The Classic Motorcycle
The light brigade
What have ‘round,’ ‘wedge’ and ‘saddle’ in common? They’re all hindsight names for BSA 250cc lightweights built in the 1920s. Although not exciting or sporting, the Beezer vintage tiddler range were favoured by many who needed tough, reliable, economical
As well as supplying guns to the civilian market for more than 150 years, the gunsmiths of Birmingham had supplied firearms to British and Overseas Governments, when, in 1854, during the Crimean War (1853-56), they united to form ‘The Birmingham Small Arms Association,’ or BSA.
Seven years later they formed The Birmingham Small Arms Company Ltd. This new company acquired a 25-acre site at Small Heath, Birmingham, and the Great Western Railway agreed to build a station and goods facilities nearby. During 1863, the initial factory building was finished – unfortunately not to the taste of many local residents, who likened it to a dull, bland fortress, with a tower at each corner.
At first using high quality American machinery, the wooden parts of guns were factory produced while the metal components were still hand finished.
Further American equipment – for precision manufacturing gun barrels and all other metal parts – was installed, and, although initially distrusted by the workforce, they were progressively brought into service. Juxtaposed against this modernism, on Saturday mornings workers were paid with coins from a bucket by their overseers.
In an ideal world, BSA as a factory should have been flat out, with staff enjoying acceptable incomes. But much of their output went to the military… And dealing with overnments can be tricky. Some rivals, including the National Arms and Ammunition Company Ltd, were bankrupted – BSA later acquired their premises – and from the mid-1870s until near the end of the decade, BSA was struggling. Desperate times called for desperate measures, including the sale of bulk amounts of weapons at under cost price to the Government, and in the bitterly cold winter of 1878 gunmakers’ families were on the brink of starvation, with the skilled workers digging ornamental ponds and creating flower beds at Victoria Park, which was then being created.
In 1880, Edward Carl Fredrich Otto demonstrated his Otto Bicycle, a unusual concept with the rider sitting on a saddle with a huge wheel to either side, by riding it up and down the BSA boardroom table, literally under the noses of board members, and thence down some stairs and into the street, at a ‘reckless pace,’ as a demonstration.
During the next few years, BSA made circa 1000 Otto Bicycles, which were sold by the designer’s London outlet at £21 each. The board also put pressure on the Government and were promised a new contract which may, or may not, have come about.
The Otto Bicycle made the BSA board aware of the fledgling, yet growing, interest in cycling, leading the company to design and build bicycles and tricycles, and take a stand at the 1881 Stanley Bicycle Club Exhibition. With little cash flow and even less raw materials in their stores, workers built prototype cycles from scrap items, including wheels laying around the factory and outside, because the board wouldn’t sanction spending money developing bicycles, as they considered it ‘a passing fad.’ Although selling 1500 of a single design in double-quick time should have changed minds, the board
continued to drag its feet.
Despite earning money from cycle manufacture, when the Government contracted BSA to re-equip the entire British Army with the Lee Metford rifles, the board stopped all cycle work at Small Heath in 1888, to produce these arms for the next five years.
The appearance of the pneumatic tyre in c1890 gave cycling a massive boost, and, over the next few years, cycling became a ‘must do pursuit,’ with existing cycling factories suddenly making huge fortunes and many new ‘wannabe’ makers and components suppliers springing up all over the world.
By concentrating solely on the Government rifle work, BSA was missing the cycle craze boat, and when the British Army had been reequipped by c1893, BSA again had few orders on its books and export trade was minimal, as many countries had set up their own armaments manufacturing facilities.
Fortunately for BSA, a board member was friends with George Illston, a cycling enthusiast and entrepreneur who persuaded the board the suddenly idle gun-making equipment and highly skilled workforce could easily switch to making top quality cycle components. First cycle wheel hubs were made, then chainwheels, cast frame lugs including steering head and bottom bracket, drawn frame tube, front forks and more. Workers who worked to high standards making guns and gun components maintained the same high standard for the cycle work. Rapidly, BSA became the one-stop supplier for quality cycle components which fitted, worked well and lasted. For his part, and despite his commission/royalties being cut from 5 to 1.5, Illston was earning £3000plus per annum during the late Victorian days, while BSA’s workforce had risen to 3000 too.
As the Boer War broke out in 1899, the Government placed huge orders for small arms – fortunately the BSA board had collectively learned their lesson and maintained their cycle component work. Despite this, BSA’s output of rifles rose to 2500 per week and seemingly the War Office respected BSA’s cycle work, as in 1902 they insisted BSA cycle components were used for all standard equipment bicycles. Truly a ‘win, win’ situation for the Small Heath factory.
