Vintage British Motorcycles
Article by Mark Trotta
The Excelsior Motor Company of England began motorcycle production in 1896. Other early British motorcycle companies were Royal Enfield (1901), Norton (1902), Triumph (1902), and BSA (1910).
The original factory of the Triumph Cycle Company Ltd. was located in Coventry, England, until wartime bombing destroyed it in 1940. Several years later, the company began producing motorcycles in Meriden, England, and would continue to do so until 1983.
British Parallel Twin
In 1937, Triumph introduced their 500cc Speed Twin. It was an instant success and would prove to be the definitive British bike engine.
Designed by Edward Turner, the first Triumph parallel-twin developed 27-horsepower, making the bikes capable of 90 mph. Engine displacement was increased to 650cc in 1950.
Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, British bikes dominated motorcycle performance and racing venues.
Vincent Black Shadow
Produced from 1948 to 1955, the Vincent Black Shadow was the superbike of its day. Each and every one was hand-built and used the highest quality materials. Fewer than 1,700 Black Shadows were produced.
Read: Kick-Starting An Old Motorcycle
Triumph Engineering Co Ltd
Triumph was not only the sales leader among the other British motorcycle brands, but they were also leading the way in performance. To better serve U.S. markets, Triumph set up a distributing company in Maryland in 1951. After 1950, more Triumphs would be sold in the USA than in any other country, including Britain.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Triumph held the title of "World's Fastest Motorcycle" from 1955 to 1970.
Manufactured in three generations over three separate production runs, the Triumph Bonneville is the best-selling British-twin of all time. The original classic models were built from 1959 to 1983.
Read: Triumph Bonneville History
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.
Read: 1974 Triumph Trident Restoration
Bert Hopwood engineered the first Norton twin in 1949, the 497cc Model 7. It grew into the 650cc Dominator, then the 750cc Atlas, lastly being launched in 1967 as the 750cc Norton Commando. It would be the last of the Norton parallel-twin machines.
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 1975 with a few unsold units being re-titled as 1976 models.
The Triumph Company had 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 gone. NVT Engineering Ltd. closed in 1976.
After The End
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.
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.
Vintage British motorcycles were assembled from the factory with Whitworth-sized nuts and bolts. These are often confused for, and not the same as, fractional or metric sizes. This is why so many old British bikes have rounded-off nuts and bolts.
Shop: British Whitworth Tools
Many British motorcycles continued using Whitworth sizing into the late sixties, and to make things more confusing, some seventies British bikes had a combination of sizings! Consider investing in a set of Whitworth tools for your vintage British motorcycle project.
Positive Ground Electrical System
Over the years, vintage British motorcycles have had a reputation for having bad electrical systems. Truth is, the stock ignition system works well if set up properly.
Read: Solder or Crimp Motorcycle Wires
There was always a mystique about positive-ground bikes and there shouldn't be. The best way to diagnose a positive-ground system is to simply reverse any diagnostic procedure you would normally used on a negative-ground system. For example, instead of starting on the positive side of the battery and following the current that way, start at the negative side of the battery and follow the current the other way.
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.
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.
Isle Of Man TT Race
Held on a small island off the west coast of England, The Isle of Man TT is recognized as one of the world's most challenging and dangerous road-race courses. Early photographs of these races highlight vintage bikes in all their prestige, adding to the Isle Of Man mystique.
Read: Isle of Man TT