BSA Motorcycles – The Final Evolution

Book Review By Steve Koerner

2015_ijms_spring_koerner_s_001BSA Motorcycles – The Final Evolution
By Brad Jones
Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2014
ISBN 978-1-845846-47-3

When this reviewer was an undergraduate at the University of Victoria during the early 1970s, a friend purchased a brand-new 1972 BSA B50SS Gold Star motorcycle. It was one of those ill-fated machines, the twenty-one new or redesigned existing models, which were part of the so-called “Power Set” the company built for sale between 1971 and 1972. Those bikes are the subject of Brad Jones’ book BSA Motorcycles – The Final Evolution.

This particular Gold Star had been acquired during 1972 “as is” from a dealer in Vancouver, B.C. Not surprisingly, considering BSA’s dire financial condition at the time, it came without any warranty or guarantee. Nonetheless, that bike soon became a familiar sight around campus for a year or two afterwards. Late at night one could often hear the distinctive barking exhaust of the big single cylinder machine as it was ridden hard around the ring road that encircled the university grounds.

1971 Gold Stars aside, this is, above all, a sad story. Jones describes the end of what had been, as recently as the mid-1950s, the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, so successful the company could boast that nearly one out of every four bikes on the road around the world had the BSA name, or that of one of its subsidiaries, embossed on the tank badge. Jones’ book could have provided a definitive account of what happened during those momentous years, one that provided more information about the events that led up to the demise of this once great company. Instead, this is a missed opportunity.

So where did he go wrong?

Let’s start with a look at the positive aspects. Jones and his publisher, Veloce, should be commended for producing such a handsomely made book – albeit not cheaply, considering its comparatively slim one hundred and forty four pages.[1] The quality of the paper and binding are first rate and it is lavishly illustrated with numerous photographs and other images.

Indeed, Jones has been able to locate a number of photos, many of which will be seen for the first time, even for those already familiar with the literature surrounding BSA. He has also been able to take advantage of a large trove of company records held at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick in England. Those documents give his book a depth it would not have had otherwise.

Unfortunately, Jones undercuts these advantages with his disjointed and unbalanced approach to the subject. These shortcomings become all the more glaring since Jones has set himself an ambitious goal – nothing less than a revisionist history of BSA’s final years, one that challenges nearly everything we thought we knew about the company during this time.

In fact, right from the start, Jones boldly claims that his is an “objective look” at the subject: “prejudices have been cast aside to make way for a fresh appraisal using much archive material [and] the actual words that were said at the time by those involved, and not the all-too-frequently and twisted misinterpretations of them ….” [2]

But who are the critics that Jones set out to rebuke and refute? Are they former employees or industry historians such as Bert Hopwood, Neale Shilton, Barry Ryerson, Steve Wilson or perhaps even this reviewer.[3] We’re not told, perhaps because Jones assumes this is somehow already common knowledge amongst his readers.

Not only does Jones fail to engage with any part of the existing published literature relating to BSA, he doesn’t even mention it. Indeed, one looks in vain for even a single footnote citing his sources, archival or otherwise. Nor has he provided a bibliography (although there is an index). Consequently, readers wishing to follow up on any of Jones’ research or to review the documents he relies on for themselves are bound to be disappointed.

The imbalance in Jones’ research arises from his over-reliance on the reminisces of Stephen Mettam, a senior staff member at Umberslade Hall, BSA’s design centre, whom he seems to have interviewed at some length.[4] If he spoke with any other BSA employees from that era that might have provided a different perspective, but they’re not mentioned.

For his part, Mettam offers some often-negative observations about the people who ran the company as well as a robust defence of the trouble-prone bikes – the ones that pushed BSA into financial ruin – that he had a major role in designing. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that this book gives Mettam an opportunity to retroactively settle some old scores with his former colleagues and company critics alike.

Some might wonder if this version of BSA’s history really tells the whole story. Still Jones is quite right to be critical about the people who directed BSA. There was plenty of blame to share around – examples of poor management were rife at the boardroom level – yet the corporate malaise that affected BSA extended far beyond, reaching far down into its factories and, as Mettam concedes, seems to have thrived at Umberslade Hall too.

Yes, Jones has uncovered documents that others before him (including this reviewer) have overlooked. However, the absence of footnotes or even a bibliography, combined with his unbalanced research, prevents this attempt to make BSA Motorcycles – The Final Evolution the definitive history of BSA’s final years that it might have become.


Notes
[1] This book retails for £30.00 in Britain, $49.95 in the USA and $54.95 in Canada.

[2] See Brad Jones, BSA Motorcycles – the Final Evolution, Poundbury, Dorchester England: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2014, p.7.

[3] See Bert Hopwood, Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry, Sparkford: Haynes Publishing Group, 1980; Neale Shilton, A Million Miles Ago, Sparkford: Haynes Publisher Group, 1982; Barry Ryerson, Giants of Small Heath – The History of BSA, Sparkford: Haynes Publishing Group, 1980; Steve Wilson, British Motorcycles since 1945, Cambridge: Patrick Stephens, 1982 (especially volume 2) and Steve Koerner, The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry, Lancaster: Crucible Books, 2012.

[4] Jones fails to provide any information about his interview with Mettam, for example, when and where it took place, nor if there was more than one session. It’s also unclear whether or not the interview(s) were recorded, if notes were taken and under what circumstances the recordings, transcripts or any notes might be made available to other researchers.


Steve Koerner is the author of The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry that will soon be reprinted by Crucible Books. He once owned a 1970 650cc BSA Thunderbolt that was his daily ride during two very wet Vancouver winters.

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6 Comments

  1. Many thanks for this review, Steve. I think you bring out the strengths but also the major problems of the book very well. The fact that Jones provides no references to existing literature on BSA and doesn’t provide footnotes or a bibliography is a real pity for a book that could have been of considerable interest both within and outside the academic community. As you say, Jones’ narrow reliance of Mettam (while interesting) to back up his arguments is also something which limits the book’s claims. I look forward to the reprint of your own book.

    • Hello David Walton, Thanks for your comments about the review. By the way, ‘The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry’ has been reprinted in a second edition and is available via retailers around Britain, North America and elsewhere. Best wishes, Steve Koerner.

  2. Er, that was supposed to be a ‘hello’, not a ‘hell’!

  3. Maybe Stephen Mettam was the only man who Brad Jones could find, in an attempt to find out some of what happened at Umberslade, but it seems as if Steve Koerner’s review could be better described as an attack. His feint praise (or is it ‘faint’?)that the book was nicely bound, with good quality paper and illustrations seems petty, and his criticism that the book is only of 144 pages may be understandable when we realise that Mr Koerner had sixty seven pages of references, alone, in his book, ‘The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry’. In Brad Jones’ book it was worth knowing that the oil in frame series of BSAs and Triumphs, originated in the styling department because they wanted to control the shape of the needed new air cleaners. It was just one of the stupidities that were an every day occurrence at BSA Triumph, then, and time was running out fast. If you are looking for a definitive history of BSA’s final years, it has not yet been written, let alone by anyone with motorcycle design and production experience. For all of the references quoted in ‘The Strange Death….’, the account is mainly academic, but Brad Jones’ BSA motorcycles – the Final Evolution is still an attractive book, worth having, for me, at least: I’m pictured in the drawing office. There is a lot to know about Umberslade, and the things that might have been, but the point of no return had been passed, years before.

  4. David Myers – I was interested in your response. Would it be possible for any surviving employees of Umberslade Hall to document their recollections either independently or collectively. To an outsider they were fascinating times. As you mention – the damage was done many years earlier.

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