For reasons unknown an inordinate number of motorcycle firms (and frankly, companies everywhere) have taken corporate names that consist of three letters. Today we touch on two such firms. First the iconic, and long deceased, British concern BSA. Then we’ll visit the relatively new Austrian outfit, KTM.
In 1861, fourteen independent members of the Birmingham (U.K.) Small Arms Trade Association joined together to form a new enterprise, Birmingham Small Arms. Catalyzed by the growing availability of specialized manufacturing machinery, the firm made it’s name via precision machining and the relatively new concept of interchangable parts. Shortly after inception, the enterprise established a facility in the Small Heath district of Birmingham on the ever so cleverly named Armoury Road. Providing high quality rifles to the British War Office, as well as other nations, proved to be a “feast or famine” business model. Seeking to attenuate the vagaries of the arms business, BSA branched out into the manufacture of bicycles in 1880. Near the turn of the century bicycles were all the trend and their production required large numbers of precise and interchangeable parts. It was a near perfect fit for the gun making machinery and business flourished. It was a short step from bicycles to motor-bicycles and by the fall of 1910 BSA had 3 1/2 HP offering in the marketplace. Distracted, in the 1914-1918, period by World War I, the company returned to strictly arms production. Immediately following, however, in 1919 they introduced their first two-cylinder motorcycle. Motorcycle production carried on throughout the intra-war period but by 1939 Britain was back on a war footing. The manufacture of arms, as well as military motorcycles, prevailed until the cessation of hostilities in 1945. At one point in the war, BSA was managing the war production at 67 factories throughout the British Empire. During the course of the war BSA also bought Sunbeam Motorcycles from Associated Motorcycles and later, in 1944, they also purchased Ariel. Following the war, the entire production capacity at Small Heath was turned over to motorcycles in order to meet growing civilian demand. By the early 1950s the BSA Group was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The Group continued to expand and acquire throughout the 1950s, including the notable 1951 acquisition of Triumph. Throughout the late 60s , however, competition from Japan and Continental Europe (in the form of Jawa, CZ, Bultaco, and Husqvarna) severely eroded BSA’s market share. By 1972 poor marketing decisions, products no longer aligned to the marketplace, and some failed (but expensive) projects had placed BSA (and Triumph) in dire financial straits. A government bailout which involved the contrived marriage of BSA group with the remains of Associated Motorcycles (which had already failed in 1966) resulted in the Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT) conglomerate. Unfortunately, the hemorraging of cash continued, compounded by management miscalculations, labor strife and more. NVT finally went into receivership in late 1975 and was unltimately liquidated, in its entirity in 1978. Once the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, BSA has now been gone for over 30 years. It remains a favorite marque of restorers and Brit bike enthusiasts who all love the BSA graphic logo which shows 3 stacked rifles, a tribute to its origin as a rifle maker.
H. KTM – Answer 6: Metalworking and Fabrication
Among the Europeans in our little quiz, KTM is a relative newcomer. In 1934 Austrian engineer Hans Trunkenpolz opened the doors to a small metal working shop in Mattighofen, Austria under the business name of Kraftfahrzeuge Trunkenpolz Mattighofen. However, it was 1951 before the firm produced its first motorcycle and it took a couple of years to produce its first 100 bikes. A slow ramp up, to be sure. Substantial change came about in 1955 with a massive investment from Austrian businessman Ernst Kronreif. The company name was changed to Kronreif & Trunkenpolz, Mattighofen but, more importantly, the pace of the action picked up. A series of light sports bikes, as well as scooters and mopeds became the company’s core business and by the 1960s, some 10,000 units had been produced. Knowledgeable American enthusiasts may know that the Penton trials bikes were manufactured, under contract, by KTM and utilized Sachs engines. It was actually not until 1970 that KTM produced its own engines. Throughout the 1980s the firm moved from success to success with off-road and motocross bikes but by the end of the decade things are not going so well. In 1989 founder Hans Trunkenpolz died and two years later the firm filed for bankruptcy. KTM was split into several pieces – tooling, radiators, bicycles, and motorcycles. Just a year later, in 1992, a new entity, KTM Sportsmotorcycle GmbH, emerged. A new business plan also emerged and by 1994, the firm which had specialized in off-road bikes, went into production with a road going model, the Duke. Now on a sound footing once again, the firm aggressively moved forward. Through the 1990s technical advances like linkless suspensions for some of the two stroke bikes emerge, as do new models including the LC4, in both Supermoto and Adventure versions. By 2001 KTM has become a Dakar Rally winner and an international leader in the production of on-off road bikes. A cooperative business agreement with Polaris, intended to share vehicle development and distribution networks came, and went, in 2006-2008. Which leaves us, today, with KTM as a relatively small, but growing, independent force in the motorcycle marketplace with expanded presence in the off-road and on road markets. Signature products like the Adventure series and the RC8 sportbike carry on the heritage of the nearly 80 year old firm that started simply as a metalworking shop.
Tomorrow we’ll finish up with the stories of Laverda and Suzuki. Hope you’ll join us as we complete our motorcycle history quiz.