TALES FROM THE SHED
Although no rebuild ever truly ends in The Shed, for Frank’s found time for contemplation…
Although no rebuild ever truly ends in The Shed, Frank’s found time for contemplation…
Time to stop. Time to stand back and gaze in an analytical way at the results of so much spannering, spending and scratching of the head. Pull the B25SS from the bench for what I promise myself will be the last time, park it up in the middle of The Shed and walk around it with a camera – it will never look as good as this again.
Smile contentedly as I spot the bits and bats I’d intended to sort but didn’t. Feel all warm and vaguely glowy as I remember that I have an as-new MCH66 headlamp shell with the correct fittings to replace the ‘modified’ item on the bike … but what the heck? No one apart from me would notice the difference, so why do it? More important is the fact that it’s time to fuel up, fire up and ride a little. Fuelling up from a can, pouring carefully just in case the amazingly smart new tank paint is less than modern fuel-proof, finds my eyes drawn to the bolt which should anchor the tank to the frame, sticking up like a mast from its tunnel in the tank. The new slimline fuel tank requires a shorter bolt than the old tubby tank – oh well, no problem. Some other time. Maybe.
But it looks really good. It starts first kick, mostly, hot or cold. What’s it like to actually ride? Probably as near to the experience of riding a new 1971 BSA 250 as I’m likely to get. That’s dodging the issue, of course. I’ll talk you through a ride, then. Switch the switch, kick the lever and off it goes. The engine sounds like the very hammers of hell – but they all do that, sir, so nothing to worry about. It smoketh not, nor does it leak. The clutch is delightfully light. Gears engage crispy and cleanly. Off we go. This is one of those bikes where even riding on quiet lanes is improved by a tight-fitting crash helmet. It’s not a safety thing, it just allows you to ignore the ever-present unit Beezer whine and chatter.
But it pulls hard for a 250. Very quick through the gears. The speedo needle suddenly flops back to its rest. That’s another repair / bodge which needs doing, then! Just not by me. I have a near- new spare speedo of course. It cost £80 at an autojumble and almost certainly works. Who cares? I have a new-found determination not to fit it. Maybe someday. Or maybe not.
Into top, bounding along now. Brand new NJB rear shocks work with predictable excellence: the ride is very good. Front forks have new stanchions and springs too, and work well in harmony with
their bouncy cousins around the back. Then it’s time to brake. We have a back brake. After several reassemblies, the front brake appeared to be working while in The Shed. It would stop the wheel from walking pace. Not on the road. It is still awful. Everything inside it is new and in perfect adjustment. It just does not work. Who cares? Not me. Because once the Better Third and I have completed our little experiment, the B25SS will be parked up, protected from the climate, and will cease to be either a problem or a challenge. And certainly an obsession.
Pose the bike so that Rowena can shoot some shots and take a spin. ‘Brake’s awful,’ she says. She is correct. She is wise.
Return to The Shed. Observe a single spot of oil drop from the BSA. Not. A. Problem. I refuse to even wonder where it came from. Maybe I should wonder where the drip came from? Instead, I switch the battery from the Beezer to the Triumph, the seriously scruffedup T25SS which was built on the same assembly track as the BSA, just a few weeks later. Add fuel from the BSA’s tank, switch on, kick up – it always starts first kick. Except this time, when it fires first kick but doesn’t catch. It suddenly does this a lot. However, eventually the gods of Lucas shine down and off we go. How does it ride in comparison to the BSA?
The Hagons on the back – which have been on the bike since before I acquired it in 1998 or so – are stiffer, harsher than the NJB springers. Interesting. The front forks are also stiffer, which is probably down to their old – and possibly incorrect – oil. No matter. The engine howls and clatters exactly like the BSA does, although it also smokes a little from the big black and rusty silencer. Who cares? Not me. The silencer will not rust from the inside, and that’s all that matters. The performance is exactly the same … the BSA has been expertly rebuilt once and expertly reassembled twice. Maybe it will run better than the rattly old Triumph after it’s run in? Who knows?
I rebuilt the Triumph’s top end back in the 1990s, after buying the bike as a non-runner with a stripped-down engine. The only thing I could find wrong with it was a badly cracked piston. How could that happen? There was no play in the big end and no vertical movement in the crank’s main bearings, so I bought a pattern piston and put it all back together again. Then, as was the way back then, I rode around on it for a while. The cylinder bore was I think a little scratched from the dying of the piston, which probably explains the exhaust smoke, although there’s so little of it that it didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now.
The brakes – both of them – are excellent. Simply that good. Effective and progressive, predictable and powerful. Were I of a different mind, I would remove the Triumph brake’s internals and fit them to the BSA, just to see what effect that had. But those days are past. I have had enough of the BSA’s entirely uncomical hub.
Restarting the Triumph is becoming difficult. Lots of kicks, fires, fails to catch. But eventually it does its thing, and off we go, completing a slightly strange route back to The Shed. The Better Third tries it out and returns with a wide smile. ‘Nice,’ she admits. Then a confession: ‘I quite liked the Starfire we borrowed from North Cornwall Motorcycles. This is like that.’ We should keep quiet about this.
