BSA A65 LIGHTNING
In 1965, Ray Jones bought a brand new BSA A65. 53 years later, he’s still riding that same bike after thousands of miles of club runs and international travel, the odd mishap and a complete rebuild…
In 1965, Ray Jones bought a brand new BSA A65. 53 years later, he's still riding that same bike after thousands of miles of club runs and international travel, the odd mishap and a complete rebuild...
When I left school in 1961, I got an apprenticeship at British Insulated Callender’s Cables in Prescot, Lancashire. Living in Widnes, I could easily cycle the seven miles across country to get to work. After a year, I was sent to BICC in Helsby, Cheshire; more like thirteen miles each way. Too far for me to cycle. A motorcycling uncle had a spare, 1954, plunger-framed, maroon 250cc BSA C11G that my parents (quite out of the blue) suggested I should use for transport. What a turn-up that was. I was overjoyed at the idea. I’d ridden pillion with this uncle a few times and loved it.
So I learned to ride – and loved it more, passed my test in 1963 and then traded the C11G in for a lovely red BSA A7 500cc twin with a full dolphin fairing. About this time I ‘found’ a girlfriend who came from a motorcycling family. Her dad was a despatch rider with the Royal Corps of Signals in WW2 and had owned a B33 sidecar outfit before his Ford Anglia. Her brother rode an always-immaculate BSA A10 with a Swallow sidecar. He was a member of the Warrington BSA Owner’s Club. So I joined, changing my relationship with my motorcycle from a means of transport to a way of meeting new people and making new friends.
Being a member of the BSAOC changed my life in a big way; motorcycling became my ‘life’ – Sunday runs, camping weekends and club nights meant that there was never a dull moment. We attended our first Dragon Rally in 1964 and did quite a few more after that.
Our nearest BSA dealership was Jack Frodsham in Warrington and I used them for all my BSA bits and bobs. I became aware in early 1965, when I was 22, that ‘Froddies’ had a new A65 Lightning on order. I quickly decided to put my name on it. At 654cc with twin carburettors it was said to be good for about 115mph – BSA’s answer to the Triumph Bonneville. It turned out a ‘massive’ 55bhp.
The Lightning was despatched from the BSA factory on June 2nd and it became mine on June 9th 1965, having duly signed the HP agreement. It was a beautiful machine, with a gold tank and side panels, a black frame and plenty of shiny chrome. It sported a siamesed exhaust system and 6V lighting. It cost me £368.3.6d, annual road tax was £8 and the four gallon tank would just take a pound’s worth of petrol. It was my first-ever brand new machine and it started a love affair with this motorcycle that is still ongoing today.
Initially the BSA was garaged next to my brother’s Norton Jubilee in our dad’s rather rickety old shed. I broke my collarbone in a motoring accident three months later and didn’t see it while I was recuperating. Once recovered, I was amazed and disappointed at how quickly the chrome work, especially on the tank, had deteriorated. After a lot of TLC
she looked very presentable and, as my only means of transport, was used every day and thoroughly cleaned every Saturday ready for the club run next day. And that way of life remained unchanged for years.
In 1966 we travelled to Vienna for the International BSAOC Rally, and rode through a lot of wet weather there and back, but my bike performed without a hitch. We were camping all the way and covered 2000 miles in two weeks. ’66 was a memorable year, and during the trip we saw people on the campsites getting very excited about some soccer matches, but motorcycling was our lives. As we waited at Calais to board the evening ferry back to England we were greeted by car drivers coming off the boat shouting through open windows; ‘We’ve won! We’ve won!’ It was lost on us. It turned out that England had won a trophy…
The ACU National Rally became a regular event with our branch, a 600-mile journey over 24 hours plus getting to the start point and then home again. The Lightning always amazed me because riding for that length of time makes you a wee bit weary, but the bike was always ready to go, no matter how I was feeling.
After Jennifer and I were married in 1967, we continued being very active members of the Warrington BSAOC with a bike that always looked good and performed well. There were little niggles every now and again, as were expected with British bikes at that time, but nothing major. The advance/retard unit was the most consistent cause for complaint and I acquired a bagful of them over time. I fitted electronic timing many years later and all those problems instantly disappeared.
On one club run to York, my bike started running on one cylinder – faulty coil. A very nice man from the AA found a 6V coil on a Ford Popular in a scrapyard and got me going. That coil stayed on the bike for some time before I replaced it, as it worked perfectly. I never have been to York to this day…
In 1970 we had our first child, so I fitted a single-seat Watsonian GP Sports sidecar and had it sprayed gold to match the bike. I changed the gearbox sprocket from 21 teeth to the recommended 19 and that helped it perform well. Driving the outfit took a bit of getting used to, as it was a bit of a struggle with the standard handlebars. A pair of wider trials-type bars fitted and square-section Avon tyres made for better handling. It was fun once I got used to it, and keeping the chair wheel down on left-handers was quite an art!
