Book review: Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?
Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? (Bert Hopwood; Haynes 1981)
I remember reading half way through this book ages ago, before Triumph’s renaissance under John Bloor. If anything, it’s probably even more relevant now that we have got a British motorcycle industry again. It’s just a pity that the author didn’t live to see what Triumph has become - he would have approved.
To enjoy this book, you’d need an interest in British motorcycles, and a working knowledge of engineering. Hopwood was an engineer by trade, and this remained his passion even when promoted to management. During a long career, he worked at all the major British manufacturers, latterly at a high level.
He writes like people used to do - politely and eloquently - but he pulls no punches as to where the problems lay. The book reads like a therapeutic exercise as much as a historical document. It is very much about Hopwood putting his side of the story, presumably he doesn’t want his reputation to be tarred as one of the men who presided over the catastrophic decline of a once-proud industry. And this is where the book has a flaw: bearing in mind he was at the centre of motorcycle product design for forty years, it is strange that blame always seems to lie elsewhere. He seems to have a major role in the great successes, but is never around when products flop. Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan...
Nevertheless, as a design engineer myself, I’m prepared to believe much of his account. In my experience management rarely understand engineering at any level, and tend to focus on branding, marketing and advertising rather than product design. It appears from the book that this is not a recent phenomenon, and I recognize Hopwood’s exasperated attempts to communicate reasonably simple engineering concepts to the management.
The last chapter is perhaps the most poignant one: it covers the desperate, last ditch attempts to rescue BSA/Triumph, which Hopwood felt could only be achieved with an entirely new, modern range of bikes. He and his team put in colossal amounts of time and effectively designed this completely new range. The technical drawings in the book show how innovative these designs were, and there is little doubt they would have competed well with Japanese bikes. Alas, the management, the government and the City between them did not share this vision, and the industry was left to die.
Why is this particularly poignant? Well, throughout his career Hopwood was a great believer in modularity and shared components. So his design was based around a 200cc single, which could be bored to 250cc. From this comes a 400/500cc twin using many of the same components; logically, a 600/750cc triple, and a 1000cc four. Since the rebirth, Triumph Hinckley have adopted this eminently sensible idea and continue to this day, an example being the 675cc Daytona triple engine being “stroked” to 800cc for the Tiger.
Bert Hopwood would have been very proud, and relieved that somebody in management at last understood what he had been saying for years.
Available at Amazon, naturally.