A brief history of BSA

On June 7th 1861, at a meeting in a Birmingham hotel room, the decision was made to form a public company, The Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited, to make guns by machinery.

Having formed a company the gunsmiths looked for a site on which to build their factory. Eventually the founders settled for 25 acres of ground at Small Heath, on condition that the Great Western Railway would build a station nearby. By 1863 the factory was complete standing alone in green fields, a square fortress building with towers to each corner.

Unfortunately the demand for firearms collapsed so that by 1876 the factory faced ruin and on 19th August 1878 the factory closed and remained shut for a year until a small order for guns allowed the factory to open again. In the meantime the management were exploring new possibilities.

In 1880 a strange visitor came to the factory, a Mr E.C.F. Otto, who had invented a new type of bicycle with a large wheel either side of the rider. He demonstrated it to the directors by lifting it on to the Boardroom table and riding to and fro. He then completed his demonstration by riding down the twisting staircase and into the street. It was a historic moment the entry of the BSA Company into the field of road transport.

In 1881 the Company decided to make bicycles and tricycles of its own design, however a further landmark was reached in that year, for the design of the three crossed rifles, which had been used as the Company's sign for some time, was officially registered. The piled arms trade mark became a familiar sight throughout the world.

Although the move into cycle making continued for a while, first and foremost the Directors were gunmakers and in order to free the plant for the manufacture of the Lee Metford rifle cycle making ceased in 1887. This proved to be a mistake because what the Directors did not foresee was the invention of the pneumatic tyre, which gave the bicycle craze a tremendous boost.

After five years the market for armaments collapsed again while the demand for cycle parts far outstripped supply with many small workshops springing up to meet the demand.

By a stroke of good fortune a Mr Illston on a tour of the factory saw a special shell making machine lying idle, he was certain that the machine could be modified to make cycle hubs and to prove his good faith he would act as the Company's first commercial traveller.

The success of the venture was rapid. Men used to the precision of gun making did not relax their standards when they turned to other work and the BSA hubs were soon joined by bottom brackets, chain wheels and other components which were the finest quality on the market. It was these products which first built BSA's great reputation for quality with the general public.

As the cycle boom continued, more buildings were added to the Small Heath factory, doubling the floor space. In the first decade of the Twentieth Century the Company's expansion continued. However in 1903, BSA experimented with a motor cycle using a BSA pattern frame with a Minerva 233 cc engine fitted, similar to the contemporary Triumphs.

These frame kits were supplied to the trade and BSA themselves tested an engine of their own manufacture ready for release in 1904 but no further action was taken due to the economic situation prevailing at that time. In 1906 BSA took over the former National Arms and Ammunition Company's premises in Sparkbrook, Birmingham and a year later the Eadie Manufacturing


It wasn't until 1908 that a complete BSA bicycle was manufactured for the first time in 21 years. It was followed by the BSA motorcycle in 1909. This was a sturdy 31/2 H.P. belt drive machine with a motor that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Triumph engine of the period. These machines sold for £50 and were described as being "by no means a potterer". It had several novel features such as a double sprung forks and for an extra payment could be fitted with a patent cone clutch in the rear wheel. Unbeknown to most people this machine had had a long development period and so it is not surprising that the machine was "right" from the start.

Machine development continued with other models joining the range including the three speed chain cum belt model "K" and the all chain model "H" as well as several well designed sidecars. This world however was soon swept away by the most murderous war in human history. The average BSA production for the years previous to the war had been 135 weapons per week. By the peak of the war 10,000 rifles were leaving Armoury Road every week. In the whole of the war BSA made one and a half million of these weapons and every one contained 131 parts.

There were also 149 machining operations on the body alone and 85 on the barrel. Also produced in large quantities was the famous Lewis machine gun of which 145,000 were produced. This massive increase in production called for factory extensions. Three four storey blocks rose at the end of Armoury Road, in walking the full length of these 60 foot wide shops one covered two miles.

Other materials also produced for the military were motorcycles, the first folding bicycles, special machine tools, jigs, gauges, aero components, gun locks, shells and fuses. Daimler purchased by BSA in 1910, when they were the largest car manufacturers, supplied the largest proportion of staff cars, ambulances and commercial vehicles of any manufacturer, including the engine and transmission of the worlds’ first tank.

