But by the reign of William III in 1689 most of the arms coming out of Birmingham were being exported, and the British Army was actually equipped with Dutch weapons. The Crown was not pleased with this arrangement, and Sir Richard Newdegate -a member of Parliament for Warwickshire- secured a trial contract with five of the leading gunsmiths in Birmingham to supply 200 Snaphance muskets every month “at seventeen shillings per piece ready money”. This contract continued for 150 years, and enormous quantities of firearms were supplied not only to the British Government but also to foreign armies: by the end of the Napoleonic Wars it is estimated that some 7,000 people were employed to produce 525,000 weapons a year.
Even after the Napoleonic Wars Birmingham continued manufacturing immense numbers of weapons; many were bought by merchants who were trading them in Africa for ivory, spices and gold. Another arms boom followed the French Revolution of 1848, but by1856 the Government factory at Enfield had mechanized their weapons production (see Royal Enfield: Made Like a Gun) and were putting out more than 2,000 rifles and carbines a week. This competition was having a progressively adverse effect on the Birmingham businesses, which still produced hand-made weapons. In June 1861 a meeting of trade members resolved to form The Birmingham Small Arms Company to “begin manufacture of firearms by machinery.”
Starting with an initial capital of £24,500, the new company purchased a property at Small Heath and began construction on a factory; by the end of 1863 preliminary work was begun on their first large order -20,000 Enfield rifles for the Turkish Government- and in 1866 the BSA received its first British Government contract to convert a number of outdated muzzle-loaders into breech loading weapons. Combined with large contracts from foreign countries, BSA was quickly becoming the largest private arms company in Europe.
|BSA Snider Rifle|
|Birmingham Small Arms Company, 1867|
|Otto Safety Bicycle|
“It was no easy matter to effect the satisfactory balance which was necessary before comfortable riding could be enjoyed.“
Still, manufacture continued for two years and the Otto was joined by the “Alpha Ordinary Bicycle” along with “Beta” and “Delta” model tricycles. In 1881 BSA began manufacturing rear-driven tricycles for other companies.
On the race track BSA bicycles were beginning to score success: Tom Peck set a record with a BSA as the first cyclist to ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groat’s (8371 miles) under three days. More extraordinary rides were accomplished by C. Moss, including three consecutive Bath Road 100 Miles Cups for fastest time, on the third occasion pulling in under 5 hours. In 1902 the War Office adopted BSA fittings for military bicycles.
|BSA bicycle fitted with a Minerva engine|
In 1906 BSA took over the former National Arms and Ammunition Company in Sparkbrook, Birmingham and a year later the Eadie Manufacturing Company in Redditch, another fitting manufacturer almost as famous as themselves. They established a motor-car department in the Sparkbrook factory, (leasing part of the facility to the Lanchester Motor Company) and the first prototype automobile was produced in 1907 under BSA Cycles Ltd.
|Early Model “K”|
|1909 BSA Touring Car|
By 1909 the new motorcar department was experiencing poor organization of production due to general failures in its management. Dudley Docker had been appointed deputy chairman of BSA in 1909, and believing he could purchase the management skills missing within BSA he started merger talks with The Daimler Motor Company Ltd. of Coventry; at that time Daimler and Rover were the two largest British car producers, and Daimler was immensely profitable. In 1910 BSA purchased Daimler, but Docker either ignored or failed to assess the consequences for the new combine: it was never adequately balanced or coordinated with the other divisions. Additionally, one of the financial provisions obliged Daimler to pay BSA an annual dividend of £100,000, which immediately deprived Daimler of badly needed cash and forced the company to borrow from Midland Bank. BSA themselves had still not recovered financially from the Sparkbrook purchase, leaving both companies without ample liquid assets. With no integration of facilities or reorganization, BSA simply continued to produce their own cars using Daimler engines. In 1913 Daimler was paying 5,000 workers to manufacture 1,000 vehicles, “..an indication that things were not well.”
