A TOUR OF BRIT BIKING HISTORY
A road trip round the Midlands will uncover Britain’s moving motorcycling past
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