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Solid, realistic mid-cent. Brit. bikes

Discussion in 'Bike Reviews, Questions and Suggestions' started by mattb, Mar 17, 2009.

  1. Hey All.

    Looking for some advice, there's at least few people here who can give me some informed opinions on this.

    I had settled on the sensible decision that as soon as the small loan for the SR500 was finished I'd get a Sportster (to join, not replace, the SR), mid-90's so none of the rubber-mounted nonsense (if I wanted a Suzuki I'd go buy one). But QuarterWit's damned talk and a race with a BSA on the weekend has reared the ugly head of that old obsession; I slept only three hours last night before rising for work, because I couldn't stop thinking about Golden Flashes and the like. So my question:

    Do any mid-century Brit bikes, say 1940s through to mid 60s, come to mind as more sensible than others, in terms of mechanical solidity, parts availability, and I guess some degree of universality of parts. My main question here is about the engine; frames can easily be welded, crap carbs and electrics can be replaced with Japanese parts - yes, I'll be taking a functional, not a purist approach - I'd want something that I'd ride easily, ie treat nicely, but expect to be able to jump on its well-sorted self and tour Tassie, something which, as a second bike, I could rack up 10 - 20,000km a year on. I guess I'd consider later Brit bikes (no, not the new Bonneville - if I wanted a sewing machine, I'd buy one) depending on their capacity to take a saddle seat and an older tank and look the part, and provided they still had the vibes - Andrew's from on this forum would be an example of that, I remember watching him take off in Healesville once and it was a pleasure!

    Any recommendations? BSA is a bit like Catholicism vs all the protestandisms to me - it's simply inherently superior, but still I'd take any of the trains if they're going to heaven. 500 - 650cc stuff, single or twin, four-stroke.


    Yes, you're right, it is!
  2. The unit Triumph and BSA twins really are superior to anything else that came out of Britain if you pull them apart and put them back together again. They are late 60s on.

    The Norton is the other obvious choice.

    All are quite dear for what they are.

    A bit old and a little more obscure is the matchless twin. Not a long production (in 650cc form) after being bought out by Triumph (Wiki says I'm wrong here), but word has it it is the best pre-unit twin.

    It would be my pick for something that old.

    Sunbeam, just to be different?

    mmmh A chopped Sunbeam . . . .
  3. Matchless G50 maybe.
    But it's down to the individual machine by now - how it's been modified or improved, repaired or rebuilt.

    If you've got a few bucks, Velocette. Just for the experience. If you want history it's just got to be Norton.
  4. Pretty much any Triumph twin or BSA twin or single can fit the bill for what you're looking for. They're all known quantities and the parts supply isn't going to dry up anytime soon. Nortons will do the same but appear to be significantly more expensive. AMC (Matchless and AJS) twins have a reputation for going bang in a big way if you really use them and the spares supply isn't nearly as comprehensive as for the Big 3. Their big singles seem pretty plentiful though, with good spares availability, and have a good reputation for practicality. Royal Enfield twins seem to be highly regarded by their owners but are relatively rare and expensive, particularly for the big ones rather than the 500s.

    Fron regular perusal of the classifieds, both here and from the UK, the current bargain (if such still exists) seems to be the BSA unit singles (B40, B44, B50), which have always seemed to be regarded as a bit of a poor relation. However, CCM used them as the basis for their first highly successful dirt bikes so they must have something going for them. They suit either a caff racer or a flat tracker look.

    If you want to go the saddle seat route, the only way it's going to look right is if you go for a plunger or rigid rear end. For that, the cheapest, easiest and most available starting point is probably a BSA pre-unit single (350 ohv B31, 500 ohv B33, 500 sv M20, 600 sv M21). Personally, I'd avoid the 350 (nothing wrong with it, I'm just a fat bastard) but, having ridden a B33 engined M21 at the Collie TT last year, I can vouch for the fact that a sorted 500 would be a perfectly adequate bike for everyday use. Performance, in reasonably standard trim, would be about on a par with a drum braked 250 Jap dirt bike. Handling will be "different" The sidevalvers are slow (60 mph if you're lucky) but can be tuned to go a bit quicker and do have that lovely, relaxing, two bangs per lamp post gait of legend.

