Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 130,460 pages of information and 207,760 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
Note: This is a sub-section of BSA
1880 The Birmingham Small Arms Company went into bicycle manufacture.
1881 The first bicycle manufactured in any quantity by the Birmingham Small Arms Co was the "Otto" Safety Bicycle. This early type of bicycle had its wheels side-by-side, instead of one wheel behind the other as later became the standard.
When the designer, Edward Carl Fredrich Otto, was negotiating with BSA for the manufacture of the "Otto," being anxious to prove that his machine was correct in design and principle, he demonstrated his invention to the Directors by mounting the machine on the large table, riding it backwards and forwards, showing the method of balancing, and explaining the details of the somewhat complicated system of steering. He then mounted the machine in the Board Room, rode it down the stairs, and so out into the roadway.
This performance evidently satisfied the management, as the manufacture of the machine was then taken over and continued during the years 1880 to 1883. The first contract resulted in a loss to the Company; the second contract was to supply 200 'Ottos' at £13 each, with tyres. In all, a total of 953 machines were manufactured these were retailed by the Otto Bicycle Co, 118 Newgate Street, London, at £21.
In October, 1880, the B.S.A. Company resolved to commence the manufacture of bicycles and tricycles to their own specifications, and the first assortment of these (8 machines) were exhibited at the Stanley Show. One tricycle embodied a free-wheel (Vernum's patent).
In this period the Company made the "Alpha" Ordinary Bicycle; also the "Beta" and "Delta" Tricycles.
In 1881, the manufacture of the "Omnicycle" Tricycle, designed by T. Butler, was taken up by the Company. This machine was a rear-driven three-tracker, propelled by a reciprocal motion.
1881 May. The Company entered into a contract with Nahum Salamon, of 27 Holborn Viaduct (the first cycle trader on “The Viaduct" and trading as the Bicycle and Tricycle Supply Association) to supply 200 Omnicycle Tricycles, the invention of T. Butler of Wokingham. Another rear-driven three-tracker, the "Devon" Tricycle, was manufactured in the following year for Maynard, Harris and Co. This machine possessed the advantage of a swing frame, which enabled the rider to use the whole of his strength whilst in an upright position, and was equipped with a "ground brake".
In 1882 the Company made 200 'Devon' tricycles (F. W. Jones's patent). The Devon was perhaps the first really successful tricycle; it had two big wheels driven by chains actuated from a cross crank-shaft with ratchet and pawl gears on each side — the first example of free-wheel driving — the outer wheel on a curve over-running the drive. A small steering wheel was in front, and a foot operated lever depressed a brake dragging on the surface of the road. James Starley's differential gear supplanted this system of driving. The company also made 65 machines for M. D. Rucker and Co of London, another three-tracker tricycle with rear drive, known as "The Rucker".
In February, 1882, the B.S.A. Co. installed its own plating plant. The same year saw the manufacture of a folding tricycle, the invention of Rev. R. C. Fletcher, of Tarleton, near Preston.
1883 Introduced the B.S.A. Compressible Tricycle, which the Company designed and manufactured in 1883. This was a three-track single driving machine, and by an ingenious adjustable lug the frame could be made to slide, so that the width of the machine was considerably reduced, enabling it to be wheeled through an ordinary doorway. This type, however, did not find much favour with the riding public of that day, and was before long withdrawn.
1884 the B.S.A. Front Steerer, a three-track tricycle with loop frame, and the B.S.A. Two-track Front Steerer were introduced.
In June, 1884, Harry Lawson had visited the B.S.A. factory with two rough models of his chain-driven 'safety' bicycle, but the directors declined his request that they should take up the manufacture of his machines; they agreed, however, to make two specimens to Lawson's order but these, when completed, remained on hand for some months because payment for them was not forthcoming. Arising out of Lawson's delay in taking delivery of his samples, the Company decided to design a 'safety' bicycle in the factory, using tricycle parts wherever possible to save expense. The result was the B.S.A. bicycle the steering reins of which were made from two 'Snider' rifle cleaning-rods! This model was patented on 21st November, 1884, No. 15342. It had 32 inch driving wheel and 20 inch steerer: over 1,500 of these were sold, the price being £9-9s. The steering was very erratic owing to the short wheel-base. This was the first bicycle which could be really regarded as the forerunner of the present safety machine; early in the following year this safety model was put upon the market by the Company.
In May, 1885, the Company took out a license from Thomas Clements to manufacture ball bearings under his patents, and engaged him as draughtsman
The output of B.S.A. safety bicycles and tricycles steadily increased during the next three years, but in 1887 the Government demand for rifles and ammunition was such that the Company temporarily discontinued making bicycles and tricycles; for six years nothing more was done beyond the production of a limited quantity of Kelsey's Duplex Safety Bicycle Crank Axle Bearings.