In case you were wondering, there is a purpose to this, beyond a stupidly lengthy process to get a little sunburned and take a few photos. As sometimes happens when I decide that I have had quite enough thank you of a rebuild, a project, I take time to reflect on the whole extended process and consider what has actually been achieved. Also … I consider the actual cost, which is according to several friends a subject best avoided. Not here. Understanding comes with home truths, no?
So. The Triumph cost (I think) around £350 and I bought a new piston and a gasket set for it. So, total cost around £400. That was a while back, of course, 1998 being quite a way from 2017. What would it fetch today, as a decently original, matching numbers, decent runner in ‘scruffy’ order? Around £2000, at a guess.
Right. The BSA. That cost almost nothing because it was incomplete and in bits when I bought it – I think it cost around £40. Its first rebuild took as long as the current effort and was mostly mechanical, although Rowena slaved over the finish with remarkable persistence, while I provided encouragement and bought piles of parts – most of which did not fit. Welcome to the world of late BSA singles, then. After an expert rebuild of the power unit – the bike had arrived with no gearbox internals – the unit engine proved to have no first gear once back in the frame, I’m afraid that I lost all interest and deposited the thing at the back of The Shed. And although Sheds changed as we moved house twice, the bike remained at the back of them all. Until it seemed like a great idea to resurrect it.
How much did we spend on it back then? Probably around £1500. How much have we spent on it this time? This is where you should take a deep breath and consider infinity: it’s cost almost £3000. So … adding the spends together means that it’s cost us and therefore stands us at £4500 or so. How much would it fetch today? Full mechanical rebuild, full cosmetic wossname, and so on? Maybe £3000, because I would need to be honest about the brakes. There comes a point where reality intrudes upon every pipedream.
As if this wasn’t sufficiently discouraging, it gets worse. The Triumph is actually a nice ride. The BSA is not, entirely because it has no front brake, and fixing that would involve more expense, because I have already done everything possible to it – and failed to make it work properly. I have a spare wheel, but not a spare brake plate, so would need to find one and then go through the entire fit, fit and fit again routine until I eventually give up in screaming rage and frustration and beg Kenny at Ace Mosickles to take mercy on me!
And yes indeed, of course I considered removing the perfectly excellent brake plate from the front of the Triumph and fitting it to the BSA, but I have a slightly terrifying vision of ending up with two totally ineffective anchors where I have only one at the moment.
But, but, but. At this point I should also say that the reason behind the serious expense was that I employed expert services for lots of the jobs. These weren’t just the fiddly things like the gearbox rebuild (which I could have handled myself, although I would of course have doubted that it would ever work), or the wheel rebuild (if I didn’t work fulltime I would be happy to learn how to build my own wheels), or the fitting of the Pazon (which isn’t actually difficult; I simply lacked the time / enthusiasm to do it). Or the paint. If money was short and free time long, then I could actually paint things to a functional level. I employed experts to fix the various woes which I couldn’t, like working out how and why it wouldn’t fire, despite sparks and fuel, and like removing fasteners which resisted my best efforts at mechanical violence. And… I also bought a huge number of rubbish or wrong parts. The rubbish got returned, the wrong parts were my own mistakes and will surely come in handy one day. Or not. Never ask me how many speedo cables I have – instead look at almost every oily-frame BSA/Triumph single and observe the over-length cables.
So the BSA’s protracted build has been a disaster, yes? No. Because it has been insanely, impossibly enjoyable. Every minor stumble and every minor success have been entertaining, educational and somehow enlightening. Building old bikes like this should never be done for profit – unless you actually are a professional bike builder, in which case I take off my oily hat and salute you! Building old bikes used to be a skill demanded by our having no money at all, plenty of free time, access to scrapyards piled high with similarly worthless old bikes for spares. Who else remembers the gleeful anticipation of a Saturday trip out to the local breaker to hunt down a wheel with a better tyre than your own, or a 650 twin engine to shovel into the weary 350 single which was providing dully dependable transport? We needed to be able to keep the old horrors running because we needed them to get to work or school come Monday.
No more. Not in my case, and I’ll bet not in yours either. Old bikes are no longer cheap old bikes. Not ‘our kind’ of old bikes. Cheap old bikes now come from the far east, not from Coventry, Brum or London. And although it’s not fashionable to remember this, back when ‘our’ old bikes were cheap old bikes, folk threw them away – which is why
they were so plentiful and so affordable while piled high in the scrappies. Old bikes were actually as disposable back then as they are today. Have you seen the price of a five yearold Chinese 125?
It would be true to say that the cost of the BSA’s build has provided sufficient entertainment to make the entire insane, doomed project worthwhile. Of course it has, and I knew it would cost a fortune and be madly frustrating before I started. We always do know that, don’t we? No one compels us to spend years in a shed expending time, energy and megadosh on some ingrate of a motorcycle. No, this is something we do not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. Bet you’ve never read anyone comparing a Beezer rebuild with the Apollo space programme before!
