BSA was founded in 1861 in the Gun
Quarter, Birmingham, England by fourteen gunsmiths of the Birmingham Small
Arms Trade Association, who had together supplied arms to the British
government during the Crimean War. The company branched out as the gun trade
declined; in the 1870s they manufactured the Otto Dicycle, in the 1880s the
company began to manufacture bicycles and in 1903 the company's first
experimental motorcycle was constructed. Their first prototype automobile
was produced in 1907 and the next year the company sold 150 automobiles. By
1909 they were offering a number of motorcycles for sale and in 1910 BSA
purchased the British Daimler Company for its automobile engines.
World War One
During World War I, the company returned to arms
manufacture and greatly expanded its operations. BSA produced rifles, Lewis
guns, shells, motorcycles and other vehicles for the war effort.
In 1920, it bought some of the assets of the Aircraft
Manufacturing Company (Airco), which had built many important aircraft
during the war but had become bankrupt due to the falloff in orders once
hostilities ceased. Whilst BSA did not go into aviation; the chief designer
Geoffrey de Havilland of Airco founded the de Havilland company.
As well as the Daimler car range, BSA re-entered the car
market under their own name in 1921 with a V-twin engined light car followed
by four-cylinder models up to 1926 when the name was temporarily dropped. In
1929 a new range of 3 and 4 wheel cars appeared and production of these
continued until 1936.
In the 1930s the board of directors authorised expenditure on bringing their
arms-making equipment back to use - it had been stored at company expense
since the end of the Great War in the belief that BSA might again be called
upon to perform its patriotic duty.
In 1931 the Lanchester Motor Company was acquired and production of their
cars transferred to Daimler's Coventry works.
World War Two
By World War II, BSA had 67 factories and was well
positioned to meet the demand for guns and ammunition. BSA operations were
also dispersed to other companies under licence. During the war it produced
over a million Lee-Enfield rifles, Sten sub machine guns and half a million
Browning machine guns. Wartime demands included motorcycle production. BSA
supplied 126,000 M20 motorcycles to the armed forces, from 1937 (and later
until 1950) military bicycles including the folding paratrooper bicycle. At
the same time, the Daimler concern was producing armoured cars.
Sir Bernard Docker was chairman of BSA until 1951 with
James Leek CBE Managing Director from 1939, after which Jack Sangster became
Managing Director. Post-war, BSA continued to expand the range of metal
goods it produced. The BSA Group bought Triumph Motorcycles in 1951, making
them the largest producer of motorcycles in the world. The cycle and motor
cycle interests of Ariel, Sunbeam and New Hudson were also acquired. Most of
these had belonged to Sangster.
In 1960 Daimler was sold off to Jaguar.
The BSA bicycle arm was sold off to Raleigh in 1957. Bicycles under the BSA
name are currently manufactured and distributed within India by TI Cycles of
The production of guns bearing the BSA name continued beyond the 1957 sale
of the bicycle division, but in 1986 BSA Guns was liquidated, the assets
bought and renamed BSA Guns (UK) Ltd. The company continues to make air
rifles and shotguns, and are still based in Small Heath in Birmingham.
The Group continued to expand and acquire throughout the
1950s but by 1965 competition from Japan (in the shape of companies like
Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki) and Europe from Jawa / CZ, Bultaco and Husqvarna
was eroding BSA's market share. The BSA (and Triumph range) were no longer
aligned with the markets; mopeds were displacing scooter sales, superbike
engine capacity had risen to 1000 cc and the trials and scrambles areas were
now the preserve of European two-strokes. Some poor marketing decisions and
expensive projects contributed to substantial losses. For example, the
development and production investment of the Ariel 3, an ultra stable 3
wheel moped, was not recouped by sales; the loss has been estimated at some
2 million pounds.
In 1968 BSA announced many changes to its product line of singles, twins and
the new three cylinder machine named the "Rocket three" for the 1969 model
year. It now concentrated on the more promising USA and to a lesser extent
Canadian markets. However, despite the adding of modern accessories, for
example, turn signals and even differing versions of the A65 twins for home
and export sale, the damage had been done and the end was near.
Reorganisation in 1971 concentrated motorcycle production at Meriden,
Triumph's site, with production of components and engines at BSA's Small
Heath. At the same time there were redundancies and the selling of assets.
