"words and pictures Liz SeabrookAndy Watkins is a self-confessed motorbike geek. In his basement garage in Bristol sit five beauties: a 1937 Ariel, a Hailwood Ducati replica, a ’66 Harley patiently awaiting attention, a Norton 650 and the apple of his eye, "
This might come as a shock, but we Brits do not have a ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Anyone involved in motorcycling during the Fifties and Sixties, however, might have thought otherwise. Sure, British bikes flooded into North America as fast as the factories could ship them – but his was not the virile thrusting of manufacturing in its potent prime, it was the final spasms of the British motorcycle industry’s dying manhood.
By the mid-Fifties, with Indian motorcycles recently dead and buried, Americans had one viable choice of home-built bike – the Harley-Davidson, which even in its sportier forms was, frankly, a fat plodder. The post-war US fashion for bobbing motorcycles (which entails ripping off tinware and bracketry and chopping short the heavy mudguards) helped to some degree. Bobbing was after all the birth of the custom scene as we know it. But sporting riders after light, quick, fine-handling machinery looked to Britain.
Well actually, they didn’t. Whether they knew it or not, they were looking to the major US importers such as TriCor, Johnson Motors and Berliner. Ran by switched-on blokes with bikes in their blood, these firms knew what the vast American market wanted and used their considerable leverage to squeeze changes and new models from England’s staid factories.
High-piped off-road exotica such as the Triumph TR6C and T120TT, Norton’s steroid-guzzling P11 or BSA’s Spitfire and Catalina scramblers poured across the Atlantic along with lithe and hopped-up road burners.
In 1965 alone, TriCor and Johnson Motors brought around 15,000 Triumphs into the States and the Meriden factory was working full-tilt to turn out about 700 bikes a week, almost 600 of which were exported, mostly to North America.
So, the Sixties progressed and America’s racers took British iron to huge success in desert races, dirt track, scrambles and road racing, while blissed-out loafer-shod glitterati cruised the boulevards of New York, LA and San Francisco on Bonnevilles, Lightnings and Commandos.
Meanwhile, back home in Brum, sallow-faced youths raised on boiled cabbage and drizzle were hunched over the elusive bike porn of US sales brochures, wondering why they were saddled with more conservative UK models that lacked the vital glint of California sunshine.
And why were they? Because the British industry was being run with the panache of a drunken monkey riding a neurotic ostrich.
Yes, there were great development engineers, not least Doug Hele (above) and Bert Hopwood who worked on some of the best Norton and Triumph/BSA bikes of the late sixties — but management had become bloated with so-called experts from outside the industry, with heads full of bile-inducing managerial nonsense.
On the other side of the boardroom table sat the Old Guard, who still believed that British was best and that those funny Japanese could jolly well have the small bike market, because they simply couldn’t build big bikes. Well, small capacity they may have been, but the States were importing ten times more Japanese bikes than British, laying down a solid customer base and dealer network. To say that the success of Honda’s advanced, slick and desirable CB750 Four of 1968 came as a surprise would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetically tragic.
Americans by now thought of Triumph, BSA and Norton as their own so casual xenophobia held back the inevitable for a certain amount of time. But it couldn’t last. As pressure from the competition grew quality control slipped. Loyal US importers were forced to spend increasing amounts of time correcting faults on British bikes fresh from the shipping crates just to make them fit for sale. Shameful.
The Brits simply hadn’t seen it coming. To say they were complacent is like saying the Ku Klux Klan is mildly provocative. Some would call it criminally negligent to sit on laurels first won in the 1930s.
At its height of British dominance of the Motorcycle industry more than 12,000 people worked at BSA’s main Small Heath factory in Birmingham. It covered 250 acres and housed the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. It takes talent to wreck a business like that.
But by 1973 it was all over, the factory levelled soon after. Triumph meanwhile struggled on at Meriden, but a debilitating sickness of mismanagement, ownership changes and union unrest finally killed it in 1983. We should be thankful that the man who bought the Triumph name and manufacturing rights, John Bloor, has gone on to create a sound company that turns out world-class bikes from a state-of-the-art factory. And this is a man who is very switched on to the American market.
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