Memorable Motorcyles: BSA Titanium
By Frank Melling
The $40 Million Motocrosser
When I sat down to look at some of the photographs which accompany this article, I begin to realize how old I am. I began racing in an era when British factories ruled the world. Now, BSA is largely a folk memory. How hath the mighty fallen, indeed!
To appreciate this story, the reader must understand that at one time, spectators used to cheer Chris Horsfield riding a CZ, simply because he broke up the monotony of the factory BSAs filling the first six places in an international motocross; the Birmingham factory's grip really was that tight.
It was the same era in which the BSA group had the most modern motorcycle factory in the world, and when confidence amounting to crass arrogance filled every room in the Armoury Road complex.
I remember sitting eating lunch with a group of BSA middle management who spent an hour and a half laughing at Honda because they didn't have a bike bigger than 450cc and dismissing all Yamahas as foul-handling, smoky two-strokes. And this was at the same time that BSA's own bikes were dogged with some of the most gross unreliability ever seen in production engineering. Did the Japanese steal the British motorcycle industry? Not in the slightest degree - they were given it on a solid gold plate!
So, it is against this backdrop of power, self-confidence and, to be fair, technological know-how second to none, mixed with a breathtaking arrogance that one of the most interesting stories in motocross develops.
Prior to 1966, motocross had been a game played by amateurs with amateur rules. Yes, the participants were members of factory teams, but in essence they were sportsmen with limited budgets and limited interest in the commercial potential of motocross. BSA was to change all this. Again, to put this in perspective, Dave Nichol, who was one of BSA's top runners, trained with a brisk game of golf - rather than a leisurely one. Racing, even at the top level, really was done in this delightfully gentlemanly way.
Apparently nothing had altered in 1966, except that Jeff Smith appeared on a brand-new bike which was costing BSA about 50 times as much as his previous one. Excited by Jeff's two previous world championship wins, the BSA management had decided to win three world championships in a row and, for the first time in the history of motocross, brought all the resources of a major manufacturer to bear on the problem. BSA had rewritten the rules of the game and from now on it would be played in a quite different way.
It must be remembered that in 1966, the BSA group was not only one of the world's leading motorcycle manufacturers but was also amongst the biggest and most important industrial concerns in Britain, with interests in every aspect of engineering ranging from making taxicab bodies to fine lost-wax castings.
BSA and Triumph made a comprehensive range of machines from 75cc to 650cc and the company's sales figures, especially in America, were impressively good. Carried along by the tide of this strength and confidence, the BSA management was looking for concrete ways of expressing the company's success and expertise - the winning of a third world championship must have looked both an attractive and attainable goal.
Brian Martin, the factory's race team manager, had established a sound record of success with his small and highly efficient competition department, and in 1965 the team had shown its ability to produce a world class machine on a limited but adequate budget. Now their success attracted, for the first time, serious interest at executive level. Martin's budget limit was cancelled and BSA's senior designers formed a committee to build the best motocross machine the world had ever seen.
This increase in status would have been welcomed by Brian and his men were it not for the fact that the task of designing was taken out of their hands. Neither Martin nor double world champion Jeff Smith were consulted about the new world-beater, but instead were confronted with a fait accompli and told to go out and win a world championship on it.
The committee's reasoning was simple. If a lightweight 440cc bike won races, then an even lighter 500cc machine would do the job even better. The answer, to these skilled engineers, seemed obvious - build virtually the whole bike from titanium. The titanium alloy which BSA chose for the exercise was 65% lighter than steel on a strength-for-strength basis and only 80 times more expensive. Worries about money, the executives said, would not taint this venture.
Having issued instructions about what to do and how to do it, the gurus stood back and waited for their efforts to come to fruition, whilst Brian Martin was given the task of transforming the idea into metal.
First, he consulted the Speedwell Gearcase Company of Birmingham, who were conveniently near to BSA's Armoury Road factory. Speedwell was already suppliers to BSA and was one of the few companies in the world at that time familiar with the properties and manipulation of titanium. Speedwell had already successfully cooperated with several firms in the use of titanium in sports cars and also in the aircraft industry, so they were the obvious choice. The company was also heavily involved in the production of fail-safe components for the nuclear energy industry and so if it were possible to make a frame in titanium, then Speedwell was the firm to do it.