Barclays Bank arranged financial backing to the tune of 10 million.
Upgrades and service bulletins continued until 1972, but
the less service intensive. Japanese bikes had by then flooded the market on
both sides of the Atlantic. The merger to Norton Villers was started in late
1972 and for a brief time a Norton 500 single was built with the B50 based
single engine but few if any were sold publicly. The BSA single B50's 500 cc
was much improvement in the hands of the CCM motorcycle company allowing the
basic BSA design to continue until the mid to late 1970s in competitive form
all over Europe.
By 1972, BSA was so moribund that with bankruptcy imminent, and with
government backing its motorcycle businesses were absorbed into the
Manganese Bronze company, Norton-Villiers, which became Norton-Villiers-Triumph
with the intention of producing and marketing Norton and Triumph
motorcycles. The shareholders of BSA confirmed the deal. Although the BSA
name was left out of the new company's name, a few products continued to be
made carrying it until 1973. The final range was just four models: Gold Star
500, 650 Thunderbolt/Lightning and the 750 cc Rocket Three.
However, the plan involved the axing of some brands,
large redundancies and consolidation of production at two sites. This scheme
to rescue and combine Norton, BSA and Triumph failed in the face of worker
resistance. Norton's and BSA's factories were eventually shut down, while
Triumph staggered on to fail four years later.
Out of the ashes of receivership, the NVT Motorcycles Ltd
company which owned the rights to the BSA marque, was bought-out by the
management and renamed the BSA Company.
The BSA bicycle arm had been sold to Raleigh in 1956 and the BSA Winged-B
logo was still seen for a while on up-market bicycles.
The BSA company produced military motorcycles (with Rotax engines) and
motorcycles for developing countries (with Yamaha engines) under the BSA
name. In the later case the old "Bushman" name was recalled to duty - it had
been previously used on high ground clearance Bantams sold for the likes of
Australian sheep farmers.
In 1991, the BSA (motorcycle) Company merged with Andover Norton
International Ltd., to form a new BSA Group, largely producing spare parts
for existing motorcycles. In December 1994, BSA Group was taken over by a
newly formed BSA Regal Group. The new company, based in Southampton, has a
large spares business and has produced a number of limited-edition,
Bicycle manufacture was what led BSA into motorcycles. The subsidiary
business BSA Bicycles Ltd was sold to Raleigh Industries in 1957.
The first wholly BSA motorcycles were built in 1910, before then engines had
come from other manufacturers. BSA Motorcycles Ltd was set up as a
subsidiary in 1919.
BSA motorcycles were sold as affordable motorcycles with reasonable
performance for the average user. BSA stressed the reliability of their
machines, the availability of spares and dealer support. The motorcycles
were a mixture of sidevalve and OHV engines offering different performance
for different roles, e.g. hauling a sidecar. The bulk of use would be for
commuting. BSA motorcycles were also popular with "fleet buyers" in Britain,
who (for example) used the Bantams for telegram delivery for the Post Office
or motorcycle/sidecar combinations for AA patrols Automobile Association
(AA) breakdown help services. This mass market appeal meant they could claim
"one in four is a BSA" on advertising.
Machines with better specifications were available for those who wanted more
performance or for competition work.
Initially, after World War II, BSA motorcycles were not
generally seen as racing machines, compared to the likes of Norton. In the
immediate post war period few were entered in races such as the TT races,
though this changed dramatically in the Junior Clubman event (smaller engine
motorcycles racing over some 3 or 4 laps around one of the Isle of Man
courses). In 1947 there were but a couple of BSA mounted riders, but by 1952
BSA were in the majority and in 1956 the makeup was 53 BSA, 1 Norton and 1
To improve US sales, in 1954, for example, BSA entered a team of riders in
the 200 mile Daytona beach race with a mixture of single cylinder Gold Stars
and twin cylinder Shooting Stars assembled by Roland Pike. The BSA team
riders amazingly took first, second, third, fourth, and fifth places with
two more riders finishing at 8th and 16th. This was the first case of a one
The BSA factory experienced success in the sport of motocross with Jeff
Smith riding a B40 to capture the 1964 and 1965 FIM 500 cc Motocross World
Championships. It would be the last year the title would be won by a
four-stroke machine until the mid-1990s. A BSA motocross machine was often
colloquially known as a "Beezer".