A TOUR OF BRIT BIK­ING HIS­TORY

A road trip round the Mid­lands will un­cover Bri­tain’s mov­ing mo­tor­cy­cling past

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With all the cur­rent ex­cite­ment about re­vived Bri­tish bike brands, talk about their his­toric roots is never far away. Af­ter all, brand new bikes like Tri­umph’s Bon­neville Scram­bler 1200, Nor­ton’s At­las 650 and Royal En­field’s 650 twins, although made, re­spec­tively, in Hinck­ley, Don­ing­ton and In­dia, still lean heav­ily on her­itage and on a his­tory founded in places such as Meri­den, Brace­bridge Street and Red­ditch. Tri­umph’s orig­i­nal T120 Bon­neville, as most bike buffs know, was made at the his­toric Meri­den factory, Tri­umph’s home be­tween 1942 and 1983, north-west of Coven­try. Nor­ton, be­tween 1920 and 1963, were based in Brace­bridge Street, As­ton. Royal En­field hailed from Red­ditch, to the south; Ariel from

Selly Oak, also Birm­ing­ham; BSA, Small Heath, south of the city cen­tre, the list goes on…

And it’s that prox­im­ity, plus the in­ter­est in these his­toric fac­to­ries fuelled by their brands’ re­cent resur­gence, that makes re­vis­it­ing them on a ride­out so ap­peal­ing... so I did. It’s still one of the best things I’ve done on two wheels. But first a word of warn­ing: don’t be un­der any il­lu­sions about what you might find. Most of the fac­to­ries no longer ex­ist, many long since de­mol­ished to make way for hous­ing es­tates, uni­ver­sity build­ings and the like. Nor are they con­nected by any ‘great bik­ing roads’. But, to be hon­est, that only adds to the sense of ad­ven­ture. In­stead, you have to work fairly hard to earn any re­ward. My ad­vice? Do plenty of on­line re­search first: use Wikipedia, Google Maps and Streetview to iden­tify your des­ti­na­tions. Pin­point them then plan a route link­ing some to­gether. And though any re­mains are gen­er­ally some­times de­press­ingly small and slight, what there is feels pow­er­ful and hum­bling.

For my trip down mem­ory lane I was Bon­neville-mounted, so Tri­umph was the fo­cus of my trav­els, but I took in other great mar­ques, too. In Coven­try city cen­tre is the site of the orig­i­nal, Siegfried Bettmann, pre-Meri­den factory. A plaque marks the spot and is dwarfed by mod­ern uni­ver­sity build­ings but it still has an aura of sig­nif­i­cance. From there it’s a sur­pris­ingly short, 10-minute ride down the A45 to its suc­ces­sor: Meri­den. And

‘What re­mains feels pow­er­ful and hum­bling’

‘At least BSA guns re­mains next door…’

though there, too, noth­ing of the orig­i­nal re­mains, be­ing de­mol­ished in 1984 to make way for a new John Bloor hous­ing de­vel­op­ment. At least Tri­umph’s new owner named Bon­neville Close and Day­tona Drive in its hon­our. On the road­side, a re­cent me­mo­rial marks the site, too. Poignant it is. While if you fancy round­ing off the Tri­umph jour­ney, the Hinck­ley factory’s Vis­i­tor Ex­pe­ri­ence is just 15 miles away. But on our day, we had more mar­ques on our card. The big­gest of all, the re­mains of the old, vast BSA factory in Small Heath came next and in many ways was the most hum­bling of all. What was once the big­gest mo­tor­cy­cle factory in the world has been re­duced to just a few bat­tered rem­nants, just 50 yards of three­storey oc­cu­pied by a tun­ing shop, the sur­round­ings now a face­less in­dus­trial park. Still, at least BSA guns re­mains next door… Bet­ter, though, was to come. Brace­bridge Street, mid-era home of Nor­ton on the other side of Brum, is a still-stand­ing street of red-brick Vic­to­ri­ana thick with at­mos­phere. It might not look that spe­cial now, but it was here that the first Featherbed frames were made and it re­mains a des­ti­na­tion for count­less own­ers’ club rides. A com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque was once here, too, although is now at the Na­tional Mo­tor­cy­cle Mu­seum. There’s more. I rode to Selly Oak on the west side of the city to tick off the last phys­i­cal ves­tige of the once great Ariel factory, Ariel Aque­duct, named in its hon­our in 2010. The factory closed in 1963 then was de­mol­ished in 2000 to make way for a stu­dent hall for Birm­ing­ham Uni­ver­sity.

But I saved the best for last. Just 15 min­utes away in Wolver­hamp­ton lies one of the most iconic Bri­tish bike fac­to­ries of all. Sun­beam land, a clas­sic, red brick, three-story Victorian com­plex, is on Paul Street. The listed build­ing sur­vives to this day, has re­cently been con­verted into lux­ury apart­ments and is also, once again, called Sun­beam, the proud name dis­played down its cor­ner. It was enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. See? The her­itage sites of his­toric Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cling haven’t quite all dis­ap­peared. As for Royal En­field in Red­ditch, I’m told the factory still stands. But we’ll leave that for an­other day…

All that re­mains of Tri­umph Meri­den is a hous­ing es­tate and a street­side me­mo­rial

BY PHIL WEST Loves mod­ern bikes but also has a han­ker­ing for old Brits and Har­leys

Wolver­hamp­ton’s Sun­beam­land is now apart­ments

A her­itage plaque marks the site of the orig­i­nal Tri­umph factory in Coven­try

Most of the huge BSA factory is also gone – but BSA guns live on next door

Nor­ton plaque since moved to NMM ...

... but some of the build­ings remain

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