Once the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, BSA has been resurrected by Indian company Mahindra
The Birmingham Small Arms Company made many things, from guns, cars, and buses to myriad industrial and engineering products. Perhaps the most famous product line, however, was motorcycles, and BSA was, for a time, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The motorcycle side disappeared in 1972, but now Indian company Mahindra has resurrected the name and applied it to a brand new, classically-styled bike. The BSA name has a fascinating history.
The Birmingham Small Arms company was formed in 1861 by a group of fourteen gunsmith members of the Birmingham Small Arms Trade Association specifically to manufacture guns by machinery, which allowed the company to develop the principle of the interchangeability of parts, something that would be invaluable as the industrial revolution took hold.
In 1880, the company started manufacturing bicycle components, such as wheel hubs and, later, geared hubs. Into the 20th century, cars were becoming more popular, and BSA started manufacturing them in 1907, with motorcycle manufacturing in 1910. That same year, BSA bought the Daimler car company.
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In 1910, BSA launched the 3.5-horsepower model, powered by a single-cylinder engine. It was immediately successful, with the production run selling out in 1911, 1912, and 1913.
In 1919, after the factory returned to peacetime operation, a 50-degree V-twin model, the Model E, was introduced, of 770cc displacement and fitted with side valves. Demand for motorcycles was so great after the war that production was ramped up.
In 1921, BSA produced its first car, powered by a V-twin engine and, later, four-cylinder engines.
After the end of the Second World War, demand for motorcycles again increased as countries around the world needed cheap transport solutions as economies recovered.
In 1951, Jack Sangster, founder of Ariel Motorcycles and owner of Triumph Motorcycles since 1936, sold Triumph to BSA (he had previously sold Ariel to BSA in 1944), making the BSA Group the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
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Unlike Triumph, whose boss Edward Turner considered racing a waste of money as racing machinery bore little resemblance to production models, BSA had a very active competition department, and many models were produced specifically for racing, both on and off-road.
The most famous of these was undoubtedly the Gold Star, available in both 350cc and 500cc versions and suitable for both road racing and off-road trials competition. Built between 1938 and 1963, it was one of the fastest bikes of the 1950s and successful in any competition it entered. It is considered a design icon, and the latest BSA copies its image very closely.
Throughout its history, BSA manufactured a huge range of motorcycles. Models with the ‘B’ prefix in their name had single-cylinder engines of 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc. Models with ‘M’ as the prefix were military motorcycles, and many were also used by civilian organizations, such as the Automobile Association (AA) and the RAC, for their road patrols.
‘C’ series motorcycles had 250cc single cylinder engines, while ‘A’ series models were all twin cylinders of 500cc and 650cc. Also produced in huge numbers (some estimates suggest 500,000 were built) was the diminutive Bantam, a post-war version of the DKW RT125, powered by a two-stroke single-cylinder engine of 125cc to 175cc displacements.
A common practice for the day was to have a letter/number combination as well as a name, and BSA came up with some of the best: Empire Star, Gold Star, Shooting Star, Golden Flash, Road Rocket, Rocket Gold Star, Spitfire, Lightning, Thunderbolt, Firebird, Fury and Rocket 3.
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Along with the rest of the British motorcycle industry, BSA completely misread the threat posed by the Japanese. Even other European manufacturers were stealing a march on the British, especially in the world of off-road competition. Towards the end of the 1960s, the company was in trouble financially, a situation not helped by the disastrous Ariel 3, three-wheeled moped fiasco. An estimated two million pounds was lost on development that was never going to be recouped by sales.
Towards the end of the decade, British motorcycles were being made to look very old-fashioned by the electric start, disc braked, non-oil-leaking, smooth and fast Japanese bikes.
Despite trying to update its range of motorcycles, specifically for the U.S. market, which had always been an important market for the likes of BSA, by the early 1970s, the writing was on the wall. A merger with Norton Villiers in 1972 failed to stop the rot and the threat of bankruptcy and, by 1973, it was all over for one of the giants of the British motorcycle industry.
After the collapse of the original BSA company, the name was passed around a few times before being bought in 2016 by Indian manufacturing conglomerate Mahindra Group. Already producing small-displacement motorcycles in huge numbers mainly for the Indian market, Mahindra joins other Indian giants TVS and Bajaj in resurrecting the British motorcycle industry one brand at a time. TVS owns the Norton name and has built a new factory in the UK, while Bajaj recently bought the Vincent name. Both companies also have close ties with the likes of Triumph and KTM.
Related: This is it: The new BSA Gold Star
In 2021, BSA launched the first new model for many decades. Called, emotively, the Gold Star, it is indeed a very close replica of the immortal DBD34 Gold Star of the late 1950s. Powered by a single cylinder engine displacing 652cc and producing 45 horsepower, what it isn’t is a retro-styled bike hiding lots of modern tech and with a high price. It is a motorcycle designed for simplicity, both in engineering and riding style.
There are concessions to modernity - ABS, fuel injection, electric start, and no oil leaks…! - but this is possibly the most genuine ‘modern classic’ out there, and it will still do the magic ‘ton,’ even if not by much!
The demise of the British motorcycle industry was as disappointing as it was inevitable. Although it might have been seen as more of a merciful killing at the time, it was but a shadow of its former self, and the products were woefully out of date and, frankly, rubbish compared to the bikes coming out of Japan.
Now, thanks to the Indian motorcycle industry (ironic after the way the English treated India during colonialism) British motorcycle names are being resurrected. Royal Enfield, of course, has never gone out of production, but the likes of Norton, BSA, and perhaps Vincent are all back with us, thanks to Indian companies such as Mahindra, Bajaj, and TVS.
TVS also owns the rights to the Excelsior-Henderson name, so maybe the next brands to reappear will be American?
After a long time, BSA has returned to the motorcycle market as of 2021, with a new model called the gold Star and powered by a 652cc single cylinder engine
Indian company Mahindra owns the rights to the BSA name but has built a factory in the UK to design and build the new bikes.
BSA motorcycles are built by Indian company Mahindra
Harry has been writing and talking about motorcycles for 15 years, although he's been riding them for 45 years! After a long career in music, he turned his hand to writing and television work, concentrating on his passion for all things petrol-powered. Harry has written for all major publications in South Africa, both print and digital and produced and presented his own TV show called, imaginatively, The Bike Show, for seven years. He held the position of editor of South Africa's largest circulation motorcycling magazine before devoting his time to freelance writing on motoring and motorcycling. Born and raised in England, he has lived in South Africa with his family since 2002. Harry has owned examples of Triumph, Norton, BSA, MV Agusta, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Harley Davidson, Kawasaki and Moto Morini motorcycles. He regrets selling all of them.