When the BSA design arrived, Speedwell threw up their collective hands in horror, for what they were being asked to make was a titanium copy of a steel frame. The properties of titanium are markedly different from those of steel tubing, and it was obvious from the outset that the frame was not going to work.
At the time, much was made of the difficulties of producing the titanium BSA bike, but Speedwell's chairman, Mr. Markey, insisted that the actual manufacture was straightforward. All the techniques used were well understood in the aircraft industry and, "It could have been possible to make a very sophisticated frame without stretching known technology beyond safe limits."
In fact, from receiving the order to producing all the components took a mere 12 weeks and, from then on, one frame per week was built until 20 had been completed.
Unquestionably there were difficulties in fabrication, for one of titanium's many unusual properties is that it absorbs oxygen and hydrogen from the air when it is heated and then becomes weak and brittle. To avoid this problem, all the welding had to be carried out in a sealed chamber which was filled with inert argon. There are more sophisticated ways of welding titanium now with gas shielded torches but, 40 years ago, the gas-filled chambers were as good as it got. Even so, equipment like this was limited to a few workshops in the world and was not be found in any motocross paddock - as the BSA team were to discover to their cost during the forthcoming season.
Other than changing the BSA design to meet the specialized needs of working with titanium, Speedwell had to accept it with a mixture of concealed mirth and resignation and ploughed on to make the best of a difficult job. In fairness to BSA, the frame design was based on proven race experience - something which Speedwell did not have. And, since no-one had built a Ti-frame before, there was no past experience on which to draw. Four years later, Husqvarna and Speedwell did build a Ti-frame which handled quite well, but even this was prone to breakage. This was in spite of the fact that the Husky design had been developed at the expense of BSA's hard won and expensive knowledge.
Not only was the frame built in titanium but the rest of the bike was made as light as was feasible with the available technology of the day. Many parts were machined from the solid at the Small Heath works, with most of the engine's internals being produced by hand. The timing gears, connecting rod, engine sprocket and even the rockers were made in titanium, whilst duraluminium was used for the clutch drum. Magnesium was used for the engine cases and fork sliders. Fabricated Ti-box sections were used for the fork crowns, and whilst these were extremely strong, the cost was astronomical.
With BSA's name attached to the project, other major companies could easily be persuaded to help. For example, Dunlop rolled titanium rims for the bike which were then welded by Speedwell. As was current BSA practice at the time, a 20" front rim was used and an 18" employed at the rear. Interestingly, tire sizes were 3.00 x 20 on the front wheel and only 4.00 x 18 at the rear - sizes which would be considered suitable only for child motocross machines today.
The one question which no one can answer is what the project actually cost. Part of the difficulty is that at BSA race shop work carried on in-house was not costed, so that top-class craftsmen, earning prime wages, might spend 30 hours machining a con-rod from a solid billet and the cost would be "nothing." How many thousands of man-hours it took to manufacture all the bits and pieces for the engine and frame will never be known, for all these expenses - and they were very real ones - were lost within the vastness of the BSA empire.
Worse still, these highly skilled craftsmen - really the power-house behind BSA - were distracted from doing work on production bikes to make race parts for the race team. They enjoyed making these exotic "one-offs" but it was commercial madness to allow them to do so.
Not for nothing did BSA works manager, Al Cave, refer to the comp. shop fitters as "professional thieves" (on behalf of the race shop, not themselves).
Speedwell, too, allowed their records to go, for after seven years a project is declared "dead" and the relevant data disposed of. However, each frame cost approximately $4,500 and BSA ordered 20, all of which were completed, although very few were used in competition. To put this in perspective, a nice detached house on a middle-class housing estate cost around $2,000 at the time. Thus, each frame was taking a sum of money out of BSA equal to a couple of bungalows! Today, think of a $400,000 per bare frame - a sum which puts Rossi's MotoGP Yamaha in the swap meet end of the market by comparison.
If the cost of producing the frames alone ran to over $90,000, then the rest of the project must have cost as much - at a conservative estimate - for as well as the machining and manufacture of the engine parts, every conceivable item was produced in titanium or magnesium.
How much is this worth in today's terms? Well, a reasonable guestimate might be $40 million - a sum which simply dwarfs any other motocross budget before or since - and an indication of just how much the factory wanted to win that third World Championship.