1893 The Government demand for rifles and ammunition lessened, so the Company once more was able to take up the manufacture of bicycles. George Ilston called at the factory to see his friend Mr. Clements about a billiards match at a social club and noticed that some of the shell-making plant was idle; he urged the management to take up the manufacture of bicycle parts.
Early in 1893 the Company commenced the manufacture of safety bicycle hubs, examples of which were exhibited at the Crystal Palace Show that same year.
In November, 1893, Mr. Ilston joined the company as traveller, selling B.S.A. hubs and other components. The trade price of B.S.A. hubs was 15/- per pair in 1 dozen lots; Brown Brothers, of London, contracted for 2,000 pairs.
1894 The manufacture of bottom brackets, cranks, and chain-wheels was initiated. Pedals were first made in September and ball-heads at about the same time. At the Crystal Palace Show of 1894, B.S.A. exhibited a complete set of B.S.A. Cycle Fittings.
From 1895 improvement followed improvement in the design of B.S.A. bicycle fittings; a narrower chain line was introduced by the B.S.A. Company, and at the same time the length of the B.S.A. crank was increased from 6in. to 6.5 in., both of which developments enabled the rider to apply greater power and attain higher speeds.
In 1896 the Small Heath Works were much extended to enable the Company to better deal with the rapidly growing demand for B.S.A. cycle components which, although they had only been on the market a very short time, had achieved a great reputation for the Company's good and accurate work. The Inspection Department for cycle fittings was organised on the system as used in the manufacture of military small arms, and the careful viewing and testing inaugurated in those early days, and still retained, has been responsible to a great degree in keeping up the very high standards of quality and interchangeability which have made B.S.A. products world-famous.
1896-7 Further improvements included the making of B.S.A. Block Chains, 1/4in. in width, for the manufacture of which a special plant, embodying the latest developments in cycle chain making machinery, had been added to the works. This season also saw the listing for the first time of B.S.A. Frames for ladies' and gents' machines. B.S.A. Handlebars were also manufactured at this time, and the famous B.S.A. Spanners, designed to fit all sizes of B.S.A. nuts, which had been carefully standardized, were first produced.
1898 Standardization was more fully recognised as being expedient and desirable, and the catalogue for 1898 makes mention of the fact that the standard patterns of the previous year would remain practically the same, as no alterations were deemed necessary. A plant for the production of brake-work was installed during 1898, and the B.S.A. Plunger Front Brake was first listed in that year; the brake-shoe being fitted with patent rubber brushes or solid rubber blocks as desired. A malleable iron foundry was added at this time, and also a plant for making steel balls.
In 1899, numerous improvements in detail were made with a view to securing ease of propulsion and the transmission of the maximum amount of power from the rider to the back wheel. To this end a new chain wheel was produced by the B.S.A. Company, with more than twenty teeth (hitherto the maximum); wheels for 0.5 in. pitch roller chains were made 3/16 in. wide, roller chains of the same size were produced, and at the same time the chain wheel was made detachable from the crank.
To ensure greater strength and longer service, the side plates of rat-trap pedals were also fitted with stays. The B.S.A. Cam Chain Adjustment was also introduced in the same year.
1900 saw the introduction of the B.S.A. Free Wheel Clutch and the B.S.A. Back-pedalling Rim Brake, both of which achieved instant popularity. The B.S.A. design for 1900 provided a somewhat longer wheel base on account of the demand for long cranks.
1901 A Front Pull-up Rim Brake was designed and BSA Mudguards and Stays were first made in the same year.
1902 Fittings supplied by the B.S.A. Company included sets for path racer, light roadster, full roadster, and ladies' machines. This year also saw the introduction of the standard pattern Spring Frame which was supplied to the trade complete. The B.S.A. Spring Frame was one of the most successful ever put on the market, and numbers are still in use after years of service. The B.S.A. Free Wheel Hub, made in 1902, was a combined hub and free wheel clutch so arranged that wheels could be built and the spokes easily inserted or removed without dismounting any portion of it. The B.S.A. Free Wheels, which fitted all B.S.A. Hubs, proved, however, the more popular, and the manufacture of the combined hub and free wheel was discontinued.
This year saw the introduction of the practice of slotting B.S.A. Fork Ends to obviate the necessity for springing the forks when removing a wheel. A new set of fittings for path racer machines was also introduced, featuring a sloping top bar, light in weight, and built for speed. It is noteworthy that, during the following years, many famous racing men made some of their finest records on these machines. On the race track both J. S. Benyon and A. E. Wills scored many successes on B.S.A. Bicycles. The first-named was probably the best short distance rider of his day, while the latter rider achieved some remarkable successes in long-distance motor-paced races on the Continent.
