Under the radar
1989 Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy.
BSA 441 Shooting Star
Years produced: 1968-1970
Claimed power: 30hp @ 6,000rpm
Top speed: 95mph
Engine type: 441cc OHV air-cooled vertical single
Transmission: 4-speed/chain final drive
Weight (wet): 320lb
Price then: $945 (1968)
Price now: $2,500-$4,000
In these days of 1,600cc — and bigger — road machines, it’s hard to believe the single-cylinder BSA 441 Shooting Star was actually described by a period magazine as a “touring mount.” Touring? On a 441cc single? My, how times have changed.
The truth is, by 1968, only the most committed Anglophile or thumper fan thought of BSA’s trusty single as a touring machine. Even if you did get it rolling up toward its potential top speed of 95mph, a velocity much higher than you’d expect out of such a small bike, the tingle from that single piston beating up and down at high revs would probably wear you out before you made it more than a few hundred miles.
But even so, 441cc was enough for a lot of people, and the BSA 441 Shooting Star single was considered one of the better machines to roll out from BSA’s Small Heath, England, factory.
The singles scene
Although many collectors today associate BSA with its 1960s road-going twins like the 500cc BSA Wasp and 650cc BSA Lightning, singles were critical to BSA’s early successes in the U.S., most famously with the 500cc BSA Gold Star single launched in 1938 and steadily improved upon until it was phased out in 1963. With a string of wins that stretched from one side of the globe to the other, the Gold Star’s prominence helped buoy sales of other BSA singles.
In 1958, BSA launched a smaller, 250cc unit construction (combined engine/transmission) single called the C15. More evolutionary than revolutionary, the C15 was however quite contemporary, with breaker point ignition instead of a magneto, a brushless alternator instead of a generator, and of course the unit construction 247cc vertical single.
Although the C15 got a cool reception here, it sold well in England and Europe. This was an era of increasing interest in trials and motocross racing, and the little single quickly proved itself a competent machine in offroad racing. Jeff Smith, one of England’s great motocross racers of the 1950s and 1960s, was a star rider for BSA, and his connection to the brand helped drive sales of the C15, and BSA’s smaller 2-stroke singles, as well. It was, in fact, Smith’s great popularity that helped launch the BSA 441 Victor and, a few years later, the BSA 441 Shooting Star.
In 1964 and 1965, Smith rode a specially prepared 420cc single based on the C15 to back-to-back 500cc World Motocross Championship wins. BSA decided to cash in on Smith’s success by offering a version of his bike to the public. This was offered in 1965 as the race-replica B44GP Victor Grand Prix Scrambler (complete with special oil-in-frame made of Reynolds tubing, as on Smith’s machine). Featuring a further enlarged version of the old 250 single, now pushed out to 441cc, it was quickly followed by the more sedate B44VE Victor Enduro, which we came to know stateside as simply the 441 Victor.
Sensing more opportunity, in 1967 BSA further expanded the model line by offering a road version, the B44VR Victor Roadster. U.S. dealers didn’t get the Roadster at first, however.
lthough the 441 Victor Enduro was exported to the U.S. immediately upon its introduction, it would be another year, 1968, before the Roadster would find its way into U.S. dealer showrooms, by which point it had become the B44SS Shooting Star.
Although singles were already becoming an anomaly in a new age of multi-cylinder bikes, the BSA was greeted with great enthusiasm. In its April 1968 issue, Cycle couldn’t say enough good things about the bike, calling it “one of the best motorcycles made by anybody, for anything.” And that’s even after writing at great length about the bike’s refusal to start, blamed on the BSA’s “singularly evil device,” its Amal carburetor.
So why did the motorcycling press like the BSA 441 Shooting Star? In large measure because of its simplicity. In an era of rapid change, the BSA single was a stable reminder of a simpler time. But to be fair, the bike also incorporated a number of tangible assets in its design, with a level of performance that belied its sub-500cc status. Top speed approached 95mph, and it was no slouch getting there, posting quarter-mile times in the mid 15-second range. Its transmission, a robust but simple 4-speed, was described with a word rarely applied to any machine, regardless of price or sophistication: “Perfect,” Cycle said. “Neutral is right there every time. And so are all the gears, perfectly spaced.”
