Volume 6, Issue 1: Spring 2010

Special Issue: Motorcycle--Beschleunigung und Rebellion?

    

hall coverBook Review

Shooting Star: The Rise & Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry

byAbe Aamidor 

Toronto, Canada:  ECW Press, 2009

ISBN-10: 1550229001

ISBN-13: 978-1550229004

 

 

 

 

 

Steve Koerner  

There are shelves in libraries around the world literally creaking under the weight of books written about British motorcycles and the companies that manufactured them.  Readers can, for example, find book after book covering the larger companies such as Triumph, BSA and Norton as well as the smaller ones like Vincent.[1]  Indeed, some years ago, author Steve Wilson wrote an encyclopaedic six-volume history chronicling virtually every post-war British motorcycle company that ever existed along with detailed descriptions of the bikes they produced. If that isn’t enough, specific models such as the Triumph “Bonneville” and the Norton “Commando” have themselves been the subject of their own dedicated studies (Nelson, Duckworth).

 

There has also been a recent biography of Edward Turner, the long-time Managing Director of Triumph, probably the most successful British motorcycle company of them all and the only one to have survived to the present day (Clew).  And, nearly 30 years ago, another senior executive, Bert Hopwood, wrote his autobiography, Whatever Happened to the British Motor Cycle Industry?, which remains by far the best first-hand account of the circumstances surrounding the industry’s downfall.

 

While there are plenty of these types of books available, there are few, if any, in-depth histories of the industry itself.   Nor does the existing literature satisfactorily answer the question why, after years of success, it failed so dismally in the face of competition from its Japanese rivals back in late 1960s and early 1970s.

 

Indeed, looking back from the perspective of 2010, it is now easy to forget just how dominant the British motorcycle industry was for much of the twentieth century.  Not only were British manufacturers like BSA, Norton and Triumph far ahead of their foreign competitors in terms of production, exports, design and technological innovation but British riders and their bikes excelled on race tracks across Europe.[2]  With only a few exceptions, British motorbikes ruled the road from the cliffs of Dover all the way to Australia and beyond. Ironically, in light of what would happen years later, for most of the 1920s and 1930s a large proportion of the motorcycles used in Japan were imported from Britain. 

 

Yes, during the years leading up to World War II there had been a brief but concerted effort on the part of the German motorcycle industry to challenge its British rival.  That resulted in a trade war which in turn led to a price-fixing and market share agreement negotiated by the two industries just before the outbreak of the real shooting war in 1939. 

 

In 1945, with Germany in ruins, the British reasserted their supremacy.  Soon afterwards, they launched a devastating foray into North America which until then had been the near exclusive domain of the Harley-Davidson and Indian companies.  The two American producers quickly lost market share to the British interlopers and, during the mid-1950s, tried to stem the onslaught with an unsuccessful application to the US Tariff Board.  Soon afterwards, Indian disappeared and Harley-Davidson only barely escaped the same fate.

 

During the following years British motorcycles continued to flood into the US and Canada until, by the mid-1970s, they in turn were knocked off the road by the Japanese.

 

While much of this story has been told before, little of the literature published about the British motorcycle industry really provides a comprehensive, thoroughly researched explanation for its collapse.  Consequently, the arrival of Abe Aamidor’s Shooting Star: The Rise and Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry should be an event both welcome and long overdue, an opportunity to analyze the causes underlying this industry’s demise.

 

Unfortunately, although the book has its strong points, ultimately this slim volume (the text, exclusive of the index and endnotes, runs to just over 150 pages) fails to live up to expectations.

 

Let’s look at its attributes first.

 

Aamidor generally writes well and catches his readers’ attention right from the start.  The book benefits from a number of striking anecdotes from people who, if not at the centre of the industry, were still in a good position to observe the goings-on inside. 

 

One of them, racer Frank Mellings, whom Aamidor seems to have extensively interviewed, offers some keen and often humorous insights gained during many years working in the industry.  His description, for example, of an encounter with Lionel Jofeh, BSA’s pompous and arrogant motorcycle chief during the late 1960s and early 1970s, is particularly good.

 

Still, even though such interviews are illuminating, they fail to make up for what is otherwise limited research.  More to the point, does Shooting Star really tell us something about the industry not already covered in the existing literature?

 

Certainly, one major problem facing any historian of the industry is finding new sources.  Sadly, other than Hopwood, the giants of the industry such as Jack Sangster and Donald Heather (the latter is, inexplicably, not even mentioned in Shooting Star), died before writing their autobiographies or memoirs nor, as far as can be determined, have their diaries and personal or business correspondence survived. 

 

Perhaps that is why most of the literature Aamidor consulted for his book was published at least twenty years ago.  Some sources, such as Hopwood’s autobiography, Owen Wright’s history of BSA and the Boston Consulting Group’s 1975 study Strategy Alternatives for the British Motor Cycle Industry (which was commissioned by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government) are frequently referenced in the endnotes. Much, if not all, of the remainder appear to be newspaper and magazine articles, mostly published since 1980. 

 

True, Shooting Star does refer to several academic sources.  In particular, Joe Heaton’s unpublished 2008 PhD dissertation on the history of BSA and Barbara Smith’s unpublished study of the same company’s production strategies, are especially good for explaining its inability to modernise both aging factory and motorcycle designs during the 1960s.  That failure led directly to the company’s bankruptcy in 1973. Both Smith and Heaton do have something new to say about BSA, by far the industry’s largest firm, and Aamidor could have improved his book by including more references to their work.

