Motorcycle History - 1960-1997
As the 1960s dawned, they ushered in a new era in
motorcycling - and a combination of powerful forces
that would soon see the British motorcycle industry
reduced from a world leader to an also-ran and finally
to near oblivion. And yet, during a decade that would
see the creation of some of the best-loved British
bikes of all time, it has hard to spot where the downfall
A third of a million new bikes were registered in
1959 and everything seemed to be booming. It seemed
as though there was plenty of room in the market place
for everyone. Geat names such as AJS, BSA, Matchless,
Norton, Triumph and Velocette were still offering
a wide range of singles and twins with traditional
qualities of dependable economy and sporting performance.
There were exiting new models such as the radical
Ariel Leader/Arrow and new twins from Norton, BSA
and Triumph. Such smaller independant concerns as
Cotton, Greeves and DMW offered a wide range of budget
models with two-stroke engines, mostly from the long-established
Villiers factory, with similar models from Francis
Barnett or James.
The shadows on the horizon are easier to spot with
hindsight. One was the introduction of the Mini. Costing
around the same as a top-of-the-range motorcycle,
it was the beginning of the end for bikes as basic
transport. Another factor was the launch of the Honda
Dream in 1959. Here was a 250cc that could run rings
around many machines twice its size and had an electric
starter. Against this, the British motorcycle industry
was fielding bikes powered by the low-powered Villiers
two-strokes and the badly flawed Norton Jubilee pushrod
twin. In 1961 Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki rapidly began
to establish themselves as major forces in racing
as well as roadsters.
Motorcycling itself was attracting a bad press, with
scare stories in the papers about mods and rockers
and a rising accident rate. The year 1960 saw the
introduction of a limit on learners to bikes of under
250cc, while insurance rates also started to creep
up, discouraging young riders.
By this time, the British motorcycle industry consisted
mainly of the giant BSA-Triumph group and the lesser
Associated Motorcycles (AMC) in South London. There
was plenty of small independants too, such as Royal
Enfield or Velocette, although many of the great names,
i.e. Vincentm had disappeared.
Whatever the cause of the British industry's troubles,
it was certainly not just a lack of foresight. Both
the major conglomerates had invested sums in development
throughout the 1950s and on into the 1960s. AMC retooled
extensively in the 1950s and BSA in the 1960s equipped
its Small Heath plant with state-of-the-art computer
Some of this investment was misguided, such as the
setting up in 1967 of a group research and development
facility at Umberslade Hall, a country estate near
Solihull, equidistant from each of the main factories.
Besides being very costly in itself, the R&D staff
were remote from production problems, while traditional
factory rivalries still existed.
AMC had no such capital to invest and saw their traditional
customer base being eroded by degrees. The group's
proud road racing record was largely behind it, with
the famed Manx Norton winning its last TT in 1961,
while the privateer racers, the 350cc AJS 7R and 500cc
Matchless G50 were phased out in the mid-60s. The
days of the traditional big single were virtually
over and despite a reputation for assembly and finish,
the crunch came in 1966 against a background of falling
sales. The Norton factory had previously had to be
closed in 1962 and moved to London. Such rationalisation
was too little, too late and the company was acquired
by the industrial group Manganese Bronze Holdings.
At a stroke, Francis Barnett and James were no more.
From that time until the late 1960s, when Norton andVilliers
amalgamated, only the bigger Nortons and Matchless
models were made.
Many smaller factories were forced to close as a
result of the Norton-Villiers merger, for Villiers
was the last volume supplier of proprietary engines.
Of the important small independants, only Greeves
had developed sufficiently to manufacture their own
engines and such names as Cotton and Dot were forced
to look overseas, or fold, which eventually happened.
Another great name had disappeared in 1963, coincidentally
the first year of MOT tests for bikes over five years
old. Ariel, as part of the BSA group moved from their
Selly Oak factory to BSA's Small Heath plant and ceased
to be. The revamped Norton Villiers group started
with the appointment of a new chief designer and developed
a new model that would become a great name of the
industry - the Commando.
Such new models were very necessary. The British
industry's onetime confidence that the Japanese would
confine themselves to small bikes had been shattered
by the arrival of the Honda 450 'Black Bomber' in
1965 and while this was never a bestseller, it paved
the way for other larger bikes from Japan. By this
time, it was also well known that Honda were working
on the epoch-making 750 Four.
BSA-Triumph were in serious trouble. Almost all their
new developments had failed to bring them the hoped
for benefits and many ageing models had been discontinued.
However, in 1968 the group announced its new models,
which were both to become legends. These were the
Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket III - both derived,
not so much from the group's new R&D headquarters,
as a reworking of the forty year old Triumph Speed
Twin. Still, they were great bikes and sorely needed.
Many of the major manufacturers' promising ideas
had failed to make it into production. Of the smaller
independants, Royal Enfield and Panther were already
part of history, while Velocette was on its last set
The launch of the first Japanese superbikes in 1969
hit the British motorcycle industry hard. Disasterous
losses culminated in a rescue plan in 1972, which
would merge BSA/Triumph with Norton Villiers to form
Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) in 1973. The biggest
side effect of the merger came with the proposed reorganisation
of the factories. This would have resulted in closure
of the old Triumph plant at Meriden, Coventry but
the 1750 workers took exception to this and undertook
a sit-in. After 18 months, during which NVT was unable
to get access to the Trident parts held in the factory,
the model had to be effectively discontinued. With
falling sales of the Commando, NVT's Norton plant
virtually gace up production after 1976.
The great survivor, somewhat peversely, was Meriden,
where after a long-drawn out struggle, the government
finally stepped in with funding to start the Meriden
Cooperative in 1975. They continued building what
they knew best, Triumph twins, as well as continuing
their own efforts to assemble bikes from overseas
Many smaller independants continued, including Hickman,Weslake,
Seeley, Spondon and Silk. But such efforts were virtually
doomed to remain small, for most of the British component
suppliers were disappearing or diversifying.
This did not mean that there were not people prepared
to try. In the late 1970s Lord Hesketh captured the
public imagination with news of the latest British
world-beater, designed to take on the best of foreign
competition. It was the sort of good news which the
motorcycle industry needed - in 1982, the Meriden
Co-op folded and the last remaining Bonnevilles were
now being assembled in small numbers in Devon.
Hesketh's efforts failed and from this time on, the
British bike was virtually a cottage industry. Although
the burgeoning interest in older 'classics' helped
to keep specialist frame-builders and skilled engineers
The one obvious ray of hope during the 1980s was
Norton, the inheritor of one on BSA's own 'world-beaters'
using rotary engine technology. Sadly, it was too
little, too late and Norotn all but disappeared in
a welter of accusation and counter-accusation of financial
And so it all might have ended, except for Triumph.
Virtually unnoticed for several years and deliberately
avoiding the kind of publicity that Norton and Hesketh
had courted, the new owner of the remnants of the
old Meriden assets had set out to make a range of
bikes which would genuinely merit the 'world beater'
tag. Accepting the new era of design and the new commercial
realities of the late 1980s and 1990s, the reborn
Triumph had almost nothing to do with the old. except
the name and the loyalty which that could command.
Triumph is proof that the skills that helped to make
the British bike the envy of the world still exist.
As all those behind the mergers and start-ups of the
last 20 years of the industry had hoped, it is simply
a matter of providing the proper environment in which
those skills can be expressed.