In the last issue of Classic Trial Magazine, we had a close look at the 1967 Scottish Six Days Trial which Sammy Miller won on the 250 Bultaco. In second place was Dave Rowlands on the ‘Micro Machine’ 175 BSA Bantam, which was christened ‘The Thing’. An affectionate British public, knowing that the once proud motorcycling manufacturing market leaders in Great Britain were in decline, loved the David and Goliath scenario. The Spanish Armada in the trials world had started with Bultaco before Ossa and Montesa joined forces to eventually become the market leaders after Miller moved to Bultaco in 1965. Rowlands worked wonders on the BSA Bantam in the face of some hefty and established opposition on well-developed and very competitive machinery, and his second place at the ‘Scottish’ is still fondly remembered. The 1967 article attracted so much interest that we decided to find out a little more about the ‘Thing’. Don Morley’s superb book titled Classic British Two-Stroke
Trials Bikes from 1987 was an excellent source of information, but we wanted to know more. A good friend of my father, Ron, was Mick Bowers, who had worked in the BSA Competition Department. Mick’s late father Eric had, in fact, received the very first BSA Bantam off the production line, the D1 125 in 1948 at his motorcycle dealership in Chapel-en-le Frith. I had a few hours with Mick, or ‘Bonkey’ as he is better known, which proved invaluable in the generation of the article.
John Hulme: “The BSA Bantam was the first trials machine that my father gave me. It was the pre-Yamaha TY 80/175 era where everyone had a ‘Bantam’. Famous names include world motocross champions Graham Noyce and Neil Hudson, to name a few. Mine was a D1 with the 125cc engine with the ‘Plunger’ rear suspension. I can still remember the day my father fitted a ‘Knobbly’ rear tyre, it felt like a lottery win!”
Before we start the story of the ‘Thing’ we take a brief time travel journey to look at the history of the machine. The BSA Bantam was produced between 1948 and 1971 by Birmingham Small Arms Company. It was a two-stroke single cylinder air-cooled unit construction motorcycle first introduced as a 125cc before having its cylinder capacity increased to 175cc. It is estimated that well over 400,000 models were produced. Considered by many to be a typically ‘British’ motorcycle it was based on the German manufactured DKW RT 125.
Production was started in 1948 as a very depressed post-war Great Britain desperately needed a motorcycle that was cheap to produce and attract the working class public as an affordable form of transport. The main difference from the original DKW design was the right-side gear change lever. The BSA Bantam was very much a ‘replica’ of the DKW, produced with imperial measurements and the conformative right-hand side gear change as it went into production in early 1948.
The first production Bantam model was the D1, which rolled of the Birmingham production line in October 1948. Despite having a rigid rear end, the front suspension was telescopic and featured a ‘Shovel’ front mudguard with a ‘Fishtail’ exhaust silencer. One colour was available: Mist Green and the price to purchase the machine would be £60 plus tax.
Over the years the machine would go through many model changes but the unit construction, where the engine and gearbox are produced as one piece, remained pretty much the same for its 25 years of production. Sporting a castiron cylinder barrel with an aluminium cylinder head the simple two-stroke
engine was air-cooled. Initially, the gearbox featured three gears with the power fed through a wet-type clutch before the later models moved to four gears. Two different types of ignition were used. One was a Lucas battery powered coil used in the earlier models or as a magneto type from Wipac. The magneto system was part of a composite assembly sitting within the flywheel, which was fitted with magnet inserts. The windings gave power, either directly to the lights with a dry cell when the engine was stopped, or through a rectifier into a lead acid battery. Early production models were fitted with the distinctive ‘fishtail’ exhaust silencers before a more conventional cylindrical type of silencer was developed and fitted to future models.
It’s worth noting that the larger capacity ‘B’ series models helped to make BSA the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world at the time. The engine sizes were nominal, as British manufactured motorcycles were generally made around 1cc or 3cc smaller than their tax bracket maximum to allow for re-bores and general wear.
Over the following years, many other models would supersede the D1. We have documented as the best we can the BSA Bantam models during its production years. We feel this is important as the machine becomes so much more prominent in the Pre-65 trials scene.
Models and Changes
D1: The 125cc D1 had first been produced with the rigid rear end, but within three years the model range was extended to include an optional ‘plunger’ type of rear suspension. It’s quite strange to imagine in the modern world, but the front telescopic suspension featured no damping, giving a very uneasy feel at the front. Various options of electrical lighting systems were available using Wipac and Lucas systems. The D1 model was available until 1963 to the general public but for the GPO — General Post Office — machines were produced up until 1965.
