The Norton-Villiers-Triumph Motorcycle Factory in the USSR

It’s July 1974, and Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) is fighting for its life. This last chance saloon has been set up out of what was left of the British motorcycle industry – the mighty BSA has collapsed, Triumph’s Meriden factory is slated for closure and Norton, with the Commando’s glory years behind it, is desperate for new capital. The British Government agrees to put some money in to save the industry, but only if these disparate parts merge under the leadership of Dennis Poore, boss of Norton.

Oh the ignomy! Great rivals become bedfellows through sheer hubris, as the British Empire collapsed, along with its mindset of natural superiority, as those it looked down upon flourished, and overwhelmed their industry. Triumph survived only because a wealthy property developer had no attachment to history, and transformed the brand with ‘Japanese’ production and design methodology. Norton, the saddest case of all, is dragged through the mud by a charlatan and fraud, and appears doomed. [Michael Jackson / NVT]
Maybe it was a bit much to expect these erstwhile rivals to make a go of it and herald a new dawn for British bikes. Certainly the hurdles to success were huge. Triumph, Norton and BSA all suffered from building outdated bikes and lacked the capital to invest in new ones. There was mistrust between the players, even between BSA and Triumph, which had been part of the same company since 1951. Workers at Meriden refused to lie down and take their redundancy payments. Strikes, blockades, management indecision and lukewarm Government backing followed…a complicated situation got ever more messy…and so it went on.

Women workers at the Meriden Triumph factory hold a funeral for the brand on Sep 14, 1973, after Dennis Poore announced to the factory workers that the shop would be closed, and Triumph production moved to the BSA plant in Birmingham. The workers immediately staged a sit-in, and blockaded the factory for 18 months while working out a plan with the UK government to keep the brand alive in Meriden. The Triumph Engineering Co, or Meriden Co-op, was born, and production continued, but without enough investment for development. [Today In Motorcycle History]
However, in 1974, NVT thought it had a long-term answer to survival, not in expanding production at home, but extending it abroad. NVT’s Director of Overseas Planning Peter Deverall wrote a report assessing the chances of setting up production in four countries. The idea was that any or all of them offered lower manufacturing costs than Britain and thus a better return on investment. They were Iraq (known as Project D50 inside NVT), Poland (D52), Yugoslavia (D53) and most intriguingly of all (D51) the USSR.

War & Peace

By this time of course, the Soviet Union was a major manufacturer of bikes, with a long history stretching back pre-revolutionary Russia. A few two- and three-wheelers were imported by individuals in Tsarist times, and in 1913 a project got underway to build a lightweight bike in Moscow though the outbreak of a revolution put a stop to that.

Motorcycling in Russia, and the Soviet Union, goes way back. Here’s a group of Moscow riders in 1932 on a variety of machines. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Fast forward a decade or so. The Tsar has been executed and the Bolshevik regime is consolidating power, having won a civil war and beaten off foreign forces trying to undermine the revolution. In Moscow, a group of engineers launches the Soyuz, the USSR’s first motorcycle, a 500cc four-stroke saddle-tank single with three-speed hand change gearbox. Production lasts less than a year, but the early 1930s would see mass production of the Izh-7, a 300cc two-stroke influenced by DKW, the British influenced AM600 side-valve single and the A750 V-twin. All three were taken up by the Soviet military as despatch bikes, while the future archetypal Russian military motorcycles were already waiting in the wings.

A wild mix inspired by the BMW R11 pressed-steel chassis and Harley-Davidson WL motor, the PMZ A-750, the first Soviet military motorcycle, designed by Pyotr Mozharov, and built in Podolsk. The first prototypes appeared in 1933, and production started in 1934. [Vintagent Archive]
There’s a piece of folklore which goes that as the German armies swept across Russia in 1941, they were amazed to be met by Soviet troops mounted on flat-twins which looked uncannily like BMW’s R71 side-valve flat-twin. Now the official Ural factory line was that civilian R71s were smuggled through Scandinavia in 1940 and rapidly put into production to meet the looming threat of a Nazi invasion. It’s possible, but the consensus now seems to be that the R71 transfer wasn’t quite that undercover. The Nazi/Soviet Pact of August 1939 (which in the event just bought the Soviets a couple of years before Hitler invaded) soon led to an economic agreement – Russian raw materials in exchange for German technology, which probably included a licence to build the R71. Certainly the M72 – the Russian military version of the BMW – soon became an integral part of the Red Army, leading to the M73 with sidecar wheel drive.

