1948 BSA A7 Sidecar Rig
By Robert Smith
1948 BSA A7 Sidecar Rig
Power: 26hp @ 6,000rpm
Engine: 495cc OHV air-cooled parallel twin
Weight (cycle only/dry): 365lbs (166kg)
Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gal (16ltr)
Price then: $715 (approx., cycle only)
Price now: $3,000-$10,000 (cycle only)
The reproductive imperative is, of course, fundamental to our existence as a species. This has a number of serious implications for the dedicated motorcyclist.
First, the pursuit of love can seriously interfere with valuable riding and wrenching time. Second, the object of the pursuit may inexplicably turn out to have little interest in motorcycles (though careful planning can circumvent this). Thirdly, most motorcycles (Honda Super Cubs in Asia notwithstanding) only carry two people. So when love has been requited, and the fruit of this happy union is delivered, alternative transportation arrangements may be necessary.
Sadly, many motorcyclists take the easy way out and trade two wheels for four. However, the dedicated rider will recognize that parental responsibility is only temporary: Within 20 or so years, the offspring will fly the nest, having emptied both refrigerator and savings account. So for the truly committed yet impecunious biker, the solution is simple: add a sidecar.
A real Page Turner
Wayne Dowler’s 1948 BSA A7 and BSA sidecar outfit is a perfect example of family transportation of the day. Wayne’s sidecar is powered by BSA’s first parallel twin. Built from 1946-1950, the 495cc twin bears witness to several of Britain’s best motorcycle engineers. Valentine Page is credited with the basic layout, and had almost completed the design in 1939 before hostilities interrupted civilian bike development. Edward Turner of Triumph fame also worked on the A7 project while he was at BSA in the early 1940s, before BSA’s Herbert Perkins completed the detail work under Bert Hopwood’s supervision.
The production BSA A7 engine featured characteristics of the 1933 650cc parallel twin (the Model 6/1) that Page designed for Triumph, including the single camshaft mounted behind the cylinders. The long stroke (62mm x 82mm) engine produced a modest 26 horsepower at 6,000rpm and was mated to a BSA four-speed gearbox bolted to the back of the engine, just like Page’s 6/1. This was unusual for British bikes of the time, which typically had the gearbox bolted to the frame. Unit construction, which incorporated the transmission into the engine castings, wouldn’t arrive for another 15 years, and the A7’s “semi-unit” construction was carried over into the first-generation 650cc BSA A10 Golden Flash of 1950.
The BSA A7 powertrain went into a conventional lug-and-braze mild steel tube frame, but with somewhat ingenious use of the seat tube. Inside the tube was a serrated rod attached at the bottom to a steel T-bar that served as the centerstand. The stand was deployed by releasing a ratcheting handle on the seat tube, then pushing the stand down to the ground with one’s foot, locking it in place with a pawl. Another clever feature was a quickly detachable rear wheel and BSA’s patented “crinkle” hub that allowed the use of straight spokes with no bend where they pass through the hub, which stayed with BSA another 24 years.
A “sports” version, the BSA Star Twin, appeared in 1948 with twin carburetors — the only production BSA with twin carbs until the BSA A65 Lightning of 1963 — and higher compression for 31 horsepower. A new frame featured plunger-type rear suspension. The standard BSA A7 and Star Twin ran until 1950, when a new Bert Hopwood designed engine based on his 650 BSA A10 Golden Flash engine replaced it. On both the new 500 and 650 engines, the intake ports were “siamezed” inside the cylinder head, making it impossible to fit twin carburetors — though some special twin-carb cylinder head castings did escape from the comp shop, like those used on the 1954 Daytona-winning bikes.
In the middle of the 20th century, the BSA Group was much more than just a motorcycle manufacturer. Its industrial empire included automobiles (Lanchester, Daimler and BSA), motorcycles (BSA, Ariel, Triumph, Sunbeam, New Hudson), auto bodies (Carbodies Ltd., which made bodies for the famous London taxis) as well as armaments, machine tools and a host of other businesses. At the end of WWII, the group controlled 65 factories across the U.K.
So it should come as no surprise that BSA also produced sidecars, and had been doing so almost as long as they had produced cycles. Though they sold less well than the major specialist manufacturers like Watsonian, Squire, Garrard and Steib, BSA sidecars were arguably better made. Where many smaller companies made do with steam-bent plywood bodywork, BSA used an ash frame and lightweight aluminum paneling, a benefit of the Group’s sheet metal stamping facilities.
Our feature BSA model 22/47 single-adult sidecar also has a sophisticated suspension system, with quarter-elliptic leaf springs supporting the rear of the body and coil springs at the front, plus a locking storage trunk, windshield and weatherproof soft top. It’s also worth noting this BSA sidecar is fitted on the left side of the A7 in right-hand-drive format, just as it would have been in the U.K. That makes it more difficult to ride on North American roads — but it does make the kickstarter easier to operate!
