BULLETS TO BIKES & RIFLES TO ROCKERS
by J. F. MacPherson
If one was considering setting up a motorcycle or car company today, “Small Arms” is probably not the kind of business name association that would immediately spring to mind. BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Company), however, is a name now known worldwide by those who appreciate quality motorcycles and cars.
The tale of the rise and fall of the Birmingham Small Arms Company is a long and convoluted one, but how did a company go from bullets to bikes, and from rifles to Rockers? Sit back, and let me tell you a story…
Things really started moving in 1854. To put it into context, in that year Charles Dickens had started writing Hard Times, Sherlock Holmes was ‘born’, and tensions were seriously heating up between Britain and Russia.
In late March, Britain finally declared war on Russia and joined the ongoing Crimean War. By this time the city of Birmingham was arguably the foremost arms producer in the world (or so a plaque in the Gun Quarter asserts). It was certainly the centre of the British gun trade, and British forces really needed those guns.
Crimean War : 1853 - 1856
Her Majesty presents Crimean War medal.
Picture courtesy of the New York Library Digital Collection
So, in 1854 a group of independent gunsmiths came together to form the Birmingham Small Arms trade association in order to supply rifles for the war effort. The guns were hand-produced, which is never inexpensive, and consistency was sometimes an issue. That said, the group produced the goods, and in large volumes.
By the end of the war, however, the association had serious competition in the form of the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield. Government established, it had begun to utilise American mass-production techniques in order to increase production volumes, quality and the interchangeability of components, whilst also reducing the cost of the weapons being produced.
Bear with me. I realise this might seem to be heading somewhat off-piste if you were expecting an article all about a motorcycle and car company, but I promise that the relevance of all of this will soon become clear.
Let’s fast forward to 1861. The American Civil War is raging, Abraham Lincoln is sworn into office, the first Taranaki War ends in New Zealand, and the Birmingham trade association incorporates itself as a limited company in order to mass-produce guns with the aid of machinery. This marks the formal birth of the Birmingham Small Arms Company. To celebrate, they started constructing a new factory at Small Heath.
The new BSA factory opened in 1862 and, in 1864, the new company was awarded a big government contract – to convert 100,000 muzzle-loading Enfield rifles. More orders followed in swift succession (including one for forty million cartridge cases for the Prussians). Soon BSA was Europe’s largest privately-owned armaments manufacturer and had changed its name to the Birmingham Small Arms & Metal Company Ltd (BSA&MC).
1860: A solar coronal mass ejection causes one of the largest ever recorded geomagnetic storms on Earth, and the 38th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle Volunteer Corp is founded
Inspecting Enfield rifles.
Picture courtesy of the New York Library Digital Collection
The problem with, or rather the danger of, such narrow specialisation is that when nations stop fighting (the American Civil War ended 1865, the Franco-Prussian in 1871), weapons manufacturers need to find alternative means of employment or go very hungry.
Hunger struck hard when the government announced that they would not be placing any orders in the coming financial year, and then compounded matters by flooding the market with used weapons. These were avidly bought up by customers who would otherwise have probably done their shopping at BSA&MC. The Small Heath factory closed for nearly a year, its staff laid off.
BSA&MC had factory space, production machinery and access to skilled workers. What they needed was work. Opportunity came in the form of what eventually became known as the Otto Dicycle (no, that’s not a typo), patented as a safer alternative to penny-farthing cycle designs.
The inventor, Edward Otto, demonstrated a prototype to the BSA&MC directors by the simple expedient of riding it up and down their board-room table, down the winding staircase and out onto the road. The Board must have been suitably impressed, because the contract was signed.
“…offers advantage over all others which have yet been introduced. The rider is seated just off the ground, thus taking away the dangerous element from an exercise sought by so many. The Machine will turn in its own length, and can be steered to the greatest nicety…”
Otto Dicycle advert
It was work, though not as they knew it, and was to take the company in a totally new direction, diversifying BSA into the manufacture of both bicycles and tricycles. Output increased and soon included their own designs.
Bicycle production was temporarily interrupted in 1887 by government demand for more rifles and ammunition (possibly for Zululand). BSA&MC’s focus promptly shifted back to their old line of work as, for the next six years, the factory focussed on production of a new magazine rifle and a small quantity of safety bicycle crank axle bearings.
By 1893, demand for weapons slowed again, leaving BSA&MC to resume designing and producing bicycle parts. A range of their cycle fittings was even exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1894.