D3 MAJOR: Next along was the D3 Major, which represented the first major changes since the Bantam model introduction. Released for sale in late 1953 it had an increased engine capacity to 150cc and had a more modern (and quite a novelty at the time) foam-filled seat fitted as standard, replacing the very agricultural individual sprung rubber seat. The front suspension was improved, but the major change was the move to the cylinder capacity to 150cc. This
was achieved with a new enlarged cylinder with distinctive larger thermal cooling fins. The post-1953 D1 models inherited these distinctive larger thermal cooling fins but retained their 125cc capacity. This D3 model was produced up until 1957.
D5 SUPER: This D5 model was only produced during 1958.Further development of the D3 swinging arm model had been carried out, and these were incorporated in the D5 Super model. It had a similar frame to the D3 Major, but with a lengthened rear section that gave more upright mounting points for the rear suspension. A more rounded style of fuel tank was fitted to enhance its looks. The engine capacity was further increased to 175cc.
D7 SUPER: Introduced for the 1959 sales year it had a similar 175cc engine to the D5 but had an entirely new swinging-arm and frame. The hydraulically damped forks had seen much development work carried out on them as they made much-needed improvements to the front and rear suspension. Production of the D7 model continued until 1966, but it had three different styles of fuel tank fitted as updates along the way. Other changes made were to the Wipac powered electrical system which included a change to battery powered external coil ignition.
D10 SUPREME: On the agenda at BSA was to give the Bantams new D10 model more power, which was achieved with some changes to the cylinder barrel porting. Changes were also carried out on the electrical system, which was further revised with a new type of Wipac alternator and rotor. The electrical contact points were moved from the nearside to a separate housing in the primary drive cover on the offside. There were two other models offered in this model range which came with a new gearbox with four gears, a high-level exhaust and improved front forks. The first model was the Sports one with, amongst other small changes, chrome mudguards. The second model was the Bushman, aimed at the growing
export market. It had 19” wheels and a modified frame to increase the ground clearance. Production of the D10 would finish at the end of 1967.
D14/4 SUPREME: This was very similar to the D10 and introduced as a 1968 year model. The gearbox with its four gears was fitted to all the model range, with the power once again increased. The two models the Sports and Bushman in the range also inherited heavier and more durable front forks.
D175/B175: BSA was now slowly acknowledging the problems which would bring their eventual downfall, and the D175 model which was also known as the B175 had only minor changes made from the D14/4 model. Availability of the Sports model ceased. The cylinder head had the off-set spark plug position made vertical, a slightly lower compression ratio was used, and the kick-start shaft was strengthened. Sturdier C15 model front forks were also fitted. This final BSA Bantam model was produced from 1969 to 1971, but remaining stocks were still being sold as late as 1973. The off-road Bushman version was available as an export model for the growing African and Australian markets, but 300 were sold in the UK. All the UK Bushman models carried the engine number prefix BB.
Bantams in Competition
Wind the clock back to Great Britain in 1949 when the world was in recovery from the Second World War. Much needed manufacturing would bring prosperity and in particular in the motorcycle sector. The prestigious International Six Days Trial was to be held in Wales and BSA intended to use the occasion to bring all its global importers to the event to impress them with their sporting prowess. In an effort to win in all the classes: 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc legendary rider Bill Nicholson was given the job of producing a handful of BSA Bantams capable of winning the 125cc class. As it happened, they were beaten by another British motorcycling manufacturer DOT, but many spectators and motorcycle trade representatives had been impressed by the efforts of the BSA team. The ‘Trials’ models had lower gearing achieved with a bigger rear sprocket, a rubber buffer inside the front forks, raised mudguards and some changes to the engines compression. John Draper tested the machine and two unofficial models were loaned out for the 1949 SSDT but neither of them finished! At the yearend motorcycle show, BSA announced a trials replica would be on sale in 1950. The D1 Competition Bantam was basically a converted roadster and achieved little success but became very popular with female riders by virtue of its light weight.
