- The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry by Steve Koerner
The author is an enthusiastic British Columbian rider of Norton motorcycles (a rough American English “translation” would be Harley-Davidson), and he scatters photographs of these and other iconic machines about his text. Readers should suppress any latent prejudice, however: Steve Koerner is a well-trained and effective historian and his judgments are copiously and professionally end-noted. He describes a British motorcycle industry [End Page 1021] which dominated world production by the mid-twentieth century, only to be virtually wiped out by Japanese competition, especially from Honda, in the 1960s. His central argument is that government policy or labor militancy had little to do with this strange and rapid decline and that the roots of later failure can be found in strategic stances developed in the face of modest German and Italian competition during Britain’s global dominance. These included overemphasis on powerful models and racing trophies, disdain for safety issues, a failure to develop popular, reliable, low-power models (contrasted with Honda’s famous campaign in the United States, then Britain’s top export market, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”), and poor productivity deriving from excessive commitment to craft-based batch production rather than design excellence and mass production. Good managers occasionally surfaced and were rewarded with successes, but overall, poor managers, with mistaken strategies and weak implementation, deserved to fail.
This interpretation is to some extent a prisoner of its sources. The trade press and trade association archives dominate and few corporate records survive, so “the industry” is sometimes blamed collectively for decisions which could only have been made by individual firms. However, Koerner also makes good use of interviews and firm-specific material to expose a number of wrong turnings and blind spots, in particular manufacturers carefully assessed against real alternatives: this is not Chandlerian Whig history. Given the role of productivity in his analysis, it is a pity he did not use micro-data to measure productivity change over time in Britain and elsewhere. Although Stephen Broadberry’s The Productivity Race (1997, p. 236) has only one observation for comparative international motorcycle productivity, Koerner would have benefited from considering alternative hypotheses about craft production choices, suggested by Wayne Lewchuk (in relation to automobiles) and discussed by Broadberry.
However, this industry does not lend itself to easy generalization, given varied social constructions of an apparently common technology, which the author clearly and illuminatingly describes. At the bottom end (as can be abundantly seen today on the urban streets of the third world) motorcycles are low-cost personal transport (bicycles with powered assistance), while a 600cc machine with sidecar was, in interwar Europe, a substitute for an entry-level family car. Postwar motorcycles varied from teenage fashion accessory (the Vespa scooter) to cure for male menopause (Nortons and Triumphs). One can sympathize with managers uncertain which market to prioritize, and note that multiple strategies were adopted by different firms, but the striking fact is how many failed. BSA—the British firm which once had more than half the domestic and overseas market—failed spectacularly. As Richard Pascale (in the 1984 California Management Review, appropriately cited by the author) classically showed, Honda did not have brilliant strategic vision but it did excel in adapting its initially mistaken strategy to [End Page 1022] its initial capabilities by learning from market signals (and, as Koerner also notes, it also employed exceptional engineers recruited from Japan’s suppressed aircraft industry). Soon all markets were effectively served by the Japanese, Chinese, and other later emulators, with only modest niche first-world survivals (Harley-Davidson in the United States, BMW in Germany, and a revived Triumph in the United Kingdom).
Leslie Hannah lives in Tokyo (where he uses public transport and avoids Hondas) and is visiting professor of economic history at the London School of Economics.