Amongst road racing cyclists, two representative B.S.A. riders were T. Peck and C. Moss. T. Peck was the first cyclist to ride from Land's End to John o' Groat's, 8,371 miles, under three days. Many extraordinary rides were accomplished by C. Moss, amongst them being the winning outright of the Bath Road 100 miles Cup, for fastest time three consecutive years, on the third occasion his record being well under 5 hours.
In 1902 the War Office adopted B.S.A. Fittings for Military Bicycles, and the majority of bicycles used by the War Office from that time onward were built of B.S.A. Fittings. No higher compliment could be paid to the Company than this adoption by the War Office of the products of the Cycle Department, after their many years' experience of the absolute reliability of the firm's rifles.
In 1904 the B.S.A. Company manufactured a Rear Rim Brake with Pull-up Lever. Up till then the use of rim brakes had been confined to the front wheel.
1905 A set of fittings for a motor bicycle was designed in 1905.
1907 Acquired Eadie Manufacturing Co
In 1908 it was decided to build complete cycles in the B.S.A. factory  to meet the somewhat altered conditions of trade. In announcing the new policy at the Annual Meeting the Chairman stated "that the Company had decided to widen the policy in regard to the manufacture of complete bicycles". Hitherto only cycle agents were supplied with complete machines bearing an agent's transfer. In view of the somewhat altered conditions of the trade, it was considered advisable to manufacture a complete B.S.A. The machine so offered to the public would be listed at a higher price than that at which bicycles built with B.S.A. Fittings had been sold by local agents and makers. The management believed that this would not only create a greater demand for B.S.A. productions, but that it would have a steadying effect on the cycle trade generally.
Such a policy must tend to place the B.S.A. Fittings on a higher plane, and to a great extent prevent bicycles built with B.S.A. Fittings being sold at ridiculously low prices, showing little or no margin of profit to the retailer. Although the new policy was severely criticised, events have proved that it not only helped the trade generally, but was much appreciated by the public.
1919 Became private company: BSA Cycles Ltd
1944 BSA acquired Ariel Motors (J.S.)
1957 The subsidiary business BSA Bicycles Ltd was sold to Raleigh Industries. The sale appears to have included New Hudson Cycle Co and Sunbeam Cycle Co and Eadie Manufacturing Co as Raleigh appointed directors to all these companies
1961 Manufacturers of ladies', men's and children's cycles
Two earlier patents by the same inventor, Nos. 28892/1897 and 7141/1899, show a similar result achieved by a system of spring-controlled toggles, which allowed the ends of the seat-stays to rise and fall, and the rear end of the top tube to drop without affecting the position of the saddle. These variations were not marketed.
As shown, the machine was made and sold in large numbers by the Birmingham Small Arms Co Ltd., Small Heath, Birmingham, by whom it was first exhibited at the Stanley Show in November, 1900. The action of the springing device is self explanatory, and is plainly revealed by the photograph: hinge joints are inserted in the frame tubes at A, B, C, and D. Within the top tube, at E, and inside both seat-stays at F and G., are strong coil springs, so that as the smaller diameter tube slides within the member of larger diameter the springs are compressed and take up the shocks.
A drawback was that the distance between saddle and handlebar was not constant, but varied as the action of the concealed springs allowed the top-tube to change its length. It will be noted that no attempt is made to intercept vibration from the front wheel of the bicycle.
This identical frame was used by Harry Green when he beat the 50 miles road record in 1906, time 2 hrs. 6 mins. 46 secs., and the London to Brighton and back record, the same year, time 5 hrs. 20 mins. 22 secs. This being the only exhibit in the Collection representing the products of the B.S.A. Co., it must be made the excuse for a very brief reference to that extremely important Company. Without such reference not even an epitome of cycling history could pass the censor.
No. 57. (No image). The actual B.S.A. racing bicycle on which A. E. Wills beat the World's Record for one hour at Munich track, on 17th August, 1908, covering 61 miles 972 yards in one hour. Wills was the first cyclist to ride at a speed of a mile a minute for 60 minutes, and it should be noted that he rode from a standing start. He was paced by M. Bertin, on a high powered motor- bicycle, and used a gear of 14 4— which is still on the machine.
It is also worth noting that the machine still bears the leaden seal which was affixed to the frame the first time it was taken into Germany: when leaving that country Wills omitted to claim a refund of the Customs Deposit. This historic exhibit was presented by A. E. Wills.