Sunday, 20 March 2011

BSA A10

There was something about Scotland that my BSA A10 didn't like. Every time we crossed the border something went wrong. This time the engine began to cough away like an asthmatic old miner. And it wasn't even raining. I pulled off the deserted back road - on an old plodder like the BSA minor roads were its only mien. Found one of the plug caps had shredded itself. No problem, I had plenty of spares on me. Almost two of everything that might possibly fail. You live and learn, the BSA not the kind of machine on which to gormlessly leap and sail off into the distance regardless.

Another problem solved, a warm glow as we tottered off into the autumn sunshine, almost a contradiction in terms in Scotland. But sometimes I got lucky. The BSA was over 37 years old, but highly modified along the way. The usual stuff - SRM crank, upgraded oil pump, electronic ignition, belt primary drive, 12V electrics, etc - but the essential thing was not to destroy the mild, reliable nature of the bike. Leave its 40 or so horses well alone. No wild or even mild tuning tricks here, just nicely gas-flowed ports and lightened rockers.

It's not impossible to make more horses, BSA did it themselves with the Rocket Goldstar version. Trouble is, all the niceness goes out of the engine, vibration increases and reliability suffers. Simply put, if speed's needed buy something else. The 650 twin was happy enough to saunter up to 80mph on the straight stretches of Scottish roads but didn't relish the prospect of higher speeds. As much as 105mph could be notched up on the speedo but it did neither the rider nor the engine any good at all.

If there was a spot in the speed range where the engine felt happiest in top gear, it was around the 70mph mark. Here both power and torque coalesced into one contented murmur and vibration was the merest of thrumming, more an echo of the combustion process than an intrusive warning of the failings of British engine designers. On a flat piece of road with the slightest of breezes to our rear, this was a velocity that could be maintained on the merest whiff of throttle. Confirmation of the engine's contentment found in the 72mpg it would turn in at such a constant speed.

This was a useful attribute when large distances had to be covered in a relative hurry and the only way to do so was to employ our motorways. Rock steady she was at 70mph on these relatively well cared for roads. In fact, the way the motorways cut a swathe through our wonderful landscape was something to exult in rather than complain about. I could have enjoyed myself immensely had not the suicide merchants in cars wanted to attain take-off velocities and were confounded by a relic from the past sitting securely in its lane with no intention of moving over.

Fortunately, the BSA's mirrors were always a bit blurred, the full implications of having some psychopathic maniac a few millimetres from my numberplate not quite sinking in. It was probably a question of my own stubbornness rather than any inherent bravery - that, and fitment of an auxiliary back light of an intensity that would befit an artic. If the cager was particularly persistent I would turn this on and off in a soothing rhythm, leaving the poor bugger in a daze!

Although the BSA would happily troll along for a couple of hundred miles of motorway work without exploding into a million bits, it did use up the oil at a splendid rate. Where it went was a mystery. Both fuel economy and the compression ratio experienced when kickstarting indicated that all was as tight as it should be internally. Neither did it leak much, just a reassuring smear here and there. As it never became any worse - about a pint every 100 miles under heavy usage - it was something I soon became used to. Perhaps it was merely the fact that I used cheap 20/50 lubricant meant for a cage. Perhaps a false economy, that.

Oil consumption improved dramatically in more mild riding, such as bumming around Scotland. One time I'd staggered into bed, not giving the bike a final check over. Awoke, looked in the oil tank and she was dry. Total panic until I recalled that old British engines of this type could dry-sump - the oil ending up in the crankcase rather than the tank. This is much rarer on BSA's than Nortons (smug smile) but has happened twice in the years I've owned the A10. The second time I just smiled grimly.

Time reveals which components are likely to come undone. Nuts and bolts end up wired and Loctited in place where possible. I've even had the cylinder head come loose on one occasion - funnily enough, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. But the bike has evolved to a state where it only needs a check-over every 500 miles or two weeks, whichever comes first. Which is when it also needs the valves done. With a single carb and electronic ignition, there isn't much else left to do. Sounds good, but my Jap bike goes for years without any attention other than 3000 mile oil changes, though in theory it needs carb and valve attention, they don't seem to wear at all. You have to be a bit dedicated to look after these old beasts, but it's got to be better than spending one's nights lounging in front of the TV.

