When a bicycle craze swept across Europe and the United Kingdom back in the late 19th Century, it wasn’t too long before a few entrepreneurial Brits decided to stick a motor on those wheels and see what happened. The rest, as they say, is history. In this case, it’s a beautiful one.
During the ’50s and ’60s, the motorcycle industry was the third largest earner for Britain (after cars and whisky), and British bikes had an unrivaled reputation worldwide. These classic designs have become a part of our cultural history as well as our proud industrial past. Even if you’re not much of a bike fan, you’ll recognise many of these models because of their presence in movies and popular culture.
This post honours the ten best British bikes from that golden era.
1. Triumph Bonneville
‘Triumph Bonneville’ actually refers to three bike designs from Triumph Engineering. The Bonneville part of the name comes from a famous place in the U.S., the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where motorcycles would compete for speed records. The T140 model won the prestigious Motor Cycle News Machine Of The Year award in 1979 and remains a popular classic to this day.
As for its cultural history, the Triumph Bonneville has quite the legacy. It has made central appearances in everything from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) to Harry Potter (2010). As well as its notoriety on the silver screen, this bike is also popular on TV, most recently making appearances in CSI and Grey’s Anatomy.
2. Norton Commando
Often regarded as one the last great bikes from British manufacturers, the Norton Commando won the coveted “Machine of the Year” award for five years straight (1968-1972). This bike is particularly famous for its revolutionary framework, known as the Isolastic System. Designed by an ex-Mercedes engineer, this innovation greatly reduced the engine vibrations that plagued so many other bike designs of the time.
Again, this timeless bike has had a great presence in the movies and on TV over the years. It has had a starring role in British classics such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Midsomer Murders.
3. Royal Enfield Bullet
The Royal Enfield Bullet has earned the proud title of motorcycle with the longest production run. It has been in constant assembly since the heady days of great British motorcycles back in 1948. The latest model dates to 2007 when a new set of engines were introduced.
This bike doesn’t have quite the cultural legacy of those featured above, but it has had a couple of recent appearances in the blockbusters Friday the 13th and Big Fish.
4. BSA A65 Star
With a top speed of 100 miles per hour, this model gained its popularity in the U.S. market, where it competed successfully with established Triumph models and new Japanese bikes. In fact, by the end of the ’60s, BSA bikes were responsible for the vast majority of British exports to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
However, perhaps because of its slightly dated look, the BSA A65 Star didn’t really make it into contemporary films and TV shows, and is therefore a surprising absence in our cultural history.
5. Vincent Black Shadow
A true British classic, the Vincent Black Shadow was a hand-assembled creation with only 1,700 ever made. Its signature feature resides in the name ‘black shadow’; contrary to popular chrome designs of the time, this bike was black all over, from the engine to the crank-case.
Today, the Vincent Black Shadow is probably best known as a favourite on the popular TV show Top Gear. It was also a firm feature in the TV classic Inspector Morse.
6. Velocette Viper
Veloce Ltd, a small, family-run Birmingham company that managed to compete with the British motorcycle giants such as Norton and Triumph, produced the Velocette Viper. Although a beautiful and well-designed bike, the Viper struggled to stay popular in a fast-paced industry. Veloce Ltd, famous for its innovative practices, remodeled the bike with glass fibre enclosure panels – one of the first of its kind.
Although this brand of bikes doesn’t have much of a screen presence, they do hold the infamous and unbeaten record of 24 hours at 100 mph!
7. Matchless Silver Hawk
An early bike, the Matchless Silver Hawk was designed back in the 1930s and made its debut at the legendary Olympia Motor Cycle Show in 1930. Described by its manufacturers as “unquestionably the most fascinating machine to ride that has ever been built,” this bike was one of two four-cylinder luxury rides introduced at that show.
It was a wonderful bike but, sadly, the ’30s weren’t a great time for selling extravagant items. Although it had a loyal following and remains a popular classic to this day, the Silver Hawk didn’t do too well in terms of actual sales and was dropped from production just four years later.
8. Ariel 350 W/NG
Today, the Ariel W/NG 350 is best known as a British military motorcycle. However, that reputation was only won after its widespread use for evacuations at Dunkirk; previously, the War Office had described the bike as “fair – for use only in emergency purposes”!
However, military versions of the bike are hard to find today as most of those that were used were then converted back to civilian vehicles and resold.
The W/NG has made one recent notable screen appearance, alongside a sidecar in the popular children’s film Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.
9. Triumph Trident
Co-produced by Triumph and BSA, the Trident is also commonly known as the Rocket3. This bike is well-loved because of its legacy as the first of the modern super-bikes, but, as the last new Triumph model, this design also heralded the passing of this great British company.
The Trident/Rocket3 was produced for seven years, from ’68 to ‘75, but eventually failed to capture the market, mainly because of an influx of Honda Goldwings from Japan.
10. Norton Manx
A true racing bike, the Norton Manx is famous for its successes in the notorious competition, the Isle of Man TT. The Norton Manx was in attendance from 1907 (the first year of the race), through to the 1970s, but that’s not the end of the story. This is still one of the most popular classic racing bikes around today, and you won’t have to look too hard to pick up a working example.