Before the Gold Star: 1934 BSA 350 Blue Star

Before BSA’s Gold Star, the Blue Star was marketed as a commuter bike for the everyman: practical, with long maintenance intervals.

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by Nick Cedar

1934 BSA 350 BLUE STAR

Engine: 348cc air-cooled OHV 4-stroke, single cylinder (twin exhaust ports), 71mm x 88mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio, 18hp (est.)
Top speed: 75mph (est.)
Carburetion: Single Amal 276 carburetor
Transmission: 4-speed, foot shift, chain final drive
Electrics: Lucas magneto and generator
Frame/wheelbase: Twin downtube cradle frame 54in (1,371.6mm)
Suspension: Leading link sprung forks, dual legs with single spring front, rigid rear
Brakes: 7in (178mm) drums front and rear
Tires: 3.5 x 19in front, 100/90 x 19in rear
Weight: 360lb (163.6kg)
Seat height: 28in (711mm)
Fuel capacity: 2gal (7.5ltr) (est.)
Price then/now: £70 ($350) (est.)/$2,500-$7,500

About three years ago, Kim Williams was with a group of friends at the late, lamented British Clubman’s Show, which up until 2018 was a much-looked-forward-to event in San Jose, California. Kim is a master welder and likes to ride and rebuild motorcycles in his spare time, which is limited due to the number of people with broken frames and hard luck stories who flock to his door.

One of the features of the Clubman show was a sale corral. “Have you seen the Blue Star?” asked Dan Bockmeyer, friend of Kim and a Britbike stalwart. Dan Smith, the restorer and owner of this prewar classic, had come down from British Columbia to sell this BSA. Kim figured Bockmeyer would buy the bike, but later he saw Smith wandering around the show. Kim asked Smith if he had sold the bike. Smith said that Bockmeyer wouldn’t pay his asking price.

Kim wanted that bike. “I’ll take it.” he said. There was a little problem of payment. The show was on Saturday, Kim couldn’t get enough cash out of the bank before Monday, and Smith wanted to go home Sunday. Kim offered Smith a check. Smith was not about to take a check from someone he didn’t know. “Who will vouch for you?” Luckily, Kim had more than a few friends present who knew Smith as well. “I will!” said Frank Recoder, another Britbike aficionado. “If Frank will vouch for you, you must be OK,” Smith said. The deal was struck. Kim has been enjoying his little single ever since.

From rifles to bicycles

The Birmingham Small Arms company, which began in 1861 producing rifles for British infantry, branched out into bicycle manufacturing in 1880. Bicycles led naturally to motorcycles, and the first BSA motorcycle appeared for sale in 1910. The BSA Co. stressed reliability and affordability. Until the late 1950s, automobiles were too expensive for the average English working person, who either got to work on a motorcycle or took public transportation. Economy and the ability to start up every morning were the main selling points for motorcycles in England, and BSA was good at giving people what they wanted. One of the company’s slogans was, “One in four is a BSA.” For a time, BSA owned the largest motorcycle factory in the world.

The first Blue Star models appeared in 1932. England was suffering through the Depression at the time, but BSA had deep pockets, and rode out the downturn in sales. At the time, BSA’s lineup consisted of single-cylinder and twin-cylinder overhead valve and sidevalve machines, in states of tune from basic to sporty. The larger-capacity bikes were mostly intended to haul sidecars, a substitute for automobiles for the less-wealthy British. The twins were mostly V-twins, and many had sidevalve top ends. Sporty vertical-twin engines were still in the future.

Blue Stars had an enameled star on the timing cover, which signified more aggressive cams and a higher compression ratio than other bikes in BSA’s lineup. Like many motorcycles of the period, the single cylinder overhead-valve engine had two exhaust ports, each ending in a separate muffler. The purpose of the twin exhaust was to improve exhaust flow, and some modern bikes (such as KTM) have this feature. Kim says that the exhaust pipes barely heat up, pointing to the like-new condition of the chrome. The 1934 Blue Star came in 250, 350 and 500cc models. Kim’s ride is a 350 (actually 348cc), advertised at the time as “The Sporting Blue Star.” Dan Smith says that it was intended as an introductory competition bike, with a more aggressively shaped combustion chamber.

Practical and popular

Despite the economic conditions, the Blue Stars proved popular. One selling point was the claim of longer maintenance intervals than many British bikes of the period — a whole 200 miles without breaking out the tool roll!

The first Blue Stars were foot clutch and handshift operated, but the 1934 machines had a hand clutch and a 4-speed footshift gearbox, an improvement first introduced by the English Velocette company in 1929. The other British factories saw Velocette’s innovation was practical and popular, and came out with their own versions in the following years. Kim says the transmission works surprisingly well.

The valve springs are exposed, due to the limits of 1930s technology. Period oil was low quality, and would leave carbon deposits on the top end, which had to be scraped out once a year. Keeping tiny oil passages from clogging up would have been a struggle. Instead, the rocker arms and many other areas on the bike were fitted with Zerk grease fittings. Dan told Kim to go over the top end with a grease gun every few months and the rest of the bike once a year.

There is an oil feed that drips oil on the intake valve stem. The owner’s manual cautions that when the rider takes off, they should see a little blue smoke, indicating that the oil feed is working properly and oil is getting to the valve.

