The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry

8 customer reviews


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.

230 in stock



The British motorcycle 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.

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

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

  1. Review

    This book provides a gripping description and analysis of the mis-steps and misfortunes of the British motor cycle industry, from the 1920’s through to the effective death of the industry in the 1970’s. Whilst obviously unrelated to Rover and the P5 / P5B, this book will be of interest to anyone with even a passing interest in Britains manufacturing history.

    The book manages to combine detail and analysis together in an engaging and easily-read style that doesn’t demand any prior knowledge of motor cycles or the companies involved. The attitudes, mistakes and economic factors described within this book have many parallels to the attitudes, mistakes and economic factors that were playing-out in parallel within Britain’s motor car industry. Hence this book provides a fascinating wider view to anyone interested in the calamitous events that befell motor car manufacturing in the same period, Rover included.

    What’s fascinating about the story is that the mistakes seem clear in retrospect. Instead of the tired old cliche that union militancy killed British manufacturing, it is very apparent that the biggest issues here were an unwillingness of management to adapt their product to changing market trends, a failure of product design, insufficient capital investment, and an arrogance in the face of rising competition from overseas – initially Germany, then Italy, then Japan. The industry retreated at every turn, until eventually there was nowhere left to go.

    Whilst car manufacturing may have faced slightly different challenges, many are the same, and the outcome was the same as well. I’ll leave it to you to decide how relevant you think the conclusions are to the fate of the British car industry.

    Read the full review here:

  2. Andy Heathwood

    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. Jonathan Hill

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

  4. Motorcycle Classics

    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.

  5. The Classic Motorcycle

    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.

  6. The Journal of Transport History

    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.

  7. Technology and Culture

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

  8. The Riders’ Digest

    Handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated. The photographs – personal as well as archival – are well selected and not common.

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