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Vintage Motorcycles: BSA 'Birmingham Small Arms'



Vintage BSA Motorcycle

Birmingham Small Arms Company History


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The Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd., known popularly by its acronym BSA, started as a weapons manufacturer in 1861 (Birmingham Small Arms and Metal Co. Ltd.), but went on to become one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, known colloquially as a "Beeza."



BSA's first flirtation with the bicycle industry began in 1881, with the invention of the "Dicycle" which had two large, identically-sized (side-by-side) wheels that were placed on either side of the rider. The Dicycle was also known as the "Otto dicycle," named after its creator E.C.F. Otto. Bicycle and dicycle manufacturing by BSA was short-lived, and by the late 1880s the company discontinued their bicycle production alltogether.



1921 BSA Model H
1921 BSA Model H

Motorcycle production at BSA began around 1906, at their factory on Armoury Road in Small Heath, Birmingham UK. Early BSA models used engines manufactured by outside suppliers. The first BSA motorcycle built entirely in-house came in 1910, using a 498cc 3 1/2 horsepower single. It was around this time that BSA began its signature forest-green livery with gold pinstriping.



BSA W32-7 Blue Star
1932 BSA W32-7 Blue Star

The company also produced automobiles beginning in 1907, and in 1910 BSA purchased the British Daimler Company to build its car engines. BSA Motorcycles Ltd. was established as a subsidiary in 1919. BSA began building v-twin engines for their motorcycles in 1921, starting with the 770cc BSA Model A.



1949 BSA Model 500
1949 BSA Model 500


BSA Gold Star & A7

The BSA M24 'Gold Star' began production in 1938, based on the previous M23 Empire Star, and was one of BSA's longest lasting model lines, being built until 1963. The Gold Star had a hand-built 4-stroke 350 cc to 500 cc motor which became popular for their high performance. By the 1950s, the Gold Star had a reputation for being one of the fastest production bikes on the market.

The 495cc model A7 began in 1946, designed by Val Page (1892-1978) who also designed engines for J.A. Prestwich (used in the Brough Superior SS100) and the Ariel Red Hunter. The BSA A7 was upgraded to 497cc in 1950, and continued in production until 1961.



1954 BSA Gold Star Special
1954 BSA Gold Star Special

The 'Gold Star' was named in honor of Walter Leslie (Wal) Handley (1902-1941) and his legendary 'ton-up' lap times at the Brooklands concrete bowl. At the time, the British Motor Cycle Racing Club would award a lapel pin with six-pointed 'gold star' to any rider who could negotiate a 100 mph lap.


BSA Star Twin, Golden Flash & Shooting Star

By 1949, BSA introduced the 'Star Twin' and the 650cc twin-cylinder A10 'Golden Flash' designed by Bert Hopwood, also from Ariel. The Star Twin was a response to the popularity of the Triumph Tiger 100. In 1954, the Star Twin was redesignated, and repackaged as the "Shooting Star," which ended production in 1961.

By the early 1940s, British industrialist Sir Bernard D.F. Docker (1896-1978) became chairman of BSA. Docker was also chairman Daimler Motor Company during roughly the same period. Under Docker's leadership, BSA acquired Triumph Motorcycles in 1951, making them the largest producer of motorcycles in the world. He also acquired the motorcycle interests of British manufacturers' Ariel, New Hudson and Sunbeam.



1960 BSA GoldStar DBD34
1960 BSA Gold Star DBD34 Clubmans

Docker's tenure at BSA ended in 1956, when ex-Triumph chairman John (Jack) Young Sangster (1896-1977) took the helm. Sangster retired in 1961.

In 1959, BSA Introduced the 'BSA Sunbeam,' also sold as the Triumph Tigress, was 175 cc two-stroke single-cylinder scooter designed by Edward Turner (1901-1973), famous for his design of the Triumph Speed Twin, Thunderbird, and Ariel (now owned by Sangster) Square Four.



BSA Shooting Star
1968 BSA Shooting Star 441

By the end of the 1960s, as much as 60% of BSA and Triumph sales were to America and other counties, but the rising sun of Japan loomed over the British and American motorcycle industries like a dark cloud.


BSA Rocket 3

In response to the large-displacement inline fours that were soon to hit the all-important American market, BSA introduced the inline three-cylinder "A75 Rocket 3," which was produced from 1968 to 1972. The Rocket3 was also sold as the Triumph Trident T150, based on the early P1 and P2 prototypes that were design by Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele. Both engines were produced at BSA's factory in Small Heath.



1970 BSA Rocket 3 Roadracer
1970 BSA Rocket 3 Roadracer

The A75 Rocket 3's OHV engine produced around 58 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, and had a 4-speed gearbox. The Rocket III and Trident were immediately proclaimed as the best road bikes in the world by the British press - a title which was quickly lost to the Honda CB750 which had far more technological advancements then their British "superbike" counterparts.


The Final Chapter for BSA

In 1973, the British government stepped in to rescue the merged BSA-Triumph group, and Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT) was created out of the three faltering companies: Villiers Engineering Ltd., Norton Motorcycles, and Triumph Engineering Ltd./BSA Group.

Coventry-based Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC swapped its Norton Villiers motorcycle parts division with the non-motorcycle aspects of the BSA Group, including the Coventry-based coachbuilder, Carbodies, who was under contract with the Austin Motor Company.



The final production year for BSA was in 1972, ending with the B50SS Gold Star, A65F Firebird Scrambler twin, the A70L Lightning, the A75R and A75RV Rocket Three, and the 500cc B50MX Motorcross which was later sold in the U.S. as the Triumph TR5MX.


BSA Motorcycle Links

BSA Owners' Club U.K.

History of the Birmingham Motorcycle Industry

BSA Motorcycles & Cycles - Armoury Road, Small Heath

National Motorcycle Museum in Coventry

Walter Worsch Masterpiece: 1938 BSA GoldStar

BSA Gun History



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