    Rigid and plunger twins are a bit more expensive but would give you a bit more performance. I'd always go for capacity so it would be BSA A10 or Triumph Thunderbird for my money. One of the nicest custom bikes I've ever seen was a plunger A10, basically standard, but with all the excess tinware removed, skimpy guards, buckhorn bars and a plain but beautifully done red paint job. It were lovely. Of course, there's always the option of a pre-oil in frame swingarm Triumph, unbolting the back end of the frame and bolting on one of the hardtails that you can still buy from the UK.

    Spares for any of the above are no problem (although you might have to order out of the UK), maintenance will be demanding and it's very unlikely that any bike you'll find will be fully sorted straight off the bat. You will have to familiarise yourself with Whitworth, BSF and Cycle screw threads and heads, special tools, the marvels of primary chain adjustment, a temperamental clutch and the electrical mysteries of dynamos and magnetos approaching their half century.

    On the upside, folk have been tweaking, modifying and maintaining these bikes for 50-60 years now. There is nothing about them that is not on record somewhere. Examples still go to work every day in all weathers. Examples have been round the world. Examples are still winning races. If you're prepared to learn the (not terribly complex) mechanical skills that are required to fettle them, they can still be a practical and enjoyable ride.

    BTW, Panthers spring to mind as being different, quirky, surprisingly quick, not ludicrously expensive and with an excellent club behind them. There used to be a few very attractive mild Panther chops running around in the UK so they do make very pleasant, understated customs.

    Oh yes, and don't, whatever you do, buy a Triumph TRW (the 500 sv twin military bike). I have it on good authority from a chap who rode them when they were almost new that they are truly the most revolting motorcycle in the universe. Even slower than a BSA M20, without the vintage charm or feeling of indestructible solidity. No torque and won't rev, giving the worst of all possible worlds.
  5. Well, if i were to believe my old uncle, the zenith of motorcycle manufacturing was reached in the sixties with his BSA Spitfire. "None of that fookin' souless jap shite".

    650cc twin, a direct competitor of the Bonneville, but superior in every way, handling, accerleration and it even stops when you ask it to. Groundbreaking stuff, i'm led to believe. It didn't even spew its oil everywhere.

    His only quibble, and it's minor mind, was she took some convincing to start on a cold morning.

    This could all be bullshit of course, the old rose-tinted, purple-hazed nostalgia trip to a time of chasing skirts. Most likely.
  6. As per previous posts, especially PatB, plus a Triumph Daytona 500 from the sixties/early seventies - add it to the list - not that common here, but from all accounts a light, sweet little twin, and something liveable and useable that is a little different.

    Of course I'm biased a little, but Trumpys tended to start more readily and had less of the dreaded kickback - the destroyer of many a calf muscle apparently :)

    Even tho my Bonnie's early eighties, pretty much all spares for the abovementioned bikes are readily available locally as well as NZ, England and the US.

    As for everyday use, mine isn't but can be (keep this in mind when looking at drum brake bikes especially - lane splitting and off the line traffic lights grand prix is definitely a different skill lol), and I know of one bloke who rides an old caff racer daily from Gippsland to work in the SE suburbs somewhere.
  7. Yes, I did rather neglect to mention the little Triumph twins. Just before leaving the UK, I commuted for a while on MrsB's T100 (well, actually a 350 T90 with 500 barrels and head), the single carbed bike of which the Daytona was the twin carbed supersports version.

    It was a very pleasant little bike. Handled well (once I'd tightened the big bolts holding the subframe on) and was surprisingly fast. It's only two disadvantages that weren't a direct result of an indifferent rebuild were the fact that it was tiny (I mean really sub-250 small) and, ridden hard (which it thrived on), it vibrated like the entire stock at Adultshop on steroids.

    It's just the inevitable result of an inherently unbalanced engine layout and I think I noticed it more because it revved so hard, so the vibes were real high frequency stuff. The singles and bigger twins I've experienced still shook but it was less intrusive.

    Lockwire and Loctite are your friends if you choose to run an old Brit. :grin:
  8. Aren't they ever!