Although the BSA board played a ‘wait and see’ with the new craze of motorcycling in case it was a flash in the pan, they weren’t opposed to trying to make a profit, making and supplying all components to make motorcycle rolling chassis from 1902/3 in the same way they made cycle components, but at the time didn’t make cycles.
Buyers of BSA motorcycle components sourced proprietary engines, ignition systems and other detail components independently, to complete the build of their machine/s. Some then named their machines to suit their taste, while others branded them BSA, which makes sense as many of the parts were supplied by the Small Heath factory.
It is known that by 1904/5 BSA had experimented building a few
complete machines using imported engines – probably Fafnir, Minerva and others. But BSA held off going into motorcycle production, perhaps playing the wait-and-see game a little longer.
Towards the end of the Edwardian period, BSA took two major steps into two-wheel production. First, in 1908 they restarted manufacturing complete cycles after a 21-year break. It is believed BSA started building prototypes of a 499cc single cylinder machine during 1909, with the vast majority of parts (other than items such as magnetos) manufactured in-house. Many have stated Small Heath took a long, hard look at the best British 500cc single on the market, the Triumph from nearby Coventry, before designing its own machine. Believe what you will of this statement… However, they would have none of the Triumph rocking action front fork, instead designing their own with parallel action controlled by a cantilever spring. The new BSA was offered in direct drive form for £50, while another £6.50 secured a cone hub clutch.
Soon machines – manufactured initially at BSA’s Redditch works – were selling well and although BSA were to have leanings towards racing and enjoyed some Brooklands success, until the debacle of their 1921 IoM TT entries their real competition interest was reliability trials. Models were updated and optional gearing was offered. In autumn 1913, BSA unveiled a 4¼hp, 557cc, single cylinder machine with three-speed gearbox, kick-starter, integral clutch, all chain drive (enclosed), strengthened frame for sidecar work and more. A chain-cum-belt variant was unveiled in late 1915, for the 1916 season.
The 6-7hp V-twin was launched in late
1919, then in autumn 1921 an 8hp V-twin was launched for the following model year. Despite the fact many rivals were selling in number under 500cc motorcycles, including lightweights and ultra-lightweights, BSA stuck to its big bike policy – perhaps, yet again, the board was playing a wait-and-see game, until they unveiled a new Sports model range. The traditional 500cc capacity model was offered, along with a 349cc side-valve machine, designed and built at Redditch, for the 1923 season.
Against a climate of price cutting and makers going out of business or reducing ranges, BSA announced the largely existing catalogue for the 1924 season, and took the brave step of guaranteeing prices for the entire season. However, they hadn’t revealed their trump card – a robust lightweight which would prove a best-seller and pull the rug from under many rivals.
The BSA Round Tank
During January 1924, BSA announced with press coverage its new baby, the two-speed, side-valve 249cc Model B. It was powered by a 63x80mm single cylinder engine mounted under a cylindrical tank strapped to its frame’s top tube, the engine driving through a two-speed gearbox with dry clutch, chains for primary and final drive, mechanical oil pump, both brakes operating on the rear wheel and 24x2¼inch beaded edge tyres. Finish in deep black enamel with nickel plate to the control levers, handlebars and front exhaust pipe, the maker adapted its traditional tank finish for the Model B’s cylindrical fuel tank.
Despite it being a lightweight with no sporting pretensions, the British motorcycle press gave the new Beezer an enthusiastic welcome, with Motor Cycling penning: “The latest addition to the already comprehensive range of BSA machines is an extremely sturdy and attractive lightweight that costs but £3915s (£39.75), scales some 170lb and is capable of a speed of about 45mph.” Later in their copy, the Green ’un added: “It is expected that the thoroughly practical nature of this so low priced, yet roadworthy, little machine, will secure for it many friends. We venture to predict a rosy future for it.”
BSA also hoped for a rosy future for its first lightweight, as the firm had invested heavily in setting up full mass production facilities, the first time for any British motorcycle factory. Their’s and the motorcycle press’s enthusiasm for the Model B was rewarded with an estimated 15,000 sales in its first year. The lightweight took many to work year in, year out, district nurses to far flung houses to deliver babies, local authorities and service providers bought them and famously the then GPO supplied them – albeit it’s claimed with restricted performance – to their telegram boys. Imagine the fun we all could have had as teenagers in the mid-1920s tearing round London, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff or in the country, pasting little Round Tanks delivering vital telegrams, and scraping the footrests on every bend.