The first major changes came in 1954 as the D3 model had its cylinder bored out to 150cc. With the larger engine available the factory entered John Draper in the 1956 SSDT, and he won the prestigious 150cc Cup much to the boardroom’s delight. But in an amazing turn of events, the project was abandoned. One of the top lady riders at the time, Olga Kevelos, purchased the ex-Draper machine and competed on it in 1957 and 1958. Despite Draper’s class win in 1956 the board of directors had not seen the obvious and did nothing to promote the two-stroke success, despite the fact that Villiers’ powered machinery was being developed into successful trials motorcycles. With very small sales, the project was parked up.
BSA Competition Manager Brian Martin was a very well-respected industry player and also a good off-road rider. He had witnessed at first hand the BSA success of his predecessor Tom Ellis with the four-stroke machines and knew that he needed a twostroke answer to challenge the onslaught of Spanish machines. In an attempt to challenge the invasion of success from Spain he personally built and developed a new 173cc BSA Bantam as a semi-official project, which he finished in December 1966. He took a standard production roadster Bushman model and replaced the front forks with those from a C15 trials model. Another logical choice was the Bantam-type wheels and hubs; front 21” and rear 18” from the C15. A standard Bushman model would not accommodate the wide 4” trials tyre into the swinging arm, and so a Triumph Tiger Cub trials-model hub was used. To reduce width and bulk a ‘Peco’ car-type silencer was used, as was a ‘Victor’ motocross aluminium style fuel tank and air-filter housing, and a handmade cranked kick-start lever. The majority of the other cycle parts had been taken from the BSA-Triumph production line. The exception was a one-off set of specially cut, wide ratio, four-speed gears for trials use at 35:1, 26.6:1; 14.6:1 and 10.25:1.
First riding impressions were very promising, and Martin won the class awards in the season’s opening National Colmore and St David’s trials. The factory was looking for success, and the trials project attracted their interest. The board of directors sanctioned the transfer of Brian’s twostroke orientated brother Michael to the project. A previous works trials rider for Francis Barnett, he worked in the BSA engine plant based at Redditch. Another engineer in the plant was Mick Mills, who was also moved to the project as his skills with the two-stroke engines were second to none. The project would be code named RED after Redditch.
A decision was made to prepare and enter as BSA entries four ‘works’ Bantams. One would have an engine displacement of 148cc to make it eligible for the 150cc Cup, to be ridden by Dave Langston, with Mick Bowers, Alan Morewood and Dave Rowlands on the 173cc machines. Engineering reports were prepared by the Martin brothers. The machines were a combined operation involving the three Michaels; Martin, Mills and Bowers, who also worked at BSA. The clutch adjustment was moved to the righthand side, and gearbox pinions were fitted with a modified tooth form to prevent breakages.
After much experimenting with cylinder barrel porting the conclusion was that the best one was the standard version. Exhaust lengths were played with to improve performance, and the engines were mildly tuned by an increase in the compression ratio. Dave Rowlands was under the impression he would be riding a newly prepared machine, but on his arrival at BSA, a few days before the event was shocked to find he would be riding the pile of bits in the corner! This would be christened the ‘Thing’. With the event a few days away he raided the production line for some new parts and loaded the ‘Thing’ into his car, asking himself the question of his ‘Works’ rider status! His good friend and motorcycle mechanic Bob Lydiatt worked at Cartwright’s Motorcycles in Stockport, where much midnight oil was burned turning the machine into a motorcycle fit for the Scottish Six Days Trial.
When he arrived in Edinburgh for the start of the ‘Scottish’ his rivals very much laughed off the idea of him surviving six days with the machine. Bowers had prepared what was, in reality, his own machine, with the works modifications carried out by himself, including the fitting of heavily disguised Bultaco front forks. Riding just two numbers behind Rowlands, it was Bowers with his mechanical skill that was given the task of keeping his eyes on his team-mate’s machine. Registration numbers were: Dave Rowlands JON 473E — Its code name was RED T1, Dave Langston HOK 496D, Mick Bowers ONU 324D and Alan Morewood YNB 173. As it turned out the four machines all performed well apart from the 148cc ridden by Dave Langston, who had problems with engine seizures and had to change the main carburettor jet each time he had to return to road work between sections. He came second in the up-to-150cc class behind Peter Gaunt and his ‘Micro’ Suzuki.
Working wonders all week, the crowd got behind Rowlands on his way to an incredible 2nd position with Mick Bowers 18th, Alan Morewood 42nd and Dave Langston (BSA) in 43rd, all taking Special First Class awards.