1885: Gottlieb Daimler is granted a patent for a single cylinder water cooled engine. Daimler and Maybach produce the Daimler Petroleum Reitwagen (riding car), the first petrol-powered internal combustion engine powered motorcycle. Karl Benz produces the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, which many regard as being the world’s first car.
1894: New Zealand enacts the world’s first minimum wage law, and the Paris-Rouen Competition for Horseless Carriages (the first ever automobile competition) is held
Crystal Palace, Hyde Park.
In 1896 the business of producing ammunition (including the premises used for that purpose) was sold off and BSA&MC reverted to its original name of the Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd. The quality and reliability standards, and the mass production techniques employed in their rifle manufacture had been passed on to the cycle components operation, and the BSA brand reputation had benefitted significantly as a result. Demand for BSA bicycle components was growing, requiring urgent expansion of its Small Heath Works.
Rifles yet again distracted BSA from the important task of becoming a world-leading motorcycle manufacturer when, in 1900, BSA and the Royal Small Factory at Enfield shared the orders for the Lee-Enfield rifles that would be shipped off for use in the Second Boer War.
Second Boer War (1899 – 1902) between Great Britain and the two Boer republics. Britain won, but was most costly war it fought between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War.
Fortunately for us, the powers-that-be had also recognised the quality of BSA cycles and, from 1902 onwards, the majority of bicycles used by the War Office were built with BSA components. This year also saw a major turning point in BSA’s development with the production of special BSA fittings and frames that were suitable for use with low power engines – the first tentative steps towards motorcycle production had been made.
More steps followed swiftly, including in 1905 the introduction of a new BSA motorcycle spring frame that was designed to suit inclined engines from 2 – 4hp. Buyers could opt instead to buy fittings that would enable the use of a vertical engine up to 3½hp. Most famously, this was the period when BSA frames were being fitted with Minerva motors.
In 1906, BSA took over the National Arms & Ammunition Company’s premises in Sparbrook. In the following year it amalgamated with the Eadie Manufacturing Company (which made rifle parts, bicycles and motorcycles), including their Redditch factory, and Mr Eadie himself subsequently became MD of BSA. This acquisition enabled BSA to considerably increase its production capacity.
BSA’s first cars, designed by Earnest Baguley (formerly with Ryknield), emerged in 1907/8, with engines ranging from eighteen to thirty-three horsepower, the larger cars being based on the Peking-Paris Italia. Baguley was also a locomotive engineer, which could be why in 1908 BSA began building petrol-powered railcars for Drewry.
After he left BSA, Baguley partnered with Wilfrid Clay and formed Baguley Cars Ltd, manufacturing cars and railcars.
BSA was manufacturing and selling industry-leading cycle components, enabling other companies to build complete machines from BSA parts. In 1908 BSA realised it had to put to its stockists undercutting it. From then on if someone wanted a complete BSA cycle, they could only buy it from BSA.
Despite the higher prices charged by BSA, the tactic paid off. BSA’s reputation for quality ensured that sales for complete cycles remained strong, so much so that in 1909 the policy was extended to selling complete motorcycles.
Although it was not until the 1960’s that the saying “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” became public currency, BSA was already taking advantage of the principle. BSA cycles were competing on road races and winning, including Tom Peck’s Land’s End to John o’ Groats run that took 70 hours and 42 minutes in 1908.
The BSA 3½ hp motorcycle was exhibited at the Olympia Show in 1910 and for the next three years the entire BSA motorcycle production sold out. BSA and the internal combustion engine were now really going places and were recognisably becoming the brand that so many came to know.
BSA Cycles Ltd branched out in 1908 with the launch of its first motor car (prototyped the previous year) in order to better utilise its Sparkbrook factory. It managed to sell only 150 vehicles in the first year which, presumably, were not the kind of sales figures this ambitious company was used to. A committee was duly appointed to do what committees do, and it reported back to the Board with a list of shortcomings including management failures and poor production organisation.
By this time, ‘Frank’ Dudley Docker had risen to the post of Deputy Chairman of BSA. He had already made a prominent name for himself in the merger movement of the period, and set out to use that experience to BSA’s advantage. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Daimler had grown to be one of Britain’s largest car producers, and was the holder of a Royal Warrant. Docker believed that a merger between the two companies would provide BSA with the skills it was missing.
The deal went ahead in 1910, with BSA purchasing Daimler, but the marriage did not begin well. Docker had not considered the need to co-ordinate the relationship, and neither company attempted any real reorganisation. The terms of the deal also left Daimler under-funded, with BSA not in a position to assist it financially.
