Beautiful English-made motorcycles
Iconic British motorcycle brands are coming out with new models for a young generation with a passion for the open road and a sense of freedom few other modes of transport can deliver.
Icons of an exciting engineering age, when the words handmade, craftsmanship and world-beater were not just used as marketing spin, British-designed and -built motorcycles
– or at least, British heritage brands – are once again riding high, fueled by demand for iconic products. Most of them may not be produced in the United Kingdom anymore, but their legacy lives on.
Motorcycles first captured the imagination of the public when Royal Enfield produced the first commercial road-ready motorcycle in 1901. Its arrival heralded a golden age of innovation and engineering that would soon take hold of the imaginations of millions across the planet. Indeed, no one could have possibly predicted the impact motorcycles would have on people’s lives. Not only were they compact and versatile, they had a romanticism that lured new riders to the open road.
As more and more models were designed and improved, factories across the British industrial heartland rattled with the soon-to-be-iconic roar that would be heard from London to Hong Kong and beyond.
Indeed, built with fine craftsmanship fused with a rugged sensibility that is equally at home in a manor house’s driveway or the rough-and-ready docks, the British motorcycle’s appeal seems to cut across class. It was a favourite of royal princes, statesmen, soldiers and Hollywood stars who wanted to look tough. In fact, during the 1950s and 60s the UK’s
motorcycle industry was the third highest revenue earner (after cars and whiskey) for the British exchequer.
Today, British motorcycles are taking centre stage with some of those legacy names taking to the roads and gathering enthusiasts as they fly the flag once again.
Born to race
One such classic firm, Norton, a name synonymous with the world-famous Isle of Man TT race, is back with its iconic Commando series of bikes, which is once again in production at the Norton plant in Donington Hall, just outside Derby in the UK.
Norton’s range of hand-built motorcycles has even found its way into our cultural landscape with the likes of Keanu Reeves who rides a classic 1970s Norton Commando 750 or Orlando Bloom and his Norton Commando 961, and Billy Joel who owns a Norton Commando and a Dominator.
One of the newest Norton motorcycles to take to the road is the Commando 961 California, which was launched to commemorate the 50 years since the first model left the factory. The latest Commando 961 is described as “an easy rider, a classic British hand-built roadster with heart, passion and soul”.
However, while Norton bikes were making a name for themselves at the world’s most prestigious motor races, the engineers and designers at another firm set out to produce one of the most exemplary examples of the classic British motorcycle.
On the road again
Triumph, a name that for a long time was used by many in place of the word motorcycle, was first produced in 1902 and now, over a hundred years later the brand is still spoken of with pride and passion.
Triumph motorcycles such as the Thunderbird, Bonneville, Tiger and Trident have conquered racetracks, survived wars, factory fires, economic depressions and even Hollywood action movies. In 1941, at the height of World War II, over 50,000 motorcycles were delivered to the Allies even after the Triumph factory in Coventry was completely gutted during the war. Then in 1954 Marlon Brando rode his Triumph Thunderbird 6T into movie history in The Wild One. Steve McQueen was also a big Triumph fan, amassing a collection of over 100 motorcycles of all models and makes. In 1963 in the classic war movie The Great Escape, McQueen is seen riding his TR6 650 Trophy as he attempts to escape Nazi Germany.
Daredevil Evel Knievel, jumped his Triumph Bonneville 650 T120 TT over the fountain at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1967 and today at the Triumph factory in Hinkley just outside Coventry, the team is hand building “modern classics” such as the Bonneville T120 and the Thunderbird range of cruisers.
Another classic brand that has made a resurgence into a world dominated by mass-produced super bikes is the legendary Royal Enfield.
First produced at the Enfield factory at Redditch in 1901, Enfield motorcycles soon emerged as both rugged and reliable, traits that have endeared the brand to Brad Pitt, Jay Leno and former Miss India Gul Panag. While still proudly maintaining its British roots, the modern Royal Enfield motorcycles are handcrafted at a factory in Chennai, India following the closure in 1967 of the English company. However, its British connection remains strong as ever. Royal Enfield’s new CEO Siddhartha Lal has opened a new technology centre in Leicestershire with a former Triumph product planner and has also announced that a new UK production plant is on the way.
An icon rides again
Once known as the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles during its prewar heyday, Brough Superior has come back from the edge of extinction. The iconic brand is back in production after a 70-year hiatus. Lawrence of Arabia himself was a fan and had his made to measure. Colonel Lawrence owned seven Brough Superiors all of which were named “George”. The company started production of its famous SS100 at a factory in Nottingham in 1919 and the last original SS100 left the same factory in 1939. Today, the SS100 rides again as the first of the new models rolled off the line at the production centre in Toulouse, France at the end of 2016.
Back in business
It is well known that James Dean and Marlon Brando owned one, and many discerning motorcycle enthusiasts were avid collectors of this classic British bike, so if there’s a machine that many enthusiasts would love to see, it’s this brand. One of Britain’s oldest motorcycle manufacturers is back in business with the Matchless Model X Reloaded. The Matchless Motorcycle Company first began producing motorbikes back in 1899 and now 115 years later the company is back in business with new Italian owners. The Matchless Reloaded X is a modern interpretation of the legendary Model X originally produced back in the 1920s and is equipped with a massive 1916cc capable engine, and built to Matchless designs.