The Game

The baffling case of motorcycles in the UK

T.E. Lawrence on his Brough Superior
Few peoples know how to tumble down the ladder of success more spectacularly than the British. When they fall, they fall hard.
For example: the British Empire. Although her father and grandfather certainly laid the foundations, I think it’s safe to say that Elizabeth I (under the guidance of a Welshman, I’d like to add) really got the Empire going back in the 1600s. And over the next 300 or so years it grew and grew to the point that, famously, the sun never set on British territory.
Things wobbled a bit in the early 1900s but the wheels completely came off after WWII. In just two decades — 1945 to 1965 — the number of people under British rule outside the UK plummeted from 700 million to just 5 million. The bulk of those left were living in Hong Kong, which was relinquished from British control in 1997. These days all that’s left are a handful of islands that you would be incredibly hard-pressed to find on a map (e.g., the Caicos Islands). And, of course, it’s possible that even the UK could cease to exist within my lifetime. 
I find that deeply sad. OK, sure, in terms of Empire it is almost certainly for the best (or will be, in the long run) that Africans be in charge of Africa. But you get my point. It’s sad to see something that was once so immense reduced and reduced to an almost nothingness.
The same sort of thing happened with pro wrestling in the UK. In the 1960s people would wear suits and ties to events; Prince Philip would sit in the front row for matches (many people believed Philip was the true identity of Kendo Nagasaki until the latter was unmasked in 1966). But soon it went the way of the Empire. Along with country pubs, resistance to obesity, church attendance, employment, intellectual excellence, and so on. Britons have managed to turn decline into a grand, sorrowful art.
But the particular brand of decline that’s been on my mind this week has been that concerning the popularity of motorcycles in the UK.
The fabled Vincent Black Shadow
Pop quiz: Name the five greatest manufacturers in the history of motorcycling.
I’ll bet that at least three of the manufacturers you just named were British. This tiny, soggy archipelago used to dominate motorcycling. For at least half a century, in terms of both technology and style, no one could produce better bikes than Blighty.
I got to thinking about all this earlier this week, after the BBC aired a documentary called “Full Throttle: The Glory Days of British Motorbikes” (if you live in the UK, you can watch it online until 7 November). Much of it, of course, covered familiar territory — T.E. Lawrence and ton-up boys and the like — but I still found it fascinating and even learned a few things. For instance, the “Brough” in Brough Superior is pronounced “Bruff,” not “Bro,” as I had assumed. I learned, too, that in the 1920s there were more than 200 makes of motorcycle being produced in the UK.
If you’re not familiar with British motorcycling history, here’s the abbreviated version: 
  • In the 1920s, makes like Vincent and Brough Superior built bikes so amazing that they could still outrun a modern Harley.
  • During WWII, British forces made use of more than 400,000 motorcycles, the bulk of them being BSA and Norton machines. Most of the people riding them preferred the Nortons.
  • As the British Empire was in its 20-year freefall the UK saw a rise in motorcycle culture, most notably that of ton-up boys/rockers on cafe racers.
  • At the same time, Triumph, Norton and BSA found great success in the American market. (It is very important to note that Harley culture really didn’t take off until the late 20th century in the US. Badasses like Johnny Strabler and the Fonz rode Triumphs. And even when hanging with the Hell’s Angels Hunter S. Thompson insisted upon riding a technologically superior BSA)
  • In the late 60s Japan figured out how to make awesome bikes for less money, and everything went tits up.
  • In the present-day United Kingdom there are less than 1 million active riders (compared with an estimated 7.5 million in the United States), making up just 1 percent of road traffic.
These days, as far as I am aware, there are just two makes of motorcycle being produced in the UK. And even that number is questionable. Triumph is the most famous but exactly how many of its motorcycles come from its factory in Hinkley, England — as opposed to the three factories in Thailand — is hard to nail down. What is more certain is that although some Triumphs may be assembled in the UK, 90 percent of the bikes’ parts come from elsewhere.
Ton-up boys
OK, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Modern Triumphs have a strong reputation and I’m in love with pretty much every model. But it feels sad to think that the last of the standard bearers of Britain’s great motorcycling tradition isn’t really all that British.
“Wait, Chris,” you say. “I thought you said you knew of two makes of motorcycle being produced in the UK.”
Yeah, that’s true. Maybe. The other one is Norton. Acclaimed for always winning the Isle of Man TT before WWII, producing the bikes couriers wanted to ride during WWII, and being the machine of choice for ton-up boys after WWII, the make has been floundering, Indian-style, since the 1960s with numerous unsuccessful attempts at revival.
The phrase most observers would use for the current revival attempt is: “dodgy as fuck.” The stories of how the modern Norton (under the direction of dodgy businessman Stuart Garner) manages to screw things up are prolific. It is the stuff of legend.
But Norton is still a British heritage brand, owned by a Briton, with headquarters in Britain and claims of making “as many parts as possible in-house.” And just this week it has announced that it has started shipping bikes to the United States. It has established a minuscule network of nine dealers (where the hell is Farmer’s Branch, Texas?) and has high hopes that the US market will account for at least 30 percent of Norton’s worldwide sales. Looking at its website, Norton also has dealers in Belgium, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg, with plans to establish further dealers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
As far as I can tell, however, it does not have a dealership — not even one — in the United Kingdom. And I find that to be an utterly depressing commentary on the state of motorcycling in the UK. This country that was once home to the greatest machines and riders now cares so little about motorcycling that its iconic brands, its last bastions of British pride, must look across the water to find any hope of success.
Not available at any UK dealership
That, my friends, is decline. Britons have let their motorcycling heritage slip away. And as a result, manufacturers find it’s not worth the effort to offer the newest and best models here; I frequently find that at 37 I am younger than most other riders by a good 20 years; and lobbying groups like the BMF and MAG have all the political clout of a Starbucks blueberry muffin. It’s depressing as hell.
I have no idea what happened. Ask a British motorcyclist and he or she will almost certainly blame the government. But Britons blame the government for everything. I am not exaggerating. Every social ill, every economic woe, every good thing that once was but now is no more is somehow blamed on the government. Indeed, I’ve lived here so long that I am very much guilty of doing the same thing. But I have to think that the truth is more complex than that. What really happened? What really caused the majority of Britons to turn their backs on motorcycling and their own rich and enviable heritage?
The best-selling car in the UK is the Ford Fiesta. What the hell happened that Britons became so complacent, so joy-averse, so mediocre that they would willingly choose such a jejune piece of crap over, say, a Triumph Bonneville? I don’t know. But I do know that it makes me sad.