One of the nice things about the A10's motor is that despite its lack of outright power, there's enough capacity to ensure that the torque's strong. She'll roll up the steepest of hills in fourth gear without any loss of momentum, though the throttle does slide around past the halfway mark and the engine sometimes makes a deep keening noise. This is pure fun on Highland roads, where I don't have to pay much attention to the BSA, just go all laid back and enjoy the scenery.

Handling in such circumstances is heavy but basically secure - a lot better than many so called modern Jap's, as long as you have the necessary muscle and don't get put off by the narrowness of the rubber, though modern compounds are an obvious and welcome improvement on the older stuff. I still get over 12000 miles out of a set of tyres, which annoys modern riders no end. Down, I think, to the large wheels and sensible way the BSA puts out its power.

Modern Jap's are real tyre shredders in the latter respect, even someone sensible and mature (such as I) can't help but give the throttle an extra tug just for the kicks. Don't know why, really, but old British twins are much more relaxing to ride than modern stuff and even on long runs from one end of England to the other, and then some more mileage in Scotland, I don't find the A10 lacking in performance in any way. And, add in the fact that tyres last at least twice as long as any reasonably sized Jap, plus fuel is 50% better - I can go much further for the same amount of dosh. Whatever happened to progress?

Well, it certainly turns up with regards to surviving the rain. The BSA wasn't all bad - it had mudguards that actually protected the machine and rider, for one - but Scottish rain usually managed to find ingress into the electrics at some point in the system. Usually making one of the spark plugs go all weak at the knees, turning the A10 into a reluctant 325cc thumper that would then do the kangaroo hop as the power tried to kick back in.

This isn't recommended in the wet, the back tyre leaping all over the shop on the slippery road surface. The solution is pretty easy if a touch inconvenient. Pull over and spray the plug lead, cap and coil with WD40. Better still, do this before starting out; chances are the problem won't turn up. Even now, I still forget if the sun is shining brightly and I'm feeling full of optimism.

Another potential kind of hell in the wet occurs when the non-standard TLS front drum takes it upon itself to fill up with water. Normally, it's a pretty good stopper, with a nice blend of power and feedback. Compared to an aged Jap disc it has about the same retardation ability with scads more feel. Until it rains, when the brake becomes quite vicious if a little water finds its way into the drum and then fades away altogether if the drum becomes full of the stuff.

The SLS back brake, in contrast, goes from being a bit too soft in the dry to perfect for wet weather riding. Using that drum and the quite prodigious engine braking usually makes up for the poorness of the front brake in rainy conditions. I say usually because there's always going to be some rich or daft sod who comes bowling along Scottish back lanes in his four wheel drive piece of shit, totally oblivious to the closeness of death that many motorcyclists experience, and who pretends not to notice that big motorcycle in his way. Braking and swerving the only survival line, but the big BSA goes all coy if I try to wrench it on to a new line with the back end locked up solid.

I think it's the rear shocks freezing up in terror. An old pair of Girlings that have seen better days and only survive on the back of their lack of travel and relatively harsh springing. Tolerable in day to day riding, but when pushed to the limit they become a bit frayed at the edge. Buy new shocks? Some day, some day!

That's just part of the fun of owning such a solid old slogger. If you want to buy and seriously ride such an old antique, the only way to survive - even if you buy a fully renovated and restored example - is to keep on adding improvements as you go along until you end up with a machine that has only the vaguest resemblance to the original motorcycle purchased. Different people require different things from their motorcycles - as true as in the riding position as in the way the engine lays down its power - and one of the joys of buying a tough old BSA twin's that it's possible to tailor the bike to your particular, sometimes perverted, needs.

To an extent you can do that to the older Jap twins as well, as long as the engine's in reasonable shape and you admit that there's no way to improve upon it except perhaps for freer-flowing induction and exhaust. Whereas with the British stuff you can go right back to basics if you have the skill, time and money - after all, there's tremendous room for improvement! Of course, that also means it's easy to mess things up in a big way and end up with a motor that's inferior even to what the old British designers intended. Throw in the sometimes naff pattern parts and the odd gorilla masquerading as a restorer, and it can become an expensive and annoying way of losing loads of dosh. Still, the upside is well worth a bit of hassle. Better believe it!

