Precious Metal: 1956 BSA Gold Star Dirt Track Racer

The BSA Gold Star was a formidable racing machine from the start, dominating competition and creating an exciting reputation for its company.

1956 BSA Gold Star Dirt Track Racer

1956 BSA Gold Star dirt track racer

Photo by Corey Levenson

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1956 BSA Gold Star Dirt Track Racer
Claimed power:
44hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed:
120mph (depending on gearing)
Engine:
499cc air-cooled OHV single, 85mm x 88mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio
Weight:
325lb (147kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
2gal (7.5ltr)
Price then/now:
$1,100/$10,000-$25,000

Probably the best thing to come out of the Crimean War was the founding of British rifle manufacturer Birmingham Small Arms (BSA), in 1855. BSA made its first motorcycle in 1905, and 50 years later, it was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Yet for the first 30 years, BSA didn’t have much of a reputation when it came to sporty or exciting motorcycles. That all changed in 1937.

Gold Star Origins

The legendary BSA Gold Star was named after the famous medallion awarded to any rider who lapped England’s famed  Brooklands banked race track at an average speed over 100mph. Wal Handley did it in 1937, riding a BSA M23 Empire Star powered by a 500cc overhead valve, single-cylinder engine designed by the great Val Page. Running a 13:1 compression ratio and burning methanol, the bike achieved an average speed of 102.27mph during the three lap race. The BSA Gold Star was born.

Thanks to extensive post-war development work by Bert Perrigo, BSA’s competition manager, and a group of talented racers and engineers including Billy Nicholson and the McCandless brothers (of Norton featherbed frame fame), the 500cc and 350cc Gold Stars became formidable racing machines on pavement and dirt. Throughout the 1950s, the trials and scrambles models dominated international offroad competition and formed the basis of the Gold Stars that were eventually made specifically to compete on the dirt in America.

Racing in America

The American economy was booming in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the appetite for motorcycles was growing. Big V-twins from Harley-Davidson and Indian served the cruiser/touring market, leaving British and European manufacturers eagerly poised to meet the growing demand for lighter, faster, more nimble sporting machines for the road and competition.

The highest profile motorcycle race in the U.S. in the early 1950s was the 200-miler held in Daytona, Florida, the Daytona 200. In 1954, BSA made huge headlines when its riders filled the top five spots. Four were on A7 Shooting Star twins while Tommy McDermott finished third on a Gold Star. McDermott’s Gold Star used a special rigid frame based on the factory bikes prepared for one-day trial events, in which the company had been so successful. BSA actively supported its U.S. dealer network, sponsoring many racers and providing parts for free or at a deep discount. The company subscribed to the notion of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” and BSA’s stellar showing at Daytona certainly boosted demand for Gold Stars in the U.S.

Pumping the single, BSA ads boasted: “Keeping this high efficiency Single in racing tune requires just half the time and effort needed by a twin. Your part is never more than 24 hours away by air freight or air express.”

In addition to racing on paved circuits, there was the long-standing popularity of American offroad and dirt track oval racing. BSA wanted to address those markets as well, so in 1956 they offered three models of the 500cc Gold Star: The road model was the Clubman, suitable for fast street riding or racing on pavement. Offroad duties fell to the Catalina Scrambler, which had knobby tires for cross-country or desert racing, but no lights. It was named after the 100-mile race held on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California where several BSA-mounted riders did well in the 1950s. Finally, and perhaps least known, was a competition racer intended exclusively for dirt track use. It had no lights, charging system or brakes. Like the Daytona Gold Stars, it had an all-welded duplex rigid frame and was available in limited quantities by special order only. Designed to compete in Class C racing, the dirt tracker was built for only two years, 1956 and 1957.

For a motorcycle to be eligible to compete in AMA Class C racing, at least 100 units had to be produced with engines and transmissions identical to what was available for sale in the U.S. Displacements were 750cc for side-valve engines and 500cc for overhead-valve engines. After 1963, the novice class was limited to engines of not more than 250cc. Riders moved up from novice to amateur to expert as they gained experience, based on points earned in races.

Riding bikes with no brakes while exceeding 90mph on the half-mile tracks and 120mph on the mile tracks meant a high pucker factor for the racers and fast, exciting competition for the spectators.

In the early 1950s, Harley had a close and influential relationship with the AMA and Class C was dominated by Harley’s 750cc KR side-valve machines. The 500cc overhead-valve bikes were mostly BSAs, Nortons, Triumphs and Matchlesses. Dirt track racing was enormously popular in America at this time, with events held at some 145 ovals around the country. Gold Star dirt trackers were very competitive, and were ridden by such stars as national champion Dick Klamfoth, Al Gunter, Tommy McDermott and others.

The Gold Star dirt tracker

Each special order machine was hand-assembled, tuned and dyno-tested at the factory. The specifications included an all aluminum engine with a cast-in iron liner and steel valve seats. Engine finning was ample for maximum cooling. Standard equipment included race cams and race valve springs, and an Amal 1.5-inch GP carburetor. Inlet ports were ground by hand to match a factory template and engine numbers were hand stamped. The engine’s internals were polished and a megaphone exhaust fitted. This was the same B34 engine used in the Gold Star road-racing models campaigned at the Isle of Man TT and other venues. Dyno testing for these engines showed they were producing roughly 44 horsepower at 7,500rpm.

The rigid duplex all-welded frames came with serial numbers prefixed by BB32R. The bikes featured telescopic forks, solo saddles and folding foot pegs. As previously mentioned, there were no brakes fitted. A Lucas competition magneto provided ignition. Since the bikes spent so much time leaned over, a special alloy, 2-gallon fuel tank with twin taps on the left side was available as an option. A small race oil tank was fitted and instrumentation was limited to a Smiths 8,000rpm tachometer.