 

Judging from the endnotes (there is no bibliography), it seems that Aamidor conducted little archival research and that too weakens Shooting Star.  There is only one reference (which seems to have been accessed online) to the abundant documentation on deposit at the National Archives in London and none at all to the huge archive of the Motor Cycle Association, the industry’s trade organization, which has long been open to researchers at the University of Warwick’s Modern Record Centre.  Research at these archives would have allowed Aamidor to present fresh evidence about both the industry’s successes and failures which are otherwise missing from this book. 

 

Shooting Star also suffers from a narrow post-1945 chronological focus.  It touches only briefly on the period before the Second World War despite the fact that during those years critical decisions were made, especially about manufacturing and marketing strategies, which helped shape the industry’s course until the end.

 

Yet, Aamidor devotes an entire chapter, a disproportionately large part of his book under the circumstances, to motorcycle racing.  This was undeniably an important aspect of the industry and many senior executives believed success on the race track often had a direct impact on sales (“win on Sunday, sell on Monday”). 

 

Certainly many throughout the industry believed that, encouraged by the competition fostered on the race track, the more advanced technology developed for the racing models would “trickle-down” to also benefit the more mundane commuter-type bikes with better engines, braking systems and so forth.

 

However, the humble BSA 125cc “Bantam,” which was manufactured between 1948 and 1971, for longer and in greater numbers than any other single British motorcycle model, would seem to contradict that belief.  In fact, far from passing on the benefits gained from its racing machines, over time BSA invested little in the way of improvements to the ‘Bantam” except for occasionally increasing the engine displacement (it ultimately reached 175cc).[3]

 

Unfortunately, Aamidor has little or nothing to say about bikes like the “Bantam” or the imported Italian scooters and Japanese motorcycles, especially the modest but ubiquitous 50cc Honda “Supercub,” that were so popular in Britain during the 1950s and afterwards.  Large numbers of these were sold, both in Britain and elsewhere, often to commuters many of whom were women.

 

By overlooking these bikes and the people who rode them, Shooting Star repeats the same mistake made by the industry itself.  Gearing their factories to cater to the comparatively few young men who rode the larger more powerful sports oriented machines, British motorcycle companies failed to develop the economies of scale necessary to remain competitive. 

 

In contrast, thanks to their emphasis on high volume production of the smaller models, by the late 1950s the Japanese motorcycle industry had greatly expanded the scale of its manufacturing and research and development capacity.  Within a decade later they were able to move on to bigger machines such as the Honda 750 and Kawasaki 900 that made the British bikes look tired and old-fashioned.  The end of the British motorcycle industry, caused mainly through self-inflected wounds, quickly followed.

 

In conclusion, readers seeking an introduction to the history of the British motorcycle industry since 1945, one that ably summarizes the existing secondary literature, will enjoy Shooting Star.  Others, however, looking for a more substantial account of the rise and fall of the industry, one that offers a longer historical perspective along with new evidence and explanations, will have to look elsewhere.

 

Notes

 

[1] See, amongst many others, Brooke, Morley, Woollett, and Wherrett.

[2] In 1925, for example, Britain produced 120,000 motorcycles compared to 55,980 in Germany and 45,000 in the USA.  By 1937, German production had grown to 171,239 compared to 82,014 in Britain and 17,700 in the USA.  However, while Britain mainly produced larger models in the 350cc-500cc engine displacement class, Germany’s production was mostly in the under 250cc class, some not much more than motorized bicycles. Increased German production also benefited from supportive National Socialist government economic policies.

[3] Over the course of its production life, an estimated quarter million Bantams rolled out of BSA’s factory.  The Bantam was, however, a German design expropriated by BSA as part of Britain’s share of post-war reparations. 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Boston Consulting Group. Strategy Alternatives for the British Motorcycle Industry:  A Report Prepared for the Secretary of State for Industry. London:  HMSO, 1975.

 

Brooke, Lindsay. Triumph Motorcycles:  A Century of Passion and Power. St. Paul, USA:  MBI Publishing Co., 2002.

 

Clew, Jeff. Edward Turner: The Man behind the Motorcycles.  Dorchester: Veloce, 2007.

 

Duckworth, Mick. Norton Commando.  Sparkford: Haynes Publishing Group, 2004.

 

Heaton, Joe. “An examination of the post-second world war relative decline of UK manufacturing, 1945-1975, viewed through the lens of the Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd.” Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Birmingham, 2007.

 

Hopwood, Bert. Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? Sparkford:  Haynes Publishing Group, 1980.

 

Morley, Don. BSA. London: Osprey Publishing, 1991.

 

Nelson, John. Bonnie:  The Development History of the Triumph Bonneville.  Sparkford:  Haynes Publishing Group, 1979. 

 

Smith, Barbara “Production Relationships at BSA, 1963/64 – 1971/72.” Copy on deposit at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham England.

 

Wherrett, Duncan. Vincent. London: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1994.

 

Wilson, Steve.  British Motorcycles since 1950.  6 vols. Cambridge:  Patrick Stephens, 1982.

 

Woollett, Mick. Norton.  London:  Osprey Publishing, 1992.

 

Wright, Owen. BSA:  The Complete Story.  Marlborough:  Crowood Press, 1992.

 

 

 

 

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