My wife enjoyed riding pillion, so the sidecar was the natural place for our new son. He was very much at home there and we took him camping with us, and life carried on very much as it was before. The bigger tent and extra luggage needed for our larger family easily fitted with the addition of the sidecar.
During the 1971 ACU National Rally the engine rather annoyingly threw a conrod in Wisbech in the middle of the night. Oh no! A friendly marshal allowed me to leave the outfit at his place until the following week, and I jumped on the back of a friend’s A7 Shooting Star and continued with the rally. We did the round trip of 450 miles to pick up the bike on a friend’s trailer and the whole family (including my parents) made a day of it and brought the BSA home.
The conrod had broken through the bridge piece at the crankcase mouth and snapped it clean off. That was all! It was a pretty clean break and a friend’s father had a specialist
welder do a fantastic repair and the crankcase was as good as new. One conrod was badly marked, so a new pair was fitted and the engine put back together. Life carried on but after that, I began not to trust this power unit as much as I did before. Pulling the chair was a bit of a strain on the 654cc motor. I got word that Derek Rumble, who successfully raced his Rumble BSA sidecar, had a spare A65 Lightning engine for sale, and it had a number of Devimead goodies on it. It was a later, 750 motor with polished conrods, an oil feed conversion, four spring clutch, etc. This sounded too good to be true. So I bought it and put it in my frame.
The extra power was very noticeable, and useful when pulling the sidecar loaded with camping gear. But anything that wasn’t needed on a race engine had been sawn off to reduce weight. There were odd cut-outs in some of the engine casings. Well that’s OK, it’s only cosmetic. My bike was now seven years old and I was happy with it.
In 1973 we were expecting our second child so I swapped the GP Sports for a Watsonian Palma child/adult sidecar to accommodate the extra body. I had that sprayed gold to match, I did the simple conversion to 12V and fitted a reflective number plate and indicators so we could be seen better. We’d already booked and paid for that year’s BSAOC rally when we learned we were actually expecting twins. They were eight weeks old at the start of the rally and with the help of friends (again) we took the entire family on two outfits. Another friend took all the ‘baby stuff’ in her car and we had a fabulous time. The weather was great and we took part in every trip and ride out. All the bikes pulled into a layby when it was time for us to feed the twins (every four hours at that age) and nobody was heard to complain!
In 1975 I built a camping trailer for use with our Morris Traveller, and it seemed a natural move to hook the trailer to the sidecar and have the best of both worlds. This was easily done, and the handling was a little different but easy to manage. The brakes on the bike weren’t brilliant, and the brake on the sidecar wheel never worked, so stopping quickly could be a problem. But extra vigilance when approaching hazards helped to brake early.
1976 saw us on our way the BSAOC rally in Karlsruhe, Germany, with the family of five plus the trailer and all our gear. Our three year-old twins sat side-by-side on the front seat of the sidecar (with little safety harnesses) and our six year-old sat in the back seat. They were as good as gold all through France, Luxemburg and into Germany for the rally. It was glorious weather until the ride home – then it poured down all the way. But it was a great first-time Continental trip with the children.
The next international rally was in Holland, so we planned for that trip – as the last year’s had been easy, this one should be just the same, surely? Wrong! The big ends went before we’d done 60 miles. A very nice AA man took us to a friend’s house, and he allowed the five of us to stay for a couple of nights while I sorted out the engine. Luckily we weren’t too far from the Devimead works in Tamworth so we took the engine to Les Mason, the owner of Devimead, and asked him if he could repair it. ‘Yes’ he said, ‘Come back tomorrow and it’ll be ready’. So we left him with it.
It turned out that the oil feed conversion was not by Les Mason but was a Heath Robinson copy. The sludge trap was damaged and full of sludge, contributing to the demise of the big ends. We were in good hands, and Les stayed back on the Friday night to ensure
that the work was completed so we could be on our way to Holland. Which we were, as soon as I had re-fitted the engine and bolted everything up. With grateful thanks to Les and his team for a brilliant service, we were mobile again. We were all happier with the engine from then on and we got about 55mpg, not too bad for all that load!
Life carried on much as before, but our children were getting bigger and heavier. The BSA didn’t really object to this extra weight, but it was becoming a tight squeeze. Camping by car was much easier, and my job took me away from home so I was unable to attend club nights. So that chapter of my life closed and another opened. I still used my Lightning, but not as often. As the children were now too big to be comfortable in the sidecar, I decided to convert back to solo trim: put the gearing back to standard, keep the reflective number plate and the indicators, too. Anything to be seen more easily. In solo form, pulling away easily in a straight line made a change from having to put a lot of right hand lock when towing the trailer.
