1971 BSA Rocket 3
Introduced just before Honda’s CB750 hit the market, the BSA Rocket 3 was — at least briefly — one of the fastest production motorcycles you could buy.
Photo by Nick Cedar
1971 BSA Rocket 3
Claimed power: 58hp @ 7,250rpm
Top speed: 115mph (period test)
Engine: 741cc OHV air-cooled inline triple
Weight (dry): 444lb (977kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3gal (11.3ltr) / 40-45mpg
Price then/now: $1,678 / $6,000 - $8,500
“I’ve owned new bikes,” Bill Whalen says, “but I still prefer my 1971 BSA Rocket 3. Once you have a properly sorted triple, they are great bikes, especially if you plan to cover any distance.”
Bill has lots of experience with the 3-cylindered bikes from Britain — he now owns six, and one, a 1969 Rocket 3, has over 100,000 miles on it. Bill’s favorite ride was, in fact, the first Superbike of the Sixties — and it was also BSA’s last hurrah. Powered by a 741cc, air-cooled 3-cylinder engine, it was, for a brief period, the fastest production motorcycle available.
Rocket to nowhere
The history of the BSA Rocket 3 is an excellent example of how the British motorcycle industry put itself out of business. It was designed at the Triumph works at Meriden by Doug Hele, Bert Hopwood and Jack Wicks, as BSA owned Triumph by this time. Hopwood had the idea in late 1961, and Hele had drawings by October 1962, but the idea was not officially shown to Triumph management until 1964, when rumors of a 4-cylinder street bike from Honda began to surface.
The triple could have been in showrooms by 1967, two years ahead of the Honda CB750, but management slowed the bike’s development when it handed the job of styling the new triple to Ogle Design, an outside styling house with no motorcycle experience, which spent more than a year on the job. The first triples looked unappetizingly bizarre (Ogle was famous for styling avant-garde toasters, which goes a long way toward explaining the styling on the first Rocket 3), and needed extensive re-styling following the America-only launch in 1968. England and Europe got their first Rocket 3/Trident shipments in 1969. The 1969 Trident was released at the same time, and though not identical, the Triumph Trident is very similar to the BSA Rocket 3.
Unfortunately, Honda introduced the revolutionary CB750 shortly after the launch of the Rocket 3 and Trident. Although its handling wasn’t the best, it was oil tight and featured an electric starter, an overhead camshaft and a front disc brake. Honda sold an estimated 30,000 CB750s in 1969, against some 7,000 Rocket 3s and Tridents.
Yet the big BSA was still a contender. In March of 1970, Cycle Magazine organized a comparison between seven Superbikes of the era: a Norton Commando, a Kawasaki H1, a 750 Honda, a Suzuki Titan, a Harley Sportster, a BSA Rocket 3 and a Triumph Trident. The Rocket 3 came out well, tying with the Honda for best lap times on the track. Its double-leading-shoe front brake performed well for the time (the only bike in the comparison with a front disc was the Honda), and testers called the Rocket 3 an easy bike to ride fast, its good weight distribution making it easy to fling into corners.
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