The foundation of a very long production series, the Izh (Ural) M-72, a clone of the BMW R71. The M-72 was built from 1942 through the mid-1950s in exactly this form, although many versions of this machine were developed, with different engine capacities, overhead-valve and even supercharged engines, and later, a swingarm chassis, etc. Over 3 Million Urals have been built. [Irbit Motorcycle Museum]
These, along with the DKW-based two-strokes, 600 single and 750 V-twin were mostly built east of the Urals, part of the rapid evacuation of industry eastwards so that it could keep churning out materiel even as the Nazis advanced through western Russia. Flat-twin production was swiftly set up in Irbit, where Urals are built to this day, and nearly 10,000 were made during the war. That sounds a lot, but it’s worth remembering that the Red Army actually used many more Harleys and Indians shipped in from the USA, not to mention Ariel, Norton, Matchless, BSA and even Velocette singles.

Postwar Soviet endurance races were conducted with all manner of motorcycles: these are Izh 50 two-stroke singles based on the DKW RT175 pattern, being prepared for a dirt-road context in the early 1950s. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The war devastated parts of the Soviet Union, but the Soviet-occupied zone in Germany included the DKW factory, the largest in the world just before the war, and motorcycle production picked up from the late 1940s and early ’50s. In fact, a whole range of bikes (as well as scooters, mopeds and autocycles) were built in factories scattered across the USSR, each one specialising in one type. So 125cc two-strokes came out of the Minsk plant, 125/175s from Kovrov and 350cc singles from Izhevsk – all of these were two-strokes, basic utility machines which reflected the Soviet priority for cheap transport rather than consumer frivolities.

Soviet racing also included a series just for women! It was documented by only one Western journalist – Anke Eve Goldman – who corresponded regularly with the competitors. Read the story here. [Vintagent Archive]
As for the flat-twins, these were still built in Kiev as well as Irbit, with bikes finally released to the civilian market from 1954. In 1957 the M72 was replaced by the overhead valve M52 and the old side-valve tooling was shipped off to China, where Chang Jiang restarted production, and kept it up for decades. As late as the 1990s these were being offered brand new in the UK for (if memory serves correct) about £2500. They were certainly cheap, but I think the warranty covered parts only, which owners were expected to fit themselves!

The 1948 M35-K racer that (remarkably) won Best in Show at the Concorso di Motociclette Villa d’Este in 2013. It was developed from the BMW R71 clone in production during WW2, but with a 350cc capacity and overhead-valve cylinder heads. [Concorso Villa d’Este]
Meanwhile, the Ural plant carried on making ohv flat-twins as 500s, 650s and 750s, and as late as the 1980s there were even plans to expand production to 200,000 a year. Then came Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rapid privatisation of most state enterprises. Ural was bought up by a group of US-based Russian-born entrepreneurs, and the bike was transformed (for the West) into an upmarket curiosity, with German / Japanese electrics and a much higher price. It’s still with us.

Socialist Realism

Soviet bikes might have started off as basic transport, but the regime actually encouraged motorcycle sport, this being seen as a means of motivating the masses at home and winning prestige abroad. Speedway was very popular in the the USSR, with a successful national team, as was its offshooot of ice racing. Unlike speedway, the latter used spiked tyres and the same riding techniques as road racing, though if you came off, the flying spikes would have proved a hazard… Then there was ski racing, with skiers towed behind the bikes on snow – I can’t decide who was braver, the riders or the skiers. Motocross was popular (mud in summer, snow in winter) while the Soviet motoball team often won the European Championship. There was road racing too of course, and modified (even supercharged) versions of the BMW clones were raced, and in the mid-1960s one Soviet factory (Vostok) even developed its own 350 and 500cc DOHC four-cylinder racers, though their only podium place was a third at the 1965 East German GP.

The first experiments with OHV cylinder heads on the M-72 platform began in the early 1940s, and this 1949 prototype looks much like production Urals of the 1980s and ’90s. [Vintagent Archive]
Socially too, motorcycles were part of everyday life. Colin Turbett’s book (‘Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR’) contains lots of family photographs in which Soviet-made bikes feature as props. They weren’t necessarily the focus of the picture, but suggested that with such a prized possession, the family had arrived. Picnics, parades, the Wall of Death, Moscow State Circus, the art of socialist realism – motorcycles feature in all them. You might get three generations grouped around the family bike, or an optimistic young couple or a group of lantern-jawed men out picking flowers for their wives. And there was at least one Eastern Bloc motorcycle movie, Dangerous Curves (1959), a comedy which saw a woman mistaken for her motorcycle racing sister.

The British are Coming

So, back to circa 1974 and Norton Villiers Triumph, then surviving on its ageing pushrod twins and triples. It desperately needed a new generation of bikes to survive, but was just as desperately short of money to put them into production. Veteran industry designer Bert Hopwood had come up with what he called a modular range of singles, twins, triples, fours and even a V-5, but these would need about £20 million to put into production. Norton had its Challenge water-cooled 750 twin in development, but again that needed money to move forward.

