1960-1967 Motorcycle History
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 began.
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. Great 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 oyal Enfield or Velocette, although many of the great names, i.e. Vincent 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 controls.
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 and Villiers amalgamated, only the bigger Norton’s 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 of wheels.
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 gave up production after 1976.
The great survivor, somewhat perversely, 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 parts.
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 in business.
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 Norton all but disappeared in a welter of accusation and counter-accusation of financial mismanagement.
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.