BSA was founded in 1861 in the Gun Quarter,
Birmingham, England by fourteen gunsmiths of
the Birmingham Small Arms Trade Association,
who had together supplied arms to the British
government during the Crimean War. The company
branched out as the gun trade declined; in the
1870s they manufactured the Otto Dicycle, in
the 1880s the company began to manufacture bicycles
and in 1903 the company's first experimental
motorcycle was constructed. Their first prototype
automobile was produced in 1907 and the next
year the company sold 150 automobiles. By 1909
they were offering a number of motorcycles for
sale and in 1910 BSA purchased the British Daimler
Company for its automobile engines.
World War One
During World War I, the company returned to
arms manufacture and greatly expanded its operations.
BSA produced rifles, Lewis guns, shells, motorcycles
and other vehicles for the war effort.
1935 magazine advert for the BSA range
of motorcycles and 3-wheeler cars
In 1920, it bought some of the assets of the
Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco), which
had built many important aircraft during the
war but had become bankrupt due to the falloff
in orders once hostilities ceased. BSA did not
go into aviation; the chief designer Geoffrey
de Havilland of Airco founded the de Havilland
As well as the Daimler car range, BSA re-entered
the car market under their own name in 1921
with a V-twin engined light car followed by
four-cylinder models up to 1926 when the name
was temporarily dropped. In 1929 a new range
of 3 and 4 wheel cars appeared and production
of these continued until 1936.
In the 1930s the board of directors authorised
expenditure on bringing their arms-making equipment
back to use - it had been stored at company
expense since the end of the Great War in the
belief that BSA might again be called upon to
perform its patriotic duty.
In 1931 the Lanchester Motor Company was acquired
and production of their cars transferred to
Daimler's Coventry works.
World War Two
By World War II, BSA had 67 factories and was
well positioned to meet the demand for guns
and ammunition. BSA operations were also dispersed
to other companies under licence. During the
war it produced over a million Lee-Enfield rifles,
Sten sub machine guns and half a million Browning
machine guns. Wartime demands included motorcycle
production. BSA supplied 126,000 M20 motorcycles
to the armed forces, from 1937 (and later until
1950) plus military bicycles including the folding
paratrooper bicycle. At the same time, the Daimler
concern was producing armoured cars.
Sir Bernard Docker was chairman of BSA until
1951 with James Leek CBE Managing Director from
1939, after which Jack Sangster became Managing
Director. Post-war, BSA continued to expand
the range of metal goods it produced. The BSA
Group bought Triumph Motorcycles in 1951, making
them the largest producer of motorcycles in
the world. The cycle and motor cycle interests
of Ariel, Sunbeam and New Hudson were also acquired.
Most of these had belonged to Sangster.
In 1960 Daimler was sold off to Jaguar.
The BSA bicycle arm was sold off to Raleigh
in 1957. Bicycles under the BSA name are currently
manufactured and distributed within India by
TI Cycles of India.
The production of guns bearing the BSA name
continued beyond the 1957 sale of the bicycle
division, but in 1986 BSA Guns was liquidated,
the assets bought and renamed BSA Guns (UK)
Ltd. The company continues to make air rifles
and shotguns, and are still based in Small Heath
The Group continued to expand and acquire throughout
the 1950s but by 1965 competition from Japan
(in the shape of companies like Honda, Yamaha
and Suzuki) and Europe from Jawa / CZ, Bultaco
and Husqvarna was eroding BSA's market share.
The BSA (and Triumph range) were no longer aligned
with the markets; mopeds were displacing scooter
sales, superbike engine capacity had risen to
1000 cc 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 some 2 million pounds.
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.
Reorganisation 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 to Norton
Villers was started in late 1972 and for a brief
time a Norton 500 single was built with the
B50 based unit-single engine but few if any
were sold publicly. The BSA unit single B50's
500 cc 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.
By 1972, BSA was so moribund that with bankruptcy
imminent, and with government backing its motorcycle
businesses were absorbed into the Manganese
Bronze company, Norton-Villiers, which became
Norton-Villiers-Triumph with the intention of
producing and marketing Norton and Triumph motorcycles.
The shareholders of BSA confirmed the deal.
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. Norton's and
BSA's factories were eventually shut down, while
Triumph staggered on to fail four years later.
Out of the ashes of receivership, the NVT Motorcycles
Ltd company which owned the rights to the BSA
marque, was bought-out by the management and
renamed the BSA Company.
The BSA bicycle arm had been sold to Raleigh
in 1956 and the BSA Winged-B logo was still
seen for a while on up-market bicycles.
The BSA company produced military motorcycles
(with Rotax engines) and motorcycles for developing
countries (with Yamaha engines) under the BSA
name. In the later case the old "Bushman" name
was recalled to duty - it had been previously
used on high ground clearance Bantams sold for
the likes of Australian sheep farmers.
In 1991, the BSA (motorcycle) Company merged
with Andover Norton International Ltd., to form
a new BSA Group, largely producing spare parts
for existing motorcycles. In December 1994,
BSA Group was taken over by a newly formed BSA
Regal Group. The new company, based in Southampton,
has a large spares business and has produced
a number of limited-edition, retro-styled motorcycles.
Bicycle manufacture was what led BSA into motorcycles.
The subsidiary business BSA Bicycles Ltd was
sold to Raleigh Industries in 1957.
The first wholly BSA motorcycles were built
in 1910, before then engines had come from other
manufacturers. BSA Motorcycles Ltd was set up
as a subsidiary in 1919.
BSA motorcycles were sold as affordable motorcycles
with reasonable performance for the average
user. BSA stressed the reliability of their
machines, the availability of spares and dealer
support. The motorcycles were a mixture of sidevalve
and OHV engines offering different performance
for different roles, e.g. hauling a sidecar.
The bulk of use would be for commuting. BSA
motorcycles were also popular with "fleet buyers"
in Britain, who (for example) used the Bantams
for telegram delivery for the Post Office or
motorcycle/sidecar combinations for AA patrols
Automobile Association (AA) breakdown help services.
This mass market appeal meant they could claim
"one in four is a BSA" on advertising.
Machines with better specifications were available
for those who wanted more performance or for
Initially, after World War II, BSA motorcycles
were not generally seen as racing machines,
compared to the likes of Norton. In the immediate
post war period few were entered in races such
as the TT races, though this changed dramatically
in the Junior Clubman event (smaller engine
motorcycles racing over some 3 or 4 laps around
one of the Isle of Man courses). In 1947 there
were but a couple of BSA mounted riders, but
by 1952 BSA were in the majority and in 1956
the makeup was 53 BSA, 1 Norton and 1 Velocette.
To improve US sales, in 1954, for example,
BSA entered a team of riders in the 200 mile
Daytona beach race with a mixture of single
cylinder Gold Stars and twin cylinder Shooting
Stars assembled by Roland Pike. The BSA team
riders amazingly took first, second, third,
fourth, and fifth places with two more riders
finishing at 8th and 16th. This was the first
case of a one brand sweep.
The BSA factory experienced success in the
sport of motocross with Jeff Smith riding a
B40 to capture the 1964 and 1965 FIM 500 cc
Motocross World Championships. It would be the
last year the title would be won by a four-stroke
machine until the mid-1990s. A BSA motocross
machine was often colloquially known as a "Beezer."