Whist having a casual beer with an old American pall he asked me "how on earth did the Brit motorcycle industry disappear so fast"? I came up with some second hand information that Id gleamed from my father about the Japanese invasion in the 1970s but to exactly why and why so fast I was a bit "stumped". A bit of research was required.
Motorcycling always had a strong following in the days of British motoring. With a temperate climate and heavy taxes on car purchases owning a bike was as much as the ordinary British worker could aspire to. This led to a multitude of British manufacturers competing for their market share.
During The Second World War British industry produced over 80,000 motorcycles for the war effort. this was far more than any other nation. You would have thought that this would have led to a prolonged dominance of the world market but this what not to be.
Britain was forced to sell most of their bikes and cars abroad to repay vast sums borrowed from the United States and Canada to fund WW2. This led to a chronic shortage of new machines at home. This shortage was met in many cases by foreign manufacturers. Some of the overseas competitors had generous funding arrangements from their respective governments.
The BSA Bantam was originally going to sold exclusively abroad until the firm succumbed to public pressure and made them available to the domestic market. With economic conditions being hard on the the post war British public affordable transport was a must. As a result many small Italian and German scooters were sold.
A combination of obsolete factories and outdated designs made the average British bike look a bit "old hat" as the 1950s ended and the 60s started. The complacency and somewhat arrogant attitude of the British manufacturers is difficult to believe. After Honda launched the Cub 90 in the late 50s a "Top Bod" from BSA said that he wasn't worried about it as customers would eventually want to trade up and buy a bigger British machine. I would have love to have seen his face after Honda launched their excellent CB 750 in the late 1960s.
Time after time the British Bike industry retreated from competing for a slice of the smaller machine market to focus on their 650 and 750s. It was if a sort of false machismo had corrupted their corporate thinking.
Sales of bikes overall slowed between 1950 and the end of the 60s with cars out selling bike by five times. Popular models like the Morris Minor and the Mini brought affordable transport without the cold or danger of motorcycling.
The effort that Japan put in to modernising its factories after WW2 played a huge role in their eventual world dominace. Before the war Japan used European and American machine tools and production techniques. They focused on acuracy and effiecientcy to such an extent that they could mantain production with half the manpower of thei Western competators. Cooperation between management and workers was esencial to this tranformation. Worker and top excucutives famouly ate in the came cateens. This led to a better infomation flow and a sence that everyone was part of a large corporate family. A big contrast to the class ridden work places of 1950s Britain.
Industrial action during the 1960s alienated the press againt British Industry to such an extent that they would exsagerate the frailties of British built goods. Because of this the Japaneese makes stole the mantel of reliablity and performance.
Theres a certain kudos about having a machine from a firm that is deceesed. Perhaps like when an artist dies and his work becomes more vaulable. Without this tragedy would we have such classic British bikes?