It would have been nice to recall that all the efforts of the team succeeded, but in fact the titanium BSA was one of the worst motocross machines ever produced by BSA, and proved to be the bane of Brian Martin's life. The problems stemmed from the fact that there were just too many unknown quantities incorporated within the design for the team to have a chance of seriously racing the bike in the Grands Prix. The Ti-BSA was in fact a mobile research unit instead of a serious racing machine, and while it provided an immense amount of information, it also reduced to tears those who had to race it.
The bike's first outing was at the Hants Grand National in April 1966, and from the outset there were teething troubles. What really worried Jeff Smith, who rode the bike exclusively, and Brian Martin, was that the first G.P. was only weeks away and they were still playing around with an untried machine. During the first half of the season, it proved to have many endearing traits which any team can well do without. The most serious was that the frame flexed much more than steel and was prone to wallow in corners and pitch badly over bumps.
Again, this problem needs putting in perspective. Suspension at the time was crude. The Girling rear dampers gave a nominal 4" (100mm) of travel. The front fork did a little better. However, in both cases the suspension was really only effective in the central range of travel - each "end" being virtually useless. This meant that frame flex was utterly essential and all manufacturers of the day designed it into the chassis.
Frames which were too stiff either broke or were ridiculously heavy. Frames which flexed too much destroyed rider feel which was essential both for handling and to find grip.
Despite all Speedwell's care, this constant flexing caused the welds to crack - as they did with the later Husqvarna frames - causing endless problems because paddock repairs were out of the question. The engine, too, was less than successful. The titanium con-rod work-hardened when it came into contact with the flywheels and effectively machined them down during the course of a race. The engine sprocket had a habit of welding itself to the crankshaft and the rocker arms would seize at the slightest provocation. The magnesium crankcases were also new and these expanded allowing the bearing houses to turn.
Some parts of the bike did work but, ironically, these were mainly the existing designs. The front brake was the well-proven single sided 6" hub which had been used on the Gold Stars. When heavily drilled, and held in place with a titanium wheel spindle and using a magnesium brake plate, this set-up was as light as anything and provided excellent stopping power.
The rear brake was not such a success, although it was innovative in the extreme. In addition to being heavily involved in motocross at the time, the BSA group, through their U.S. Triumph subsidiary, was also doing great things in American road racing where Gary Nixon and Dick Hamer achieved a lot of success on the 490cc Daytona Twins. These bikes used an American Airheart rear disc brake which was light and provided good stopping power for the road racers. The disc was mounted on a spool hub with a plain sprocket employed at the other end, and the result was a saving of several pounds over the conventional drum brake. Naturally, the disc found its way on to the Ti bike.
A key factor in the Airheart design was that the disc "floated" on shouldered bolts, and whilst this was no problem where there was relatively little movement involved, as on the smooth American speed bowl circuits, things were not so happy when the disc was attached to a titanium swinging arm, which was in itself subject to flexing, and then pounded up and down for the 45 minutes of a Grand Prix.
In practice, the disc proved no better in providing retardation than a drum and also suffered from lack of feel since the operation was hydraulic. Worst of all, the shouldered bolts often capitulated in the strains of battle and broke, leaving Smithy with no rear brake at all.
Of all the new ideas, only the front fork proved effective. This offered some 5" of movement, quickly increased to 6" and were both light and strong. They obviously owed more than a little in their design to the Italian Ceriani forks but had the dual advantages of a better damping system and a lighter unsprung weight because of the use of magnesium for the sliders. This fork was still being used, in a modified form, by the last BSAs. Any rider of a late BSA Group machine can look at the front of his bike and see the direct, and not too distant, descendant of this fork. The design was so effective that it later became the standard pattern for the whole of the company.
Smithy did get an occasional good result, such as a win in Finland, but more often than not he would be forced to retire through mechanical problems. What made the situation all the more tragic was that when the chassis was produced in steel, it was a very good one and the new 494cc engine proved an excellent powerplant, producing some 33.5 bhp at 6,000 rpm. What was even more impressive was that it gave 25 bhp at 4,000 rpm and peak torque came at only 4,500 rpm. Even at 2,000rpm, there was enough urge available to really power out of corners.
In addition to having a competitive powerplant, Jeff Smith was at or near his riding peak. With two world championships to his credit, he had matured as a rider and was still fit enough to go really hard for a 45-minute Grand Prix. Had the race shop been left to its own devices, it is highly likely that BSA would have gained its third world championship.
