In case you didn’t know it, the British motorcycle industry once dominated the ‘biking world to an extent comparable to Japan in the 21st Century. By the 1930s there were over 80 manufacturers in the UK. In the years following WW2 the industry was Britain’s third largest source of foreign exchange, after cars and Scotch Whisky. Bigger, more valuable bikes were the British stock-in-trade (the Italians produced vastly more scooters and small-capacity bikes). The high-water mark was in 1954 with 187,000 motorcycles built and over a third exported.
From there, the long, lamentable demise of the UK motorcycle industry is a story in itself. The nadir came after 1983 when it looked like it was all over. The Triumph workers’ co-operative had gone bust, the venerable T140 Bonneville was being made in handfuls by Les Harris in a shed in Devon and the Triumph name was being secured by a builder called John Bloor. There was no British motorcycle industry to speak of, beyond some specialist racing fabricators and parts suppliers.
Talk about a bounce back. In retrospect, the resurrection of Triumph looks straightforward, but no-one was sure of that when the new ‘modular’ range was launched at the Cologne Motor Show in 1990. Prospects seemed unsure for some time, with the new Triumph company finally breaking even in 2000.
Since then, of course, Triumph has come a long way. We’re now used to their bikes leading categories, sales charts and Supersport races. And slowly, following in their vanguard, there has been a modest revival of British motorcycle manufacturing.
The race teams and parts specialists never went away, and nor did the engineering expertise. But constructing motorcycles for the wider market is another thing. Companies like CCM made forays from its competition-bike (and military) roots with the DR-Z400-engined R35. Today, the focus is on the GP450 Adventure bike.
But it’s the resurrection of famous old names that hints at a possible wider renaissance of Brit ‘bikes. Norton launched their delicious 961 in 2010 and soon had an order book they are still struggling to fulfill. More recently Ariel, currently better-known for the Atom range of sports cars, announced a return to the ‘bike scene with the Ace. Using an adapted version of Honda’s VFR1200 engine and transmission, the Ace offers a ‘factory custom’ approach, with endless combinations of suspension, steering geometry, seating, controls and accessories. The options include Ariel’s own girder forks based around an Ohlins TTX shock. As the pictures show, this is one tasty, if (unsurprisingly) pricey, machine.
Another famous name with four-wheeled connections, that also appealed to well-heeled enthusiasts, was Hesketh. And it’s another comeback story. The rights to the name were bought some time back by Paul Sleeman and he has engineered a completely new machine rather than resurrect or re-engineer the V1000. The new Hesketh 24 (named after the number on James Hunt’s F1 car and indicating the total production run before switching to a two-seat model) uses an HPE-tuned, S&S V-twin. The 1950cc, American-made 56º motor is said to make 125 bhp (93kW) and a ’24’ will set you back £40,000 in the UK. Which makes the £20K+ Ariel look something of a bargain.
With no dealer network as yet, all Heskeths are made, sold and serviced at the firm’s factory in Redhill, Surrey. So it might be a while before we see one on NZ roads.
After Triumph, Ariel, Norton and Hesketh, which will be the next grand old marque to grace the roads? Setting aside Indian-built Enfields, Greeves is still going, producing a new 280cc trials bike. Métisse is even more interesting. After floundering in 1980, the name was picked up and bikes continued to be made to this day. On their website a new 997 Café Racer is mentioned.
AJS sell cheap, Chinese-made small-capacity machines but who knows? The rights to BSA motorcycles belong to a building supply company, but they seem proud of the motorcycles’ past. Brough Superiors are being remade but they remain an expensive, classic niche. The Matchless name is owned by the Malenotti family who also own Belstaff clothing. Villiers, Velocette, Rudge, Vincent?
As John Bloor has shown, taking a nostalgic old name and turning it into a modern-day international success is possible. But definitely not easy. None the less, so many of these old names have a lot of what marketing types call ‘latent equity’. Bloor spotted that in 1983. So will we see a resurgent Norton rivaling Triumph, a reborn BSA or a reincarnated Matchless?
I wouldn’t bet against it.