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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..

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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References

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

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