The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry

The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry


At long last, Steve Koerner presents an original and in-depth analysis, based on hitherto unused sources, of what really happened. Fascinating, detailed and totally convincing, this book provides the first thorough explanation of the strange death of the British motor cycle industry. New print version, back by popular demand.


Product Description

The British motor cycle industry once stood ‘at the top level of world production’. BSA, Ariel, Norton, Triumph, Matchless and Vincent led the world in design, technology, and popularity. After 1945, when the German industry failed to develop, British bikes continued to be untouchable both on the racetrack and in the showroom.

Then it all began to go horribly wrong. Lucrative overseas markets began to decline, and foreign scooters tore into the UK market. At the same time, rates of motorcycle accidents rose and many British consumers were deciding to buy cars instead of two-wheelers.

Finally there came a whirlwind from the East, as fierce competition arrived from innovative, sophisticated and more mechanically reliable Japanese machines. By the early 1970s, with alarming rapidity, the British motor cycle industry had all but disappeared.

‘Comprehensive, exhaustively researched, and fully annotated and indexed, if you were only to own one book on the demise of the British m otorcycle industry, The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry is the one you must have.’

‘… covering aspects such as racing, exports, the changing image of motorcycling in the UK, industrial disputes, and national politics. This really is the definitive work.’

‘Enthusiasts who are snapping up new motorcycles made by the Hinckley-based Triumph company … would be well advised to read this industrial morality tale, so that they can appreciate what is now being done right. Readers more interested in the lessons to be learned from a one-time world-dominating industry reduced to ruins in the space of two or three decades will be equally well served.’

‘Steve Koerner is a well-trained and effective historian and his judgments are copiously and professionally end-noted.’

‘… handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated. The photographs – personal as well as archival – are well selected and not common.’

  • Author: Steve Koerner
  • Binding: Paperback
  • ISBN: 978-1-905472-03-1
  • Pages: 368
  • Illustrations: 100 Photographs
  • Size: 6 1/2″ x 9 1/2″

3 reviews for The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry

  1. :

    ‘Steve Koerner is to be congratulated for such a fascinating, exhaustively researched and thought-provoking tome.’ – Jonathan Hill

  2. :

    This book provides a dispassionate examination of the evidence leading to the decline of motorcycle manufacturing in Britain. Although there are now Triumphs and Nortons available again, the decline during the latter half of the 20th century was spectacular. Steve Koerner is a British motorcycle enthusiast and historian from British Columbia who completed a PhD dissertation on the subject at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Social History between 1990 and 1995.

    Koerner takes a forensic and detailed approach and the book includes 77 pages of references detailing the sources used. The core of the book has seven chapters over 277 pages covering time periods from the 1930s to the 1960s and 70s. Useful summaries are included for the key machines and personalities involved, such as Norton Dominator, Triumph Speed Twin, Vincent Black Shadow, Velocette LE, Ariel Leader, Edward Turner, Jack Sangster and Val Page.

    The book concludes that putting short term profit ahead of long term investment in large scale production led to ‘segment retreat’, ie making larger capacity machines only. This and the related failure to develop a lightweight ‘economy’ model combined to cause the failure of the industry.

    The reviewer has also recently read Bert Hopwood’s and Neil Shilton’s books along with Barry Ryerson’s ‘The Giants of Small Heath’ which also cover the topic. It is striking how the knowledge, production engineering capability and experience required to prevent failure were around at the time, but were so badly mismanaged. The 1955 BSA Dandy lightweight featured in Koerner’s and Hopwood’s books, bears more than a passing resemblance to the later, all-conquering Honda Supercub. One of many examples of ‘what ifs’.

    Steve Koerner’s book is highly recommended reading for anyone needing an unbiased examination of the topic and in this respect is preferable to the more partisan accounts in Hopwood’s and Shilton’s books.

    Andy Heathwood

  3. :

    “The British moto cycle . . . in design, lightness and efficiency it beats everything.” These words were written in 1927 by a journalist on The Daily Telegraph and it was from these heady heights of supremacy in motorcycle manufacturer that the industry was destined to fall. British-made bikes were the stuff of legends and international envy, and still regain a very special place in the heart of motorcycle enthusiasts the world over. So how was such a success squandered? Who or what do we blame for the loss of such a wonderful feather in our national cap? Was it avoidable, or was the industry just a victim of the irresistible globalisation of trade, bringing powerful new players onto the stage? Though these questions have been asked with much wringing of hands over the years, a full and balanced analysis has been notable by its absence. Until now.

    Using the records of the Motor Cycle Industry Association, company accounts and government documents deposited in the National Archives, Norton Commando-riding Canadian academic Steve Koerner has set out to find the answers. In The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry, the trajectory of manufacture and sales is described in full, from the glory of the 1930s to the death-throes of the 1970s. Iconic names abound, of the motorcycles of course, but also of the key players such as Jack Sangster and Edward Turner. Then Steve embarks upon both an unsentimental and thorough assessment of the industry’s demise. Also described are details of the rarely-mentioned post-war German Reparations Programme – the only benefit that the British motorcycle industry gained was the acquisition of the design of the 125cc DKW, which of course became the BSA “Bantam.” What emerges is a complex series of contributory causes, including the technical wizardry of the Japanese, government legislation and the self-inflicted wounds of mis-management by the manufacturers.

    This book is very comprehensive, covering aspects such as racing, exports, and the changing images of motor cycling in the UK, industrial disputes and national politics. For anyone seriously interested in why the British motorcycle industry died in such a sudden, sad and regrettable way, this really is the definitive work, the conclusions of which could well be a surprise for many readers. Not a light read, but Steve Koerner is to be congratulated for such a fascinating, exhaustively researched and thought-provoking tome.

    Jonathan Hill

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