Monday, May 25, 2009

British Covered Motorcycles

Throughout the 1930's and 40's designers and concept artists envisaged the motorcycle of the future as aerodynamically streamlined with an enclosed body. While streamlined fairings had appeared on racing bikes, they rarely featured on production bikes, which remained noisy, dirty, mechanically intimidating.

In the late 1940's Bohn Aluminum and Brass' concept artists painted a vision of the future that was sleek stylish. It was a vision that no motorcycle company embraced but would later be realised by scooter manufacturer, Piaggio.

The Scooter Revolution
In 1950 Vespa was Europe's best selling two wheeled vehicle. Even in the US, Vespas, rebadged as the Allstate and sold through the Sears mail order catalog were outselling the domestic scooter giants, Cushman and Salsbury. The success of the Vespa shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone - not only were they a practical vehicle, they were cheap and stylish, and Piaggio's promotion of their product was sophisticated and relentless. Vespa advertising invariably featuring buxom young lasses in summer dresses, scooting along happily with a picnic basket or bag of shopping. Of course, any imagery featuring young women is appealing to young men, and it's easy to focus on the overt sexism of the ads, but that misses the point. These adverts were explicitly targeting women. Hiding away the dirty, noisy and complicated engine meant you didn't need to be a man or know about machinery. Piaggio was saying "you too can ride a Vespa. It's easy!"

While Piaggio may not have envisaged these adverts spearheading women's' emancipation they did implicitly recognise the importance of female opinion in the purchasing process. When faced with a choice of buying either a motorcycle or a Vespa, Piaggio was counting on women to cast their vote in favour of the Vespa as something that they could ride on. Piaggio's rival, Innocenti, clearly failed to recognise this. The early Lambrettas, with their tube frame and exposed engine, were built for a male audience that was looking for function and power. By the mid 50's, however, they too had given up and the Lambretta LD was every bit as streamlined and sexy as the latest Vespa.

The state of the English motorcycle industry
The English motorcycle industry entered the 1950's in a state of crisis. War production had been a prop for many famous marques who had been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite needing to find a niche for themselves in a desperately poor post-war Britain, most companies seemed to have abandoned innovation to their continental rivals. Companies such as Ariel and BSA were still producing exactly the same bikes they had been producing since the 1930's. The most significant innovation of the post-war period was BSA's use of the German DKW two-stroke engine, seized as war reparations, in the BSA Bantam (in fact, the DKW engine was such a good engine that everyone wanted the design. The US gave the engine to Harley-Davidson, the USSR to Ural, and in East Germany it went to MZ). But however one looks at it, the introduction of a German designed engine can scarcely be called an innovation. The English motorcycle industry was in a rut.

Vincent break the mold
Vincent, a small company specialising in very high powered bikes decided to break the mold with a radically new bike that would later go down in motorcycle legend - the Vincent Black Prince. To all intents and purposes the Black Prince was based on the 998cc C-Series, a speed record breaking bike that had been around for almost a decade. Taking a leaf from the scooter industry, the entire frame was enclosed in fibreglass body panels. It caused a sensation when debuted in 1951, but the fibreglass body proved to be difficult to manufacture and the supplier failed to make good on deliveries. Only 200 were completed as the Black Prince (or Black Knight) before the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. A further 300 were sold without bodywork as the Black Shadow.

Ariel introduces a winner
Ariel's situation was symptomatic of the British motorcycle industry's inertia. Their top two models, the Square Four and the Red Hunter, while excellent and popular bikes, were virtually unchanged since they were introduced in 1930. In the early 50's they installed a BSA engine a new model (Ariel had been bought out by BSA in 1944), but this was scarcely an earth shattering development and Ariel's fortunes continued to decline. In the late 50's however, Ariel decided on a radical change. They developed a powerful and compact 250cc engine based on the German Adler two-stroke engine which they fitted into a totally new motorcycle design. They did away with the traditional motorcycle tube frame, instead centering the design around a pressed steel box frame which enclosed the fuel tank. The engine was suspended beneath the frame and, like the Black Prince, the Ariel Leader featured fully enclosed bodywork, this time in pressed metal rather than the troublesome fibreglass.

Debuting in 1958, the Leader featured many advanced features, including indicators as standard, luggage panniers and an integral windscreen. Ariel's advertising explicitly positioned the Leader as the best of both worlds, offering scooter styling and all weather protection with motorcycle performance. Initial reaction was positive and Ariel stopped production of all other models and were soon turning out 1,000 machines a month. In 1959 Motor Cycle News declared the Leader the motorcycle of the year. The following year it was the Arrow's turn.

Despite all this critical acclaim and initial sales success, the Leader proved not to be the success Ariel hoped. While it did cater to a niche that were looking for a comfortable and clean motorcycle, it failed to satisfy traditional motorcyclists, who simply didn't like the scooter styling, or scooterists, who weren't really looking for a powerful and expensive bike (it retailed at 219 pounds plus extras). It also rather unfortunately arrived on the market at the same time as the Mini and consumers would much rather buy a cheap car than a luxurious motorcycle. Ariel responded by releasing a cut-down 'sports' version without all the fairings, the Arrow and Golden Arrow in 1959. Ariel tried to export both the Leader and Arrow to the US, but there they were up against the market dominating Harley-Davidson and their unusual styling simply didn't appeal to the American aesthetic. The Leader and Arrow continued in production until 1965 when, unable to compete with cheaper Japanese imports that began flooding into the market, BSA pulled the plug on Ariel. In the end some 35,000 Leaders and Arrows were built.