The transmission was a 4-speed unit with a 16-tooth sprocket on the countershaft; 50-, 51- and 52-tooth rear sprockets were supplied with the bike. The wheels were 3.5 x 19 inches front and 4.0 x 19 inches in the rear. Regarding any factory warranty, BSA stated: “inasmuch as this model is intended for racing, no warranty is given or implied.”

It’s believed that no more than 200 Gold Star dirt trackers were made during their two-year production run. They competed on half-mile and mile dirt track ovals in the U.S. between 1956 and 1969, and were quite successful. At Ascot Park in Gardena, California, one of the most famous of the half-mile ovals, Gold Stars won every flat-track National event from 1960 through 1967.

Dick Mann, AMA Grand National Champion in 1963 and 1971, raced Gold Star-based specials at many National events up through 1968 (by which time he was building bikes around his own special lightweight frame). He continues to build and sell dirt track replicas for use in vintage offroad racing.

Because the dirt trackers were only available by special order and were strictly competition machines, it is not surprising that no two are alike. Competitors made modifications, some more legal than others, to give themselves an extra edge. Frames were cut and rewelded. Engine internals were modified. A Joe Hunt magneto might replace the stock Lucas unit. Tire treads were often cut by hand to suit track conditions and a 21-inch front wheel might be used in place of the stock 19-inch wheel for certain tracks.

BSA announced final Gold Star production in 1962, but continued shipping models to the U.S. until 1964. The death knell for the Gold Star dirt trackers came in 1969, when the AMA raised the Class C displacement limit for overhead valve engines from 500cc to 750cc. Once the mighty Harley XR750 overhead valve twins replaced the older side-valve KR750s, the 500cc singles were hopelessly outgunned.

Playing in the dirt

Ken Bright of Ponca City, Oklahoma, is the owner of the lovely Goldie featured here. Back in the mid 1960s, young Ken was flat track racing, competing up and down the Oklahoma-South Dakota corridor. Many of the dirt ovals had originally been laid out in the 1800s for horse racing, and began hosting motorcycle races in the early 1900s.

Ken first experienced a Gold Star when a friend put him in touch with a BSA dealer in Kansas who provided a dirt tracker for Ken to race. It wasn’t like anything he’d ridden previously. Compared to his 250 Yamaha, which had plenty of power but handled like a camel, the BSA was slim, handled well and had gobs of torque.

It also had strong compression braking, which slowed the bike when the throttle was shut. This was handy given that the machine had no brakes, and cracking the throttle back open let the rider steer with the rear wheel.

By 1968, Ken was racing as an expert. He competed a few times on borrowed bikes, but was unable to secure sponsorship and a machine of his own, so he hung up his leathers for good.

Dirt tracker flashback

The fond memories of riding that Gold Star stuck with Ken for more than 30 years. In the late 1960s, you could buy a dirt tracker for $700. By the late 1990s, the price had gone up tenfold. Ken decided it was now or never if he was going to get a dirt tracker of his own, and as he recounts, it was no easy task: “The original BB32R frames were almost impossible to find since the total production of these bikes was only about 200 units. The three frames that I did find weren’t for sale.”

Ken finally got lucky after a two-year quest. He was searching the Internet for Goldie stuff one night and almost fell out of his chair when he saw “rigid frame” in an ad. The bike was in Minnesota, disassembled but essentially all there. Ken looked at a few pictures and bought the BSA.

The nine-month restoration went smoothly, with Ken doing most of the work himself. The head and cylinder were sent off to Dennis Mahan, who had been the tuner for Neil Keen, one of the legendary BSA Wrecking Crew members. The wheels were rebuilt with correct Dunlop alloy rims and new-old-stock Pirelli dirt track tires. Ken finished the restoration in September of 2004, and the old girl fired up on the first kick, putting a mile-wide smile on his face.

Encountering an old love decades later can sometimes be a shocking letdown. Thankfully, reuniting with a motorcycle that stole your heart half a lifetime ago is rarely disappointing. Yeah, it might be a little rusty here and there, but with some fettling and a few dineros, the bike will be just as slim, handle just as well and be just as torquey as it ever was. I asked Ken how it felt riding the Goldie after all this time.

“Typically, I‘ll be doing some chores and need to roll the dirt tracker out of the shop. Every time I pass the dirt tracker it seems to look at me and ask, ‘Can we go now? Can we, huh, can we?’

“I finally give in to temptation and roll her off the stand, turn on the fuel and tickle the float bowl until gas runs into that big 1.5-inch Amal carb. She comes to life on the first kick and that famous Gold Star sound echoes through the open megaphone — Mmmmm-baaaa, Mmmmm-baaaa, Mmmmm-baaaa! I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of that sound,” Ken says. “I roll the throttle on — but still not all the way — and she really comes to life. It’s geared for a half-mile dirt track so first gear is over quickly, but second and third gears are absolutely amazing. I can’t believe she runs so strong. When I shift to fourth, I ease the throttle back down and cruise back to the house.

“When I turn into the backyard, I drop it into second gear and hit the gas. She’s on the cams, immediately picking up the front wheel about 10 inches off the ground and carrying it all the way to the house. I have a smile on my face like I’d just won a Grand National dirt track race — it’s still fun!”

Watch this short video of Ken firing up his immaculate dirt tracker at the Barber Vintage Festival in October 2014 and you’ll see a very proud septuagenarian sporting a huge grin and the mischievous twinkle in his eye of a man 50 years younger.

Is this vintage bike stuff magic or what? MC