Motorcycle factories also had to contend with bad valve spring steel. Broken springs were a constant problem until World War II, when advances in steel alloys produced a reliable material for valve springs. Prewar, the solution was to expose the valve springs, in the hopes that the air stream would keep them cool. Even the absurdly expensive Brough Superiors (“The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles”) had exposed valves. On the other side of the Atlantic, the valves on Harley-Davidson’s overhead valve Knucklehead, introduced in 1936, had very minimal valve enclosures, and did not get full valve enclosure until 1938.

For 1934, the Blue Star was quite advanced. Besides the hand clutch, foot shift and overhead valves, the Blue Star sported a recirculating wet sump oil system. At the time, all American bikes were hand shift, most American road-going bikes had sidevalve engines, and Harley- Davidsons had total-loss oil systems. Indian had gone to a dry sump system in 1933. Before World War II, BSA believed in quality control, and Kim says that his pre-war BSA barely leaks. He uses Torco 20/50 motorcycle oil, made for modern motorcycles. Kim says the wet sump holds a lot of oil. There is no oil filter.

On the road

The girder forks, according to Kim, work surprisingly well. They are studded with grease fittings and sport a steering damper and adjustable side pieces. However, the springs under the saddle don’t do much to take the bumps out of the road (and English roads of the 1930s were much bumpier than contemporary American roads) and the hardtail ensures the rider will feel every change in road surface.

Few motorcycles had rear suspension in the 1930s, notably Vincent in England and BMW in Germany. The problem was that designing a frame with rear suspension that will hold the road, especially at speed, is not easy, especially if the price of the motorcycle has to be kept low. BSA put its motors in a plunger frame after World War II, and went to a swingarm frame in the early Fifties.

In 1936, BSA bumped up the performance of the Blue Star line, and renamed the bikes Empire Stars. Shortly afterwards, ace British designer Val Page revamped the whole Blue Star/Empire Star line. The new bikes had a new, lighter frame, dry sump lubrication, and more protected electronics. In 1937, well-known racing star Wal Handley entered an Empire Star 500 in a race at Brooklands and won with an average speed of over 102mph. Lapping the Brooklands track over 100mph entitled you to a Gold Star lapel badge. BSA took full advantage of this feat.

The next year, BSA announcedthe Gold Star, with an aluminum alloy engine, as its top-of-the-line clubman competition machine. The Gold Star was based on the Empire Star, which makes Kim’s little machine a direct ancestor of the BSA Gold Star. Competitors won races on Gold Stars until the early Sixties, and surviving Gold Stars are sought after.

Some Blue Stars and Empire Stars made their way to North America. In the 1930s, the only British motorcycle importer in the United States was Reggie Pink in New York, but there were several Britbike dealers in Canada, then, as now, part of the British Commonwealth. Dan Smith says British motorcycles were being sold in Canada at least by 1915. This Blue Star was imported to Canada when new. Dan Smith found it in the back of a school bus. “I gave it a full mechanical overhaul. It was actually pretty simple, since most things that came with the bike were there.” Smith’s idea of “pretty simple” may be a little different than most. He had to fabricate the exhaust, the girder fork brackets and numerous other parts. “It’s just what you have to do.”

Getting it legal

The first hurdle Kim faced with his new bike — which ran well on delivery — was getting it registered. The Department of Motor Vehicles was not happy with the Canadian title, and threw up a few roadblocks. Eventually, Kim worked through all the red tape, and rode the bike down to the local office, where the staff made sure the numbers matched and issued Kim a brand-new license plate. Kim doesn’t think it goes well with the girder forks and the exposed valves. “I’m trying to find a vintage license plate — I know one is out there!”

After a couple hundred miles, the bike began slipping out of time. Kim took the timing mechanism apart and noticed a gear was slipping on the idler shaft. Repairing a Lucas magneto is a job for a specialist, and Mickey Peters in Bakersfield, California, rebuilt the component with a new tapered shaft on the armature. However, the problem was a blessing in disguise, as Kim says, because when he took the dyno off, he noticed a little seal that had been added to the oil pump had worked its way out of position and was damaging the cases. Kim quickly fixed the problem and reassembled the motor. He thinks the carburetor is wearing out and should be replaced, and is having the Amal carburetor company in England assemble a new period-accurate carburetor.

Once the dyno was fixed and reassembled to the motor, the Blue Star has been dependable (despite the Lucas components — the English drink warm beer due to Lucas refrigerators) and surprisingly enjoyable to ride, despite Kim’s concerns about the carburetor. “I can ride the bike hard — the twin ports wick away heat and the engine runs cool, even though it is made of cast iron.” Like all bikes of the era, the Blue Star is kickstart and requires a starting drill. Kim has been filling the tank with premium gas. To start the bike, you turn on the petcock, push the tickler on the carburetor until gas drips out, and kick three times. “It likes a lot of gas.” You then crack the choke a third open, retard the timing (left grip) a quarter turn, prod the kickstarter until the piston is up to top dead center, pull the compression release and give it a good kick. “It should fire.”

Once the engine is warmed up and burbling away, Kim can take off on adventures. “It doesn’t accelerate fast, but it will cruise up to 55-60mph — good enough for the slow lane on the freeway. It has a long stroke and runs at slow rpm. I can ride it hard, and it doesn’t mind at all. It handles nice. It’s pretty nimble. The front end soaks up the bumps, but with the hard rear end, you are really wired to the road, and feel every bump. The single leading shoe drum brakes stop the bike, but they aren’t great — I would say they are marginal.”

“I really like riding this little bike. Actually, I love riding this little bike. It has personality. It’s fun to ride.”

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