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Vintage Motorcycle Days - 1920-1940

Although World War I ended in November 1918, rationing remained in force for some time and it was not until the following year that motorcycle factories were allowed to go back into production.

However, the end of the war coincided with an enormous demand for transport, fuelled by the returning servicemen and women, many of whom had their first experience of motorcycles or cars while at arms.

At first this demand was met by secondhand pre-war models or reconditioned military machines, of which there were many thousands - mostly the ubiquitous despatch riders' Triumph single or Douglas twin, Prices were high, there were long waiting lists and fuel was in shoty supply, but demand was steady. The situation was tailor-made for ingenious dealers and accessory manufacturers to offer ways to make an old model appear like a new one, or economise with gadgets such as fuel-savers , 'hot' exhausts and plug protectors.

When restrictions on the manufacturers were lifted, there still remained the problem of limited raw materials, including most metals and rubber. Manufacturing capacity was no problem at all, there was a host of factories that had been forced to turn their attention from profitable and intensive war work to the civilian market. For fimrs such as Triumph, it was simply a matter of reopening the production lines but there were others with no pre-war experience, for whom the seller's market was impossible to resist. Factories that had until recently been building aircraft, tanks or munitions began to turn their attention to motorcycles.

By the end of 1919, there were at least 50 new manufacturers and within two years this had risen to over a hundred. More than two hundred models were exhibited at the first post-war Olympia show in 1919. Some of these were gimcrack designs, hastily rushed into production, other were simply 'assembly jobs' relying on bought-in engines.

For the most part there was little immediate technical advancement, for the war had shown what was worthwhile. The emphasis tended to be on reliability and convention, BSA, Matchless, Sunbeam and Clyno all showed bikes that would have seemed familiar six years earlier. Others such as Royal Enfield were prepared to experiment with their prototype four-cylinder bike, which failed to go into production. But the star of the show was the revolutionary ABC, manufactured by the Sopwith Aviation company. Representing a hugh technological leap, this above all seemed to presage a new direction for the industry, althought the detail flaws and financial muddle that attended its launch were indicative of the age in a less attractive way. Other industrial giants were not far behind, such as Beardmore with their Precision design that again proved to promise more than it delivered.

Production got into full swing in 1920 but the euphoric promise of a year before all too often proved impossible to keep. Many price were nuch higher than had been suggested.

Competitions had also returned in 1919. Hill-climbs, sprints and trials regained all their pre-war popularity, while the Isle of Man TT and Brooklands were back in 1920. An ABC won at the first Brooklands event while Sunbeam, AJS and Levis took the TTs. The 1920s ushered in what many call the 'Golden Age' of motorcycling. According to the strict definition, a 'Vintage' bike is deemed to be one constructed before 1930.

As prosperity returned, customers increased in numbers and the successful factories boomed. Motorcycling was seen as socially acceptable for all classes. A motorcycle could provide a family with transport or be a workday tool. Sidecars were built with enough seats for a large family or designed for butchers and bakers to transport their wares. A solo motorcycle was a very fashionable accessory for the young who could afford the latest 'race replica'.

The basic motorcycle was similar to its pre-war counterpart - usually a 500cc single cylinder side-valve - made by Triumph or Norton. There was also a boom in lightweights, such as the Levis and Royal Enfield, partly as a result of a 1921 regulation which halved the tax payable if the bike was under 200lb in weight. This helped the motorcycle appeal to a whole new breed or rider.

Speeds also began to rise and sports bikes grew in popularity. In 1924, a Blackburne-engined Cgarter-Lea became the first 350cc to exceed 100mph at Brooklands. Much of the interest in motorcycling was fuelled by the glamour of racing and in particular the TT, which attracted huge crowds throughout the period. Stars such as Stanley Woods, Jimmy Simpson and Wal Handley were household names, while riders such as Bert Le Vack and Freddie Dixon became famous for their record breaking exploits, hoisting the world record to almost 130mph by the end of the decade. Norton and Velocette, among other manufacturers, built their reputations with a string of wins that proved Britain really did build the best bikes in the world. Such new sports as dirt-track (speedway) sprang up and proved hugely popular with the crowds.

It was only at the end of the 1920s that light cars such as the Morris Minor and Austin Seven began to offer a challenge to the motorcycle. There were three-quarters of a million bikes - a third of the world's total - on Britain's roads in 1929, when the New York stock exchange collapsed. The shock waves of the Depression soon reached Britain.

That year's motor show had seen the buoyant launch of new luxury models, but economy would soon become the byword. Weaker manufacturers went to the wall, while others turned to new ideas such as hire purchase. Prices went down and then reached rock-bottom in 1932, when the annual show at Olympia was cancelled. A year later the taxation classes were revised to favour smaller bikes. By 1936, the 250cc pushrod-engined Red Panther offered well over 110 mpg and cost less than £30 cash, payable in weekly installments of some 33p. Motorcycle sport continued to prosper, perhaps as an antidote to the drab austerity of the times. But comercially things failed to improve and many famous factories were forced to close or merge - Ariel, the second largest concern in the land, AJS, Douglas and Sunbeam among them. One of the most significant factors in the shape of the postwar industry was also taking place in the Midlands, where Edward Turner, late of Ariel, now of Triumph, was laying down the form of the Speed Twin, a model that would dictate the form of the motorcycle for three decades and more.

Meanwhile, an increasing continental challenge to British sporting supremacy was being mounted by Italian and German motorcycles. The great Stanley Woods switch to Moto Guzzi in 1935 and won two TTs for the Italian team and BMW, NSU and DKW began fielding technically advanced racers trying to demonstrate Germany's engineering supremacy. By the end of the 1930s however, the British motorcycle industry was gearing up for a greater conflict on a wider front. Within months Europe was at war, drawing another chapter in motorcycle history to a close.