The British Motorcycle Industry Is Dead, Long Live the British Motorcycle Industry

Aerial Photo of the BSA Factory Small HeathIn the 1950’s the British motorcycle industry was a huge part of the economy. With both domestic and export sales booming it would be hard to predict such a fast decline. Motorcycles were said to be the third biggest export, behind only cars and spirits so how did we get to a point in the early 1970’s where some of the largest manufacturers in the UK had stuttered to a complete standstill?

Depending on who you speak to, you will get a range of reasons;

  • Competition from the big four Japanese manufacturers (Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki & Suzuki)
  • Incompetent management from the manufacturers
  • Lack of R&D or understanding of a changing market
  • Government intervention, or lack of
  • The launch of the Mini

With all things considered, there was probably a combination of various factors which conributed to the downfall. The effect of most, it seems, could have been predicted or dampened by the management had they been more aware of the threat from the Japanese manufacturers in the early stages and perhaps continued to develop their products.

Below is a video of the struggles Triumph faced in 1983.

Eventually of course, we all know that from the ashes of the industry a new Triumph emerged, some would say better and stronger than ever, albeit in a very different market. Under the sole ownership of John Bloor, Triumph as a company seem to be fast, agile and ahead of the slow laborious big four Japanese manufacturers. The models which are being released are responding almost instantly to the ever changing demands which this now fashionable market requires. This, in stark contrast to the Triumph of old.


However, what about market for now Classic British Motorcycles? How have the old dealers stood the test of time?

Classic Bike Dealers

Triumph X75 Hurricane Investment Classic BikeThe latest recession killed off lots of small businesses in the UK and around the world. However it seems that those operating the classic vehicle niches have in fact boomed. This is probably due to the poor interest rates offered to savers by banks. It almost makes saving money in the bank a bad financial decision, whilst classic bike prices over the last few years have soared! If you invested your money into a classic bike or classic car 10 years ago your return could be significant if you cashed in now, plus you have potentially had a pretty cool mode of transport in that time. Money in the bank however is probably worth less than the day you invested it!

Let’s take the example of a Triumph X75 Hurricane. In 2007 a good Hurricane would probably set you back £6,000, now in 2017 they are more like £30,000! A pretty good return on a ten year investment! Obviously it is often down to timing, however generally if you are talking classics, they all have appreciated to varying degrees.

The impact of the price increases on classic bike dealers is obvious, increased demand! The higher prices of bikes mean enthusiasts want to find and restore the bikes. Generally the businesses selling parts for these machines are flat out, and have been for some years. That isn’t to say that the market doesn’t have it’s fair share of problems, but it has fared better than many!

The market has also had to modernise, some companies have embraced modern selling methods, others not so much, but as the proprietors of the original businesses start to retire, they often take their encyclopedic knowledge with them. This can in turn create confusion, anger and disillusionment with what for most collectors is a hobby.

The Internet, Ebay and Bedroom Sellers

The internet is something which Classic bike parts suppliers have had to embrace. Those who have failed to do so tend to be the ones who haven’t had it so good. However, the internet is something of a poisoned chalice for dealers. On the one hand it opens up what is a very niche market to a whole world of customers. On the other, competition from bedroom sellers on ebay etc can not only increase competition, but drive prices down. This initially can be very good for the customer, however the market is increasingly seeing masses of foreign copies listed on Ebay, at increasingly low prices, by sellers who don’t really know what they are selling. Many items are incorrectly made, advertised for the wrong bikes or just of poor quality. This not only causes the disillusionment described above, but it sets a precident on price for the quality UK made items. Eventually it becomes unviable to manufacture the items and so the buyers are left with no choice. This process emulates the UK market as a whole and is in the end bad for the consumer and bad for the economy. It always pays to buy British! Especially for your British bike! :)

The number of legitimate businesses in the Classic British Motorcycle Parts market is quite small, these are the businesses which have been operating for a long period which has allowed them to accumulate tens of thousands of products. Often these business will have a mixture newly manufactured, second hand and the holy grail, Genuine New Old Stock (NOS) Parts.

GENUINE NEW OLD STOCK (NOS) PARTS – This is an industry term for parts which were made, usually by the bike manufacturer eg BSA, Triumph, Norton or Royal Enfield, at the time which the bikes were made

The reason these NOS parts are generally the most reliable option is that they have been made specifically for the bike, to the correct finish and or tolerances, whilst aftermarket parts can be different spec, or just plain wrong! Unfortunately these NOS parts are becoming increasingly scarce as builders and restorers but them up for their projects. Many of the bedroom sellers tend to have one supplier who is a wholesaler/importer. These mainly foreign items can be as cheap as chips on ebay etc, but often UK Made or higher quality alternatives are available from the larger dealers.

Classic Bike Autojumbles

A bunch of middle aged men picking through rusty parts in a car park may not sound very appealing to a savvy internet user, but Classic Autojumbles still pull in big crowds. Classic Motorcycle AutojumblesThere is often a mix of the larger established dealers, and some bedroom sellers who have decided to take the plunge and buy a marquee for the autojumble.
Unfortunately the autojumbles are often packed with the same poor quality items found on Ebay. From feedback we get, they also tend to be where the returns and faulty batches end up. After all, there is often less recourse for consumers after purchasing an item from an autojumble, then the relative safety of the internet or EBay.
That isn’t to say that autojumbles are all bad. There are sometimes lots of bargins around, although be careful not to pay over the odds for a “hard to find” item at a jumble. It always pays to get pricing from an online dealer first! The autojumbles often have other entertainment, bikes on show and of course offer a meetup for like minded motorcycle enthusiasts!

Reviving Old Brands

In 2017, vintage and retro is cool; fashion labels, high street shops and celebrities like to use classic styles and iconic brands in their shop fronts, advertising and profiles. Household names such as David Beckham and Keanu Reeves have linked themselves to British Bikes. This has helped draw new interest into the market, which of course is good news.

Three out of the big four names of the British Motorcycle Industry have already made a comeback, with BSA expected to follow. We earlier mentioned the revivial of Triumph, Norton has also been relaunched, Royal Enfield are still selling bikes, albeit controversially under the “Royal” name. The BSA name has recently been purchased by Indian giants Mahindra in a deal worth a reported £3.4 million. We are yet to hear their plans, but a purchase of that value singals their intentions to make a go of it!

Lucas Green BoxThe old parts brands are also being revived, although some in slightly less favourable terms. There have been a few re-launches of parts brands recently which in my opinion makes the options available confusing to the customers. The name of Hepolite, the famous piston manufacturer, is being used under license to sell Taiwanese made pistons. The branding makes the product sound as if this is the original specification item, when in reality they are not, although useable. There are pistons available made to the original AE specification, but they are sold under lesser known brand names.

Another brand name being used is Lucas. Electrical systems on lots of British bikes were made by Lucas. Now, previously unbranded electrical items are being placed in green Lucas boxes. On the whole, these items do their job, but to call them Lucas, is slightly misleading in my opinion, especially when there are genuine old Lucas items still on the market.



The Future of British Bikes

The modern British bike scene looks bright, with Triumph clearly being the standout company for now. John Bloor has done an excellent job in taking Triumph from obscurity to really making a dent in the Japanese brands sales. Plus making waves in the US market up against Harley Davidson too.

For the Classic scene, expect bike prices to rise further, with later models picking up more as the earlier restorations become harder to get hold of. The bedroom sellers have probably seen their peak, and once they realise that they aren’t making a return selling on Ebay they will fall away, leaving the main dealers to improve the market for everyone, and keep those classics on the road!



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