So much of the glory of BSA has been lost that it is satisfying to know that one jewel from the crown has been saved. In this case, Peter Vale-Onslow, the enthusiastic head of the mammoth Birmingham motorcycle dealership bearing his family name, saved the titanium BSA from extinction when he purchased it along with other race-shop exotica and several tons of BSA racing parts - certainly enough to keep the Ti-BSA running for ever and a day.
Thanks to Mr. Vale-Onslow's generosity, in 1983 I was granted the privilege of being the first and only journalist ever to ride this fabulous beast, and I think that I still hold that distinction. At the time, the bike was still undergoing restoration and was not quite in original trim. In place of the troublesome "special" engine, a 499cc "works" motor was fitted, which was of slightly later vintage but gave identical power characteristics. The bike itself has suffered much in the vagaries of its mixed life and so was in less than pristine condition.
As I pulled the Beezer back on compression, the objective historian in me fled and left instead a very basic BSA fan to do the riding. It was just too much to ask of someone who had peered through the chestnut palings of Hawkstone Park, watching the mighty BSA team at work and who had queued along with other awe-struck teenagers for the great Smith's autograph on a grubby program, to respond in a rational manner to a bike which had promised so much to British motocross.
We pushed the bike downhill and I bumped on to the saddle. From then on, my actions were automatic, programmed by three years of happy racing on my own factory BSA. Throttle closed and let the engine suck in fuel, then just a whiff of petrol and the big Single cracked into life with a staccato bark which is pure joy. Anti-social and unreasonable it may be, but the BSA issued a defiant challenge to anyone who dared think the legend was dead.
The Titanium BSA, like all the factory's Grand Prix bikes, is best ridden sitting down. The footrests, fabricated from titanium of course, are well forward and the saddle is so low that the rider sits in the bike like an armchair rather than being perched on top of it, as modern design demands.
In view of the fact that the engine was a hack unit, fitted until the original powerplant is rebuilt, the bike performed very well and although not the crispest I have ever ridden, all the flavor was retained. From 1,500 revs, the motor pulled like a train. I could repeat all my favorite party tricks, such as diving off cambered corners in third gear and chugging away with the rear wheel finding traction as only a four-stroke can.
Just like any 84mm x 90mm BSA motor, it would not rev, but whatever handicap this posed was more than compensated for by the way it would pull incredibly high gears and still provide respectable acceleration. In fact, there are few four-strokes which will race a B.50 in the 10- to 40-mph speed range even today, and in 1966 there would have been nothing which approached the class of the BSA.
The handling left much to be desired. As the bike hopped from bump to bump, with both front and rear suspension fully compressed, I was reminded just how physically tough motocross used to be. Even so, the BSA was not dangerous, and despite bucking, it tracked as true and straight as any modern bike, although needing much more strength and determination from the rider.
On fast, smooth corners, the BSA would still take a lot of beating. The low center of gravity and effortless urge of the big motor meant that it could be drifted around in a controllable power slide which made me feel just like the BSA factory rider I longed to be but never was.
There was finally a happy ending of sorts, for during the winter of 1968 the competition shop put together an ultra-lightweight 250 for Jeff Smith to contest the prestigious BBC TV "Grandstand" Motocross series, held throughout the winter months. In terms of home-market publicity, this series was the most important of all to BSA, since television exposure was worth a fortune in free advertising. Not surprisingly then, all the stops were pulled out to build the winning bike.
Brian Martin played down his efforts at tuning the B.25 250cc engine, but the fact remains that his team produced the best 250cc four-stroke ever seen in motocross at the time. It featured a squish head, ignition by twin 10mm plugs, and it knocked out over 24 bhp - an impressive figure with output measured at the gearbox. In fact, the baby Beezer was probably only a few bhp down on the best two-strokes of the day but ironically needed to be revved harder.
In order to get the motorcycle as light as possible, a titanium frame was used, along with the Airheart rear disc brake and many other of the exotic bits and pieces from the ill-fated 500. The result was a bike which weighed in at 194 1bs. ready to race, a weight which still has to be bettered by a four-stroke even today.
And Smithy, for all his selfishness and ruthlessness, was ever a hard man to beat and took the Grandstand Trophy for BSA. Was the publicity worth $40 million? I'll leave you to make your own judgment.