The Birmingham Small Arms company manufactured, as the name suggests, fire arms (guns). Founded in 1861, the company began to complement small arms manufacturing by producing cycles and cycle parts from 1869. The first complete BSA motorcycle was produced in 1910. The company, and name, changed hands a number of times before production came to an end in 1972.
Of particular importance to the BSA story is the type of manufacturing the company deployed in the early days: mass production of small components made by machines. This type of machine and the production methods used would become the backbone of the future motorcycle production.
The original company was founded by fourteen gunsmiths who were members of the Birmingham Small Arms Trade Association. In conjunction with the British War Office, the group was given access to the Enfield’s factory and their facilities to produce guns. It was the Enfield factory that had purchased machinery from the US which had greatly increased production levels.
The group of gunsmiths purchased 25 acres of land in the Small Heath area of Birmingham and on this land they constructed an access road which was named Armoury Road—a name that was to become synonymous with BSA motorcycles for many years.
After successfully supplying guns to the British, Turkish, Russian, Dutch and Portuguese governments, the company began to suffer from a lack of orders by 1880 and began to explore other markets where their ability to mass produce small intricate mechanical components could be put to good use.
The first item to get produced by the BSA company was the Otto Safety cycle--a contraption capable of transporting a single rider between two large wheels. Having experimented with various designs (Alpha Ordinary bicycle, Beta and Delta tricycles and the Omnicycle) the company moved on to produce a two-wheeled cycle called the Safety Cycle in 1884.
The company returned to arms manufacturing in 1887 after receiving a substantial order to re-equip the British army with Lee-Metford magazine loading rifles. However, they also continued to produce cycle parts to meet the demand from cycle manufacturers who wanted/needed components that were interchangeable—something the mass production machinery at BSA could do easily.
As bicycles became a popular and affordable form of transport for the masses, BSA followed the next logical step in 1908 and manufactured a complete bicycle. The company had also supplied special frames for powered use two wheelers and began experimenting with their own machine in 1905.
By BSA had a motorcycle to offer the public and displayed it at the Olympia Show in London of that year. Demand for the motorcycle (a 3½ hp machine) was so great that the entire production runs in 1911, 1912 and 1913 sold out.
In August 1914, Britain went to war with Germany and the need for armament and two wheeled vehicles increased dramatically. Needless to say, this period helped BSA by putting the company on a sound financial basis for some time.
To cope with the demand, new workshops were built which were some 60 feet wide and two miles long. In addition to new workshops, the company began an initiative to support their workers’ health. Besides workshops, well-equipped surgeries were built and even a gymnasium to keep the workers properly exercised.
Although the First World War’s production dominated BSA’s output, they did produce some new machines, namely a 2¼ hp 250-cc side valve which went on sale in 1915.
1919 saw the introduction of BSA’s first V-twin, a 770-cc engined machine. But it was BSA’s OHV-model that brought the company considerable publicity in 1921. The company entered twelve machines in the IOM TT that year, but the publicity was not good when every machine broke down during the race! This unprecedented result from a major British manufacturer had an effect on the company for many years to come.