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.

| February 2012

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.






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