Dave Michaels

****************************************************

Shit, I'd been distracted by a nubile on a horse, when I looked up I saw that a junction was rapidly approaching. I almost broke my hand hauling on the front brake lever, attached via knicker elastic to a whole seven inches worth of SLS drum, which even in the early sixties was questionable. The forks hardly moved as the braking came in, then as we encroached on the junction it just faded away to nothing.

We roared across the junction, slicing between a couple of cars. I would've hit the horn but the pathetic squeak was drowned out by the silencers; a gruff roar that British twins defined. This nostalgia trip back into the joys of ancient British bikes came about because a mate turned up on a rebuilt American import and demanded that we swap (for my modern Triumph triple). I don't even like BSA twins, being a Norton man who could tolerate the better example of Triumph's art.

The brakes were the weakest part of the package, the pre-unit twin having been assembled with enough skill to keep vibration down to a tolerable level at sane revs and the chassis being strong, well laid out but lacking in the sophistication I'd become used to over the past five years. Pot-holes had the front end trying to wrench itself out of my hands, such tribulations much exaggerated by the high, wide bars that the Yanks loved to employ in their 55mph nirvana.

Immediate impressions, after three or four kicks expended on starting the brute (and flicking the choke off with Ninja speed before the motor flooded), were of an amiable old duffer despite the fact that the RGS was supposed to be in a high state of tune. There was loads of low speed torque which expanded into hard power before being dissipated into jack-hammer vibration once the tacho twitched past 6000 revs.

An amazing attribute of the BSA was its gearbox, the nicely spaced four ratios could be slicked into place with a speed and smoothness that would amaze the average Honda owner, and, indeed was better than my own modern Triumph. Of course, at some point it'd been rebuilt with better than new component with a degree of care and attention that just can't exist even on the best of production lines. Rebuilt Brits can be brilliant, awful or anywhere in between. Careful matching of components and loving assembly can produce engines that are better than standard. The quick check being lack of noise, smoothness and oil tightness.

It was dead easy to chuff along at speeds up to 75mph in a thoroughly pleasant manner. There are some severe limitations if more spirited riding's indulged. The brakes have been mentioned, best regarded as crap, although the TLS set-up of later models can be fitted without recourse to a hammer and there's quite strong engine braking if you can bear to go slow enough to check out what's happening up front.

Almost as worrying as the brakes was the lack of ground clearance. In fact, the pathetic brakes had me thundering through corners faster than I wanted, resulting in near death and soaked underwear when the centrestand dug into the ground. There are some bikes that just scrape away the tarmac, but not this A10 which tried to dig a huge hole in the tarmac, simultaneously shaking the whole chassis and levering the back wheel off the ground. Had it been my bike the stand would've been chucked pronto but even then the pegs were not far off grounding out.

The tyres were Dunlop TT100's, another throwback to when the UK ruled the world. Despite their lack of width, they held the road as well as many a modern bike without any of the terrible wear problems associated with the latest tyres. It was nice to be on a bike where I knew exactly what the tyres were doing.

The BSA's compact and light, virtues that the Japanese have never really instilled into their big twins. 45 horses and 400lbs in 1962 wasn't bad going, and still represents a reasonable hustle on modern roads. Even motorways were possible, even enjoyable, as 85mph equated to 5000 revs in top gear. A speed that was shockingly free of vibration and one where there wasn't a hint of a weave or wobble. Had I needed desperate braking I'd be better off getting it over with quickly, just charging into the obstacle at maximum velocity.

The only limitation was the ape-hangers, another item that would soon be chucked if the machine were mine. They went well with the forward mounted pegs, which was about the only good thing that could be said about them. I could contort myself around the bars but it wasn't a pretty sight, nor a comfortable one (even if the seat was as cushy as a modern Triumph).

Maximum speed was 115mph with 7000 revs on the tacho, but above 6000 revs the engine went into typical self-destruct mode so beloved of those who've never owned or ridden a Brit motorcycle. As 6000 revs equated to the ton it was no great loss (given the brakes) to keep within this remit. I did feel that the engine could run taller gearing, giving an even more relaxed cruising speed.

The brakes caught me out a few more times, never really allowing me to relax. Once, I lost it all in town, whacked the front alloy rim into the side of a car. Luckily, the 10mph impact just left a dent in the side of the Corsa. The owner gave me a lecture about riding around on museum pieces without any working brakes. The wonder is that classic bike insurance is so inexpensive.

