The motor cycle industry plays a pivotal role in Warwickshire’s industrial history, with Coventry at the heart of this development. Coventry, of course, was the birthplace of the UK’s cycle industry and it was perhaps inevitable that it would take on board the exciting prospects of applying power to the two-wheeled cycle. Many cycle firms moved seamlessly into production of motor cycles in the early years of the industry.
With engines developed in France and Germany, the application of power to the bicycle came towards the end of the nineteenth century. These years brought considerable experimentation with motor-assisted bicycles and tricycles, before the more familiar motor cycle began to emerge. A combination of innovation engineering and entrepreneurial initiatives put Coventry in the vanguard of the industry, not least epitomised by Harry J Lawson, with his acquisition of patents and occupancy of a former cotton mill in Sandy Lane, renamed ‘Motor Mills’ for production purposes.
Many former cycle companies moved into motor cycle manufacture, with some new arrivals as well. By 1905 22 firms were listed as motor cycle manufacturers in Coventry, including Allard, Beeston, Coventry Challenge, Coventry Eagle, Coventry Motette, Hillman, Humber, MMC, Riley, Rover, Singer, Swift and Triumph. Alongside these firms, of course, are all the suppliers of components and accessories that the industry required, from simple chains to elaborate sidecars.
In the years before World war One, innovation continued apace, but war brought an interruption to production, with a focus on a small range of models geared to the war effort.
The industry was soon developing new models after the war, and the inter-war years produced saw the launch Coventry Eagle’s ‘Pullman’, the Francis-Burnett ‘Cruiser’, Rudge-Whitworth’s racing machines and the Triumph Twin Engine machine of 1937, one that was to achieve legendary status.
Sadly, the post-war years saw no return to the hey-day of motor cycle manufacturing in Coventry, and the industry suffered very serious challenges from foreign competition leading to closure or re-location elsewhere. One of the last to close was Triumph (operating from its works in Meriden), which was transformed into a Workers Co-operative in 1975 in a bid to save the factory. It closed in 1983.
There were other locations in Warwickshire for motor cycle manufacture, and for the manufacture of components and accessories. One such example was Birch Motor Cycles of Nuneaton.
In this brief introduction it has only been possible to mention a few of the firms involved in Coventry’s motor cycle industry. Readers are referred to Damien Kimberley’s book on Coventry’s Motorcycle Heritage, with information on all known motor cycle manufacturers in the city.
Given the level of enthusiasm for vintage motor cycles, there are many texts that focus on particular firms and particular models. These can best be explored via the internet.
Motor Cycle Industry: further information
|Kimberley, Damien||Coventry’s Motor Cycle Heritage. Includes an A-Z catalogue of all known Coventry motor cycle manufacturers||The History Press|
|Victoria County History |
of Warwickshire Vol 8
|Section on Motor Cycles|
|Available at this link|
|Grace’s Guide||A valuable source of information on individual companies||Available at this link|
|Atkinson, Kevin||The Singer Story, includes a section on motor cycles||Veloce Publishing|
|Gent, Arthur||Francis-Barnett, Coventry: The Complete Story||Crowood Press|
|Koerner, Steve||The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry||Crucible Books|
Men and Motors
|A History of Triumph Bikes. A visit to the National Motor Cycle Museum to trace the history of Triumph motor cycles||Available at this link|
|Lee, Peter||Nuneaton Motor Cycles||Nuneaton & North Warwickshire Local and Family History Society|
& You Tube Film
National Motor Cycle Museum, Bickenhill, Solihull
|The finest collection of motor cycles in the world, the National Motor Cycle Musem was opened in 1984, a project masterminded by Mr. Roy Richards. A disastrous fire in 2013 destroyed many irreplaceable machines, but the collection has continued to grow since then and now houses more than 1000 vehicles||Available at this link|
Coventry Transport Museum
|A range of motor cycles on display||Available at this link|
|Sites||All the remaining motor cycle sites can be viewed on the WIAS database, listed under MOTOR CYCLES. Please note that several motor cycle works are classified under MOTOR VEHICLES when those industries replaced or supplemented the motor cycle production||Available at this link|