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Home » Books » History » Europe » England

The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry

By Steve Koerner

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Format: Paperback, 368 pages
Other Information: Illustrated
Published In: United Kingdom, 01 August 2013
The British motor cycle industry once stood 'at the top level of world production'. Before and after the Second World War famous names such as BSA, Ariel, Norton, Triumph, Matchless and Vincent led the world in design, technology and popularity. After 1945, when the German industry failed to develop into the serious threat that the British had feared it would, British bikes continued to be untouchable both on the racetrack and in the showroom. Then it all began to go horribly wrong. First, various lucrative overseas markets began to decline or were closed to British exporters altogether; then came a huge influx of inexpensive, mainly Italian scooters that tore into the UK market. Rising rates of road accidents and motorcyclists' deaths resulted in unremittingly bad press coverage for motor cycling, and by this time many British consumers were deciding to buy cars instead of two-wheelers. Finally there came a whirlwind from the East as fierce competition arrived from innovative, sophisticated and more mechanically reliable Japanese machines.At first these mainly small, light-weight bikes seemed to pose little threat to the larger more powerful machines that the British factories specialised in, but when Honda in particular began making bigger bikes which, frankly, were streets ahead of the ageing British designs, the writing was on the wall. Not even a strong export market in the USA and Canada for Bonnevilles, Tridents, Commandos and the like was enough to save the British industry. By the early 1970s, with alarming rapidity, the British motor cycle industry had all but disappeared. To many the collapse seemed indicative of a wider malaise that prevailed throughout British manufacturing industries. But what was the real explanation? Perhaps British motor bikes were too focused on the sports end of the market, or perhaps just old-fashioned and technologically backward? Were the trade unions to blame? Or did the British fail to introduce new, smaller light-weight bikes that might have been popular enough to provide economies of scale for a wider modernisation of the factories? Or, as the manufacturers frequently complained, had their industry been smothered by excessive government regulation and taxation?At long last Steve Koerner presents an original and in-depth analysis, based on hitherto unused sources, of what really happened. Fascinating, detailed and totally convincing, this book provides the first comprehensive explanation of the strange death of the British motor cycle industry.A fascinating story of a once-great industry.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1 1 British supremacy, 1935 - 1939 11 A wide range of motor cycles 13 The structure of the pre-war motor cycle industry 15 Industry management and motor cycle sports 20 Leadership at BSA 21 The British Cycle and Motor Cycle Manufacturers' and Traders' Union 25 Foreign competition between the wars 26 Sales crisis in the home market 28 Critics of the British motor cycle industry 32 The search for the 'Everyman' motor cycle, and the elusive female rider 33 'No women need apply' 40 Over-reliance on the racetrack 42 The British motor cycle industry answers its critics 44 Competition from Germany 48 Trouble in the factories 51 2 The war years, 1939 - 1945 57 The government 'concentrates' motor cycle production 57 Motor cycle Blitzkrieg 59 Blitz on Britain 61 Wartime production 63 Standardising design 65 Planning for the post-war world 66 Preparing for peace 70 Making the transition from war to peace 73 Sorting out problems 75 3 Revival and complacency, 1945 - 1951 83 Recovering from war 83 Post-war industry structure 86 Meeting government expectations 93 Old problems return 94 Post-war German reparations 94 The export drive 99 Motor cycle sport 102 Retail price maintenance 105 Improving productivity 107 Danger ahead 112 4 The Window of Opportunity, 1951 - 1956 115 Spreading affluence 115 BSA's rising star 117 From 'Big Six' to 'Big Four' 121 The smaller firms struggle on 122 Motor cycle road accidents on the rise 126 The sporting ethos endures 127 Rider safety 130 Bad behaviour 132 Scooter fashion 133 Retail price maintenance under threat 138 The export drive falters 139 Imports flood into the home market 144 Boardroom putsch at BSA 147 6 The Window Closes, 1956 - 1961 149 British scooters and mopeds make their debut 149 Blame the government 152 Motor cycle design evolves 153 Another wave of imports arrives 154 Corporate investment 155 More cars on British roads 158 Letting down our side 160 Changing consumer tastes 161 The North American market beckons 163 Factory production is reorganised 169 Harley-Davidson beleaguered 171 The German motor cycle industry resurgent 172 Trying to enter the Japanese market 175 The British motor cycle industry splits over protectionism 176 Motor cycle manufacturers feel the squeeze 179 The industry steps forward 182 Losing on the racetrack 183 Changing the guard 184 Teddy boys on wheels 188 Cold shoulder for the industry 192 6 The firms and their workers, 1960 - 1973 195 Trade recession 195 Sales paradox 199 Industry in the doldrums 201 Unrest among AMC shareholders 202 Other manufacturers stumble and fall 204 Labour relations in the motor cycle industry 206 Militancy at Triumph 207 Worker militancy re-emerges 208 Further labour turmoil at the Triumph factory 211 Labour-management peace prevails at BSA 212 At Triumph Labour militancy continues to spiral upwards 214 The labour relations climate changes at BSA 216 7 The collapse of the British motor cycle industry, 1960 - 1975 219 Whirlwind out of Japan 219 The 1962 Anglo-Japanese Treaty 225 Japanese imports arrive in Britain 228 British consumers desert the industry 232 Industry solidarity is shattered 234 The industry regains respectability 235 Japan's export drive reaches North America 235 British motor cycle manufacturers retrench 239 Further change at BSA 240 Japanese sales strategy changes gear 244 British manufacturers suffer in comparison to their Japanese competition 247 Breakdown at the BSA and Triumph 249 BSA's big gamble 250 Epilogie: The British motor cycle industry, 1973 - 2006 255 Conclusion: The strange death of the British motor cycle industry 265 Notes and references 277 Select bibliography 329

About the Author

Steve Koerner has a BA (Honours) in History from the University of Victoria and a Ph.D. in Social History from the University of Warwick. He is a writer and educator as well as a long-time British motor cycle enthusiast who lives in Victoria, B.C., Canada. Koerner is shown on his 1974 Norton 850cc Commando, a bike he has owned and ridden regularly since 1988. (Photograph: Jurgen Pokrandt)

Reviews

Of interest to motorcycle enthusiasts and students of the history of technology, this volume on the British motorcycle industry examines the dominance of the English industry in the early years of motorcycling and explores the dramatic effects of Asian competition on the industry in the 1960s and 1970s that led to its steep decline. The volume discusses classic brands, industry design and labor practices, international followings and economic trends, and includes numerous black and white photographs of classic British motorcycles. Koerner is a Canadian writer and British motorcycle enthusiast.

EAN: 9781905472031
ISBN: 190547203X
Publisher: Crucible Books
Dimensions: 24.3 x 16.9 x 2.2 centimetres (0.73 kg)
Age Range: 15+ years
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