Where I must confess a little unease is in the understanding that had I chosen a different bike for the build then I would not actually be looking at much of a loss – at least, not as much of a loss as would trouble my finances were I to sell the BSA. Which in any case I cannot, because it belongs to the Better Third, and she claims to actually like it. Well… she would if it had a front brake worthy of the name. I do wonder whether the brake would improve with use? Whether the shoes and drum would work better together as they rub along together, as they bed in…
You see: this is what happens. An idea pops up, takes a hold, and before we know it, we’re out to our shed, whipping out the spanners, and attempting to prove some other theory – or in this case, it would be on with the helmet and armoured leathers and undertaking terrifying (and plainly illegal, because I doubt that the B25SS could pass an MoT at the moment) adventures around the lanes, praying that the brake would decide to work properly before that tractor pulls out in front of us. Which they do.
The other bike I’d considered dragging from the slumber of ages at the back of The Shed when I dragged out the B25SS was a Sunbeam, an S8. Now then, assuming that the Sunbeam needed only cosmetics, it would have been far, far less financially injurious. It looks seriously scruffy – and indeed it is! – but when last it ran, it ran very well indeed. It suffered from starting issues when last it was pressed into service, but a distributor rebuild fixed that completely. And I remember that it wept tears of dark oil from somewhere high up at the front of the engine … but memory can be fickle.
So, a pile of paint would have set me back around £350, and… the rims are already black, and… there’s very little chrome. So from a financial perspective the ancient Beam would have made more sense than the B25SS. However, I actually wanted to build the Beezer. I have no idea why! Actually, I do. Because I still remembered my frustration with the mysteriously 3-speed gearbox and wanted to fix it. We did enjoy a domestic discussion about whether we should sell it once it was complete, but reached no
conclusion. Which is just as well, as you can imagine the agg had no one bought it. Or worse… the agg if they had!
Riding both BSA and Triumph 250s, one after the other, reminded both of us that these are actually entirely entertaining machines. If somehow I’d managed to fix that BSA brake, it is actually a great thing to ride. Starts very easily with the spangly new modern sparkler system, breathes well through its almost new Amal, and has new … well … everything. And the Triumph? The T25SS which is cosmetically challenged but otherwise sound in wind and wheel? And which is apparently developing mysterious and unpredictable starting symptoms of its own? What to do with that?
We did discuss selling that, too, not least because autumn is upon us, and I still need to take the Bullet for its MoT so it can be pressed into service because some inner insanity of mine demands that we ride a 2004 RE through the wet, salty winter rather than the even more cosmetically challenged T25SS. Maybe, we wondered, we should sell the Triumph? But surely it would fetch more if smartened up a little? Or not? Who can tell with these things?
Because time has moved on, as it relentlessly does. The Bullet and the Triumph are worth roughly the same money. The Bullet will continue to depreciate, but gently, whereas the Triumph is likely to continue to rise in value, but gently, so is – possibly – an investment. You can I hope share my amusement at all this? And that very amusement is what makes an old bike build so worthwhile, for me at least. And that amusement is why I acquired another BSA, the A65T which you may remember from a month or two back. I’ve started to acquire parts for that. Only this very morning a set of high exhaust pipes landed and…
But does it actuallystart reliablynow?Answer:Yes,it does.Iteventicks oversteadily. Pazon ignition andnew Amal carb working well together It always paystocheck thatthe coast is clear
Five minutes later, the Beezer’s back in The Shed, and this mighty monster is enduring ordeal by photography
One of these seemingly identical front brakes works really well, the other does not. Life is filled with mysteries
Although FW has declared the BSA finished, in fact there’s enough little jobs left to keep anyone amused for years. Like finding and fitting the correct bolt to fit the new, smaller fuel tank
As the original headlamp shell was seriously rusted, and the replacement from the last rebuild was re-chromed and paper-thin, FW fitted one bought from eBay and in apparently excellent condition. Except… except that the switch is the wrong one and the hole in the shell has been enlarged to accept it, which means that the correct original won’t fit. Similarly, the left-hand idiot light hole has been enlarged by some idiot (not FW) so the warning light just falls out
FW has stored this machine in The Shed for centuries, and he’s always been irritated by its wrong primary cover. He acquired a correct ‘Triumph’ replacement in 1999 or so, but…
Despite expert rebuilding, the B25SS oozes its lube. FW spent a happy age trying to figure out the source of the leak. Can you spot it?
Another tiny but irritating detail concerns the rear brake pedal. As you might be able to see, it’s supposed to rest on the stop cast into the footrest post for that exact purpose. Except… it doesn’t
Above: ‘Kicking is easy with eyes closed…’ Observe how far over the bike leans on its original sidestand, too!
Left: ‘I’ll just sneak off, then…’
Meanwhile, in other news, FW fitted a new battery to the Bullet. In fact, he fitted two; the first was completely dead on arrival Meanwhile, in other other news, strange things have been arriving from various faraway places. If you can work out what these are, give yourself a prize! ‘No no. BSA are best,’ she might have said with only a grim single note of irony…