Heads in the Sand
With these encouraging results, the time was right for BSA to launch a production Bantam trials model as Rowlands continued the success by winning the Mitchell and Allan Jefferies trials. They did the complete opposite when the board of directors once again made a decision with their heads buried in the sand and withdrew all works support for the trials team! The BSA Bantam project was potentially the cheapest worthwhile production trials machine ever, and they pulled the plug. In a show of defiance Mick Bowers carried out more modifications to his own machine, and the success continued as he won class awards in many nationals and the 151cc–200cc Cup in the 1968 SSDT on what was basically his machine.
At the time Brian Martin conceded defeat with the project, but he knew the huge hole in the BSA finances would not be filled by the sale of a proposed production run of 500 trials models. A real honest man, Martin passed on his experience to the top trials dealers Comerfords of Thames Ditton in Surrey.
In November 1967 they announced plans to build a run of 50 Bantam ‘Works’ replicas. BSA stopped this happening by dropping the entire Bantam and Bushman models from its machine range. Just one machine was built and the project shelved.
Dave Rowland, 1967 Scottish Six Days Trial. Production was started in 1948 as a very depressed post-war Great Britain desperately needed a motorcycle that was cheap to produce and attract the working class public as an affordable form of transport.
Legendary rider Bill Nicholson was given the job of producing a handful of BSA trials Bantams. This is one of them.
One of the top lady riders at the time, Olga Kevelos, purchased the ex-Draper machine and competed on it in 1957 and 1958.
The 1966–1967 model featured a swinging arm, and the engine size was increased to 175cc.
1967 SSDT: Employed at BSA as a Development Engineer, Mick Bowers was given the task of making sure both he and Dave Rowland’s machines made it to the end of the event.
Before receiving the ‘Thing’ Dave Rowland had achieved much success on four-stroke machinery with BSA. This picture is from the 1966 Kickham trial.
1967 SSDT: The smile on Dave Rowland’s face at the end of the six days would be even bigger as he took the runner-up position.
Brian Martin on the early BSA Bantam trials prototype in the 1967 Colmore Cup trial.
As the late sixties rolled in to the seventies many young riders had a BSA Bantam, including Classic Trial Magazine editor John Hulme seen here on the left with his brother Alan and friend John Fletcher.
1967 SSDT: As it turned out, the four machines all performed well apart from the 148cc ridden by Dave Langston, who had problems with engine seizures; he had to change the main carburettor jet each time he had to return to road work between sections. 1967 SSDT: Alan Morewood remains feet-up on the dreaded ‘Devil’s Staircase’ on his way to a Special First Class award. Seen here in the 1967 John Douglas trial, Rowland continued the Bantam success winning the Mitchell and Allan Jefferies Trials for BSA. 1967 SSDT: A determined Dave Rowland attacks the iconic Pipeline hazards with the ‘Thing’ on full rattle!
Mick Bowers is just about to get his feet down on Hollinsclough in the 1968 Bemrose Trial on the BSA Bantam.
Based down near Portsmouth, motorcycle dealer Bob Gollner was one of many people who believed the BSA Bantam was the trials machine of the future. Easy to ride and maintain, he produced a small batch of Gollner BSA Bantams. The event is the 1968 Perce Simon.
Testing his own machine is Mick Whitlock.
Doug Theobald rode this BSA Bantam he developed along with his good friend and BSA works motocross rider at the time John Banks. Looking a little apprehensive he edges the machine down the rocks in the 1970 John Douglas trial.
A BSA man through and though, Jeff Smith won the 500cc Motocross World Championship in 1964 and 1965. He was also a top rider in trials winning two British Championship titles, the Scottish Six Days and Scott Trials, and many other Nationals. After his retirement he still turned out in many trials, including the Northern Experts where he is pictured here on a 175cc BSA Bantam trials.
Mick Whitlock produced this one-off BSA Bantam trials machine, which was full of innovation including using the front downtube of the frame as part of the exhaust system.
Mick Bowers continued with his BSA Bantam until 1971, seen here on Pipeline in the Scottish Six Days Trial, when he left the ailing motorcycle manufacturer. The Ross Winwood aluminium framed BSA Bantam. It could so easily have been the best-selling Yamaha TY 175…
“Does anybody know how motocross rider Dick Clayton acquired his BSA Bantam?” is a question we are asked so many times. This picture is from the Northern Experts.
1971: Another man with many visions of how motorcycle trials development would go was Ross Winwood. This picture shows him on one of his early prototypes.