BSA continued producing cars at Sparkbrook until 1912, when production finally shifted to Daimler’s Coventry works.
During the First World War BSA again returned to its manufacturing roots, concentrating on production of the Lee-Enfield rifle. ALthough not actively building motorcycles during the war, pre-war BSAs were sufficiently highly regarded by the War Office to be in use by British despatch riders. The Imperial War museum has an image of one such in use in East Africa on a bridge over the Ruwu River during 1917 here.
Daimler settled down to building aero engines and constructing Airco de Havilland bombers.
At the end of the war, BSA swung back into peacetime production, splitting up its main areas of work, each under separate management:
BSA Cycle Ltd - based at Small Heath & Redditch
BSA Guns Ltd - small arms work based at Small Heath
BSA Tools Ltd - based at Sparbrook
Daimler - based at Coventry
1914 - 1918 First World War
Lee-Enfield rifle mechanism.
This was the era of buy-ups and mergers, and BSA was no exception to the trend. Burton Griffiths & Co. (machine tool merchants) and William Jessop & Sons (steel manufacturing, forging and casting) soon entered the BSA fold, followed in 1920 by Airco, whose main factory at Hendon employed over 7,000 workers. This acquisition was another less than happy arrangement – Airco was in dire financial straits and within days BSA placed most of Airco’s business in the hands of a liquidator.
BSA car production resumed in 1921 with rear-wheel-drive V-twin light car. BSA’s RWD cars were arguably not as successful at their FWD models, with possibly only about 1000 RWD units being built over the four years of production.
1926: P. B. Cranmore wins the Colmore Cup for the second year in succession, driving a 349cc BSA and sidecar. J Parker also won the Colmore Cup in 1928 with four-stroke BSA combination.
The BSA ‘Sloper’ designed by Briggs, hit the market in 1927, featured a sporty 493cc OHV, forward-inclined engine; a 595cc version was later made available
The first year of the Great Depression saw the first BSA FWD three-wheeler cycle car, launched to take advantage of road tax reductions for light vehicles. These made these smaller, cheaper vehicles even more attractive for cash-strapped would-be motorists.
Although the layout was similar to the market-dominating Morgan three-wheeler, the transmission was more akin to the Alvis. The BSA tricar featured independent front suspension, reverse gear and electric start. BSA even tried out a three-wheeler commercial van, but found very few takers brave enough to risk such an unusually configured load-carrying vehicle.
Great Depression 1929 - 1939
Tricars under eight hundredweight were taxed at a £4 a year (compared to £1 per horsepower for four-wheeled vehicles)
The number of cars on British roads doubled in the 1930s
Frederick W. Hulse (formerly of Alvis) designed BSA’s FWD tricar, which is regarded by many as being the world’s first volume-production FWD car
The Lanchester Motor Company shared the Sparbrook site with BSA, but was hit with financial troubles. When the bank called in its overdraft, Lanchester was forced into immediate acquisition. Given its proximity to BSA, the purchase of Lanchester (1931) at below its asset value must have seemed the perfect deal. Lanchester was made into a Daimler subsidiary, with production shifting to Coventry.
The Lanchester Ten (launched in 1933) was, in some respects, an up-market version of the BSA Ten, though the wheelbase was different. Both were RWD and had four-cylinder in-line engines (not the same engine).
The BSA Scout was launched in 1935 – the culmination of their efforts to produce a truly successful FWD car. Sales were good and, in typical BSA fashion, buyers were soon faced with plenty of choice – five models were available by 1936.
BSA ceased production of its three wheeled cars in 1936, and car production under the BSA name came to an end at the start of WWII. The Scout series was the last of BSA’s own-badge cars, (available until 1940), as the company moved away from the low-cost market to concentrate on luxury Daimler and Lanchester models.
“The only car in England today with front wheel drive is the 9 hp BSA, and we recently had an opportunity of trying out for ourselves the performance of this interesting little car on the road. Anyone expecting a totally different “feel” about the car when driven normally would be disappointed, for it is not until fast cornering is indulged in that the advantages of the front wheel drive of the BSA becomes apparent.” Motor Sport magazine, February 1933
When the Second World War broke out, BSA Guns owned Britain’s only operational rifle factory (it was also busy producing machine guns for the Air Ministry). The workforce went voluntarily onto a seven-day week, and production of BSA cars stopped. Daimler, too, shifted to military production, building, amongst other things, BSA’s ‘Dingo’ scout car.