The other time I managed to swerve around a meandering car driven by a drunken woman, took the BSA on a bit of impromptu off-road riding on grass. The bike handled fine on the slippery road surface, a comment on the correctness of having a low centre of gravity. The fact that these near disasters happened over a long weekend says its all about the god-awful brakes.

Nor did the days pass without the odd breakdown. Roadside repairs are not great fun at the time, however amusing it is to listen to the old codgers go on about the good old days when they did roadside repairs with a pair of pliers and big hammer. One time the electrics went down at night. The engine still ran off the magneto but a loose wire on the dynamo stopped the lights from working - 6V rubbish but marginally better than nothing.

The second time I was caught out by the primitive chain primary drive going out of adjustment. An awful lot of noise until I moved the separate gearbox back a few notches, which meant I then had to adjust the final drive. There are belt primary drive conversions available for a few hundred notes which are recommended for anyone who wants to do serious mileage. As is a large toolkit!

On the good side, it's relatively easy to do more than 60mpg and very difficult to do worse than 55mpg. A consequence of the single Amal carb, which also helps the smoothness of the 360 degree crankshaft twin. Twin carbs being a waste of time on British mills because when they start to work at high revs is exactly where the vibes start to become frenzied. Expect consumables to last a long time and even the chassis bearings have an easy time thanks to grease nipples (and lack of linkages).

The A10's also a pretty bike to look at, dominated by the functional lines of the motor. The Japanese have rarely been able to imitate the simplicity of these old Brits and they're never captured the combination of punchy power and agility. The price most British twins pay for their virtues is an excess of vibes leading to poor longevity. Everything you've ever read or heard about self-destruction of British twins is true, but true of bikes that have been poorly put together or delivered in far too high a state of tune.

The RGS seems to be dead on, dealing out most of its power below 6000 revs where it's more than acceptably smooth. Better brakes (I'm sure those off an FS1E would be an improvement) and improved ground clearance would round off the Rocket Gold Star's undoubted abilities, both easy enough to do for the long term owner.
Back on my Triumph triple, I revelled in the sophistication of the ride and excess of power, but missed the light, easy going poise of the BSA twin, thought that maybe I'd come full circle and was mature enough to appreciate a mild, big twin; then I blasted the Triumph up to 135mph and forgot all about being sensible.

Johnny Malone

****************************************************

In the mid sixties it was cheap and easy to buy old BSA twins. I was just a youth then, dreams of speed but not much dosh to fulfil them. This worn Super Rocket turned up, mine in exchange for a little bit of decorating work. A proper decorator I wasn't but I slapped up some wallpaper and paint. The A10 was a 650cc vertical twin with a separate gearbox, chain primary drive, pushrods, etc. In its day, it was thought of as a large and powerful motorcycle but compared to modern bikes it's less impressive than something like a GS450E.

None of this meant anything to me. My previous bike was a Tiger Cub, the A10 giving every impression of being a fearsome beast. I'd thought the Cub a bit of a vibrator, the big BSA hopped across the garage floor on its stand at a tickover and everything went very blurred as I rolled the throttle open and fought it through the gearbox. In top, at 65mph, it began to settle down to a gentle thrum that began to go harsher again as 80mph was reached.

In those days, the first thing you did with a new motorcycle was speed test it. I hugged the tank, the bike bouncing all over the A1 as it breached the ton. It went faster but the vibes sent the speedo all dizzy and I could barely focus on the white line in the middle of the road. The press reckoned on 115mph, and I wasn't going to disagree.

An approaching bend had me all of a flutter. A10's had a good reputation for their handling but not for their brakes. SLS drums at each end with worn out shoes didn't produce much by way of retardation. Going into a 60mph bend at 80mph with the suspension buckling against the brakes frightened the stuffing out of me. My ragged survival line included the wrong edge of the road and a skirmish with some gravel on the side of the tarmac. More by luck than any judgement I held on to the back of the beast and roared out the other end of the curve in one piece. I think that first ride embedded the strains of madness in me! It was hard to keep off the machine.

