Tag Archives: British Motorcycling

BMW R1150 GS; Or, a tale of a biker’s two mistresses.


The BMW R1150GS is an unashamedly plain yet capable bike. Designed under the Gelande/Strasse concept to be a genuine multi-surface all rounder. With it’s shaft drive power and air-cooled boxer engine it personifies straightforward design and engineering. The world of plaid shirts, yellow visored Bell helmets, retro British customs and Californian sunshine is the very antithesis of this machine and it’s origin. To be honest, I spend a lot of my social media time ‘liking’ pictures of newly glamorous vintage Triumphs and Indians. In the UK the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club, Spirit of the Seventies, Sideburn Magazine, et al are getting an awesome new energy into British motorcycling. I think the US ‘Moto Lady‘ is inspirational for encouraging women to ride – and that’s a GREAT thing! Sometimes I look for local bike projects to get a custom project on the go. Obviously in a well equipped yet comfortable barn/man-cave. Perhaps I could get a tattoo.

Note the overall awesomeness. Don’t get this so much in the UK!

However; once my garage door is open and the leaden English sky falls on an old german bike, thoughts of a custom scene fade away. It’s a good bike for the UK. The garage still throws up some confusing questions for me. Why do I own a BMW? Of all bygone industries and misplaced national pride, I firmly believe British motorcycling to be one of our great pieces of heritage. But there the BMW R1150GS is; mocking me. “Well, at least it’s not Japanese” I tell myself. Not that that should make a great difference but BMW, and Germany, didn’t mass produce clones of original British bike legends, destroying a whole industry and sport in the UK. Perhaps it was our fault for not remaining competitive, or loyal, or intelligent enough to realise what was happening.

It would be quite easy to mistake me for a reactionary senior citizen at this point, given to rants about the past and being generally resistant to change, any change.

I’m not. I’m 36. It’s just that, for once, I value something from the past more than the present. In the Baudrillian sense the British motorcycle has a sign, sentimental, economic and functional value for me.

But, I own a BMW. Because why? Well, in the Baudrillian sense again it’s because I value it’s function and economic value more than what it represents. So I’m on the right (read sensible) side of the decision; own efficient, sorted bike and kit, dream about custom bikes on sunlit tarmac. If you’re reading this and live in the UK you will know what I mean. That morning commute in the cold rain on crap roads covered in cars. Those weekend blasts in which you get through the traffic areas to reach the dwindling number of good biking roads. Your bike is most likely a capable all rounder as well. But it shouldn’t stop you having a dream. They can’t take that away from you – no sirree.

The Strange Disappearance of the British Motorcycle Industry and other tales…

It’s a horror story with a unforgiving ending. Like the one where your favourite character is brutally hacked up at the end of the film.

The horror, the horror..


The British motorcycle industry was once, the manufacturers claimed, ‘at the top level of world production’, but, since 1945, had been in long-term decline. This was caused in large part by the severe battering they had received at the hands of foreign competitors, first from Italy and Germany, and more recently from Japan.

Government policy which during the critical years after 1945 had forced them to divert their output overseas, thus making it impossible for the British manufacturers to satisfy the strong home demand for motorcycles. This had left them unprepared to compete against the large numbers of imported motorised two-wheeled vehicles that flooded into the country after the mid-1950s onwards. Moreover, they had been hobbled for years by ‘a severe restriction on the home market’, in the form of regulations and tax, which had smothered consumer interest. Hence, even although ‘mass demand existed’, the manufacturers argued that they had been prevented from ‘getting into gear to meet it because of artificial fiscal barriers’.


Foreign rivals, by contrast, had enjoyed the full support of their respective governments, and benefited from being allowed ‘unrestricted development and sale of the simplest form of transport available – mopeds, scooters and motorcycles’.

All this had placed the British manufacturers at a considerable disadvantage. While the Italian and Japanese home markets flourished, Britain’s had grown at a slower rate than it was capable of doing.

The British motorcycle industry staggered along into the 1970s with fewer companies and more mergers – only nine firms were left by 1969. Some half-hearted attempts were made to create new machines to compete against the Japanese – the Triumph Trident, for one – but they were too little, too late. The last British motorcycle manufacturer – Triumph (by then part of the conglomerate NVT) – closed in 1983, a century after it had begun.

Triumph Against the Odds

As Triumph employees wrote; “the story of our failure is indeed one of gross mismanagement, for at no time in the last twenty years did we master the arts of assembling the right expertise and planning management strategy based on the collected knowledge and advice of those people who are always to be found within a company with any background… “…with a further influx of experts from other fields, we were finally overrun by an upper/middle management who… were now in consumer durables. ” Never for one moment did they seem to grasp that these particular things were motorcycles and that we were supposed to be earning a living making them.”

There were some abortive attempts at revival – Norton, Hesketh, Quasar – in the eighties, but it wasn’t until John Bloor resurrected Triumph a decade later that the British motorcycle industry began a comeback.


Bloor’s success comes now because he continues to upgrade and improve his production line equipment, has stringent quality control and keeps his company focused on the competition to find new trends, technologies and styles. Triumph has also identified owner loyalty as a large part of the marketing, and catered to it through its own line of branded products, magazines, web site and riders’ clubs – taking a page from the very successful Harley Davidson.

Perhaps the beginning of the new chapter

Motorcycling enjoyed a boom in the new millennium. Sales rose as a generation of baby boomers with disposable incomes tried to recapture their youth, turning to motorcycles as the time machine to bring it back for them. Triumph, recognizing this market, had in its mix several models that provided the nostalgic styling and evocative lines that recall those younger days, including a newly launched Bonneville.

Triumph Tiger T110-1

Trading in the now-vintage and classic bike market became stronger than ever, propelled by older enthusiasts trying to keep alive the spirit of British motorcycling in its heyday.

A modern ‘chapter’

Something else then happened in the late noughties; a recession drove market forces and average disposable incomes haywire. Prices for new bikes rocketed and an age of austerity began, ironically harking back to days of making do and mending your own machines. From this new crucible came a British biking revival, smelted with old steel and new cool. The cafe racer, the classic symbol of the fifties British biker, heading up the A1 to the Ace cafe, came back with force. And this time it wasn’t the old guard keeping the flames alive but a new generation of riders and creators, young guys and girls with a special interest in a special industry.


The future..

..’s uncertain and the end is always near’.. The British motorcycling industry in it’s heyday of the twentieth century was a powerful force, and it should never be forgotten. But we are now at the beginning of a new revival, so look out for the edgy customs, classic Triumphs with a modern twist and the cafe racers made new from old. You’ll be seeing a lot more of them soon… and if you want to see them right now check out The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club here.



  • http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/stevekoerner/
  • http://cybermotorcycle.com/euro/british.htm

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