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19th September 2005

Whatever Happened to the British Motor Cycle Industry? by Bert Hopwood

Once regarded as the must-read history of the old Britbike industry's demise, Kel Boyce reckons that 'Whatever Happened?' is rather more like Bert Hopwood's autobiography. It offers plenty of insider stories to enjoy...

Whatever Happened to the British Motor Cycle Industry? from AmazonThis book, originally published by Foulis in 1981, has to be the most read account of the demise of the British motorcycle industry. The present version (published in 2002) is the latest of seven reprints and is published by Haynes.

Unfortunately, the print quality in the book is very low and the photo reproductions are as per Haynes manuals. Another couple of quid spent in this area would have made all the difference. The front cover resembles, in colour at least, a 1980's advert for Duckhams Oil.

As far as I can tell, the book is reasonably accurate as to the facts although the title given to a photo of what is clearly a single-cylinder NSU Sportsmax, declaring it to be an twin-cylinder Rennmax, is unforgivable in a work of this nature.

I opened this book with great anticipation for it promised, in its 315 pages and hundreds of illustrations, to be the definitive account of the extinction of the British motorcycle industry. However, what I found was an autobiography of Bert Hopwood, the engineer-cum-company director, and a vicious polemic against virtually everyone with whom Hopwood came into contact during his years in the industry. Worse still, the author attempts to distance himself from the events leading up to the industry's demise.

Hopwood, by his own admission, was an engineer who strayed into management and so, in that respect, he was totally different to other engineers like Peter Williams, who kept well clear of such shenanigans.

Why did Hopwood choose this route?

Reading between the lines, it would seem that he was prickled by the managerial success of his mentor and long-term protagonist, designer Edward Turner. Turner undoubtedly had his faults but Hopwood lays it on thick, without directly mentioning his own obvious desire to follow in the great man's footsteps. Curiously, Hopwood appears blissfully unaware that Turner was a businessman and small-time motorcycle manufacturer before he ever set foot in the Ariel factory.

The author's claim that he recognised the threat posed to the industry by the Japanese as early as 1947 seems totally absurd - I cannot recall reading that anyone else was making such a claim at that time. Why should they - the big Japanese bike companies of today barely existed in 1947!

Hopwood's design for a gold-plated solid front wheel was never appreciated by the factory shareholders.

Hopwood's story starts in 1920, when he first admired motorcycles from a distance and then, a little later, joined the Ariel company. After carrying out the usual menial tasks, he eventually came under designer Edward Turner's wing in the drawing office. Hopwood left Ariel and Turner in 1947, about ten years after the company's acquisition of Triumph.

His next port of call was Norton Motors where he was introduced to the enigmatic Gilbert Smith and the inner sanctum of Joe Craig's race shop. Although Hopwood was able to design the new twin-cylinder Dominator at this antiquated firm of 'dream-racers', he was never completely happy with 'Joe Craig Motors' and left for BSA after 18 months. This brief sojourn at Norton provides the most interesting chapter in the book, by revealing some home truths about this archaic and somewhat bizarre company.

At BSA, our hero came into further contact with Edward Turner who now, apparently, had the impunity to attempt to run the parent company from its new subsidiary, Triumph. Hopwood carried out some good work here, designing the Golden Flash twin and the DOHC twin-cylinder MC1 racer. Eventually, however, this latest encounter with Turner, and the shop floor's insistence that he was too 'cocky', wore the author down and he was off again, this time to AMC.

AMC had recently acquired Nortons and Hopwood was made a director of that (now Craig-less) company. The company was already a money-spinner (hence its acquisition by AMC) but Hopwood helped knock it into even better shape and further improve its profitability.

AMC, however, proved to be brutal masters indeed and, after Hopwood arranged a move from the Dickensian Bracebridge Street works to new premises, he was summoned to head office at Woolwich. There he was told that contracts would not be exchanged on the new works and would he kindly leave a million cheque in favour of AMC on his way out! Hopwood's departure for fairer climes occurred shortly thereafter.

Random BSAs on

Time now for Edward Turner Revisited. Yes, Hopwood had accepted an invitation to rejoin his old sparring partner at BSA-Triumph. That was in 1961 and this chapter of ten years or so records the influx of the marketing men into British industry.

Hopwood and Doug Hele designed and built the Beezumph threes during this period and Hopwood records that the terrible styling of the road bikes was carried out by a team of trendy outside designers, even tough BSA possessed a huge design facility at Umberslade Hall. Hopwood's brilliant advice that the company should productionise the Rob North threes for road use fell on deaf ears. Hopwood retired from BSA-Triumph and the industry in 1974.

Subject to the reservations I have already made, I would have to recommend this book on the merit of its 'insider' knowledge alone. However, I would advise that it be read alongside other books, such as Neale Shilton's 'A Million Miles Ago', in order to obtain a balanced view of the subject matter and period.

Reviewed by Kel Boyce

'Whatever Happened To The British Motorcycle Industry' by Bert Hopwood includes an introduction by Steve Wilson, and is published by Haynes, ISBN 1 85960 427 7 at 12.99. Save up to 30% by ordering through Amazon (and help support RealClassic in the process!)

You might also like: 'The Giants of Small Heath' by Barry Ryerson. A more dispassionate view of the same story from the BSA angle. Out of print, but Amazon often sell used copies, and it's worth grabbing if you see it cheap (under 50) on eBay.


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