Flashback To Sopwith-ABC Motorcycle Factory, 1921

Boutique motorcycle brands in the early 20th century made the UK a forge for innovation

The boxer floor.National Motor Museum

It's easy to forget just how much the world owes the British motorcycle industry. An explosion of boutique brands in the early part of the 20th century made the island nation a forge for innovation. We know big names: Vincent, Norton, Triumph, and BSA, but the U.K. has been home to more than 600 different motorcycle marques over the years. Sopwith-ABC was one of the most progressive. Designer Granville Bradshaw was obsessed with building a smooth, comfortable machine, and in 1919 he developed a 398cc bike for Sopwith.

The company was eager to find something to do with its sprawling factory and workforce after its military contracts dried up following the end of World War I. Bradshaw’s motorcycle was revolutionary, featuring a horizontally opposed two-cylinder, over-square engine with a roller bearing crank, cast-iron pistons, and steel cylinders placed transversely in a double-hoop frame. Leaf-spring suspension front and rear, and a four-speed, H-pattern transmission allowed ABC to set a number of records, including the longest distance traveled in an hour: 70.44 miles at Brooklands. But all of Bradshaw’s innovation made for an expensive bike, and ABC built just 2,000 before the factory floor went quiet for good in 1921, two years before BMW produced a remarkably similar machine: the R32.