History of BSA Motorcycles

ASpares and Parts for BSAlso see a list of BSA Models

The Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) Company started in 1863, with the bike division starting in 1880. An engine powered bicycle was released in 1905 complete with a small Minerva engine.

BSA continued to produce motorcycles including the popular S27 or Sloper Model which was available in 350cc, 500cc and 595cc over the ten years which it was produced.

BSA Motorcycles
BSA on Postal Duties circa 1929

By World War 2, BSA had 67 factories which were used in order to meet the requirements for guns and ammunitions. They produced over a million Lee-Enfield rifles, Sten machine guns and around half a million Browning machine guns. However, the army also had a large demand for motorcycles, BSA supplied 126,000 M20 motorcycles to the armed forces from 1937 (and later until 1950) plus military bicycles including the folding paratrooper bicycle. BSA was now the largest producer of motorcycles in the world.

Sir Bernard Docker (also chairman of the Midland Bank) was chairman of BSA until 1951 with James Leek CBE Managing Director from 1939, after which Jack Sangster became Managing Director. Post-War, BSA continued it’s expansion, purchasing Triumph motorcycles in 1951. They then went on to acquire Ariel, Sunbeam and New Hudson (most of which belonged to Sangster).

In 1957, the BSA bicycle division was sold to Raleigh. In 1960, Daimler (the car division) was sold off to Jaguar. The production of guns bearing the BSA name continued beyond the 1957 sale of the bicycle division, but in 1986 BSA Guns was liquidated, the assets bought and renamed BSA Guns (UK) Ltd.

By 1965, competition from Japan (Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki) and also from Europe in the form of Jawa / CZ, Bultaco and Husqvarna was eroding BSA’s market share. The BSA and Triumph range were no longer aligned with the markets, for example trials and scrambles machines had moved on to 2 stroke engines. This along with failed projects such as the production of the Ariel 3 further hindered the company.

To try to combat this, a new range of singles, twins and the new 3 cylinder Rocket 3 was launched in 1968/69.

However, the reorganisation of the company in 1971 concentrated the motorcycle production in the Triumph Meriden plant. Meanwhile the component and engine production was left in the BSA plant in Small Heath. This coincided with the redundancies and selling of assets. Barclays Bank also arranged backing to the tune of a reported ?10 million.

Upgrades and service bulletins continued until 1972 but Japanese bikes had since flooded the market. The merger with Norton Villers in 1972 meant for a brief time a Norton 500 single was built with the B50 based unit-single engine but few, if any were sold publicly. The BSA unit single B50’s enjoyed much improvement in the hands of the CCM motorcycle company allowing the basic BSA design to continue until the mid to late 1970s in a competitive form all over Europe.

By 1972, with bankruptcy imminent, and with government backing, its motorcycle businesses were absorbed into the Manganese Bronze company, Norton-Villiers. This then became Norton-Villiers-Triumph with the intention of producing and marketing Norton and Triumph motorcycles. The shareholders of BSA confirmed the deal. Although the BSA name was left out of the new company’s name, a few products continued to be made carrying it until 1973. The final range was just four models: Gold Star 500 (B50), 650 Thunderbolt/Lightning and the 750 cc Rocket Three.

Norton’s and BSA’s factories were eventually shut down, while Triumph staggered on to fail four years later.