And while many riders conjure up images of tooth-loosening vibration when they think of British singles, the BSA’s engine was lauded for its smoothness. “If the Shooting Star vibrated, we didn’t notice,” Cycle’s editors wrote, calling the engine “among the smoothest we’ve ever tested.”
The BSA 441 Shooting Star’s braking capacity didn’t garner quite so much enthusiasm. The 8-inch front and 7-inch rear drums were described as simply “fully capable of locking the wheel.” By the standards of the day — which weren’t particularly high — they were no better or worse than the brakes on a dozen other bikes.
Yet as perfect as Cycle’s editors found the BSA 441 Shooting Star, there was no question it was a model with a limited future. Its companion Victor was under siege from a growing horde of 2-stroke dirt bikes, and the street scene was increasingly dominated by twins, triples and fours. The model was dropped after 1970, replaced for 1971 by a larger, dirt-only 499cc Victor. A year later, BSA closed its doors forever. MC
Single-cylinder contenders to the BSA 441 Shooting Star
1989 Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy
- 38hp @ 7,500rpm / 100mph
- Air-cooled, 498cc OHC single
- Disc front, drum rear
- 395lb (wet)
The Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy had been available in Japan for four years (alongside the GB400MkII, a Paul Smart-ish version complete with fairing) when Honda brought it stateside for 1989.
Like Yamaha with the SR500, Honda looked to its dirt bikes to power its retro thumper, choosing a sleeved-down version of the 589cc single from the XL600R. But where Yamaha was content to simply evoke images of yesteryear, Honda was bent on recreating the Old British Single (OBS).
Honda publicly referred to the GB (for “Great Britain”) as a “nostalgia” bike, and if its looks made you think of the Isle of Man, so much the better. Draped in a rich layer of “Black Green” paint, the GB perfectly captured and updated the OBS. From its polished D.I.D. alloy rims to its forged footpeg brackets and real steel side covers, the Honda GB500 was the past brought to life, but without any of the past’s niggling issues like leaking oil. Electric starting made spinning over the big single easy (although the GB did feature a kickstarter, as well), and electronic ignition and a Keihin CV carb ensured it ran perfectly every time.
Unfortunately, the GB’s high $4,198 sticker kept sales disappointingly low, so Honda pulled the GB from the U.S. after 1990.
More popular today than when new, they keep rising in value. Great classic looks, high build quality and rarity make the GB a solid bet.
1978-1981 Yamaha SR500
- 33hp @ 6,500rpm/ 96mph
- Air-cooled, 499cc OHC single
- Disc front, drum rear
- 353lb (dry)
Developed as a street-wise offshoot to Yamaha’s hugely successful XT/TT500 thumper dirt bike, the Yamaha SR500 was the spiritual successor to the 500cc British singles of yore.
Neither full-on dirt bikes nor competent street bikes, the XT/TT (the XT was the street version, with lights and blinkers) range introduced for 1976 was an instant hit for Yamaha, and proved there was still a viable market for big singles. The XT/TT’s success prompted Yamaha to develop a street version, resulting in the Yamaha SR500.
Like its British forebears, the Yamaha SR500 was a straight-forward proposition. The design goal favored simplicity and low weight, so the SR eschewed such modern conveniences as electric start. To make sure it always started, however, the SR received electronic ignition and a nifty decompression system even a novice could follow; big singles have a habit of kicking back — sometimes painfully — when prodded at the wrong point in their spin cycle.
Larger valves let the Yamaha SR500 breathe a bit more than its dirt-bound brethren, and bigger cooling fins helped it keep its composure in city riding, an environment where the SR excelled. While it was a perfectly capable road bike, its smallish size and moderate power (33hp) meant most owners used them for urban commuting or as errand bikes.
Bullet-proof construction allied with great looks and great handling make the Yamaha SR500 a perfect entry-level classic, and a bargain, to boot. MC