Historic Motorcycle Brands
BSA motorcycles were made by the Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited (BSA) that was a major British industrial combine in the first half of the 20th Century. It produced military and sporting firearms, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses and steel and iron products and processes. Motorcycle production began in 1910.
According to the The Motor Cycle magazine of July 1906, BSA began prototype development of motorcycles well before the production BSA 3½hp motorcycle was exhibited at the 1910 Cycle and Motor Show, in London.
Subsequently, the entire BSA production sold out in 1911, 1912 and 1913.
In 1913 BSA undertook to manufacture quick-firing machine guns for the Lewis Automatic Arms Company.
1919 BSA Model E – Classic Motorcycle Museum
During the First World War, the company focussed on arms manufacture and greatly expanded its operations. BSA produced rifles, Lewis guns, shells, bicycles, motorcycles and, through its then-ownership of Daimler, aero engines, aircraft and other vehicles for the War effort, as well as machine tools.
In November 1919 BSA launched a 50-degree, V-twin, Model E, 770cc, side valve (6–7hp) motorcycle for the 1920 season.
The machine had interchangeable valves, total-loss oil system with a mechanical pump and an emergency hand one. Retail price was £130. Other features were an Amal carburettor, chain drive, choice of magneto or Magdyno, seven-plate clutch, three-speed gearbox with kickstarter and new type of cantilever fork.
BSA Cycles Ltd was set up as a subsidiary company in 1919 under Managing Director Charles Hyde to manufacture both bicycles and motorcycles.
As the result of increased post-War demand the Small Heath, Birmingham factory was turned over entirely to motorcycle production.
1921 BSA Type A 770cc – Classic Motor Cycle Archive
The BSA Model F arrived in 1922, introducing a 986cc, overhead-inlet, side-exhaust-valve, V-twin that was good for 25hp. It had a four-speed box, with lower-speed ratios for the sidecar model. After 1936 this model was called G14.
The successive V-twin models were available as solo machines, but were really intended for sidecar operation, including goods transport.
BSA produced its only two-stroke motorcycle design for the 1928 season, the 1.7hp, 175cc, Model A28 with two-speed gearbox. It was produced as the A29 and A30 the following two years and became the A31 with a three-speed gearbox in 1931, the last year of production.
(Yes, we know the post-war BSA ‘Bantam’ was a two-stroke, but it was a German DKW design, handed to BSA as part of War reparation and not a BSA design.)
BSA motorcycles were sold as affordable motorcycles with reasonable performance for the average user. BSA stressed the reliability of their machines, the availability of spares and dealer support.
1929 BSA ‘Sloper’
The motorcycles were a mixture of side-valve and OHV engines, offering different performance for different roles that included hauling sidecars, but the majority were used for commuting.
Machines with higher specifications were available for those who wanted more performance or for competition work.
1935 BSA Blue Star – Classic Motorcycle Archive
In 1938, BSA launched the 250cc, C Series motorcycle range, powered by a side-valve, four-stroke engine that developed 12bhp. It had a three-speed hand-shift transmission, but that changed to a a foot-shift in 1939.
Introduced in 1937, the M20/21 model was a utilitarian bike, powered by a long-stroke, 500cc (later 591cc), side-valve single that produced 13/15hp. It had a four-speed transmission, Magdyno ignition and an Amal carburettor.
Wartime BSA M20s
Although initial deliveries to the British Army had engine durability issues these were resolved and the M20 became its highest-volume wartime bike, with some 126,000 built during Wold War II.
BSA G14 with sidecar and Lewis machine gun – Alf van Beem
BSA’s mass market appeal meant the company could claim ‘one in four is a BSA’ in its advertising.
Initially, BSA motorcycles were not generally seen as racing machines, compared to the likes of Norton. Few were entered in events such as the TT races, although this changed dramatically in the Junior Clubman event, where smaller-engine motorcycles raced over three or four laps around one of the Isle of Man courses.
1949 BSA B31 350cc OHV – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
In 1947 there were only a couple of BSA-mounted riders, but by 1952 BSA was in the majority and in 1956 the makeup was 53 BSA, one Norton and one Velocette.
To improve US sales, in 1954, BSA entered a team of riders in the 200 mile Daytona beach race with a mixture of single cylinder Gold Stars and twin cylinder Shooting Stars. The BSA team riders took first, second, third, fourth, and fifth places with two more riders finishing at 8th and 16th.
1949 BSA A7 – Thruxton
The C-Series and the M20/21 continued after the War and were joined by the A7 twin-cylinder, 495cc, overhead-valve, Star Twin model that produced 26hp. The engine was enlarged slightly in the 1954 Shooting Star to 497cc, with a larger bore and shorter stroke, and put out 30hp.
War reparations saw BSA gifted with DKW’s RT125, 125cc, 4bhp, two-stroke, small motorcycle. BSA re-engineered it with right-hand side gear-shift and released it in late-1948 as the D1 Bantam.
BSA Bantam D1 – Kirc
Successive Bantams continued, through 150cc (5.3bhp) and 175cc (10bhp) upgrades until 1971. The original plunger rear suspension gave way to a swing-arm in 1956.
In 1949 the A10 Golden Flash was released, with a 650cc twin engine that put out 35hp, making it a genuine 100mph bike. The original ‘plunger’ rear suspension gave way to a swing arm in 1954, for improved handling.
