Shooting Star: The Rise and Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry

Read about the beginnings of the British motorcycle industry including how several leading motorcycle manufacturers got their start.

Shooting Star Cover

"Shooting Star: The Rise & Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry" is the first comprehensive book on the British motorcycle industry with a critical look at business and trade practices that led to its demise.

Cover courtesy ECW Press

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Some of the leading manufacturers in the early history of the British motorcycle industry were Norton, Velocette and BSA. Discover how some companies flourished while others failed in Shooting Star: The Rise and Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry (ECW Press, 2009). The motorcycle industry is just starting out in this condensed excerpt, taken from Chapter 1, “Patriarchs.” 

The British ruled from London, but they got things done in Birmingham. The gritty West Midlands capital, home to the industrial revolution as much as Athens was the birthplace of Western civilization, was where motorcars and BSA Gold Stars and Spitfire fighter planes were made, where long trains brought in the coal from Wales and flat-bottom boats carried cargo in and out of the city on its famous man-made canals. Generations of staunch workers with felt caps on their heads and tin lunch pails under their arms filed in to work every day to actually do the jobs.

Home to the bicycle boom in the late Victorian era, Birmingham hosted many of the leading motorcycle manufacturers in the twentieth century. Norton, the most famous road-racing brand in the world at one time, the Ferrari of its domain, was founded in 1898 by Birmingham native James Norton, the son of a cabinet maker. The Norton Manufacturing Company initially produced chains and other bicycle parts, then began assembling complete motorcycles using parts from other manufacturers as early as 1902. Its most famous models included the Manx Norton, a 500 cc single-cylinder model that won many important road races worldwide over a 30-year span, and the Commando, the last of the British superbikes in the 1970s.

Velocette, based nearby in the Hall Green suburb, was the most exclusive British motorcycle manufacturer, doing almost nothing quite like any of the other companies. The family-owned business traced its roots to German immigrant Johannes Gutgemann, who arrived in England in 1876 at age 19. Velocette pioneered the quick “positive stop” foot shift transmission, a design still in use by all motorcycle manufacturers to this day.

Ariel was a manufacturer that introduced the Rover Safety Bicycle (two similar-sized wheels, chain drive to the rear) in 1885; almost all bicycles since have had the same basic design. The firm was swallowed up by Components in 1902, a conglomerate owned by Charles Sangster and his son, Jack. Two models stand out in Ariel’s history — a lithe, fast, overhead valve, single-cylinder bike, the beautifully named Red Hunter that was sold from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, and the Square Four, an unusual four-cylinder design that also had a long production run.

BSA was to become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the city, country, and world. Incorporated in 1861, the company was founded by 14 local gunsmiths who had banded together to bid on government contracts for long rifles during the Crimean War. Each could make complete weapons in his own workshop, with hand-rubbed gunstocks and small forges and files to fashion the metal parts, but none had the space or capital to build a proper factory. They formed a “co-operative” and named the back street in the Birmingham suburb of Small Heath where most worked “Armoury Road.” The name BSA itself stands for Birmingham Small Arms.

Triumph, in nearby Coventry, first introduced a motorcycle in 1902 using a small Belgian-made motor. The company’s German-Jewish founder, Siegfried Bettmann, was so well liked he was elected mayor of Coventry in 1912 yet was forced to give up his post at the start of World War I because of his German heritage. Triumph was to become famous for that most British of motorcycle engines, the parallel twin.

Motorcycle production thrived in Birmingham and the West Midlands throughout the 1920s and survived even into the ’30s, though the Depression cut deep. Industry wide, British motorcycle production peaked at 147,000 machines in 1928, but that number plummeted to 74,400 in 1930. This led to consolidation within the industry, beginning with Jack Sangster. Tall, fit, with a steady gaze and thoughtful pout underlying his aquiline nose, Sangster outwitted his board of directors and even his father, Charles, when he purchased the Ariel motorcycle division from Components in 1932. Next he fired all the employees and hired back only those he wanted, after which he moved the presses, lathes, and machine tools to suburban Selly Oak in Birmingham.

Ariel (the name was drawn from Shakespeare, who used it in The Tempest to describe an airy spirit) was almost an incubator for the British motorcycle industry in the 1920s as its personnel list was to become a who’s who of the later, grander industry. Chief engineer Val Page was brought aboard from engine builder JAP in 1925 (JAP built the engine in the Brough Superior luxury motorcycle that Lawrence of Arabia crashed in 1935). It was Page who designed the single-cylinder, overhead valve engine for the company’s Red Hunter model, then designed the avant-garde Ariel Leader 30 years later, the brand’s last great model.

But Sangster’s best hire was Edward Turner. Red-headed and round-faced, short enough to be defensive about it and imperious enough to be a snot, Turner was born into a middle-class London family in 1901 (his father, William, was a mechanical engineer). Yet he ran away and joined the merchant navy during World War I, training to be an apprentice wireless operator. Many hundreds of British and Allied merchant vessels were sunk during that war, but the young Turner apparently was unperturbed. He complained only about the food on board — bully beef and dry biscuits that had to be banged against a hard surface to dislodge the weevils. Upon demobilization, Turner eschewed a university education, instead attending night technical school while working stints as a fitter, turner, boilermaker, and blacksmith. He also informally studied art, which was to put him miles ahead of the competition in the styling department during his long career in the motorcycle industry.

In time, Turner purchased a small repair shop, Chepstow Motors, on Peckham Road in London in 1923. It was a decently sized corner shop, with large display windows on either side facing the traffic outside, a showroom on the first floor featuring a Velocette motorcycle franchise, and a grimy workshop behind the counter with rickety steps leading to a private studio on the second floor. The ruddy-faced Turner patiently performed small repairs on bicycles and old motorcycles during the day, and in the evenings he retired to the second floor, where, working long nights, apparently bereft of friends, family, or female companionship, he turned himself into a young Orville or Wilbur Wright, first designing a motorcycle from scratch, then actually building it, using many of the mechanical and metal-working skills he had learned in recent years.

Turner machined many of the parts himself on a small lathe, and in time he built an overhead cam, single-cylinder, 350 cc motorcycle engine. Later he joined together sections of steel pipe to fashion a complete frame, not unlike a bicycle’s albeit with off-the-shelf spring front suspension and wheels, and dubbed his creation the Turner Special. A national motorcycle magazine soon featured engineering drawings of the design and a little blurb about the upstart young man who had built it, portraying him a bit like an English Don Quixote who would tilt at industry giants such as BSA or Triumph or Ariel.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Shooting Star: The Rise and Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry, published by ECW Press, 2009.