BSA tales from the internet (Oct 2021)

It’s not often that I get emails from people wanting to tell their story about the BSA Ariel 3, but I have been fortunate enough in the last couple of months to have two such encounters. One was secondhand knowledge the other firsthand on the ground knowledge. I will try to convey what I heard and what I have learnt in this post to the best of my abilities about the later.

Let me say straight away before I dive into what was said on the telephone, that these are views and opinions. In many cases, they seem to concur with other written documentation (be that right or wrong) and in some cases extend knowledge, but I am unable to corroborate some details. So for now they are stated as given, and readers may wish to do their own research or investigations. I would ask that readers don’t wiggle fingers at me for I am but the transcribe in many cases of what was said.

Mr. William Chapman of Birmingham, emailed me in late October 2021

My name is William Chapman. In 1970 I was the Chief Production Engineer at BSA Motorcycles during the launch of the Arial 3 motorcycle fiasco.

Although you have information regarding the launch, I have additional information which could help with understanding the reason for the failure.

If you would like to discuss the additional information, I have then please contact me and I will be happy to discuss this with you.


William Chapman

Never one to pass up an opportunity to learn more I did indeed speak to William later that same week.

First let me tell you a little about William before we dive into the specifics of the BSA Aerial 3;

William started a 5 year apprenticeship with ‘BSA tool making’ at the age of 16 (1946), by the age of 17 William had bought his first motorbike (A BSA B34 250cc machine reg number AKT 671 and kept this for the next for 30 years).

Here is an example of said bike:

A bit of National Service followed the culmination of William’s apprenticeship, after which he then spent another 5 years working for Austin (including a spell in Scotland setting up factories to build vehicles). William then returned to ‘BSA Motorcycles’ as Chief Methods Engineer, bringing with him the knowledge built up whilst working for Austin. This continued for several years, with William moving up his career path including some good years with another company called Weston Hydraulic.

Around 1967/68 William was called and asked to return to BSA as the new Chief Production Engineer, where he would encounter the BSA Ariel 3 whilst setting up the production line for this moped. Needless to say, the story below paints a picture of what happened.

Greg Pollen in his book (BSA The Complete Story. 1981).

Talks about Harry Sturgeon who was appointed head of the Automotive Division (1964) and was driving for the merger of Triumph and BSA at the time (to challenge the Japanese bikes coming into the US and European markets at the time). Greg continues (on page 138) to say that Harry was:

Liked and his discussions respected, but a brain tumor ended his career and ultimately his life.

William recounted this to me confirming that Harry was the right man in the right job at the time it was a sad loss.

Harry’s replacement in 1966 has become folklore for many as the reason for BSA failure Lionel Jofeh, who came from the aircraft industry. William also recounts the period as a time of stagnation and poor decisions from above. (Indeed, from my recent readings on the BSA history it would appear stagnation and poor management was ingrained well before the ultimate failure of BSA around the start of the 1970’s).

At that time within BSA and much of British manufacturing there was a clear culture divide between management and workers. Greg Pollen states (on page 90) that:

A key characteristic of BSA’s Directors … was their lack of knowledge of engineering, let alone the company’s core motorcycle and gun business. There was preference in British’s industry, including BSA, for managers and directors with wide general experience: “Good Chaps” with the right education and background who were socially at ease in the boardroom. A grasp of law and accountancy was believed to be more important than the relevant technologies, let alone a proven track record in the management of large manufacturing companies.

Stories of Lionel Jofeh are aplenty, such as him never visited a motorbike showroom, complaining people didn’t wear the right clothes in the managers dining room and insisting that no one ever disagreed with him.

In Joe Heaton’s Thesis (Page 100)

…Soon after his arrival in 1967, Lionel Jofeh, the new MD of the Motorcycle Division, persuaded the Group Board to invest more in motorcycle R&D and to establish a combined engineering and research/ development organisation, called the Group Engineering Centre (BSAGN, June 1967), to which the BSA and Triumph motorcycle design teams at Small Heath and Meriden would be transferred. The first Director was Michael Nedham, who came from the Small Engine Division of Rolls Royce Ltd. Most of the new technical staff recruited to form the research and development arm of the Centre came from the aircraft industry in the belief that a good engineer could adapt to different products. The Centre ultimately employed 300 people and the operating cost of the new organisation was around £1.5m per annum. Although the design department brought the BSA and Triumph motorcycle design teams together, the chosen location separated them from their production and assembly departments. Whilst Umberslade Hall was grandly termed the ‘Group Engineering Centre’ it was effectively under the control of Lionel Jofeh and was primarily seen as a technical resource for the motorcycle division only.

Joe continues:

The ill-fated Centre was product orientated and did not address the motorcycle division’s need for advanced production engineering processes and techniques, at a time that BSA’s Japanese competitors were investing heavily into improved production technology and systems. Neither did the Centre involve BSA’s Tools Division that had its own machine tool development department.

1967 was an important year for the Ariel 3, George Wallis had designed this three wheeled, pivot in the middle bike. BSA had taken up the design and manufacturing rights and then set about a full-on redesign!

The most important part of the conversation William presented to me on the phone was around this design George Wallis had. In essence a “Low Speed High Stability vehicle”, where the rear wheels remained on the ground, but the front wheel leaned, like a two wheeled bike. William recounted all that was needed was a motor to do the pedaling for the rider. BSA marketed this as “ideal for the commuter and shopping housewife although it should excel as a runabout for the entire family”.

What one must remember is the BSA mentality BSA is a motorbike manufacturing company not a moped maker (unlike established models like Lambretta’s and Vespa’s or the Honda Cub). Indeed, BSA took the design and bought the manufacturing rights, believing this was a winning model to get into the Moped Market.

