British Motorcycles, 1945-1975
By Chuck Hawks
I was fortunate to have begun riding motorcycles at a time when good beginner bikes were plentiful. In the 1960's, you "Met the nicest people on a Honda." Machines from 50cc to 350cc were plentiful from manufacturers such as Aermacchi, AJS, BMW, Bridgestone, BSA, Bultaco, Ducati, Hodaka, Honda, Husqvarna, Matchless, Montessa, Suzuki, Triumph and Yamaha. Furthermore, motorcycle prices were relatively low, especially for small displacement machines, making entry into the exciting world of two-wheel transportation available to young people.
For many riders of my generation, after learning to ride on a small displacement beginner bike, the most seductive 500cc and larger motorcycles to "step up" to were produced in the United Kingdom. The British motorcycle industry led the world at that time, much as the Japanese manufacturers do today. Of course, there were viable alternatives from other countries, including Harley-Davidson (USA), BMW (Germany), Ducati and Moto Guzzi (Italy). However, until the beginning of the 1970's, Brit bikes ruled the larger displacement classes. Many riders today do not realize that the best selling Harley-Davidson Sportster (883cc) was originally introduced to compete with the sporty British 650cc and 750cc motorcycles. That is why, unlike other H-D's, Sportsters had a unit construction engine in the British mold and right foot shifting, until the U.S. government mandated left foot shifters.
The British motorcycle industry collapsed with astonishing rapidity during the first half of the 1970's. One manufacturer after another was forced out of business by competition from overseas manufacturers and crippling strikes. The Japanese, led by Honda in 1969, introduced a series of large displacement, multi-cylinder motorcycles with electric start and hydraulic disc brakes with which the British makers were ill prepared to compete. 1975 saw the introduction of the last mainstream Brit bikes by the (then) combined Norton-Villiers-Triumph-BSA (NVT) Company. By the latter part of the 1970's, motorcycles had became a cottage industry in the UK, although a limited number of Triumph 750 Bonnevilles were turned out by the government sponsored Meridian Cooperative (successors to NVT after the final collapse) until 1983, when that experiment folded. However, not all was lost. The purchase of Triumph Motorcycles by John Bloor and the establishment of the new Hinckley, England Triumph factory allowed the brand to re-enter the world stage in 1990 with a line of modern, high quality bikes that have been very successful to the present day.
This list covers major models from Associated Motor Cycles (the AJS and Matchless brands, which were usually identical motorcycles under different names), Ariel, BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield, Triumph, Velocette and Vincent. These are street and dual-purpose ("street scrambler") type motorcycles; specialized off road and competition motorcycles are generally excluded. Individual motorcycle models are usually produced for several years without significant change. The Triumph Bonneville 650, for example, was manufactured from 1959-1974 with only two major changes. To prevent unnecessary duplication, I have tended to include only the first or noteworthy versions of each model. Nominal engine displacement in cubic centimeters is given in parenthesis when not part of the model designation. Most of the 250, 350 and early post WW II 500cc class bikes were single cylinder, OHV, 4-stokes. During the 1950's and 1960's, 500 and 650cc OHV vertical twins became very popular. Note that where more than one motorcycle is listed for a particular year, they are in alphabetical order.
I welcome suggestions for additions to this list. E-mail suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2012, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.