In 1911 US Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis designed a multipurpose light machine gun with a top-mounted magazine, capable of firing up to 600 rounds/min. The gas operated weapon weighed in at a mere 28 pounds and had an effective range of almost 900 yards, making it highly suitable for mounting on fighter aircraft which were being developed at the time. Frustrated by political differences with the Chief of the Ordnance Department for the US Army, Lewis had retired and moved to Belgium where he established the Armes Automatique Lewis Company in Liege to facilitate commercial production. In 1913 he began working with BSA to overcome some of the production difficulties, and in 1914 BSA purchased a license to manufacture the Lewis Machine Gun in the .303 British caliber.
Immediately upon the formation of the Ministry of Munitions in July, 1915 the company was declared a government controlled establishment, and every department was adding its quota to the wide range of munitions being supplied to the British and Allied Governments.
In addition to the large quantities of arms required for the military there was a constant demand for bicycles and motorcycles for both the British and Allied Governments. A special type of folding military bicycle was designed, along with special machine tools, jigs, gauges, aero components, gun locks, shells and fuses. Daimler supplied a huge percentage of staff cars, ambulances and commercial vehicles, including the engine and transmission of the worlds’ first tank. By 1916 the BSA/Daimler Group factories were employing nearly 20,000 people compared with the pre-war total of 6,500 employees.
|BSA Model “E”|
BSA’s motorcycle range was proving so popular that they adopted the advertising slogan “One in four is a BSA“, and in fact BSA made more motorcycles than the rest of the British motorcycle industry put together. Mass production methods were applied for the first time with the introduction of the 250cc “Round Tank” model B. In 1924 a quartet of BSA’s made motorcycling history by successfully climbing Snowdon, eclipsed two years later when a couple of enthusiasts began a world marathon tour, covering 20,000 land miles through 24 countries on an 18 month journey. More achievements were chalked up in the thirties: the “Slopers” gave way to the big single Blue Stars and Empire Stars, which made their mark in trials and club events.
|1926 Model “B”|
|1937 500cc “Empire Star” advertising|
At its peak Small Heath was operating 67 separate factories engaged in military production, and through the duration of the war the BSA Company was to produce more than 5,000,000,000 munitions components from 468,098 browning guns to 10,000,000 shell fuses, equal to 1,650 pieces every minute. Included in this total were 126,334 service motorcycles, almost all of which were M20’s.
Like many other companies BSA got the DKW RT-125 plans in the War Reparations Act, which they converted to Imperial measurements and released as the Bantam D1 in 1948. It had telescopic forks, a rigid rear end and direct electrics, was available only in “mist green” and sold for £60 plus tax. Although the frame underwent several subsequent changes (beginning with conversion to plunger and then swingarm rear suspension) the single unit, bulletproof engine remained virtually unchanged for the full 23 years of production. The Bantam was one of BSA’s most popular and recognizable models: the final version, an off-road “Bushman” was available as an export model for Australia and Africa up to 1994.
|1951 BSA “Bantam”|
|1970 BSA “Bushman”|
|1950 “Golden Flash” advertising|
In 1953 BSA Motor Cycles Ltd. was created as a separate division from BSA Cycles Ltd., and the bicycle division was sold to Raleigh in 1957. Daimler was the only part of the group still struggling: their cars were considered luxury machines, and there was a marked decrease in wealthy customers after the war. Their saving line was in buses, which although small was quite successful: in May 1960 the Daimler business was purchased from BSA by Jaguar Cars.
|BSA Ariel 3|
But despite all this success, 1971 brought a major crisis to the whole group and they found themselves with a trading loss of £3 million. In fact, since 1960 trading had been declining at an alarming rate. In addition to these troubles there was sales resistance to some features of the motorcycles announced in November 1970.
BSA had made some extraordinary blunders, probably the most disastrous being the Ariel 3.