After moving home and job in 1989 I used the bike for work on fine days, but it was showing its age. From a distance it still looked OK, but it had done such a lot of hard work during its life, and it was telling its own story. I thought about restoring the BSA to its former glory myself, but I didn’t have the space or the tools or the confidence to tackle such a major job. I’m so much in awe of you guys who turn a rusty old basketcase into a beautiful, gleaming motorcycle. I really am.
I saw an advert by SRM saying that they did rebuilds on A65s, but the price was initially out of my range… until I retired from work in 2006 with a redundancy package, and shortly after that I inherited some money. This made the decision to talk to SRM easier. So in September 2007 I handed the Lightning over to them. By now, especially with the tank and side panels removed, it looked a very sorry sight.
Any full resto job is time consuming, and I had to be patient – even more than I expected. I wanted the finished machine to look like the classic bike that it was, with modifications to the spec to improve it. For example; a complete nut-and-bolt rebuild; use of stainless steel where possible instead of plated steel; new chrome parts or rechromed where possible, and an 18-inch rear wheel with a fatter tyre to stop it looking like a moped. Electronic ignition, 12V electrics of course, indicators with the BSA handlebar control and Mikuni carbs for more reliability over the Amal.
The engine rebuild came as a bit of a financial shock, because those cut-away sections of engine casings and the Heath Robinson oil feed conversion meant that virtually all the engine castings had to be replaced – the high quality demanded by SRM wouldn’t allow such parts to be on their finished machine. I had to agree.
But SRM were great to deal with, and nothing was too much trouble for them. Their attention to detail was excellent and their standard of work has proved to be perfect. A real bunch of dedicated motorcyclists, so what more could you ask for?
The work included the usual needle roller conversion to replace the timing side bush as standard fayre, as was a Dyna dual ignition coil, a single-phase rectifier to replace the Zener diode; Ikon rear shocks, stainless spokes, polished conrods, magnetic sump filter, leadfree valve seats; inlet valves plasma-hardened and outlet valves Stellite head and tip Tuftrided; brake shoes relined and skimmed on the brake plates to match skimmed hubs (wow! What a difference that made), etc, etc.
The petrol tank had two dents in it – one from when the bike was only six months old – and that single item cost more to be repaired, chromed and painted than it did to buy the bike in the first place.
It was worth the wait. I had the bike returned to me in March 2008 and I was so pleased with how it looked and how it performed. My first outing in the dark with the 60W quartz halogen headlight was amazing – what a brilliant light when compared to the old pre-focus bulbs! But it took its toll on the battery. I’ve since change all the lamps to LEDs and that’s another amazing change – and no more problems with the battery not keeping its charge. The LEDs were a simple modification and a huge improvement. So many older bikes just have a glimmer of front headlamp, and the LEDs make a big difference to seeing and being seen. Flashing indicators are a must for night riding.
The resto job was ten years ago, and I recently joined the very active Blackpool and District Section of the VMCC and am enjoying riding the Lightning even more with such a great group of guys. I still do the 100 mile round trip to the Warrington BSA club when the weather is dry. It’s nearly all motorway but the Lightning performs well at a between 65 and 70, and remains oil-tight. I get about 70mpg on a not-too-fast ride now, on 97 octane, as the cylinder head has been skimmed and has two head gaskets fitted. I recommend regular oil changes at around 1000 miles with a straight 40-weight oil. I’m using Castrol Classic XXL in my engine now.
If there was one modification which made the biggest difference then it was the original 750 conversion – Devimead may be long gone but SRM offer something similar. The BSA is now 53 years old and every ride takes me back to 1965 when the bike was new… and I’m 22 again!
Jennifer’s dad on his Norton 16H sometime around 1943
Ray’s wife Jennifer on her dad’s BSA B33
And then, in 1965, Ray acquired his new Lightning – check out the receipt!
Ray’s first bike, a 1954 C11G
1963, and after passing his test Ray traded his BSA for a bigger BSA; an A7
Dragon Rally in 1964 on the A7. Ray and Jennifer
Year 2000, the new millennium. The bike looks OK from a distance…
Above: The big rebuild. The engine, primary drive on displayRight: That engine, back in its rolling chassis
Above: Next generation: Ray’s grandchildren enjoying the newly rebuilt BSA Inset: Showing off at the Wrea Green VMCC stand in 2018
On the road again, better than new
Above: Those new carbs, and with the side panels modded to accept the air filtersRight: As new, and as restored