by Shawn Downey
It is early Sunday morning. The inhabitants of my block (Some people call them neighbors; I call them demons from hell.) slumber in peace. Exiting the house, I am careful not to cause a disturbance. A gallon of scalding hot coffee is in one hand, the door latch in the other. Easing the door into its jam, I detect a slight resistance. I focus my gaze on the coffee and apply an inordinate amount of energy to the door latch to overcome whatever foreign obstacle resides between the door and the jam. Much to my chagrin, the foreign obstacle happens to be my finger.
A cursor of pain runs through my entire body afflicting my sense of balance and causing me to spill the scalding hot gallon of coffee all over my hand. Did I mention the part about it being scalding hot? I refuse to release a scream for fear of awakening the poltergeists (often disguised as children with Big Wheels and basketballs) and destroying the remaining quiet of the twilight morning hours. I vow, no matter what the sacrifice, to be the sole destroyer of the idyllic calm this morning. Not the neighbor’s lawn mower, the cries of “stop touching me” or the senile and drooling dog down the block…not this morning.
Fire belching straight pipes shall serve as the alarm clock on this fateful day. We are going to rattle window panes and shatter the silence in a glorious pay-back. Delusions of smoky burnouts play merrily in my head while I skip to the garage in great anticipation.
As the garage door opens and reveals my weapon of destruction, I begin my award winning can-can dance and sing to the tune of the Jetson’s theme song. “Meet Shawn Downey, Purveyor of the ‘hood, No slug neighbors, or their damn lawn mowers. I shall be the alarm clock today.”
But wait, what is that harmonious yet hideous ode to yesteryear that I hear rapidly approaching and destroying my utopia? It is definitely British. Its exhaust tone is definitely not restricted. And it is definitely obliterating my hopes of being the town crier issuing the wake up call.
“Well mate, watcha make of ‘er, hey?” asks my only true British acquaintance. He shuts off the beastly machine after one final crack of the wrist that not only levels all the ant hills in the wake of the exhaust but also destroys any remaining chance I had to wake up the heavy sleepers.
“Looks like crap,” I say more than a bit annoyed. “Where did you get the tank badge with your name on it Mr. British Small Arms?”
Mr. British Small Arms goes into a full dissertation on BSAs at this point that lasts well into mid-morning. Although the majority of his speech centered on my personal hygiene, he did relate some rather interesting facts concerning the BSA Gold Star. It seems that the name originated back in July of 1937 when a certain BSA representative by the name of Walter Handley collected a “gold star” for lapping the oval concrete at 107.5 mph. All racers who surpassed the 100 mph mark at the Outer Circuit received a gold star, but this one served as a very memorable moment because BSA had been opposed to racing due to some very embarrassing recent postings.
The introduction of the Gold Star was ceremoniously marked by a light-alloy engine 350 capable of producing 24 bhp and sporting a vastly improved suspension system. By 1952 the Gold Star had evolved into a 500cc clubman racer disguised in street trim. Rear set footrests, a reversed gear pedal, high performance brakes, alloy wheels, racing seat and clip-on handlebars were trademarks of the race winning BSAs. By 1956 they were sporting the biggest, nastiest carbs produced by Amal, a light-alloy fuel tank and extra wide racing brakes. Good-bye Norton. In the immortal words of Pinky and the Brain, BSA was “taking over the world.”
Guys started racing that bad boy in Senior TTs and Thruxton nine hour races back to back without changing a tire or a chain. It became commonplace for novices to be setting lap records at the Isle of Man TT only to crash halfway through the race due to inexperience. Competing manufacturers started buying them to see how all that horsepower was being produced only to discover that the rear wheel horsepower was actually higher than the printed specifications. Modesty in its finest form.
Ninety percent of the entries in the TTs were BSAs by 1957. The monotony of the same marquee winning consistently was blamed for the loss of support for the TT as a spectator sport. The racing circuit ceased to exist that year and the Gold Star production line slowed to a trickle. Scramble racers and wannabes were still purchasing the gleaming machines but not in the numbers required to maintain such an ingenious marquee. The last one rolled out the door in 1964 dying a slow and painful death.
Industry experts of that time have gone on record blaming BSA for their own death and for the death of TT racing in general by producing an over-engineered motorcycle. Shame on you Mr. Industry Expert. But most of all, shame on you Mr. Competing Manufacturer. You killed TT racing and an ingenious engineering staff by not meeting the challenge put before you.