Launched with fanfare from the BSA management and round condemnation from the motorcycle press in the Spring of 1970, it was a three-wheeled moped with automatic transmission and a novel hinging system allowing the front to be leaned like a conventional two-wheeler while the rear, containing the engine & transmission unit, sat squarely on the road. The engine was a 50cc fan cooled single cylinder two-stroke made by the Dutch company Anker.
BSA had tooled up for a total production of 2,000 units a week but only a few hundred were sold, an exercise which cost them some £2 million. (Strangely enough, when compared to today’s motorized tricycles that are ubiquitous at any shopping mall the Ariel 3 could simply be considered ahead of its time.) Nonetheless, at the end of 1972 Barclays Bank provided £10 million in new financing and new CEO Brian Eustace rapidly set about reorganizing the company for a fight back to profitability.
Both BSA and Triumph manufacturing was concentrated in the Meriden plant and Small Heath was being used for engine and component manufacture. “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. But the factory had numerous production problems and missed the market both at home and in America: 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, a reconstructed board of directors were unable to prevent another multimillion pound loss. On top of this, competition from Japanese companies like Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki were rapidly eroding BSA’s market share.
A merger with Norton Villers was started in late 1972, and for a brief time a Norton 500 single was built with the B50 based single cylinder engine but few if any were sold publicly. Although the BSA name was left out of the new company, some products continued to be made with the logo until 1973. The final lineup was four models: the “Gold Star” 500, the 650 “Thunderbolt” and “Lightning” models, and the 750 cc “Rocket Three”. A plan to rescue and combine Norton, BSA and Triumph fell through in the face of worker resistance though, and both the Norton and BSA factories were eventually shut down. Triumph staggered for a few more years before its final collapse in 1983.
When Norton-Villiers-Triumph was liquidated in 1978 its management formed a new BSA Company and bought the rights to the BSA Motorcycle brand. This new company produced military motorcycles and some Yamaha powered offroad motorcycles under the BSA name for developing countries. The facilities moved from Small Heath to Coventry in 1973, then again in 1986 to Blockley in Gloustershire where production continued mostly for export to Africa. In 1991 BSA Company was merged with another buyout, Mike Jackson’s Andover Norton International Ltd., to form a new BSA Group. BSA purchased the spares business from Norton Motors and this prompted a rapid and continuing growth in the sale of genuine parts. MZ (GB) Ltd. was acquired (see History of Motorradwerk Zschopau: DKW, IFA and MZ Motorcycles), and BSA Group became heavily involved with the renowned Norton F1 designer Seymour Powell in developing and launching the MuZ Skorpion which later took the 1994 BBC Design Award. In December 1994 BSA Group was taken over by a newly formed BSA Regal Group and the company moved again, this time to Southampton.
In 1997 production began on the hand built 400cc “Gold SR”, with the first batch of 200 machines exported to Japan. Production of the BSA “John McLaren”, a 50cc child’s Junior MX bike, also commenced in 1997 and small numbers continue to be built under license. The spares business continued to supply the world’s Norton twin owners and restorers. In 1999 a 500cc version of the Gold SR was launched for the European and American markets, but by 2003 it had become clear that demand was not reaching expectations and production was killed. The 1,000cc Tempest, widely acclaimed in its prototype form, never reached the production line and MZ sales failed to reach their promising potential. In 2007 BSA’s involvement with MZ ended with the sale of the parts business. In the same year Joe Seifert, the new owner of Norton Motors Ltd, made a successful bid for the Norton Commando parts business, and this included the return of the European trademarks to BSA Company.
Today the BSA Regal Group continues to use the famous winged logo, providing building and property maintenance along with some engineering services and manufacture of industrial equipment.
Note: as a commenter below has pointed out, the BSA Company is also currently manufacturing optics including a line of rifle and pistol scopes. I don’t know the actual connections between this company and the original, but their website may be found at http://www.bsaoptics.com/.
B.S.A. History from the Days of the Crimea (1918) – From rifleman.org.uk
BSA rifle catalogs from 1908 to the 1930s
The BSA & Military Bicycle Museum
That other Ariel two-stroke: by Cohn Atkinson