Classic Motorcycle Build

Vintage British Motorcycles

Article by Mark Trotta

British motorcycle history goes back to 1896 with the Excelsior Motor Company. Other early motorcycle companies from England include Royal Enfield (1901), Norton (1902), Triumph (1902), and BSA (1910).

Vintage British motorcycles history

Early Norton Motorcycles

James L. Norton began building motorized bicycles in 1902, followed by V-twin models, and then side-valve, OHV and OHC singles. Following World War II, Bert Hopwood engineered the first Norton twin, the 497cc Model 7. For 1960, Norton introduced an all-new engine 650cc twin, and soon after the larger-bored 750cc Atlas (produced 1962 through 1968).

Triumph Parallel Twin

Designed by Edward Turner, the two-cylinder Triumph "Speed Twin" was introduced in 1937. The 500cc parallel twin developed 27-horsepower, making bikes capable of 90 mph. Engine displacement increased to 650cc in 1950.

The parallel-twin design was an instant success, and would prove to be the definitive British bike engine.

Early Triumph Speed Twins featured girder front forks with no rear suspension. By 1946, telescopic forks were standard equipment, with sprung-hub rear suspension optional.


WW2 Motorcycles

Powered by a 496cc single-cylinder engine, the BSA M20 was the most-produced motorcycle of World War II. During a German bomb raid in November 1940, the BSA factory in Small Heath, Birmingham was targeted, killing 53 workers with 89 more injured. Production was transferred elsewhere and production of the M20 continued.

WW2 motorcycle history
Picture Courtesy National Motorcycle Museum, Anamosa, Iowa

During the War Years, BSA built 126,000 M20 motorcycles.

Between 1937 and 1945, Norton manufactured nearly 100,000 motorcycles for the British military, allowing the company to endure the war.

The original factory of the Triumph Cycle Company Ltd. was located in Coventry, England, until WW2 bombing destroyed it in 1940. After the war, the company began producing motorcycles in Meriden, England, and would continue to do so until 1983.


Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, British bikes dominated motorcycle performance and racing venues on both sides of the Atlantic.


Vincent Black Shadow

Produced from 1948 to 1955, the Vincent Black Shadow was the super-bike of its day. Each and every one was hand-built and used the highest quality materials.

Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle

Fewer than 1,700 Black Shadows were produced.



In addition to the 'big three' British manufacturers, there was Douglas, who produced motorcycles from 1907 and 1957. During the 1920's, they enjoyed many race wins at the Isle of Man.

Vintage British motorcycles

Aside from it's single and parallel twin models, Douglas also produced a series of flat-twins.

Vintage British motorcycles

Douglas motorcycles were never widely imported into America. The reason for this was likely their smaller displacement engines.


Triumph Engineering Co Ltd

Not only was Triumph the sales leader among British motorcycle brands, they often led the way in performance as well. After 1950, more Triumphs would be sold in the USA than in any other country, including Britain. To better serve U.S. markets, Triumph set up a distributing company in Maryland in 1951.

BSA/Triumph Merge

The BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Company) Group purchased Triumph Motorcycles in 1951 and become the largest producer of motorcycles in the world at that time. During the fifties and sixties, the motorcycle industry was Britain's third largest market.


"The Wild One" Movie

Filmed in 1953, "The Wild One" starred Marlon Brando riding a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T. The movie also starred Lee Marvin riding a Harley-Davidson. Loosely based on a real events, the movie was mostly fictitious.

Vintage British Motorcycles

Because of its brutality and sadism (for the time), the film was banned by the British Board of Film Censors until 1967. Many Triumph importers objected to the use of Triumph motorcycles in the film.


Triumph Tiger Cub

Also designed by Edward Turner, the 200cc single-cylinder Triumph Tiger Cub debuted in November 1953. The first version of the Cub (1954-1956) had a plunger rear suspension frame. Later models (1957-1968) were updated with a rear swing-arm

Vintage Triumph Tiger Cub

In 1961, driving license regulations in Great Britain changed. By restricting learner motorcyclists to a maximum of 250cc, the Tiger Cub became one of the best selling small bikes.

Triumph Scooters

During the fifties and sixties, Triumph and BSA also sold motor scooters. The Triumph Tigress scooter was also sold as the BSA Sunbeam. Differences between the two were purely cosmetic.

vintage scooter history


World's Fastest Motorcycle

Running on a mixture of 80 percent methanol and 20 percent nitro methane, U.S. native Johnny Allen set a new motorcycle speed record of 214.40 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1956. His 15-foot-long streamliner was powered by a heavily modified Triumph 650, fed through twin 1-3/8" Amal GP carburetors, and producing between 80-100 horsepower.

World's Fastest Motorcycle

Triumph held the title of "World's Fastest Motorcycle" from 1955 to 1970.


Triumph Bonneville

The original Triumph Bonneville's were built from 1959 to 1983. Manufactured in three generations over three separate production runs, it is the best-selling British-twin of all time.

Read: Triumph Bonneville History

Super Bikes

The multi-cylinder motorcycle years started in 1968 with the three-cylinder Triumph Trident. Soon after, Japanese manufacturers were producing faster, cheaper, and more reliable motorcycles, severely cutting into the sales of both British and American-made bikes.

Vintage British Motorcycle, Triumph Trident

Read: 1974 Triumph Trident Restoration

Norton Commando

Utilizing their existing Atlas engine with a new frame, Norton began production of the 750cc Commando in 1968. An increase of displacement to 828cc was seen for the 1974 models, and that was to be the last of the original Norton parallel-twin machines.

Read: Norton Commando History

From 1968 until the demise of the company in 1977, the Commando was the main bike in Norton's lineup. The last Norton Commando rolled off the line in 1976 with a few unsold units being re-titled as 1977 models.

Vintage British Motorcycles, Norton Commando Fastback

The Triumph Company suffered terrible financial losses by 1971. With their government intervening, they merged with ailing Norton, who had recently merged with Villiers. The new company, calling themselves Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT), carried on for several more years, but was never able to rebound.


By 1976, both Triumph and BSA were out of business. Triumph motorcycles would go back into production in 1983.

classic Triumph motorcycle


Norton Resurgence

In 1978, Dennis Poore acquired the remaining assets to form Norton Motors Ltd. Once back in business, they began building small numbers of rotary-powered Interpol 2 motorcycles to British police forces. After Poore died in 1987, Phillipe LeRoux acquired Norton and formed the Norton Group PLC.

Duckhams Oil Norton race bike

Produced through the 1989 to 1994 racing seasons, the Norton RCW588 racing motorcycle was powered by a liquid-cooled twin-rotor Wankel engine. The capacity of 588cc was to comply with FIM rules, allowing Norton to enter the 500 Grand Prix premier racing class in 1990.

For about a decade, Norton produced very few (less than 1,000) rotary-powered motorcycles. The Norton F1 is the street version of the RCW588 race bike.

By 1992, with the company over $12 million in debt, Norton was once again out of business.


Future Classic

The Steve McQueen Triumph is inspired by the Trophy TR6 from "The Great Escape" movie, and features a military-style Matte Khaki-Green finish, stencil-style Triumph decal on the tank and the actor's signature on the side covers.

Steve Mcqueen Triumph

Beginning in April of 2012, 1,100 Steve Mcqueen Special Edition Triumphs were produced and sold worldwide. Each motorcycle is individually numbered with a plaque placed on the handlebar clamp, with owners receiving a certificate of authenticity.


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