Wayne’s 1948 BSA A7
“To my mind, the rigid BSA A7 is what a motorcycle should look like. It has the classic lines,” Wayne says. “I’m not being derogatory to other motorcycles. It’s just that to me, this is the way they’re supposed to look.” When he bought the sidecar rig, Wayne was actually looking for a 1937 BSA Empire Star girder-fork single. “This came along, and it had the sidecar. I liked the looks of it,” he says. The year Wayne’s BSA A7 was made (1948) also had some significance for him. “The first time I met my father was in 1948, primarily because he went to war and stayed. I was born in 1937 and he went to war in 1939, so I have no memory of him then. The first time I met him was at the Canadian Pacific Railroad station in Calgary.”
Wayne found the BSA in the U.K. and imported it into Canada. And while the engine was supposed to have been rebuilt, problems soon arose. “It was supposed to be in excellent condition,” Wayne says. “The engine had been reworked — top and bottom end — by a company in England. It only had about 100 miles on it since the work was done, then within about 400 miles of my getting it, it had what I can only describe as a catastrophic failure. The bearings failed, a couple of the piston rings were broken, the bores were all scarred up.”
Even though Wayne had checked the oil flow back to the oil tank before riding the bike, it appeared oil wasn’t circulating properly inside the engine. Dismantling the engine revealed quite a mess. The oil pump wouldn’t seal properly because of a poorly finished Heli-Coil repair, so oil was escaping into the crankcase before ever reaching the big end bearings. Oil feed to the top end is taken from the return line on most BSAs, so everything inside the rocker box was fine, but a full stripdown and rebuild with new bearings was going to be needed.
He entrusted the engine rebuild work to Vancouver British motorcycle specialists Redline Norton. While the engine work was underway, Wayne decided to improve the cosmetics, though at first, he wanted to be somewhat conservative about it. “I didn’t want to do anything to spoil the patina,” he says. “As it came from England it looked quite good.” But his perfectionist streak got the better of him.
“I probably ended up doing more things than I should have. I powder coated too many things, which I would never do again,” he says. Aside from powder coating much of the painted metalwork, replacing fasteners with stainless steel, and renewing electrical and fuel system components, Wayne added a few touches to suit his own taste. “Some of it was practical, some of it because I liked the look,” he says. “I changed over all the fastening screws on the timing cover and the chain cover to cheesehead screws, the originals. I just think they look a whole bunch nicer. A few little things like that. The pillion pad I did not like at all, so I took that off and welded the holes shut and powder coated the fender.”
BSAs of this period were known for having chrome wheel rims with a central painted band matched to the bike’s color, finished with gold pinstriping. The wheel paint was missing from the A7, but Wayne’s ingenuity fixed the problem. “Rather than take all the spokes out and everything, I started by cleaning the rims really well. With the tires still on, I buffed them up with about 100 or 120 sandpaper, put slit drinking straws on all of the spokes and sprayed them, and they turned out really well. So you can paint a wheel rim without taking it all apart,” he says.
The finished outfit is as well turned out as a West Point graduation day, with gleaming paintwork and sparkling chrome, tastefully finished with gold pinstriping. Under the seat is a full set of factory tools, including the grease gun, and the correct hand pump is attached beneath the gas tank. It probably looks better than the day it left the factory.
On the road
Although he appreciates the practicality of the sidecar, Wayne prefers riding the BSA A7 solo. “By itself, it’s fantastic,” he says. “It really is a very, very nice bike to ride.” To that end, he’s added an aftermarket side stand after finding BSA’s ingenious centerstand more difficult to operate than it looks, a common discovery by owners when they were new. Choosing a front fork spring that would suit both sidecar duty and solo use also proved difficult; he finally settled on stock units but with 1.5-inch spacers added. “They’re fine for a bike of its era, but the rebound on the BSA forks is pretty primitive. Even at the best of times, it’s not good. But still, without the car, it’s lovely to ride. I really enjoy it.”
Not everyone would agree with Wayne’s assessment of riding with the sidecar, but he has a point. “It’s a chore, to say the least,” he says. “You sort of herd it around. I skied for years, and the feeling you get carving nice turns down the hill is the same feeling you can get on a motorcycle. You don’t get that with a sidecar. It’s clunky as hell, very utilitarian. It takes all the fun out of motorcycling. But it replicates what was happening in England at that time. This was the transportation the people had. But I don’t use it for transportation: I think I rode it up to the liquor store once!” Wayne wants to ride the outfit more, and has just ordered new Avon Speedmaster (front) and Safety Mileage (rear) tires — the ones presently on the A7 are at least 40 years old!
He still has a hankering for that 1937 Empire Star, “If I can find one that’s mostly complete,” Wayne says, but for now, the BSA A7 will do just fine. MC
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