Is there a more iconic motorcycle e than BSA’S Gold Star?
At one time, to win in scrambling, a rider had to invest in the gold standard, BSA’S gold standard that is the Gold Star.
The motorcycle now referred to as ‘Goldie’ by enthusiasts the world over didn’t spring fully formed from the fertile minds of the BSA comp shop... though the guys in there had more than a hand in creating the legend. For this feature we’re concentrating on the swinging arm version of the Gold Star introduced for 1953 with all the pomp and circumstance one would expect for such a machine in coronation year. Yes there were ‘Goldies’ with swinging arm suspension before that date, and yes they were well known, but this is the production date and neatly puts Gold Star scrambles bikes into a 10 year bracket as by 1963 the 500cc model was discontinued and the world wanted the unit machines on which Jeff Smith was busily creating another legend.
These last machines were the BDB34 500cc models – the 350cc version was discontinued in 1958, though if one approached one’s BSA dealer with cash BSA would, to order, supply a 500cc scrambles model fitted with a 350 engine… but only if the customer specified it. Talk about weird!
There’s hardly a rider in the world who hasn’t thought that mounted on a bigger bike they’d be faster, better, more stylish and nearer the front of the pack. To a point BSA played on this, and it was true the easiest way to win a scramble in the 1950s was to be on a BSA Gold Star. In part this was because the bike had benefitted from development by the biggest motorcycle maker in the world, a maker with the resources and talent to produce whatever it wanted – the Honda of its day if you will.
Though the factory films of the day are laughably quaint in these days of ultra-clean engineering works and computer controlled robotics, in its day BSA was advanced.
Ignore that the workers appear to have storecoats and overalls waterproofed by grease, ignore the flat caps and that almost everyone appears to have a cigarette in their mouths, instead marvel that the factory could work to impressive tolerances and accuracy with hand and basic machine tools.
It was in this environment the legend began, but not with a scrambles bike.
The gold star which gave the sports 500 its name in the 1930s was awarded for lapping Brooklands race circuit in Surrey at over 100mph. This may seem easy these days but was quite a notable achievement then. The man responsible was Wal Handley, who had been a noted racer but was largely retired by the late 30s. However, he stepped up to the mark and earned the badge which gave BSA the opportunity to launch the 500cc Gold Star model at the 1937 motorcycle show.
While a smart machine, it was initially ignored by the speed men thanks to BSA’S image of producing stolid ride-to-work machines. But those in the off-road world soon found it was a worthy performer, including on the international stage where it gained prestige for the company and UK during the ISDT. Sadly for all concerned the Goldie’s stable mate, one with which it shared a lot of components the M20WD, was to take centre stage for six years.
Post Second World War came the trials rigid models, and with sport beginning to hot up BSA wanted to be involved in all aspects.
Irishman Bill Nicholson had impressed the factory with a second place to their star man Fred Rist at the Colmore Cup Trial while riding a home built BSA. A further good show in the Victory Trial saw BSA loan Nicholson a new competition Gold Star on which he won the Hurst Cup Trial in Northern Ireland. BSA suggested he ride in the Cotswold Scramble soon after convincing him he wouldn’t have to ride any faster than he had in the Hurst Cup Trial.
Nicholson had a Mccandless swinging arm conversion fitted to his own BSA, took it over to Gloucestershire, endured the ridicule of those who knew a rigid rear end was the only way for success in the dirt, and showed them that this was not strictly true by winning both 350 and 500 classes on the same bike.
A job was offered with BSA in the comp shop but Nicholson had to ride the plunger framed machine the company had just introduced, though he modified it to his style by slipping dampers in the plunger units. Expected to ride in trials too, he felt the standard machine to be a bit too heavy so sorted a lightweight all-welded frame for his machine. It caused a furore and he was ordered to cut it up, but fate intervened when BSA’S MD saw it and liked it. Nicholson won on it, the company would make it – eventually – and Bill decided to make the frame into a swinging arm type too. Obviously for the purposes of this feature we’re zipping through history and what’s said in a sentence or two here has filled many a BSA book. The development might have seemed to be over in a flash but it wasn’t quite that simple. However, the actual time between getting the go-ahead to build a spring frame and be testing it on a track was less than a week. Nicholson (or the rest of the team) wasn’t allowed to use the new frame in the UK but had to restrict it to Grands Prix at first during 1951. A production version of the frame was being tested in 1952, appearing at the ISDT try-out in Wales for that year’s ISDT. Riders such as the Johns Avery and Draper were winning on the Nicholson-inspired frame and for the 1953 season it was a production item.
