English Beat: The story of the 500cc Titanium BSA
For the 1966 500cc World Championship, Birmingham Small Arms schemed up a silver bullet of a motorcycle created from space age materials such as titanium, aluminum alloy and magnesium. However, and despite the company’s best laid plans and intentions, the entire project ended in tragedy and tears.
In 1966 the most ambitious factory-backed development effort in the history of modern motocross materialized on the esteemed Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme 500cc World Championship circuit.
In the beginning… The year was 1965, and BSA – commonly known as Birmingham Small Arms – was bent on ruling the motocross world. Keen on winning its third consecutive 500cc World Motocross Championship, the factory executives of the Birmingham, England-based motorcycle company held a big meeting in a smoky, dimly lit room – a meeting to which the company accountants were not invited. And it was in this room that that their master scheme of producing the fastest and lightest motocross bike mankind had ever seen was sketched out on a clean sheet of paper.
Their corporate mission statement now etched in stone, the BSA overlords – perhaps intoxicated by the success of the two previous world titles they had pulled down – declared that all of the factory’s resources were to be immediately tooled up and put into motion in a finely concerted quest to snag a third FIM Gold Medal. In doing so, the BSA accounting ledgers were slammed into a dark cabinet and the engineers, fabricators and machinists filled up their coffee cups and set about the task at hand. For them, the entire project was something of a dream come true: Free reign – and no budget restraints!
Enter Jeff Smith, the talented English rider who had delivered BSA its two previous titles. Smith, who was tapped to ride the exotic new “shadow works” project bike, was brought on board during the development process, and soon joined the army of machinists and engineers in transforming the bike from violet colored lines on a powder blue blueprint into a real lie, gas burning piece of machinery. It was at this point that the intriguing true story of BSA’s at “totalitarian rule” on the motocross world began. And like many great, timeless stories, when all was said and done, both BSA and Smith would end up riding an emotional roller coaster that would serve up hope, joy disappointment and an unforgettable conclusion.
BSA, having captured the previous two 50cc World Championships through it s creative and resourceful competition department, now wanted a third title at all costs. However, as with most motor corporations that race to win, there was more behind the project than just the desire to put a third gold medal in the company trophy case.
“I think BSA had been surprised that the competition department had been able to put together a machine that had won two World Championships in ’64 and ’65,” explains Smith, who worked closely with BSA race team manager Brain Martin to claim the aforementioned championships. “They [BSA executives] increasingly got behind the competition department during those two years, especially in ’65. Now they had become very keen to produce a machine that would ensure that BSA would capture three world titles is succession. I’m sure it also became a marketing ploy to increase worldwide awareness of the BSA brand; and they wanted to obtain usable information from the project that could be transferred into production. And, in fact, many items from the 1966 period did eventually make it into production.”
Then came the matter of titanium alloy and other trick parts, Toward their objective of creating the fastest, lightest and best performing 500cc motocross bike the planet had ever seen, the BSA engineers demanded that the machine be constructed with as much titanium, magnesium and aluminum as possible. Furthermore, every mechanical variable and attribute relating to the bike was thought out in painstaking detail.
“When I sat down at the first committee meeting, it became very obvious that the engineers were looking very far ahead,” reflects Smith. “They were talking about disk brakes, which, at that time, were totally unknown – certainly on off-road machines. In fact, we had to reach all the way to America to get the Airheart Company to provide us with disk brakes. And with the discussion of titanium, which at that time we only knew as a material used in the aircraft industry and in certain military applications, it was very obvious that they were thinking far ahead of their time. During that same period, from October to March, they also totally redesigned the original 420cc Victor engine to make it a more powerful 500cc. This was a lot of research and development that was supposed to happen in a very short period. I could tell right away that they were very serious.”
Then there was the frame of the motorcycle itself.
“The titanium frame was one of the later items to come about,” says Smith. “However, some of the items that came earlier were things like a Gold Star rear hub, forged in titanium This was quite remarkable, and somewhat redundant because the there were – at that time – magnesium hubs available that were lighter than titanium. Certain things were happening with the project that led me to believe that things could have been done a bit differently. We also had a spool hub done in titanium, and a disk brake for the rear wheel, and the same for the front. The rims were made of high-grade steel, and the spoke nipples were made of aluminum, and the spokes were made of titanium. All of the parts came to us at different times, and the engine was the latest of all because it had the longest lead time. And this was an engine that had entirely new crankshaft, gears, cylinder and cylinder head. These are tricky things to cast and machine and put together and do some rudimentary tests on before dropping them into the frame. The crankcase of the engine was magnesium, and the cylinder was a honey-chrome bore placed directly onto the aluminum cylinder, and the head was also aluminum. Obviously, these things were not just parts that you draw up and make; these parts took the engineers some time to design and cast and machine. We even had titanium handlebars.”
All said and done and mission complete, the new 500cc BSA weighed in at 194 pounds (88 kilograms). And this was in 1966! Next stop: Round one of the 1966 500cc World Championship in Switzerland.
