factories fell for the utility line and semi-enclosure.  First it was Velocette with the under-powered LE flat-twin, then Triumph and Norton with semi-enclosure of the rear wheel.  All proved a disaster and were scrapped after a few years. (266)  

Woollett’s recollection reminds us that this kind of tunnel vision was not restricted to manufacturers alone.  Triumph, Velocette, and even Norton offered road bikes with weather-beating fiberglass panels designed to make motorcycle transport less wearing on the rider, or at least on the rider’s clothes.  The market, especially in the US, reacted quickly, either disdaining these seemingly sensible modifications or stripping the panels off at the first opportunity.  Even today those T21 Triumphs, for example, that have survived with the “bathtub” intact do not exactly light up the auction blocks; nor do their 350cc engines command much respect.  In fact, the only shrouded motorcycles, both then and now, that inhabit the precincts of much-admired machines are Vincent Black Knights and Black Princes, and that no doubt owes to the all-around allure of the products of the Stevenage works.   

So maybe it is time to re-visit the deal we thought we were getting when you could pick up a spanking new Bonneville or Lightning for a few hundred dollars or, even better, choose one out of the dealer’s overstock and bargain the price down.  These were the days when British bikes were everywhere, and we expected things to remain so forever.  We heard the tales about this or that manufacturer shutting down, but there were plenty of UK-sourced roadsters and off-roaders almost anywhere we looked and parts represented no problem thanks to all the clapped-out examples that littered the bike shops.  This was a motorcycling landscape that seemed immutable, even as more and more dealerships first added one or another Japanese marques and then began phasing out servicing—forget about sales—for British ones.  The tradition, after all, was one in which the British bike enthusiast was expected to be his own mechanic, so becoming a do-it-yourselfer did not seem that much of a change.  

But landscapes, natural and mechanical, are subject to change.  All those Bonnevilles and Lightnings and Interceptors and Commandos came at a much higher price than what showed on the sales slip.  But we did not know that and we took for granted that what we delighted in was as solid as the iron under our saddles.  If only the alloy had been finer, and the big twins could have kept coming thanks to an industry—and a customer base—that looked forward rather than backward.  

Notes

1 Necessary disclaimer: Steve Koerner is a contributor to this journal, and he and I have exchanged information about our common interest in the British motorcycle industry.

2 For the better part of the past decade the Bonneville, especially the pre-unit version, has served as something of a benchmark for the market value of the big-displacement models the British industry turned out in large numbers from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s.  The top-of-the-line roadburners from BSA and Norton have lagged behind, particularly among North American enthusiasts.  Comparable models from AMC (Associated Motor Cycles, i.e., AJS and Matchless) and Royal Enfield can still be had at what are, relatively speaking, bargain prices. See Ward, “Hierarchies.”  

3 The current Bonneville gets a thumbs-up from Hugo Wilson (“The 21st Century British Twin” 78-80).  Whether the latest effort to turn a profit with a “new” Norton Commando will succeed remains to be determined.  See the letter from Stuart Garner, CEO of Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd., to US and Canadian customers published March 27, 2012.  

4 See, for example, the two-part “Ultimate British Twin Guide.”  

5 This is especially true of Velocette, which while one of the smaller companies enjoyed a reputation for technical prowess and owner integrity that was unmatched in the British motorcycle industry.  These notable qualities did not prevent the owners from making marketing decisions that ended up devastating their finances and that could not be repaired by stopgaps like the purchase of Royal Enfield’s spares business and a scheme entered into with American magazine publisher Floyd Clymer to sell both Velocettes and Enfields as Italo-British hybrids in the US.  See Rhodes; Allen.

6 BSA and Triumph comprised a single company after 1951 although the two historic marques, unlike AMC’s AJS and Matchless brands, maintained a separate existence and competed aggressively with one another, especially in the increasingly important US market.  Badge-engineering, i.e., producing identical motorcycles which differed only in name and minor styling details, did not become a practice at BSA and Triumph until the end of their respective histories in the early 1970s.  

7 In addition to Mick Walker’s AJS and Matchless marque histories in the Crowood Press MotoClassics series, a convenient and generously illustrated single-volume history of the two leading AMC brands is available in The AJS & Matchless Scrapbook edited by James Robinson.  