The Triumph Quadrant engine: effectively two Tiger 100 motors, inheriting all the complication involved in keeping them oil-tight. [VMCC Archive]
In these straitened circumstances – so different from the lavish spending on Daytona race teams and the Umberslade Hall R&D centre just a few years earlier – there was an atmosphere of making the best of what was available. This was especially true of the new (modestly sized) engineering centre at Kitts Green, where Doug Hele and his team had managed to come up with a four-cylinder prototype. Mike Jackson, Sales Director at Norton, takes up the story: “It was a sort of homework project. In spare moments they had converted a T150 into a four cylinder by adding an extra cylinder. Dennis Poore was shown it and must have liked it because he didn’t say they’d been wasting their time.” This was the Quadrant, a 987cc four which was said to have clocked 125mph in speed tests. Could it be true, a British four to beat the Japanese?

Factory testers found the Quadrant fast, but everyone knew there would be trouble keeping them fast. [VMCC Archive]
Unfortunately, the Quadrant was still an elderly pushrod engine, just like the triple it grew out of, and like that it would be complicated and expensive to make, with lots of mating surfaces needing machining for oil tightness. If it had got as far as a production line, the Quadrant would probably have been more expensive than the Japanese opposition and within a few years, slower into the bargain. However, there were those within the company who clearly thought that the big torquey four could form the basis of a production plant in the USSR. NVT’s original planning document – now held at the Vintage Motorcycle Club library – details the thinking behind it. Some of it made a virtue of necessity. Air cooling? “Readily adaptable to wide variations of climate.” Pushrods? “Shorter engine…better cooling…easier maintenance…” And so it went on.

Another view of the Quadrant prototype, which is now on display in the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. [VMCC Archive]
Actually, the Russian Quadrant would have seen some changes, such as metric threads and electronic ignition. With 1970s USSR in mind, the motor was in a very mild state of tune, with a low 8.5:1 compression to cope with 86 octane fuel and a single carburetor, offering 65bhp at 7000rpm. The three-cylinder Trident’s 5-speed gearbox and diaphragm clutch were retained, while the document promised that Isolastic rubber mounts – the Commando system – would feature as well. There was a no-nonsense steel backbone frame and full enclosure for the final drive chain – perhaps a generation of Soviet mechanics brought up on shaft-drive Urals wouldn’t have been so hot on chain maintenance.

There was another change from the original Quadrant prototype. By the 1970s, sidecars were an eccentric sideline in the West, but in Russia they were still part of everyday transport. So the Russian Quadrant would be offered in sidecar form, not with the chair simply bolted onto a solo, but with its own integrated three-wheel chassis, car-type wheels and the choice of passenger or load-carrying space.

Factory concept drawings byNVT stylist Mick Ofield, for a Soviet-built Quadrant sidecar unit, as a one-piece utility machine for families and work. [VMCC Archive]
Finally, NVT envisaged that the Quadrant would be made in unprecedented numbers, with 2500 bikes being churned out of the new factory every week. Just for comparison the Trident had averaged less than 100 a week over its seven-year life… That meant the Russians would need to turn out 100,000 individual parts and 200,000 pressings each week. In the Soviet way the plant would make most of these inhouse, thanks to its own forge and aluminium foundry, not to mention countless presses, pipe benders, milling machines, heat treatments…NVT’s document detailed them all. It was virtually a blueprint for a complete factory complex, and someone at NVT put in an awful lot of work.

The Aftermath

Alas, the Russian Quadrant never happened, and we don’t know why. The document may never even have made it over the Iron Curtain – who knows. Of NVT’s overseas schemes, that for an Iraqi factory scheme seems to have got furthest, envisaging a BSA B50-based bike, but that too faded away. As for the original Quadrant, when NVT was being closed down, Mike Jackson was tasked with selling off the various prototypes, and offered the four to Doug Hele (by then working for outboard manufacturer British Seagull) since it had been his baby. He didn’t want it, and in the end it was sold to Roy Richardson, then in the process of planning the National Motorcycle Museum. It’s still there, and whenever I see it, I can’t help but think of the Soviet motorcycle which might have been…

Sources: Apart from the NVT document, Colin Turbett’s ‘Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR’ was an invaluable source of information. Published by Veloce Books, it covers USSR bikes from the 1930s up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, including sections on sport, military bikes and UK imports. (www.velocebooks.co.uk). Also ‘Norton Villiers Triumph’ by Brad Jones covers another neglected part of bike history (www.bsa1971.com). Finally, it’s long out of print, but ‘Military Motorcycles’ by David Ansell has loads of information, if you can find a copy online.

 

Peter Henshaw is a writer in England.  His book, ‘Royal Enfield Bullet: The Complete Story’ will be published by Crowood Press shortly.
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