“The very first Grand Prix was in Switzerland,” says Smith. “I remember in practice that we would pop over a grassy hill and come down onto a piece of hard-top road. During practice, I followed Paul Friedrichs (Friedrichs, from East Germany, was the 1966, 1967 and 1968 500cc World Championship) over this knoll, and we dropped onto the blacktop and I screwed the throttle on and raced right past him. I mean, I was absolutely amazed at how I just went straight past him. I remember coming in after practice and being elated because the machine was running so well. However, the actual race was a disappointment. There were two legs to a Grand Prix then, and if you didn’t finish in both legs, you didn’t get an overall score. In the first race, I was up in fourth place and could see my way to the front, but then the carburetor fell off from the vibration. It came loose and screwed up the carburetion royally. In the end, I had to come in the pits. So that made the second race somewhat unimportant because, back then, it wasn’t like today, where you get points for each individual moto score. We hung the cycle back together and, in the second race, I lost the chain a number of times, and it was then that we realized that the titanium swing arm was stretching. Also, the disk brakes were really a problem: They were either on or they were off. They would just stop the back wheel. There was no feeling, and I was getting into all kinds of problems with them. And this was just the first GP!”
While the titanium swing arm that graced the bike was a lightweight work of mechanical art, it had no business being on a motocross track. The BSA team soon learned that, while titanium was more than 60% lighter than steel, it also had an amazing tendency to bend and stretch. One must remember that, in the mid-1960s, titanium was a rare and little understood metal, and BSA – without really being aware of it – was doing a significant amount of “guinea pig” development with the funky new material. Moreover, a number of other mechanical variables – from the brakes to the carburetor – had to be rethought and re-tweaked, as well.
“We went back to England and certainly did a lot of work,” Smith smirks. “We put a steel swing arm and drum brakes on the machine. I mean, now we were in racing season, and we couldn’t be testing things and making them better; it was now a question of, “How in the hell are we going to do well in the World Championship if the chain is jumping off?” It wasn’t a question of how we were going to develop something, but of how we were going to rescue something of the season.”
After the trial-by-fire experiences in Switzerland, and some serious soul searching and fine-tuning in the United Kingdom, BSA packed up their “revised” 500 and hotfooted it to the next three rounds in Scandinavia. While the confidence level of the team had now improved, the sandy, hilly tracks of Northern Europe would also – to a large extent – wreak havoc on the booming BSA wonder bike.
“I believe that we then went to Denmark, Sweden and Finland – and we went in that order,” explains Smith. “In Denmark, we went to a track called Brandes, which was a very sandy, hilly track. In the first moto, I had a clutch problem that ended the race for me. Now, suddenly, the second race wasn’t so important, but I went out and won the second moto very easily, so, at least the bicycle had won a moto. However, I think Friedrichs knew I was out of the points, and it didn’t make a difference to him to chase me down. Then we went to Sweden and, in the first race, I had ignition problems, so I pulled off the track and the mechanic quickly moved the timing slightly to get it working. I was then a lap down and I think I finished 29th. Then I went out and won the second moto, and received a point in the World Championship. I mean, it was crazy: We were developing a bike during the World Championship, when, in fact, by the time the season starts, your bike should be all sorted out. We were also having problems sorting the engine out. The clutch would go out, the timing would falter; the engine was reliable, it never blew up or anything, but there were a number of small problems. Also, by that time, we started to think about going to go back to a steel frame, so they went to work on it back in England. The lightweight titanium frame was unreliable, because it was constantly cracking and flexing. Then we went to Finland and we won both races, and it suddenly seemed as if we had solved all of the problems of the machine and it was going to work good for the rest of the year.”
Next up came a trip behind the Iron Curtain for the Russian Grand Prix.
“We went on to Russia in June and after the first race – I think I finished second or third – we noticed that there was oil all over the frame under the saddle nose. It was because the saddle tube that came up from the footrest had fractured, because the titanium was undercooked where the welding had taken place. In between the races, there was nothing to do because you can’t weld titanium without the right equipment – it had to be in an inert atmosphere with argon gas. There was certainly none of that equipment in Russia, or anywhere on the Grand Prix circuit, so paddock welding was out of the question. So we just taped up the area and went out and raced the second leg, where I think I finished second or third.”
Sadly, shortly after Russia, it would all go drastically wrong for Smith and the ill-fated BSA effort. Racing in a local race in England, Jeff Smith was caught up in a horrific crash that would end his season and, ultimately, sidetrack his career.
“Sometime in July, I was involved in an accident in England,” sighs Smith. “His name was Jerry Scott, and he fell in front of me over a blind jump. It was a top-gear jump, and I jumped to the opposite side, but he slid across in front of me and without his machine, and I hit him and he was killed. From the crash, I ended up with a broken toe. That was the end of the year. There may have been four or five Grand Prix events to go, but the effort was then finished. It was very sad. This was another BSA works rider, and we were riding in a very insignificant event somewhere in the north of England. It was a dangerous track, and it all went wrong. It was too late for me to do anything with the machine when he slid in front of me. Oddly enough, it was the first time I had been hurt.”
The BSA works project that had been launched in a committee meeting with the best of intentions was now over. There would be no FIM World Championship trophy to reward the hard work and determination put forth by the BSA factory. Upon refection, Smith has an interesting take on the entire dramatic affair.
“At the end of the year, I felt that fate would have taken a hand anyway. Even If I had been doing very with the titanium machine, the accident would have sabotaged the attempt at the World Championship, anyway. I think it was the accident that I settled on, and thought it would have happened anyway. From early June onward, my season was over, due to the broken wrist. I’ve always looked at that season and thought it was doomed from the word go.”
by Eric Johnson
Enjoy some 1960s Motocross action with commentary by Murray Walker