8 According to Bill Cakebread’s memoir Motorcycle Apprentice, by the mid-1960s virtually all the machines being produced at the Plumstead factory were being shipped to the US and the employees had to wait for advance payment on the orders placed by the American distributor, the Berliner Motor Corporation in New Jersey, to receive their wages.  Today the AMC hybrids are more highly valued than their pre-1963 AJS and Matchless predecessors, and the last of the breed, the 750cc Matchless P11/Norton P11 “desert sled,” is especially prized among enthusiasts.  For an appreciative assessment, see Hugo Wilson, “Dirty Great Norton.”  

9 A two-page photograph of the AMC factory appears in the first volume of Colin Seeley’s autobiography (44-45).  Independent frame maker and former sidecar champion Colin Seeley purchased the fabled AMC race shop when the company was liquidated and kept the 500cc Matchless G50 in limited production for several years so that it became a mainstay of the classic bike racing scene when the latter took off in the 1980s.  There is also a several-page photo essay by Brian Slark, who was employed at Woolwich from 1957 to 1963, in an early issue of Classic Bike.   

10 In 1960 BSA sold the money-losing Daimler car company, which it had owned for fifty years, to Jaguar.  Sunbeam motorcycles, which BSA had bought from AMC in 1943, ceased production of its BMW-inspired shaft-drive model in 1956.  Ariel, which BSA had also acquired during the war, no longer produced its much-admired trials bikes, although a small number of 650cc BSA engined-twins were marketed with Ariel badges and the small displacement (250cc) Arrow Leader survived until 1965.  

11 In a 2012 interview Wilf Harrison, BSA’s export sales director from 1966 to 1973, recalled that some US dealers refused to accept shipments of new bikes because of shoddy workmanship and subsequent servicing problems.  “We were in a lot of trouble in America,” Harrison stated.  “BSA was a huge conglomerate that lost its way” (qtd. in   Duckworth 68-71).

12 To the chagrin of its British rivals, the Commando was named “Machine of the Year” by Motor Cycle News for five years in a row (1968-1972).  For a succinct review of the Commando’s ten-year production history, almost all of which went to the US, see Miller.  

13 Of many accounts of the events at the Meriden factory, perhaps the most useful is that of Labour Party historian Chris Hemming. The BSA plant at Small Heath was demolished in 1977, although some buildings are still standing.  For a photograph of the factory as it appeared in 1968, go to http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/557/1/bb0386.jpg.  The Triumph factory at Meriden was torn down in the mid-1980s.  A photograph of the demolition in progress appears in Koerner 261.

14 See, in addition to the marque histories cited in note 7, Rhodes and Frost.  

15 A Norton finished first in the twin-cylinder class at the inaugural Tourist Trophy race, and Nortons went on the amass 43 TT victories, 31 of them with the 350cc and 500cc Manx.  Norton’s last victory in the TT, with the rotary-engined John Player Special, came in 1992, long after British motorcycles had ceased to be competitive.  Norton’s racing legacy is chronicled in Walker, Norton.  

16 It might be remembered that Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, exposing the incapacity of the League of Nations to prevent aggression, and that a year later Hitler would send German troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, soon to be followed by German and Italian intervention on the side of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.  Not only in motorcycling circles, patriotic feelings were running high.  

17 Between 1954 and 1964, when the race moved to Castle Combe, all the major British factories scored overall wins in the Thruxton 500-miler.  The only incursion by a non-British manufacturer came in 1959, when a BMW R69 took first.   

18 In 1975, Norton offered a limited number of Thruxton-version Commandos, derived from the John Player Special racers and commemorating four straight wins (1970-1973) when the 500-miler returned to the Thruxton circuit.  The Norton race shop, which struggled to preserve a separate existence amidst all the changes in name and ownership of the 1960s and early 1970s, was located at Thruxton from 1968 through the end of the Commando’s production run in 1977.  

19 Sold in the US in 1989 and 1990 only, the GB500 was a decade early for the “retro” boom and was not a success. Today it is highly sought after—as reflected in prices for low-mileage originals—and is frequently celebrated in the enthusiasts’ magazines.  Starting in April 2012 the Mortons Media Group sponsored a promotional giveaway of a restored 1986 UK edition of the GB500.  See http://www.classicbikersclub.com/news/2012-04/win-honda-gb500tt.  

20 The concept of “segment retreat” originated in a 1975 report by an American consulting group commissioned by the British government to identify the causes behind the collapse of the nation’s motorcycle industry.  The term is misleading, as Steve Koerner among others has pointed out, given that the segments of the domestic market that had supposedly been conceded had never been actively contested by the British manufacturers.  

