GoogleCustom Search

The Classic Motorcycle Era - 1940-1960

World War 2 meant the end of one era and the beginning of another. Economically, it would sap Britain's reserves and precipitate the break-up of an Empire that had once formed a captive market for British goods and a cheap source of raw materials. Every available resource had to mobilised.

Of course this included the motorcycle industry, although not necessarily in the production of motorcycles. Some of Britain's most prestigious names were turned over to making precision parts for the war effort. For the big firms, motorcycle production did continue. BSA produced a stream of 500cc side-valves, the M20, while Norton turned out vast quantities of the similar 16H. Matchless produced the lightweight 350cc overhead-valve G3 with 'Teledraulic' telescopic forks.

Of the major makers, only Triumph was not involved in wartime production, because early in the Coventry blitz. their factory was completely destroyed. Other factories made bike in small numbers, including the specialised lightweight folding bikes from Royal Enfield and Excelsior, which were designed to be landed with paratroops. Norton made a Big Four-powered sidecar outfit designed as a gun platform, adopting an ingenious sidecar wheel drive to make it capable of negotiating rough terrain.

The main use of the Allied military bikes was, as in World War I, as despatch and convoy escorts. Over 40,000 British WD bikes were made and thousands of riders were trained to use them.

When peace returned, as in World War I, there was an immediate demand for transport. This time, there were many more experienced riders who were hungry for bikes and, as before, the demand was met with a mixture of reconditioned ex-service bikes, secondhand bikes and finally a trickle of new models.

Many materials were in short supply, but the chief desadvantage for the ordinary rider was the rationing of petrol. Supplies of a lower octane 'Pool' petrol began in 1945 but private owners were restricted to three gallons a week, or two for machines under 250cc.

New models were not long in coming. Triumph, courtesey of a new factory, was first in production with a post-war range of parallel twins. BSA and AMC rapidly followed suit. However, for many, the route on to two wheels was via an autocycle, fore-runnerr of the moped, or even a bicycle assisted by a clip-on motor.

Within a year of peace there were half a million bikes in use, nearly double the 1939 total, despite being more expensive, thanks in part to the new purchase tax imposed during the war. As a result the bikes that most people were riding were extremely basic and in a low state of tune. Wartime experience had made most bikes reliable but many of the commonest conveniences were still considered extra items such as pillion seats and footrests, air filters and speedometers.

The mood though was one of optimism. There were bright ideas aplenty, including some, such as BSA's Bantam and Sunbeam S7, that were copied from, or inspired by successful enemy designs. Competition riding had returned as early as June 1945. At the same time, a new movement was under way, with the formation in 1946 of the Vintage Motorcycle Club, to ensure that older bikes were valued and preserved. Major competitions began to return that year with the first post-war Manx Grand Prix.

The winner of the Senior race proved prophetic. Ernie Lyons was mounted on a new Triumph twin, with a specially developed alloy engine. Over the next few years, the type would become the staple diet of the British motorcycle industry.

Many of the technical improvements of the pre-war racers had centred around supercharging. Such 'artificial aids' were now banned by the sport's organising bodies and, as a result, several of the British industry's most promising designs lost their advantage. Post-war racing tended to centre on the single cylinder overhead-cam Manx Norton, with similar offerings from AMC and Velocette making up the field. Occasional exotic designs such as the AJS Porcupine surfaced but despite the undoubted success of the singles, there was little with a technology that could challenge the four-cylinder Italian racers soon being fielded by Gilera or the technically advanced Moto Guzzi singles.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, things still looked good, however. The British industry was booming with exports at record levels. British bikes were winning races and setting records, with bikes such as the exclusive Vincent twins setting the standard by which all others were judged.

There were still shortages, however. With petrol supplies settling down, the Korean War meant that chroming had to be restricted, resulting in a couple of years of painted rims. Behind the scenes the British factories were suffering from a shortage of real investment. The German factories were suffering from a shortage of real investment. The German factories were coming out with bikes that formed the basis for their own post-war expansion, as well as the model for Japan to do the same.

Italy was offering a host of new ideas, including the scooter. The Vespa, launched in 1946, would spawn a European boom in which British offerings were too litle, too late. The Italian scooter was poorly understood in Britain at the time and all too-easily dismissed. In 1953, motorcycles topped the million mark. Britain was the largest motorcycle producer outside the Iron Curtain countries and in a position to dictate its own terms. This would mask for a few years the advances in engineering design that had been made by the continental opposition and not just in the field of racing.

This was not to say that British bikes did not still lead the world. One only had to look at the competitive records achieved by machines such as the Triumph twins, BSA's Gold Star, the Manx Norton, AJS 7R and the racing Velocette to see that, while bikes such as the Vincent were still offering a performance that no rivals could match. But there were also external factors that were affecting the market for the British industry's products. In the early 1950s, motorcycles were still everday transport, for prosperity had still not improved to the degree where cars had become affordable by the mass market. Lightweights were providing commuters with a ride to work, while sidecars were still commonplace family vehicles. But all this was changing and at a pace that was too fast for most of the British industry to perceive.

Light cars such as the Mini were developed, at a price that would soon challenge the famile sidecar, while offering far greater convenience. Italian racing bikes had now espoused streamlining, offering still greater speed potential. Sales of two-wheelers were going up but many of them were scooters. By the end of the decade motorcycle sales had reached a peak that had not been seen for 30 years. But in truth there were troubles behind the scenes. In Britain, the image of the motorcycle, as well as its economic position, was altering fast.

What had been accepted as family transport a decade before ws now increasingly associated with the youth market. The image of the motorcycle outlaw portrayed by Marlon Brando in the banned 1953 film The Wild One, had provided a model for suburban rebels across Britain. With the ready availability of cheap, fast and raw machines from all the British factories, the scene was set for a major shift in the attitude of the public to motorcycling.

Technologically, things were also changing fast. While at the last 1950s TT was dominated by the Italian MVs and the British Nortons, that yea's competition also saw the debut of Honda - and a new challenge to the British motorcycle industry.