Velocette goes off the rails
Of all the British motorcycle companies that could have developed a successful faired motorcycle, Velocette should have been the one. Since the 1930's they had produced a partially faired motorcycle, the LE, which had become the mainstay of the English police force. The LE was so closely associated with the police that it was nicknamed the 'panda bike', due to it's black and white police colour scheme. Scarcely stylish, the bike was solid, fast and reliable.

The Velocette LE panda bike

In direct response to Ariel's Leader, Velocette came out with the Vogue in 1962. Outwardly similar to the Leader, it followed Vincent in using fibreglass for the body panels. Filled with extra, luxurious features, including twin headlights, it was more expensive than it's rival at 260-275 pounds (depending on extras). Unfortunately, it's high price, combined with a poor performing 192cc engine spelt its death knell. Although the good reputation of the LE ensured that some local police forces in the British midlands purchased them, sales were appalling and in five years only 400 were built. Velocette reverted back to more traditional motorcycle designs until they finally closed their doors in 1970.

The Vogue - a disappointment that ultimately undid the company

DMW has a crack
Dawson Motors Wolverhampton debuted their covered motorcycle in 1961. It featured a forward mounted 250cc Villiers twin engine (in a similar arrangement to the Velocette Viceroy scooter). Like it's competitors, it failed to make any impression on the market, so in 1963 they introduced a police special version. This too was a failure and production of the police special was limited to 33 units. The Deemster roadster continued in small scale production until 1966, although by that stage the Villiers engine was replaced by the Velocette Viceroy engine.

Jess James'impressive and outstandingly rare police Deemster and collection of 4 police Leaders, two civilian Leaders, three Arrows and... a shed full of Ariel projects.

Although all these bikes failed to make an impression at the time, the truth is they did point the way of the future. In the 1970's BMW would release a whole range of covered touring bikes. The Japanese would follow suit and soon enough the modern super bike would hit the streets covered in sleek fibreglass panels.

What went wrong with the British scooter industry?
With the British motorcycle industry in such disarray in the 1950's, certainly someone could have come up with a scooter to take on the Italians? Unfortunately not. If motorcycle design was paralysed by inertia, scooter design was characterised by incompetence. There were some interesting designs, such as the Piatti, Oscar and the Dayton, but these were never fully developed and disappeared quickly off the market. Motorcycle manufacturers disdained scooters as a fad for far too long until by 1959 scooters sales were outstripping motorcycles by such a margin that they could no longer afford to ignore them. Triumph released the Tigress and the Tina, BSA came out with the Sunbeam, and Velocette started work on their luxury scooter, the Viceroy, a machine of impressive style, complexity and cost. It wasn't so much that these scooters were bad - the Viceroy was fabulous (but prohibitively expensive) - but they were ultimately ill-timed.

The fact was 1959 was the peak year for scooters and the British had missed the boat. If the industry had bothered to understand the market they were now trying to penetrate they would have recognised the signs. Instead, the massive, late investment of Triumph, Velocette and others was ultimately wasted. This didn't stop Triumph pushing their T10 scooter into the face of declining sales right up to the end of the 1960's. By the 1970's the face of British motoring had completely changed. Nationalisation was the word as most struggling manufacturers were swallowed up by the monolithic British Motors.

The Last Gasps
In 1965 Ariel attempted a comeback with a cheap 50cc scooter, the Pixie, which made use of many surplus Leader parts. But the Pixie was up against the world beating Honda Cub and never really had a chance It died a quiet death after less than a year in 'production.'

Five years later Ariel tried to resurrect itself with another scooter - the Ariel 3. It was an ingeniously conceived three wheeled personal transport vehicle with a tilting drive train that would have been a great success today, or if it had been released anywhere but Britain. A few of the surviving examples can today be found in places such as the Greek Islands, where their stability and maneuverability allow them to be driven up and around steep, winding roads. But again Ariel failed to understand that there was no market for these vehicles in Britain and never actually looked for the market overseas. The Ariel 3's marketing slogan of "Here it is, whatever it is" says it all.

The Ariel 3 was technically ingenious but totally misplaced.

The British approach to advertising must also bear part of the blame. Motorcycling was still seen as a gentlemanly past-time and motorcycle and scooter adverts tended to be somewhat patronising, especially towards women. The Ariel advert above is typical, aimed at the bowler hat wearing gent. Scooter ads often featured women of course, but they never really had the joie-de vivre of the Vespa advertising. Nor did the motorcycle companies shy away from their expectation that motorcycle owners were should have a high degree of mechanical competence.

1 comment:

  1. I don't see any mention of the 149cc Villiers engined James SC1 scooter of 1960s vintage. I had one once - in the late '70s. The guy I bought it from also had a Vincent and a Manx Norton! Managed to get it to run occasionally - after bump starting it for half an hour, but gave up on the planned restoration. Eventually sold it [because my Dad told me too!], and got what I paid for it - not very much as I recall. The scooter itself weighed a ton - probably due to its frame which I think was made of 2 1/4" water pipe! We didn't so much lose our motorcycle industry, as surrender it through acts of serial suicide - whilst blindfolded, hamstrung and constantly reflecting on past glories.