It is hard to overstate the influence that British motorcycle design has had on world motorcycling throughout the 20th century. However, there is more than just style cues, the Ace Café and Mods vs. Rockers. While these are important parts, there is a fascinating depth and insight that comes through this BBC documentary that you don’t always see. If you like history, motorcycles, or whatever, she offers the kind of ideas that are essentially catnip.
The point is, while so many millions of cyclists are joined by our love of two wheels, no matter where we are in the world, we have all experienced this love from different angles. In the UK, the first motorcycles were an inexpensive way to get around when paved roads weren’t as common as they are now.
This part may seem familiar elsewhere, but this is where it goes its own way. Road races, like the Isle of Man TT, developed not only as a way for speed freaks to pursue their passion, but also as a way to demonstrate the reliability of a motorcycle in an era when it was was anything but acquired.
When World War II broke out, Norton, who had previously dominated the TT for years, withdrew to devote his resources to building machinery for the British war effort. Meanwhile, BMW arrived, won the Senior TT, and took the opportunity to show off its shaft-driven power in a way it hoped to be more than just an allegory.
British dispatchers relied on BSAs and Nortons to deliver critical messages here and there throughout the war, and British motorcycle makers contributed more than 400,000 machines to the effort at its conclusion. That’s a LOT of bikes, and a lot of surplus military bikes that ended up in civilian hands after the fighting was over. As paved roads and automobiles grew in popularity, the seeds of this two-wheeled love germinated in the next generation.
Everything that has happened before has helped set the stage for the more recent and popular history of tone-up boys, cafe racers, rockers, mods – things we all know. It is part of both the history of British motorcycling in particular and the history of world motorcycling as a whole. As someone who didn’t grow up with this facet of equestrian culture, it’s fascinating to learn more.