Whatever happened to BSA motorcycles?

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From guns and Spitfires to the world’s biggest bike firm to… nowhereFact file

BSA (Birmingham Small Arms company limited)
Born: June 1861
Last original-era machine: 1973
Claim to fame: Was once the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer

BSA. That rings a bell. What’s it famous for?

So it should. BSA, or the Birmingham Small Arms company Ltd, is the ‘other’ historic British bike brand (along with Triumph and Norton) most famous for machines like the Bantam, Gold Star and Rocket III. At its peak it was the largest motorcycle firm in the world.

But not any more, obviously…

No. Unlike Triumph and Norton, which have both recently been revived after floundering in the 1970s, BSA remains ‘off the radar’, which, in these days of rebirth for countless classic British marques, is something of a mystery – but more of that later. 

So what’s the ‘Arms’ bit?

It started out as a gun company and, to some degree, remains so today – you might have had a BSA air rifle as a kid. It was founded in 1861 by 14 members of the Birmingham Small Arms Trade Association specifically to produce weapons on an industrial scale – it was hugely successful, too.

Didn’t BSA have something to do with the Spitfire?

Yes, all the Battle of Britain Spitfires and Hurricanes used Browning .303 machine guns made by BSA. During the course of WWII, BSA made nearly 0.5million Brownings plus 1.25m Lee-Enfield rifles and 400,000 Sten guns. Military rifle production ended in 1961.

So how did it go from guns to motorbikes?

Like many other historic manufacturers – via bicycles. BSA’s gun machinery proved remarkably adaptable to making bicycle parts, the company wanted to diversify so, in 1880, it produced its first bicycle. Motor bicycles were added in 1910 when the BSA 3½ hp was exhibited at Olympia. It sold out for the next three years.

And from then on it was just motorcycles?

No, BSA was always nothing if not diverse. Apart from guns, bicycles and motorbikes, it also produced buses, cars (owning Daimler until 1960 when it was sold to Jaguar) even taxi bodies, via its Carbodies business.

So how did it become No1?

Through growth and acquisition. BSA bought Sunbeam in 1943 then Ariel in 1944. After the war it returned its munitions factories to bike production and launched the hugely successful Bantam in 1948 (based on a German DKW design taken in war reparations). When it took over Triumph in 1951 the combined volume made BSA the world’s largest motorcycle producer.

Surely it had better bikes than the Bantam though?

Don’t knock it: the lightweight two-stroke was many people’s introduction to motorcycles with more than 250,000 built. But no, it wasn’t the sexiest. Models like the Gold Star single, A10 Rocket Gold Star twin and Rocket III triple laid best claim to that.

So what went wrong?

As with the rest of the UK industry, how long have you got? Poor management, complacency, a lack of new models and more led to decline (by 1959 Honda had overtaken them). By the early ’70s the whole UK industry was in crisis.

Then what happened?

In 1972, a government rescue plan saw BSA’s motorcycle businesses merged with Norton-Villiers to create Norton-Villiers-Triumph. It didn’t work. Their last BSA-badged bike was produced in 1973 with NVT liquidated in 1978 (Triumph by then had already been sold off to a workers cooperative).

So was that it?

No. A new company bought the rights and briefly produced the Rotax and Yamaha-powered Bushman and Beaver trailies. A takeover in 1991 led most famously to the Seymour Powell-designed MuZ Skorpion (although it was briefly badged BSA).

Another takeover in 1994 resulted in BSA-Regal Group, a move to Southampton and, in 1997, brief production of the Yamaha SR-powered Gold SR. BSA Guns (UK) Ltd lives on as a separate entity producing air and spring sporting guns in Armoury Road, Small Heath – next door to the remains of the historic factory.

Words: Phil West