The BSA was less elated after that speed run than I was. Loose rocker covers, missing primary chain inspection cover, loose exhaust collets and dead electrics except for the ignition. I flitted around the machine by the roadside, connecting wires back up and tightening down the bolts - I'd had enough trouble with the Tiger Cub to know to bring along loads of tools. By the time I reached home, oil had sprayed out of the chaincase, covering both the bike and me in murky lubricant.

I replaced the cover, did a complete oil change - the first one, I think, as with its other leaks and the amount burnt off in the combustion chambers, it was almost a total-loss lubrication system. The bike rattled less and seemed a bit more willing to rev. It still liked to skip across the floor at tickover. Either I'd quickly become used to the vibes or the oil change had helped, I was soon able to hold on to the beast at 90mph. In the sixties that was fast - most cars would explode at similar velocities, only the odd Jaguar able to keep up.

Not surprisingly, the BSA reacted to a few thousand miles of inconsiderate use by wearing itself out. The bike was already tired and I knew no better. In contrast, my neighbour had an A10 that he'd run for 70,000 miles with few problems. The difference was that he was sixty, didn't go over 65mph and spent his evenings fettling the twin. Even under my extreme abuse the A10 didn't actually fail, just became slower and slower, much more difficult to kick into life.

There were loads of small engineering workshops and motorcycle shops in those days. A rebore, new pistons, crankshaft bearings and valve job sorted out the A10. Good as new by the time it was rebuilt. Simple enough to work on but I didn't feel up to it myself. I also took the chance to fit a TLS front brake. At that time I'd started work and had plenty of spare dosh as I was still living at home, had no commitments.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of vibration, felt like a real smoothy. It still handled like a dog above 90mph but back then most motorcycles did - it was just a matter of winning the fighting match and living to play another day. At this point in the saga, I fell in with some rockers and was persuaded to go the cafe racer route - clip-ons, rear-sets, open bellmouths and reverse cone mega's with swept back pipes. Didn't make the bike any faster or better handling but it looked the business in much the same way that modern race replicas look like they have just come off the race track but can be excruciating to ride any distance.

That was fun, half a dozen or so bikers roaring through the countryside, causing heart attacks amongst proper citizens and beating up Mods whenever possible. We weren't real hooligans, got too much enjoyment from riding bikes to waste time wrecking things but it was a great blast to get on the open road with a similarly minded bunch of lads. The only amazing thing was how quickly the rocker movement did a disappearing act. One moment we were the business, the next we were but a footnote in the history of the sixties.

After the rebuild the BSA still suffered from loose bolts and bits of chassis falling off. Daily attention was needed but it sometimes didn't get it and went retributive, so I soon learnt my lesson. You either pay attention or break down. As simple as that! The rebuilt engine did around 6000 miles before it needed a rebore - those open bellmouths letting in all the dirt and dust, not to mention the odd stray cat.

On one occasion, the timing slipped, the engine backfired with great flames coming out of the bell-mouths - singed thighs resulted. The dreaded kickback wasn't that much of a problem as I always wore hefty boots - the A10's the kind of bike that shreds trainers. Another time the points fell apart in the middle of nowhere but I managed to bodge them back together. 99% of the time it did get where it was supposed to be going, usually at the back of the Brit-pack of big twins. Against Bonnies and Dommies it was a bit lost.

Towards the end of my ownership I had a nasty accident. It was one of those days when a dense fog descended on the A1. I was riding on what I hoped was the extreme left of the road, the front light lost to the mist. A yard or two of visibility meant minimal speed. As today, the car drivers were far removed from reality. One came bubbling along, hit the back of my bike and carried on into the distance, apparently with no idea of the havoc he'd left behind. It was like being shoved by an elephant. Bike and I went different ways, the only good thing, that after a bit of gravel rash I ended up in the softness of a ditch. The bike went right across the road, hit another car and ended on its side.

Damage was extensive, but a few kicks straightened out the pegs and levers, I could wobble back home. Damage included bent forks, buckled wheels and dented petrol tank but it was all fixable. To my eternal shame, though, I traded the A10 in for a Ford Anglia, which went down with the good lady a lot better. Recently, I've spent three grand on a refurbished BSA A10 of 1959 vintage. Just as rowdy as the old one and a bit of a culture shock after all these years in cars and trains. When I've ridden it some more I'll do a report.

Alan
 
 

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