21 An assessment that still resonates today: see Kane, who reprises the superior qualities of Yamaha’s Triumph-styled overhead-cam XS650 twin, introduced in 1969 for sale in the US and in 1971 in Europe and the UK.  

22 The former charge is argued, in some quarters, to have been exaggerated if not altogether unfounded.  See, e.g., Partridge,  a studious effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the last “genuine” AMC twin before the Norton Atlas motor became ubiquitous at the Woolwich works.  

23 For the details, see Duckworth, “America.”  

 

Works Cited  

Allen, C. E.  The Velocette Saga: The Story of a Great Motorcycle. Laxey, Isle of Man: Amulree Publications, 1994.  

Brooke, Lindsay. Triumph Motorcycles: A Century of Passion and Power. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2002.

Cakebread, Bill. Motorcycle Apprentice: Matchless—In Name and Reputation. Dorchester: Veloce, 2008.

Chadwick, Ian. “An Overview of the British Motorcycle Industry and Its Collapse.” June 30, 2001: http://www.ianchadwick.com/motorcycles/britbikes. 

Clayton, Jerry. “The Reel Life of Rockers.” Classic Bike February 2001: 43-47.

Duckworth, Mick. “America to the Rescue.” Classic Bike April 2010: 60-62.

 

---. “Export Tales.” The Classic Motorcycle July 2012: 68-71.

 

--- and Jim Moore. “50 Years of the Bonneville.” Classic Bike August 2009: 43-57.

 

Drutt, Matthew, ed. The Art of the Motorcycle. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998.

 

Garner, Stuart, CEO of Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd.  Letter to US and Canadian customers, March 27, 2012: http://www.ntnoa.org/pdf/Norton%20Letter%20March%202012.pdf

Hancox, Hughie. Tales of Triumph Motorcycles and the Meriden Factory. Dorchester: Veloce, 1996.

Hemming, Chris.“The Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative.” (undated, but post-2002):  http://www.labour-history.org.uk/Essays%20and%20articles.htm. 

Hopwood, Bert. Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? The Classic Inside Story of Its Rise and Fall. 1981. Sparkford: Haynes, 1998.

Kane, Gerard. “The Perfect British Twin.” Classic Bike May 2012: 71-76.

 

Koerner, Steve.  The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry. Lancaster: Crucible Books, 2012.

 

Madson, Bart. “Inside Triumph Motorcycles.” Motorcycle-USA October 20, 2011: http://www.motorcycle-usa.com/689/11346/Motorcycle-Article/Inside-Triumph-Motorcycles.aspx.

 

Miller, Ben. “Time Machine.” Classic Bike September 2010: 46-52.

 

Norton Motorcycles (UK) Ltd. “Norton Announce Continued Investment…” August 16, 2012: http://www.nortonmotorcycles.com/news/?p=3126.

 

Partridge, Michael. Matchless G15/45: AMC Limited Production Export Model 750cc Twin. 2006. Northants: AJSMOC, 2012.

 

Robinson, James.  The AJS & Matchless Scrapbook.  Horncastle: Mortons Media Group, 2011.

 

Rhodes, Ivan. Velocette: Technical Excellence Exemplified. London: Osprey, 1990.

--- and Dennis Frost. “Velocette: The End.” Classic Bike May 2011: 54-56.

 

Seeley, Colin. Colin Seeley: Racer…and the Rest. Tyne & Wear: Redline Books, 2006. 

 

Slark, Brian. “Working for AMC.” Classic Bike July 1988: 32-36. 

 

“Ultimate British Twin Guide.” Classic Bike August 2011: 38-51 and September 2011: 64-78.

 

Walker, Mick. British Racing Motorcycles. Tyne & Wear: Redline Books, 1998.

 

---. Norton: The Racing Story. Wilshire: The Crowood Press, 2002.

Ward, James J.  “Hierarchies of Value and Meaning in the Classic British Bike Scene.”  International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 1 (March 2005): http://ijms.nova.edu/March2005/IJMS_ArtclWard0305.html.

---. “The Flying ‘M’ on the IOM: The Matchless Name and the Tourist Trophy Races.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 3 (November 2007): http://ijms.nova.edu/November2007TT/IJMS_Artcl.Ward.html.

Wilson, Hugo. “Dirty Great Norton.” Classic Bike December 2008: 42-48.

---. “The 21st Century British Twin.” Classic Bike September 2011: 78-80.

Woollett, Mick.  Norton: The Complete Illustrated History. London: Osprey, 1990.

 

 

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