BSA to the future

bsa rider feature bike

Published on 1 June 2016 by Robert Drane

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Filed under Category: Features

The setting is 1933 in the rural city of Leeds in West Yorkshire, still recovering from the reverberations of the First World War; the hub of the community becomes the local Post Office. Bumbling sidecars deliver packed sacks of letters, while a buzz of murmurs grow steadily louder among the teenage delivery lads. The buzz is about the BSA 249cc solo, their new mode of transport.

In late 1933, 12 BSA 249cc solos were placed into service at Leeds for the start of the motorcycle telegraph delivery service. The 250s spread quickly into London and other major cities and towns. Just five years later, more than 465 BSA 249cc side valve solos had been placed into service for telegram delivery.

This quintessentially British bike has a rich history. Actually originating in Germany, the model was developed in a humble Birmingham factory and produced alongside military firearms. At its peak, BSA was the biggest motorcycle producer in the world, inspiring models from Harley-Davidson and generating production copies all around the world. The original design was available only in a ‘misty green’ shade and sold for a mere £60 including tax. Only the engine remained a distinctively BSA design throughout the models, while the extended telescopic forks, shovel front-mudguard and fishtail silencer were altered to make room for sleeker models.

Jonathan Jones, owner of the 1950s B33 500, spoke to BMF about its history: “It is one among many. They were very solidly engineered and made bikes that hung together well. There was a period when Japanese bikes entered the market where they suffered a reputation as not being particularly reliable by comparison. They made 126,000 bikes for dispatch riders in WWII. They wouldn’t have had that order if they didn’t make bikes that couldn’t ride through deserts and up mountains and so on. The problems came in the ’60s and ’70s when they tried to boost the power of the bikes to keep up with the Japanese bikes. If you squeeze more out of an engine too hard, it’ll just break.”

The last original BSA production line finished in the early 1970s as the company slowly went under due to a large dip in sales and poor company investments, partially due to the purchase of the Triumph motorcycle. The original Birmingham Small Arms Company became a subsidiary of Manganese Bronze, the company which stepped in during a government-organised rescue operation.

bsa bike portraitThe Nene and Welland BSA Owners Club
Looking back over the history of BSA conjures a ripple of nostalgic stories among the Nene and Welland BSA branch, for whom riding is still a timeless pleasure. Thirty years after the last model was released, this group of BSA owners developed from the BSA Owners Fenland branch. “The club was formed because of distance,” says BSA Victory Endura rider, Lindsay Cates. “With old bikes, you don’t want to be riding hundreds of miles to a meet. We still meet up and socialise. Primarily the club was focused around an interest in BSAs. We’re not exclusive, as you can see from the Ariel.

“We have fast bikes and slow bikes, but the common theme is a social club.”

For these bike lovers, the main aim of the club is to socialise and have a hub to discuss all things BSA. “We meet twice a month at a pub in Barnack and ride out most Sundays – weather permitting. We have trips away; France, down to Dijon, with families sometimes. We have daytime riding and evening socialising with 26 or so members. It’s big enough to have little groups within it but small enough for everyone to know everyone.”

Lindsay has had a love for the BSA models in his blood since he was a teenager: “I passed my test on a BSA and my first bike was a BSA. Have I always owned one? No, I’ve had other things called kids and families! Those things get in the way of bikes, but you’d tend to return to it. Older bikes do need a little more keeping together. They are a means of entertainment.”

He points out that “some of us are members of the VMCC, the vintage club, and Matchless club. It’s where the focus of interest lies. If someone has an interest outside of what we do, they belong to another club, and people who want a more social angle to club membership than a purely restoration club, we’re there. Also, we offer a certain knowledge base about models.”

The BMF were intrigued to know how a club can still be appealing to such a wide group of ages and bikes, from 17-year-olds on a Ninja to BSA veterans, but he is quick to affirm that “to function properly, you need a mix of characters to add diversity, but you have to have the same underlying interest or there’s no focus. You need a loose enough structure that doesn’t have one dominant character… It’s not so much about rules per se, but just having a way to do things – roles not rules. You have to have a focus. If you’re just a pseudo drinking club that doesn’t work – it has no heart.”