Motorcycles were in great demand for the war effort, being a practical solution for fast and easy communication with front line troops, and BSA built around 126,000 M20 motorcycles as part of their war production.
See Second Lieutenant Adam Bachleda-Curuś of the First Polish Independent Commando Company (the 6th Troop of the 10th Inter-Allied Commando) on his BSA motorcycle with the company mascot dog Myszka (Mouse) here.
BSA continued to expand during the war, and after, acquiring Ariel Motors (J.S.) in 1944, New Hudson Motorcycles, and the Sunbeam Cycle Company. In 1951, after they had added Triumph Engineering, BSA was able to boast that one in every four motorcycles sold worldwide was a BSA. Other fifties acquisitions included Carbodies of Coventry, and the Idoson Motor Cylinder Co. Idoson had been founded by Harry Taft, one the British team Speedway riders, and had been supplying air-cooled cylinders to BSA.
In the era of post-war austerity, motorcycles were a cheap way to access personal mobility for many, especially if augmented with a sidecar. BSA launched its Bantam in 1947, which went on to become possibly their most widely-known model.
Income tax was high (almost double in the 1950s to what it is now), and surplus money was hard to come by. Despite this, car ownership had increased after the war, and all of those de-mobbed squaddies wanted personal transport too. Motorcycles were the affordable option for many.
The post-war boom in motorcycles led to creation of BSA Motor Cycles Ltd in 1953 (now separate from BSA Cycles Ltd). Motorcycles were clearly the place to be so, in 1957, BSA Cycles was sold off to Raleigh Industries.
Rock & Roll was at its height and, in urbanised Britain, the doorstep was what social media is to us now. The Mods might have their scooters, but the Rockers were wowing their door-stepping admirers with the bigger BSAs and Triumphs.
Second World War 1939 - 1945
By the onset of the sixties, the BSA Group was truly swinging with a remarkable thirty-two subsidiaries, including rifles, metal powders, earth movers, taxicabs, plastics, machine tool and engine manufacturing.
Motorcycle ownership in the UK peaked and BSA’s motorcycle division was the largest in the group, contributing over half of the annual profit. But trouble was brewing.
The years following the 1962 Anglo-Japanese Trade Agreement witnessed a steady influx of well-built and competitively priced Japanese machines into the UK, putting BSA under pressure. BSA, like most other British automotive manufacturers, ignored the global trends and failed to respond proactively to the likes of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki.
BSA were awarded the Queens Award for Industry in June 1967 and in 1968 for Export Achievement, but a stockholders’ report of 1969 confessed that half-yearly profits were substantially down from the previous year. The reported reasons for this included a drop-off in sales in BSA and Triumph’s largest market – the USA.
By 1971, still making a trading loss, BSA attempted to rescue the motorcycle division with new BSA and Triumph models. The smaller motorcycles were gradually withdrawn to concentrate on the more popular, larger models. Costly production and quality issues in the motorcycle division caused an additional financial drain on the company, although a new “quality audit” process rectified the quality issues.
1960 - BSA sells Daimler Cars to Jaguar
Despite the BSA management’s best efforts to reorganise and modernise – and they were considerable – the company's shares collapsed in 1973 following a bear raid. Non-motorcycle divisions were acquired by Manganese Bronze Holding Ltd. The motorcycle division (now profitable again) became part of Norton-Villiers-Triumph Ltd (NVT), which was assisted financially by the UK Government. Although the BSA legacy lived on, it was not truly what it had once been.
The reasons given for the collapse of the BSA are many and varied, and often dependent on the viewpoint or personal sense of loss or betrayal of the speaker. I have no intention of joining the debate here.
This may seem a low note of which to end the story of one of Britain’s most iconic and far-reaching brands, but BSA's automotive genius lives on, not in its copyists, but in the living, driving, riding examples that still grace our roads.
Acknowledgements & Bibliography
JH Lewis, “The Development of the Royal Small Arms Factory (Enfield Lock) & its Influence upon Mass Productions Technology and Product Design”
Historic Arms Resource Centre Miniature-Calibre Rifle Research Site
Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick Library
J Heaton, “An Examination of the Post-Second World War Relative Decline of UK Manufacturing 1945-1975, Viewed through the Lens of the Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd”
“The history of transport systems in the UK”, Evidence Review, S. Gunn,
BSA Front Wheel Drive Club website
“BSA Motorcycles – the final evolution”, Brad Jones
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
National Motor Museum Trust
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