Pure Gold

Is there a more iconic mo­tor­cy­cle e than BSA’S Gold Star?

Classic Dirtbike - - Contents - Words: Tim Brit­ton

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.

Pics: Tim Brit­ton, Mor­tons’ archive

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.

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