At the peak of the war the Group factories were employing nearly 20,000 people compared with the pre-war total of 6,500 employees. After the Armistice it was decided to put the Company's three main activities under separate management, and so three new subsidiaries were formed. They were BSA Cycles Ltd to handle cycle and motorcycle production at Small Heath and Redditch; BSA Guns Ltd to continue small arms work at Small Heath and BSA Tools Ltd to build and develop in the Sparkbrook factory the business in small tools, jigs and special purpose machines.

This post war group looked a strong well balanced organisation but the bright hopes of 1919 were soon shattered. Two years later, only half of the groups labour force was still at work. Economic despondency was not the only story of the inter war years, of course, there were bright patches in the gloom. BSA's motorcycle range was proving so popular that the advertising slogan “One in four is a BSA" could be adopted without fear of contradiction. Incidentally during the period of motorcycle production BSA made more motorcycles than the rest of the British motor cycle industry put together.

Mass production methods were applied to these products for the first time with the introduction of the sturdy little 250cc "Round Tank" model, which sold at £39.10s. In 1924 a quartet of BSA's made motorcycling history by successfully climbing Snowdon. Even this was eclipsed two years later, when a couple of enthusiasts began a world marathon tour. They crossed the Andes, covered 20,000 land miles and passed through 24 countries on their 18 month journey. More achievements were chalked up in the thirties. The reliable Slopers gave way to the sporting Blue Stars and Empire Stars, which made their mark in trials and clubman’s


The move of Valentine Page in the late thirties revamped the range and gave the motors the distinctive shape that was to last for 25 years. The Maudes trophy, awarded for the most meritorious motorcycling performance came to Small Heath after a series of gruelling tests on two standard machines. Another successful demonstration was the assembly of a complete motorcycle from spare parts bought all over the country. This started first kick and completed a difficult observed journey without trouble.

However the clouds of war were gathering again and this time BSA were far more prepared, so that when war was declared it was just a case of stepping up production. Amongst the visitors to the Liepzig fair in 1935 were two executives from BSA, the senior being Mr James Leek.

Other parts of the group were also doing well. The Sheffield steelmakers were pouring out metal in all shapes and forms; crankshafts, valves, tools and later titanium and zirconium. BSA Tools were on top of the world. Broach manufacture developed into a new thriving business. While the traditional products like machine tools and the like were brought up to date. Birtley were busy turning out large quantities of earth moving equipment, made under licence from the Caterpillar Company of America. Daimler was the only part of the group to find it hard. Their cars were mainly for the rich and there weren't many of them about after the war. However the bus side of their business although small was quite successful.


In 1953 the company picked up a little with the Queen's Coronation, Daimler was still the first choice for processions. Two more companies were added to the group in the fifties, Carbodies of Coventry, who supplied pressed steel bodies to Daimler and other car makers, and Idoson Motor Cylinder Co Ltd, who supplied cylinder barrel and head castings to the motor cycle factories.

Then there were new activities, thanks to the research department. BSA power Unit Division, which made a large range of engines for lawn-mowers, refrigerators, generators, cultivators and boats to name but a few. Two other smaller units also began manufacture. Precision Alloy Castings and BSA Precision Castings. After research another subsidiary was formed, Metal and Plastic Compacts, later to become, Metal and Plastics Components Ltd concentrating on sintered metal components and Motoplas Company Ltd. The latter provided the motorcycle and scooter industry with accessories like leg shields, windshields etc.

To provide these two subsidiaries with the raw materials yet another company was formed, BSA Metal Powders Ltd. A new name appeared in 1959 when Jessop amalgamated with JJ Saville, to become Jessop-Saville Small Tools Ltd. They made small tools with tips of tungsten carbide and high speed steel, and wear resisting components. BSA Tools also became a separate unit operating from the Sparkbrook Works and the machine tools were produced at Kitts Green. Although the group acquired all these extra companies in the 1950's it wasn't all expansion, some of the activities were sold off.


The first one to go was Birtley, who were making Caterpillar earth moving equipment under licence. Caterpillar bought this side of the Birtley concern, although Birtley continued within the group as Birtley Engineering Ltd, providing mines and power stations with ancillary equipment. Next to go was the cycles interests, a difficult decision because of the long association with cycle manufacture. However, the decision to sell to Raleigh wasn't a bad one, the cycle industry had come to an end of it's boom era.

Then came the parting of the ways for Daimler and BSA. This sale helped Jaguar Cars to expand. Then in 1961, the Centenary year, the Churchill Machine Tool Co. Ltd. joined the group, which meant the Group was the largest machine tool organisation in Britain.