Dave Myers (a draftsman from Umberslade Hall in 1967) in a letter to Classic Bike magazine:

You mentioned the Ariel 3 – ‘Here it is whatever it is’ – the tubular framed prototype was at Umberslade, and was great fun to drive, but in BSA /Triumph’s hands it showed how wrong they could be. Surely it was an act of desperation ‘It might just work…’ The design was conducted in the next office to the one that I worked in, and I found the cardboard and tinfoil prototype in the same room as I’d seen the prototype Rocket 3. We all went to see it, and it was nicknamed the ‘Bearcycle’ (something that a bear might be seen to ride, in a circus) or more simply the ‘Farcycle’: no explanation necessary. I found drawings of decals for it which said, ‘Triumph Trixie’, yes, really. In all its stages it was a calamity, and its first wheels would not have supported a child’s wheelbarrow. The axle casting must have been redesigned ten times before it did what it needed to do, and the prototype handmade pressed steel frames (beautifully made), endured endless change. The company notice board had ‘Where is it, whatever it was’ written on it, quite briefly.

George Wallis was disheartened with designers at Umberslade Hall who didn’t listen to anything he said and BSA was headlong in essence redesigning his low-speed vehicle, into a full on Moped capable of 30mph. If anything, the exact opposite of Wallis’s original design. It was now High-Speed Low Stability! Indeed, Wallis has said it would suffer from instability at high speed.

Iceni CAM Magazine paints more detail into George’s efforts to fix BSA’s designs

When the first prototypes were shipped to Wallis’s company for assessment, they were particularly unimpressed by errors in the geometry, which required rectification, and made many trips to Birmingham to correct some of the issues.

Powerful marketing research was presented that stated that by year 3, BSA would be selling 50,000 units. On that “research” BSA dived head long into setting up production for these numbers, and here is where William slots into the story.

By now William had returned to BSA as the Chief Production Engineer as such was setting up the production line, working under Alister Cave the then BSA Works Manager.

Some issues with performance of the original engine facilitated it being substituted for a Laura M48 from Anker in Holland, but constant requests to increase the power using higher compression and port polishing resulted in a more powerful but less reliable engine, to which BSA didn’t seem to care.

William recounted to me also about the rear subframe lacking strength, this concurs with the story from Dave Myers, and maybe the reason why we see two types of rear subframes on the bikes, some having a steel plate across the back under the torsion bar support and others without? I imagine there were many incarnations of the subframes and pivots that never saw the light of day.

According to William the Instruction was given to do 5000* bikes to start with and build up to the market research numbers of 50,000 a year.

* I note at this point that the numbers tend to change from 2000 up to 7000 in the first year depending upon the source of information, either way it appears several thousand were originally built and this became the total number constructed, irrespective of the vin number tag.

William’s opinion on the market research was that it was flawed and at the time his concerns were not listened to (common complaint of BSA staff), it would appear this so called “strong market research” had not considered the Honda C50 or the likes of the Rayleigh Wisp, one might think BSA assumed it would conquer the Market fully?

William related to me that on one occasion he did achieve an audience with Lionel Jofeh (after having been blocked beforehand) and expressed his concerns on the numbers in the market research and ultimately request to manufacture accordingly and was told

“It will Sell like hula hoops, or we will fall flat on our faces”.

William also believes that designs were going from design office to production with no official signatory by then, with things out of control, such was the belief in its success.

Reading Bert Hopwood’s book “Whatever happened to the British Motorcycle Industry” 1981, one can see this sort of thing happening all the time at BSA, deadlines were short, and production was in full swing before designs were finished. Interestingly Bert says almost word for word what William recounts above, in reference to several earlier scooter designs including the Triumph Tina, so history shows BSA didn’t learn from those mistakes.

William changed tack at this point to explain about building bikes from a tooling perspective, telling me that bike designs traditionally lasted longer than a car design, maybe the frame design would last for 10 or more years with minor changes etc. (unlike a car that might change on a 2-to-3-year basis). The primary cost was all in the design of the tooling for the frame build.

William stated that BSA had little experience in press tooling (and with the changes Dave Myers talks about in the frame design)

…and the prototype handmade pressed steel frames (beautifully made), endured endless change.

costs must have spiraled out of control and endless reworks undertaken as new designs were sent to production.

Dave Myres makes the point in his letter:

Do not blame Umberslade: make no mistake, it had some excellent people, but the management was abysmal, and there was only one way that the company could go – and it did

So there that’s the story William recounted to me, with some additional (well a lot) or research on places and times spoken of. At 91 years of age William was full of life and just as interested today as he must have been at the time of the Air 3 build and launch. Indeed, he would like to see an electric Air 3 following the original design brief “Low Speed High Stability vehicle” and this would have fulfilled George Wallis first design, limited to 12mph (think mobility scooter)

One last ditty, not so much on the failing of BSA in the design and build, more the marketing to sell the bikes. William recounts of the post office being approached with an eye to replace the push bike with Air 3 as an ideal vehicle. Unlike a pushbike or indeed the BSA Bantam’s and Dandy’s already in use by the post office, one could just step off and leave the bike stood upright. Demos were given to the post office, but history will already have informed you this didn’t sell to that market. Mainly one would think as the telegram was dying out as a communication method?

One small snippet of laughable consideration was a comment made by the post office that the brakes were too sharp, and BSA suggested just removing one of the shoes in the front drum as a solution!

BSA would try to give away bikes at venues like the London Palladium, however William chuckled when he told me winners would often just ask of the cash instead and not take the bikes.

So much for 50,000 a year, a Hulu hoop its wasn’t.

William also sent me a picture of himself with his shopper bike and trolley using the tilt (via some bungees) to keep the shopping safe and steady. Great bit of ingenuity using what he has and the knowledge of the Air 3.