A Brief History of BSA Motorcycles
In 1861, fourteen Birmingham gunsmiths formed the Birmingham Small Arms Company ‘to make guns by machinery’, a phrase to distinguish them from companies who, at that time, were making guns by hand.
Their new factory was built in 1863 at Armoury Road, Small Heath, Birmingham. In 1866, the company also acquired a munitions factory in Adderley Park, Birmingham.
From the 1870s, BSA manufactured Otto ‘dicycles’ before producing bicycles to their own design from 1881.
A dicycle is on show at the National Cycle Museum at Llandrindod Wells.
Between 1888 and 1893, BSA were not involved in bicycle production as they concentrated on manufacturing rifles.
They returned to bicycles in 1893 and manufactured many components for the industry.
In the early 1900s, many machines were seen on the roads that often featured Belgian made Minerva engines and parts made by BSA.
In 1906, BSA bought the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Sparkbrook, Birmingham from the government.
RSAF Sparkbrook had originally been a private concern known as the National Arms and Ammunition Company.
BSA amalgamated with the Eadie Manufacturing Company Ltd. of Redditch in 1907.
In 1908 A.E.Wills rode a distance of 61 miles, 972 yards within one hour on a BSA bicycle fitted with an engine.
He became the first cyclist to exceed over one mile per minute continuously over a one hour period.
The BSA cycle he used is displayed at the Coventry Transport Museum.
BSA had been manufacturing parts for the motorcycle industry and had experimented with motorcycle design from around 1903.
It was not until 1909 that they produced their first BSA motorcycles ready for the 1910 season.
The machine had a 499cc side valve single cylinder engine with belt drive to the rear wheel.
These machines were later followed by other models in several different capacities.
The chain driven ‘H’ model was one such machine.
In 1910, the Daimler car company of Coventry became a subsidiary of BSA.
In 1913, BSA entered seven machines in the Isle of Man Senior TT Race.
Only one finished. It was ridden to seventeenth position by R. Carey.
During World War I, BSA produced motorcycles for the British Forces as well as manufacturing Lee-Enfield rifles, Lewis guns and other components for the war effort.
A new workshop was built adjacent to Armoury Road to cope with this extra workload.
After the war, the BSA motorcycle division was set up as a subsidiary company and named BSA Cycles Ltd.
A 557cc model was now back in production with a choice of belt or chain drive.
A 499cc single cylinder machine was also available and known as the TT Model.
In 1919, a 770cc V-twin engine was introduced which was particularly suited to the sidecar oufits being produced by BSA.
In the mid 1920s, BSA produced a lightweight ‘Model B’ nicknamed ‘Round Tank’ because of its cylindrical fuel tank fastened to the top frame tube.
This was a very popular machine amongst learner motorcyclists.
In 1924, two BSA ‘Round Tanks’ and two BSA 350cc Sports models took part in a climb up Mount Snowdon in Wales.
In 1927, BSA introduced a range of machines known as Sloper, so called because of the forward sloped cylinder layout.
By 1930 BSA had a range of sixteen models from a 174cc single to a 986cc twin.
With the recession in the 1930s, the range was reduced to cut costs.
Later in 1931, the company acquired the Birmingham car manufacturer, Lanchester.
Leading up to World War II, the BSA M20 was a popular machine used in great numbers by the Police and the Automobile Association (AA).
By the time war broke out, the BSA company had sixty seven factories and was well placed to manufacture weapons, ammuntion and motorcycles for the war effort. BSA supplied over 125,000 M20 motorcycles to the armed forces.
In 1938, BSA launched what became their most famous motorcycle, the Gold Star.
In the air raids of November 1940, the Small Heath factory was directly hit by German bombs.
Fifty three workers were killed that night.
In 1943, BSA acquired the Sunbeam motorcycle company.
BSA then acquired the Ariel company in 1944.
Just after the war, BSA took over the New Hudson company.
BSA started production of the famous lightweight two stroke Bantam in 1948.
This was based on a design by the East German company, DKW.
BSA supplied the General Post Office (GPO) with motorcycles for their newly formed telegram delivery service. Many of these were Bantams.
In 1951, BSA acquired Triumph Motorcycles of Meriden.
In 1953, BSA Motorcycles Ltd. Was formed to keep motorcycle production separate from the rest of the group. At this time, twelve models were being produced.
The BSA C15 was launched in 1954. This was basically a BSA badged Triumph Cub.
The BSA Bicycle company was sold off to Raleigh Industries of Nottingham in 1957.
In 1957, Edward Turner was appointed head of the BSA automotive division.
By 1960, BSA were facing financial difficulty. The Daimler car and bus division was sold to Jaguar Cars Ltd.
The early 1960s saw machines such as the BSA A10.
In 1968, the 741cc BSA Rocket 3 and Triumph Trident were introduced.
In 1971, BSA recorded huge losses and it was proposed to close Small Heath and transfer all production to the Triumph factory at Meriden.
This did not happen. However in 1973 the BSA group was sold to Norton Villiers to form Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT).
In September 1973, the chairman of NVT, Dennis Poore announced that Triumph would close in February 1974 and production would remain at Small Heath.
He had not expected the determined reaction of the Meriden workforce. The sit in by the workers co-operative lasted two years.
The losses mounted and the Small Heath factory produced its last motorcycle in December 1975.
While the Triumph name continued under a newly formed co-operative, sadly the BSA name faded into the past.
In 1977, the Small Heath factory was demolished.