What an organisation BSA was in those days, making such thing as rifles, motorcycles, machine tools, taxicabs, titanium and coal cleaning plant. All operating separately but under one ownership. Thirty operating groups with nearly as many factories.

>Many organisations, all over the world, like the AA, used BSA motorcycles for their patrol machines. Police forces also preferred the BSA all over the world. BSA was full of confidence and on top of the world by 1961. In 1966 all the machine tool firms in the division merged together with Alfred Herbert and became one of the largest tool machine organisations in the world. One sixth being owned by BSA. The central heating equipment business started in a small way but by 1969 was one of the largest in the world. Making boilers, radiators, burners etc. Also, the pump side of the business was merged with Sealed Motor Construction with BSA having a substantial share holding in that company too. Jessop-Saville was sold in 1967 to Sheffield's largest producer of special steels, Firth- Brown and the titanium business went to Imperial Metal Industries (Kynoch).


The Group collected a cool £5.5m out of the two deals. Things were still expanding in 1968, especially in the Metal Components Division, which was then one of the largest sintering operations in Europe. SMC Sterling Ltd was acquired and a few months later they acquired Belford Sintered Metals Ltd of Sedgefield, County Durham. Further expansion came in 1969 when work started on a new iron powder factory, to be jointly owned by BSA Tube Investments and the British Steel Corporation.

Because of the Groups contribution to the countries export drive, they were awarded the Queens Award to Industry both in 1967 and 1968, for the export of BSA and Triumph motorcycles. By 1969 they accounted for 80% of the British motorcycle industries exports.

The new three cylinder machines were launched, with a reputation for performance and reliability. Although the Company no longer made military weapons, they continued making sporting rifles and air rifles etc., and kept up connections with the Armed services with the supply of motorcycles. The U.K., Dutch, Danish, French and Australian Armies were a few and over 200 of the worlds police forces were among their customers.


Despite all this success 1971 brought a major crisis to the whole group, they found themselves with a trading loss of £3 million. It appeared as though the Company had tried to do too much in too short a time. However, for a considerable time before, the Piled Arms had been collapsing. Since the £3.5 million surplus in 1960, trading had been declining at such a rate that the books showed a loss of £8.5 million in 1970. In addition to these troubles there was sales resistance to some features of the motorcycles announced in November 1970.


The shareholders were told, “errors of management contributed to the situation". These references glossed over some extraordinary blunders, probably the most disastrous being the Ariel 3 where the works tooled up for a total production of 2,000 units a week. In fact only a few hundred were sold and the whole exercise was reckoned to have lost the Company some £2 million. Despite the gloom and rumours which were rife at the time, by the end of 1972 the chairman, Lord Shawcross, stated emphatically that the Company was still very much in business, Barclays Bank provided finance amounting to £10 million and the Company under a new Chief Executive, Brian Eustace, rapidly set about reorganising itself for the fight back to profitability.

Motorcycle manufacture, both BSA and Triumph were concentrated in the Meriden plant and Small Heath was used for engine manufacture and components. Overcoming the crisis involved a large number of redundancies at all levels; assets such as the holdings in Alfred Herbert and SMC and some small peripheral companies had to be sold. "Trying to do too much in too short a time" well describes the frantic rescue attempt undertaken late in 1971, when no fewer than 13 new or much revised BSA and Triumph models were announced in a lavish gala in London.


Then, after this lavish launch, the factory had a hundred and one different production problems, missed the market at home and in America, and towards the end of the year the group was on the verge of bankruptcy. Notwithstanding the bank's £10 million support and the sale of various assets, Lord Shawcross and a reconstructed board of directors were unable to prevent another multimillion pound loss. During the ensuing months negotiations proceeded between the Department of Trade and Mangenese Bronze Holdings, a company that had acquired the defunct Associated Motor Cycles concern and merged two of the industry's oldest marques into a Norton Villiers entity.

The plan was that, with £10 million capital part subscribed by the government and part by Mangenese Bronze, a new company, Norton Villiers Triumph would be set up to make and market Norton and Triumph motorcycles. BSA shareholders accepted the deal and in doing so finally toppled the Piled Arms, for manufacture of BSA machines formed no part of the NVT scheme, and sixty-three years of non-stop production ended abruptly in the summer of 1973.