Of course, the hardened speedmen slated the Model B with insults, doubted its parentage and reliability, with many predicting an early demise for this upstart with its dated cylindrical petrol/oil tank and no front wheel brake. Unwisely, the police involved themselves with the Model B through the courts, by summonsing an owner, claiming the two independent rear dummy rim brakes – one cable and one rod operated – did not meet the British legal requirement of two brakes. BSA brought the might of its legal team to the support of this unlucky owner, who duly won his case. This and all the insults
actually served to promote the machine to the public, who appreciated it as a tough, value for money, simple to ride motorcycle.
In August 1925, BSA announced a threespeed version of the Model B with a black instead of traditional green/cream panelled/ lined finish. And in hindsight to differentiate it from the two-speeder, it became the Model B De-Luxe.
Time to discuss names. BSA coded 250cc machines from the launch of the range in January 1924 until the start of the Second World War with the letter B, but in 1937 the new launch coil ignition side-valve was coded C10 and a year later its ohv cousin the C11. The launch Model B series with cylindrical tank was insulted with ‘marrow,’ ‘cucumber’ and the like names, but the affectionate Round Tank has stuck, and in a similar vein the B27/28 De Luxe was, in hindsight, nicknamed the Wedge Tank, which has since served to differentiate these super lightweights.
As well as offering a three-speed version of the Model B Round Tank, the factory progressively added updates, including during 1926 to the brakes. In August 1926, the factory announced the following season’s models, including the updated Model B, with wedgeshaped fuel tank and drum brakes to both wheels. This variant remained in production during the 1927 and 1928 seasons, although towards the end, production had to an extent slowed. However, it is estimated over 45,000 Round and Wedge Ranks were sold before the introduction of the saddle tank update.
Mechanically, the Wedge Tank – other than detail such as oil pump – remained as the earlier Round Tank, thus it offered similar performance and 80-120mpg depending on riding style, but it had better brakes and some were fitted with electric lights rather than acetylene lamps at extra cost.
Two motorcycling landmarks were significant for BSA during the second half of 1928. First, the firm sold its Lodge Road, Redditch factory, adding considerably to the company coffers, now centring all motorcycle, cycle and associated components production to
the Small Heath site. And secondly, although BSA had started to introduce the then modern saddle tank design in stages, it was announced in late summer 1928 that all 1929 models, including the Model B 250cc sidevalve, would sport saddle tanks, but excepting the Model G WT (World Tour) 986cc V-twin and a few 770cc Model Es.
In effect, the saddle-tanked B was an updated version of the Wedge Tank, simply fitted with a different petrol tank, still with a compartment serving the oil system. Options of electric lighting were offered with Lucas Magdyno and the makers were implying a top speed of 50mph with still 80-100mpg.
For 1930, Small Heath added an ohv 249cc version with neatly enclosed pushrods and a higher top speed. This was the first of a series of neat quick 250s BSA were to offer through the 1930s. Its introduction led to more complicated model identification, thus the side-valve version coded the B29, where 29 equals 1929 season, became the B30-3 for 1930 and the new ohv 250cc was the B30-4. And to make matters worse for 1931, the B30/3 became the B31/1, and there were two ohv models, the B31/2 and B31/3 – and it was set to get more confusing later!
Although at 174cc the A series shouldn’t be included, its mention concludes BSA’s vintage lightweights. Launched as the A28 for the 1928 season, it was powered by a single cylinder, three-port two-stroke engine with deflector piston and dimensions of 60x61.5mm. Its upright engine, with overhung crankshaft and integral two-speed gear system comprising pairs of spur gears with selection by dog clutch, was mounted in a neat, bolt-up duplex cradle frame. To be competitive in the cash-strapped late 1920s, the newcomer was priced at £28-10s (£28.50). Due to its gear primary drive, the engine ran backwards, like later unit New Imperials and 90-plus million Honda Cubs.
Initially well received, BSA’s little 174cc machine never enjoyed the runaway success of the Round and Wedge Tank 250s, although it did enjoy some extra sales in export markets, including Spain. However, Small Heath persevered to include it as the A29 in the last 1920s line-up and added a three-speed version, coded the A30-2 with the two-speeder the A30-1 – illogical but true, as A30-3 and A30-2 respectively would have made more sense? – for 1930, after which BSA finished with two-stroke motorcycles until the post-Second
World War Bantam.