1950 BSA Golden Flash 650cc
In 1956 came aluminium alloy brake drums and, in 1958, the 40hp Super Rocket. The final A10 model was the famous 1962 Rocket Gold Star that was combination of the A10 engine in the frame from the single-cylinder Gold Star frame.
BSA continued its expansion, purchasing Triumph motorcycles in 1951. It then acquired Ariel, Sunbeam and New Hudson.
The decision by Lucas in the late 1950s to switch production of motorcycle electrical components from magneto/dynamo systems to alternator/coil systems) forced British motorcycle manufacturers to completely redesign their engines.
1956 BSA DB34 Gold Star – Daytona racer
Triumph and BSA took the opportunity to move from pre-unit and semi-unit construction to full-unit construction: with the engine and gearbox together in an integrated casting.
A new model range was planned around the best features of the A10, but aimed also at the lucrative but competitive USA market. The ‘Star Twins’ were launched in 1962, initially as the 500cc BSA A50 Star that was widely exported to the US and Australia as well as becoming a top seller in the UK in the early 1960s.
It was known as the Royal Star in export markets and Star or Star Twin in the UK. From 1966 it was known as the Royal Star in all markets.
The Royal Star had a relatively small Amal Monobloc carburettor – later Concentric – but in 1964 new 8.5:1 pistons and a new gearbox improved performance.
1963 BSA A10 Super Rocket – M F Hutchins
The machine had a top speed of about 90mph and was relatively free of vibration. Sharing common engine and cycle parts with the larger BSA A65 Star 650 twin, it was an over-engineered machine and proved very robust.
The major fault with the engine design was a plain crankshaft bearing on the timing side which, when worn, would cause a drop in oil pressure. In 1965, BSA addressed the bearing issues with a roller bearing on the drive side, as it had been on the pre-unit engines, with an improved bronze bushing on the timing side.
1962 BSA Rocket Gold Star 650cc – Ron Saunders
The Cyclone was the same basic machine as the Royal Star, but ‘hotted-up’. The A50CC Cyclone Competition built for the USA in 1964 had dual carburettors, higher 10.5:1 engine compression, magneto ignition, larger front brake, two-gallon fuel tank and upswept, open exhaust.
BSA’s B Series was launched in 1967 and continued until 1971, in various on and off road model forms. At one time the BSA ‘B’ was the fastest 250cc British motorcycle.
BSA B44 – TR001
By 1965, competition from Japanese Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki brands and European Jawa/CZ, Bultaco and Husqvarna was rapidly eroding BSA’s market share.
The BSA and Triumph range were no longer market leaders, as mopeds were displacing scooter sales and the trials and scrambles areas were now the preserve of European two-strokes.
Some poor marketing decisions and expensive projects contributed to substantial losses. For example, the development and production investment of the Ariel 3, ultra-stable, three-wheel moped, was not recouped by sales. Furthermore, BSA failed to take seriously the threat that electric-start Japanese motorcycles might completely destroy the market for kick-start motorcycles.
BSA Spitfire – TR001
In 1968, BSA announced many changes to its product line of singles, twins and the new, but delayed, three-cylinder machine named the ‘Rocket Three’ for the 1969 model year. It had a 58bhp, 740cc, air-cooled OHV, unit-construction, with four gears and a conventional chassis and suspension.
The engine had less vibration than the existing 360-degree twins, but had BSA/Triumph released the three-cylinder in 1965, when it was originally scheduled for launch, market perceptions would have been different.
BSA Lightning – Stavros1
Launched in late 1968, the Rocket 3/Trident was eclipsed four weeks later by the Honda CB750. Compared with the British triple, the CB750, in-line four had a five-speed gearbox, overhead camshaft, oil-tight engine, electric start and a disc brake.
BSA concentrated on the more promising USA, and to a lesser extent, Canadian markets. However, despite the adding of modern accessories, for example, turn signals and even differing versions of the A65 twins for home and export sale, the damage had been done and the end was near.
Mike Hailwood raced for BSA at the Daytona 200 in 1970, but without success. Returning in 1971 with 10 triples BSA did win the Daytona 200, with a Rocket 3 racer ridden by Dick Mann.
Reorganisation in 1971 concentrated motorcycle production at Meriden, Triumph’s site. At the same time there were redundancies and asset sales. Barclays Bank arranged financial backing to the tune of Stg£10 million.
Upgrades and service bulletins continued until 1972, but the less service-intensive Japanese bikes had by then flooded the market on both sides of the Atlantic.
1973 BSA B50
The merger with Norton Villers was started in late 1972 and for a brief time a Norton 500 single was built with the B50-based unit-single engine, but few were sold. The BSA unit-single B50’s 500cc engine enjoyed much improvement in the hands of the CCM motorcycle company, allowing the basic BSA design to continue until the mid to late 1970s.
The final BSA 1973 range was just four models: Gold Star 500, 650 Thunderbolt/Lightning and the 750cc Rocket Three.
BSA Thunderbolt – Codes84
A rationalisation plan involved the axing of some brands, large redundancies and consolidation of production at two sites, but this scheme to rescue and combine Norton, BSA and Triumph failed in the face of worker resistance.
Norton’s and BSA’s factories were eventually shut down, while Triumph staggered on to fail four years later.