The engine and gearbox
We’ve ignored the engine development going on during this time but it was also looked at by the company. Naturally as soon as possible the early models were fitted with alloy barrels and heads to become the ZB, then came the BB, followed by the CB, then the big fin DB and finally the DBD motor made its appearance... and that was just about it for the engine. But within those designated letters is a world of difference. From long to short strokes, big bores, big fins, oval flywheels, big valves, small valves and so it goes on.
As a race motor the Goldie came with a comprehensive list of what shouldn’t be ignored. In the early days, to rivet up a flywheel was considered the best way for a performance mod. Why’d they do it? Because the flywheels were mild steel and not noted for rigidity, so the factory riveted the shafts in place. A recommendation of 40 safe race hours had to be strictly adhered to or the consequences could be a blown motor. Modern cranks are from better material and the problem doesn’t occur.
Same too with oil pumps. There are modern performance ones which pump more oil than BSA’S could and that has to be good. In fact there are few areas in which the Goldie engine hasn’t benefitted from improved material spec. In part this is because of the esteem the engine is held in
and that it has a band of loyal followers who want to use their bikes.
There are certain folklore aspects to the Goldie and these revolve around such things as gear clusters and ratios for the different applications the Goldie was used in.
The one which concerns us here is the SC denomination for scrambles box. When needle roller bearings were added to the layshaft then a letter ‘T’ was stamped after the initial letters. A further development came when a needle roller bearing replaced a plain bush in the mainshaft and the number ‘2’ was added into the sequence. In order to keep their bike to the fore in all areas BSA provided a wealth of information on settings and specs to the private owner as well as probably the world’s most comprehensive list of spares and accessories. Theoretically one could purchase a standard touring model and enough parts to switch between trials, scrambles and racing.
The classic scene
Almost as soon as the factory stopped doing the Goldie the outside world began with it, and word crept out about what the factory had done to keep it going.
Bill Nicholson, for example, used Triumph fork internals in his forks since the early 1950s and the difference it made to suspension was incredible, though it was the 1960s before word filtered through. The frame kit is an all-welded light type and while Eric Cheney did do a tricker chassis the Goldie one is pretty well developed. Lots of riders feel Norton’s Roadholder forks are a worthwhile improvement, but suspension has moved on a bit since those heady days and slipping internals from modern suspension inside older legs is beneficial.
Now, I’ve nothing against modifying bikes per se, but so many times this happens it’s not done correctly and the bike looks odd. The Gold Star is a handsome beast and even if it is intended as a race bike why spoil its looks when, with a bit of thought, the look of the machine can be retained and performance improved. In this I can suggest no finer example than the 350 Goldie of Nevil Wright which we featured some time ago.
A development engineer with motor sport experience, Nevil drew his concept machine from one his father used to race and patiently developed in the 1960s. There are several ways to enhance motorcycle performance – big bores, super tuning and fancy fuels – however, the more subtle way to increase oomph is to make the weight the motor has to haul around a lot less. It’s this aspect which Nevil chose to deal with, though he admitted the inside of the motor was quite high spec too, for a 350.
A load of parts had been collected for a bike his dad was actually going to build but didn’t manage to, so Nevil took up the mantle.
With the components mostly in the workshop it was time to bring in the most useful bit of workshop kit… the kettle. The amount of times sitting down with a cuppa and thinking things through has saved expense and dead ends must be innumerable.
Each specific part of the machine was looked at, and if it could be made lighter then that’s what happened.
Traditionally hollowing out bolts, shafts and spindles is an easy way to reduce weight, then filling things with holes but without weakening the part can also shed pounds. It gets more complicated when experience from the motor industry comes in to play and deforming thin steel saves weight for brackets originally made from thicker material.
Where things have to be a specific thickness to do a specific job there’s no reason why they can’t be relieved here and there. What we’re talking about is things which have vast areas of dead surface which Nevil milled out to thin them at non strategic points... and again down came the weight. Same with distance pieces and spacers. Thin in the middle thicker at the ends for support.
Alloy rims, modern, and alloy fork yokes all save vital weight and make for rideability so the end result is if not a light bike, then a lighter one and a good looking one to boot.
None of your fancy electrickery here... just a well sorted magneto.
nside ABSA There’salotofbitsi Gold Star engine.
It’s a good looking motorcycle – timeless, understated. Alloy yokes are slightly more up to date than BSA’S steel ones. Ahole in theengine plateallowsthe clutch cabletolineupnicely. Hollowed bolts and countersunk heads save a bit of weight, as does milled engine plates.
Single sided brake works well and is in alloy. A neat footrest bracket mounts on the gearbox. Classic style alloy hub saves evenmore pounds. Alloy barrel and head – lighter and cooler.
Classic two gallon alloy tank finishes off the top of the bike nicely.