For the majority of their members, the love for BSA unites them and reaches right back to their youth where the smell of oil and the pleasure of rebuilding their bikes left a long-lasting effect. After their families had grown up and left the nest, the hunger to return to their previous passions has finally become all too tempting. As Geoff chips in: “Nostalgia is powerful.”

Geoff Wyldes remembers...
We also spoke to long-time Francis Barnet owner Geoff Wyldes, who has been a member of the BSA Nene and Welland group for three years now: “I bought a Francis Barnet back then when it wasn’t on the road and it still isn’t on the road. When I was a teenager I had a Francis Barnet, but ended up with an Ariel Arrow.”

Due to a career in the motor industry, Geoff had access to cheaper cars and has only had the chance to revisit his passion for bikes recently. “I didn’t ride again until I retired three years ago. When I retired I wanted something to do to occupy my time and thought, what am I going to do now? So I got a bike.” This hobby quickly expanded: “Now I have four: a BSA C12, a Triumph Tiger 90, a BMW RS5, a Kawasaki 454 – in bits. The rest are all restored. I’ve stripped them down and repainted them. The engines ran, but I stripped them right back to the frame and cleaned them.”

When he owned the original Ariel Arrow model, Geoff was just 16 and enjoyed the sense of freedom it provided: “I was young and just decided to go wherever. Wherever and whenever I wanted to go, I just used to go.”

Interestingly, the replica bike that Geoff hunted down at an auction is probably more valuable than his original model. “There’s not too many [of the bike model] around,” he tells us. “The one I’ve got now is probably rarer than the one I used to ride in the ’60s because they didn’t make many of the one with the small engine, which is only a 200cc, and the original one I had was a 250, which they made a lot more of.”

Though his 200cc engine isn’t economical for long bike rides, Geoff still recaptures that feeling of freedom and going out wherever, whenever, on his larger models: “We go out for rides most Sunday mornings. We all go back to our youth, more or less. You look back to your youth [and] the things you did then.”

The common theme of the people here seems to be not the quiet retirement envisioned by many, but rather recapturing that youthful feeling of having leisure time to spend with your motorcycle.

bsa riders

Nene and Welland BSA Owners Group riders

Jeff Buck remembers...
Jeff Buck has always been a dedicated BSA owner since passing his test in 1952. He recalls his first BSA experience, riding military bikes just after the war: “You want to chat about the war? Which one? The Boer War? I’m not that old, I’m only 78!” he jokes. “I rode BSAs in the Army. I worked my way into riding them in the Army because it was a good job. I rode from Portishead in Bristol to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, and I rode the M20. I had three years in the Army, and then went into a motorbike and sidecar because I had a young family. Ten years ago, I got back into it. It was always going to be a BSA for me. I’m just about to buy a replica of a bike I owned in 1960.

“I’ve had BSAs pretty much my whole life. I’ve had the odd Triumph, but mainly BSAs. It’s always a British bike anyway. British bikes are easy to work on. Foreign bikes tend to be so complicated and they weren’t very good – they are now, but in the early days they weren’t anywhere near as good as the British bikes, but I am a bit biased!”

Having recently acquired a BSA Goldflash sidecar, the same exact model he used to ferry his young family around, Jeff often finds himself reminiscing about time spent on the bike: “I started courting my wife when I was 16, we got married when I was 19 and with a young family we wanted more than a solo motorcycle, so in the early days it was sidecars. It just brings memories back. In the late ’50s, I used to take my wife and two oldest daughters about in it. There’s a lot of memories attached to it. My two oldest daughters had forgotten all about it and when they saw it they said: ‘Oh we remember, we went to so-and-so…’ so it’s good from that point of view.”

Finding his Goldflash sidecar was a lucky accident: “I’d been looking out for Goldflash for quite some time when this one came up, but it was just a solo. I told the seller that my ultimate aim was to put a sidecar on it and he said he had a sidecar that goes with it! A lot of people think sidecars are the same as a solo, but they’re difficult to get used to in the early days. I think he thought he’d make a better sale as a solo.”

Despite his usual hobby of fixing up BSAs over the winter to be ridden then sold in summer and autumn, Jeff has a particular attachment to the Goldflash. “This one I will not sell. I shall keep this one. It’s special because it brings back memories.”