When two-wheeled Britannia ruled roads PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 26 October 2010 14:16

VANCOUVER -- Long before Hondas, Yamahas and other Japanese bikes populated the highways and byways around the world, the British motorcycle industry was a significant force in producing some of the greatest names to be found on two wheels.

Legendary brands such as Triumph, Norton and BSA, as well as Humber, Ariel and Royal Enfield, to name but a few, were exported throughout the Commonwealth nations and America to the point where after World War II motorcycles were Britain's third biggest export item after automobiles and scotch whisky.

But it was a ride that wouldn't last for long.

At an exhibition currently running in Vancouver through Nov. 7, "End of Empire" documents the rise and fall of the British motorcycle industry that once numbered more than 1,100 manufacturers, but today is down to just one company.

Triumph, easily the most famous British motorcycle, still regularly produces bikes at its two factories in England's East Midlands and three plants in Thailand. Norton, a company that originally went insolvent in 1975 after being founded in 1898, has a limited production of its bikes coming out of its Donnington Park base. Royal Enfield is now synonymous with India where the bikes, which have stayed true to their classic design, have been manufactured in Chennai since 1955.

After roaring to life in the last years of the 1800s, outside of Triumph, by the late 1970s the British motorcycle industry was effectively history.

At the Deeley Motorcycle Exhibition in Vancouver, the largest motorcycle museum in Canada, the "End of Empire" show features more than 60 British bikes. Among them are such rarities as an 1894 Hilderbrand and Wolfmuller from Germany, the first mass- produced motorcycle that served as the study vehicle for Triumph, as well as models from Francis Barnett, James, Sunbeam and Vincent, among others.

Terry Rea, the historian at the exhibit, said what effectively killed the British motorcycle industry was lack of foresight. The combination of complacency in design changes, bad management decision being made by people without a mechanical background, prolonged labor strikes by militant unions, and the rise of the Japanese motorcycle industry proved its death knell.

"In the beginning they were quite innovative, but the unfortunate thing was they did not carry that on. They were still producing a bike popularized in 1937, and still trying to sell that same configuration in 1977," said the veteran biker.

One particular bike that seems out of place among the many classic British motorcycles on display is a mint 1966 Honda CB 450 Super Sport. When the heavily-chromed, British-looking bike was introduced in overseas markets in 1964, a U.K. motorcycle executive described it as "an interesting bag of tricks" but failed to see its significance.

"The Japanese made a vertical twin 450cc (engine) based on the vertical twin the British were making. But they made it cheaper, cleaner, faster and the Brits did not support their own industry," Rea said. "They switched over to the Japanese (models) because it was less money."

The fact that any of these bikes survived is a minor miracle. The motorcycles are part of a 300-bike collection, 54 makes in all, that was owned by the late Trev Deeley. The Vancouver native grew up in a family which sold motorbikes, most notably Harley-Davidson, and bicycles. As an avid motorcycle racer who would eventually run the family business, Deeley assembled the largest private collection of bikes in Canada and stored them away. Many were later restored and the collection is now valued at more than three million Canadian dollars.

Naomi Deildal, manager of the exhibit, said Deeley eventually sold motorcycles of all kinds, including Honda and Yamaha, and compiled a collection she called an "eclectic mix."

"When he started this collection he was rescuing them as bikes that were going to end up on the scrap heap. He kept them, restored them and now ... his legacy still continues," she said.

"It was pretty much (a lack of) innovation that killed the British motorcycle industry. There were a lot of internal things happening in the U.K. at the time. But their hearts were set on the design and the technologies that they had and they didn't innovate like the Japanese did. The Japanese eventually came to the North American market and squashed the U.K.'s plans for getting into the U.S. market," Rea noted.

Rea added that British bikes were wildly popular in Canada in the 1950s and a cheaper alternative to the expensive American offerings, such as Harley Davidson and Indian.

"In 1957, the (Harley-Davidson) Sportster was selling for around 1,100 dollars and I could get a BSA or a Triumph for about 800 dollars," he said, adding it was still a fair amount of money at the time.

"When you are making 60 dollars a week, it took a little bit of time to make that up," he recalled.

By AL CAMPBELL

Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 October 2010 14:21