The Classic Motorcycle Era - 1940-1960
World War 2 meant the end of one era
and the beginning of another. Economically, it would
sap Britain's reserves and precipitate the break-up
of an Empire that had once formed a captive market
for British goods and a cheap source of raw materials.
Every available resource had to mobilised.
Of course this included the motorcycle industry,
although not necessarily in the production of motorcycles.
Some of Britain's most prestigious names were turned
over to making precision parts for the war effort.
For the big firms, motorcycle production did continue.
BSA produced a stream of 500cc side-valves, the M20,
while Norton turned out vast quantities of the similar
16H. Matchless produced the lightweight 350cc overhead-valve
G3 with 'Teledraulic' telescopic forks.
Of the major makers, only Triumph was not involved
in wartime production, because early in the Coventry
blitz. their factory was completely destroyed. Other
factories made bike in small numbers, including the
specialised lightweight folding bikes from Royal Enfield
and Excelsior, which were designed to be landed with
paratroops. Norton made a Big Four-powered sidecar
outfit designed as a gun platform, adopting an ingenious
sidecar wheel drive to make it capable of negotiating
The main use of the Allied military bikes was, as
in World War I, as despatch and convoy escorts. Over
40,000 British WD bikes were made and thousands of
riders were trained to use them.
When peace returned, as in World War I, there was
an immediate demand for transport. This time, there
were many more experienced riders who were hungry
for bikes and, as before, the demand was met with
a mixture of reconditioned ex-service bikes, secondhand
bikes and finally a trickle of new models.
Many materials were in short supply, but the chief
desadvantage for the ordinary rider was the rationing
of petrol. Supplies of a lower octane 'Pool' petrol
began in 1945 but private owners were restricted to
three gallons a week, or two for machines under 250cc.
New models were not long in coming. Triumph, courtesey
of a new factory, was first in production with a post-war
range of parallel twins. BSA and AMC rapidly followed
suit. However, for many, the route on to two wheels
was via an autocycle, fore-runnerr of the moped, or
even a bicycle assisted by a clip-on motor.
Within a year of peace there were half a million
bikes in use, nearly double the 1939 total, despite
being more expensive, thanks in part to the new purchase
tax imposed during the war. As a result the bikes
that most people were riding were extremely basic
and in a low state of tune. Wartime experience had
made most bikes reliable but many of the commonest
conveniences were still considered extra items such
as pillion seats and footrests, air filters and speedometers.
The mood though was one of optimism. There were bright
ideas aplenty, including some, such as BSA's Bantam
and Sunbeam S7, that were copied from, or inspired
by successful enemy designs. Competition riding had
returned as early as June 1945. At the same time,
a new movement was under way, with the formation in
1946 of the Vintage Motorcycle Club, to ensure that
older bikes were valued and preserved. Major competitions
began to return that year with the first post-war
Manx Grand Prix.
The winner of the Senior race proved prophetic. Ernie
Lyons was mounted on a new Triumph twin, with a specially
developed alloy engine. Over the next few years, the
type would become the staple diet of the British motorcycle
Many of the technical improvements of the pre-war
racers had centred around supercharging. Such 'artificial
aids' were now banned by the sport's organising bodies
and, as a result, several of the British industry's
most promising designs lost their advantage. Post-war
racing tended to centre on the single cylinder overhead-cam
Manx Norton, with similar offerings from AMC and Velocette
making up the field. Occasional exotic designs such
as the AJS Porcupine surfaced but despite the undoubted
success of the singles, there was little with a technology
that could challenge the four-cylinder Italian racers
soon being fielded by Gilera or the technically advanced
Moto Guzzi singles.
As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, things still
looked good, however. The British industry was booming
with exports at record levels. British bikes were
winning races and setting records, with bikes such
as the exclusive Vincent twins setting the standard
by which all others were judged.
There were still shortages, however. With petrol
supplies settling down, the Korean War meant that
chroming had to be restricted, resulting in a couple
of years of painted rims. Behind the scenes the British
factories were suffering from a shortage of real investment.
The German factories were suffering from a shortage
of real investment. The German factories were coming
out with bikes that formed the basis for their own
post-war expansion, as well as the model for Japan
to do the same.
Italy was offering a host of new ideas, including
the scooter. The Vespa, launched in 1946, would spawn
a European boom in which British offerings were too
litle, too late. The Italian scooter was poorly understood
in Britain at the time and all too-easily dismissed.
In 1953, motorcycles topped the million mark. Britain
was the largest motorcycle producer outside the Iron
Curtain countries and in a position to dictate its
own terms. This would mask for a few years the advances
in engineering design that had been made by the continental
opposition and not just in the field of racing.
This was not to say that British bikes did not still
lead the world. One only had to look at the competitive
records achieved by machines such as the Triumph twins,
BSA's Gold Star, the Manx Norton, AJS 7R and the racing
Velocette to see that, while bikes such as the Vincent
were still offering a performance that no rivals could
match. But there were also external factors that were
affecting the market for the British industry's products.
In the early 1950s, motorcycles were still everday
transport, for prosperity had still not improved to
the degree where cars had become affordable by the
mass market. Lightweights were providing commuters
with a ride to work, while sidecars were still commonplace
family vehicles. But all this was changing and at
a pace that was too fast for most of the British industry
Light cars such as the Mini were developed, at a
price that would soon challenge the famile sidecar,
while offering far greater convenience. Italian racing
bikes had now espoused streamlining, offering still
greater speed potential. Sales of two-wheelers were
going up but many of them were scooters. By the end
of the decade motorcycle sales had reached a peak
that had not been seen for 30 years. But in truth
there were troubles behind the scenes. In Britain,
the image of the motorcycle, as well as its economic
position, was altering fast.
What had been accepted as family transport a decade
before ws now increasingly associated with the youth
market. The image of the motorcycle outlaw portrayed
by Marlon Brando in the banned 1953 film The Wild
One, had provided a model for suburban rebels across
Britain. With the ready availability of cheap, fast
and raw machines from all the British factories, the
scene was set for a major shift in the attitude of
the public to motorcycling.
Technologically, things were also changing fast.
While at the last 1950s TT was dominated by the Italian
MVs and the British Nortons, that yea's competition
also saw the debut of Honda - and a new challenge
to the British motorcycle industry.