In 1969 BSA commanded 80% of all the Brit bikes sold here in the USA. Eighty Percent! Who woulda thunk? I, and I think most of us, would have pegged Triumph as the leader but not so say the statistics. What was it about BSA that made it that strong a seller in a time when the Japanese manufacturers were dominating the market? Was it styling? No. Was it performance? No. Was it reliability? Certainly not. So what was it?
Let’s find a bit of perspective here. BSA may have had 80% of the British bike sales here in the states but ‘Made in England’ motorcycles constituted a very small percentage of the total bikes sold here. So small that within a decade, they were all gone from the US market.
From the late 1950’s through the mid 60’s, the British were competing with the very popular Harley Davidson Sportster in the performance category. The Sportster was Harley’s ‘sportbike’, it had a slight horsepower advantage, it had a new look (the peanut tank was quite stylish then), it had the Harley sound and, of course, it had the advantage of being made in the USA. BSA, Triumph and Norton all were better handling motorcycles but back then, straight line speed was king, not the ability to go around corners fast.
Each of the big three from the UK tried styling mods to attract the American market, Triumph with the X75 Hurricane, Norton tried (and miserably failed) with their Hi-Rider chopper model and BSA tried with…well, nothing. Sure, BSA tried a few styling changes like a smaller slimmer tank, the oil in the frame design (which nobody was really happy about), and of course the ray-gun mufflers of the Rocket 3. Personally, I love the ray-gun mufflers but at the time they went over like a fart in church. Anyway, the Brits just faded away into the sunset. Today, Triumph is back in a big way and Norton is getting set to comeback this year with a new Commando and it is beautiful. I hope it succeeds.
I started my street bike life aboard a BSA so the brand has a certain spot in my heart that will never go away. Yes, it stranded me more than once with faulty electric’s, and yes, it leaked more oil in a month than any Japanese bike I’ve ever owned did in a lifetime. It could be a bit (?) temperamental when it came to starting in the morning (or when it was hot and the bike didn’t feel like going anywhere), and it could vibrate the fillings out of my teeth if the carbs weren’t balanced properly, but…when everything was working as it was supposed to, what a joy it was to ride that Beezer. I was raised to ride the canyon roads, to believe in handling over horsepower, and the sound coming from a parallel twin was the sweetest sound in motorcycling.
At one point in time (actually a couple of times) the Japanese manufactures realized that there was something about the British bikes that still captivated the American buyer. Yamaha did great with the XS650, designed to compete with the Triumph, Kawasaki brought out the W650 to head to head with the BSA and Honda tried with the GB500 single. The only one that succeeded over the long run was the Yamaha. Today, the Triumph Bonneville is a huge success because it looks like a proper English motorbike without the oil puddle underneath it.
Lately I have been thinning the herd of bikes in my barn and am starting to look for a new adventure…once I have finished the other four projects I have going, and am being drawn towards a BSA 650. I’m actually looking for one of the last designs more than the old chrome tank styles, mainly because I think they are probably going to be cheaper on the market(?). Today on ebay I found one that might just fit the bill.
On ebay today, there is a 1969 BSA A65 that has been set up for vintage roadracing. Remember, the A65 was BSA’s ‘roadracer for the street’. The A65 put out a very respectable 54HP and would top out at around 105MPH. This particular bike has been upgraded with Marzocchi forks, more modern rear shocks, and a Suzuki twin leading shoe front brake, which was a very good upgrade from the standard brake the BSA had at the time. The motor has been given some extra muscle by way of a 750cc kit But, here is the cool thing about this bike, it can easily be retrofitted with the electric’s to power a headlight, tail light and blinkers so you have a perfect cafe racer with almost no effort! The seller says that it does need some carb work but that’s no big deal. This could be a very sweet Sunday rider. Oh yeah, you may want to add some sort of small mufflers on, JC Whitney has a couple of styles that would look just fine and still let you have that sweet English parallel Twin sound.
Click on the pics below for more pictures and more info.