Motorcycle Classics

BSA Firebird Scrambler

BSA Firebird Scrambler
Years produced:
Total production: Unknown
Claimed power: 52hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 105mph (est.)
Engine type:  654cc air-cooled parallel twin
Weight (dry): 185kg (408lb)
Price Then: $1,440
Price Now: $3,500-$5,500
MPG: 35-45

Dual-sport bikes are hardly new. By some accounts, BSA launched the category in 1965 with its offroad-styled 500cc A50 BSA Wasp and 650cc A65 BSA Hornet. Three years later, the company introduced the BSA Firebird Scrambler, its latest — and arguably best — variation on the theme. Trouble is, they forgot to market it, and the Firebird stalled.

Every old motorcycle has some history: sometimes it’s benign, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the story is written in service notes, title documents and repair bills. Sometimes it’s oral, passed on from owner to owner — although many sellers seem to prefer saying as little as possible!

Then there are the stories told in the metal: the patina of worn paint from leathers rubbing on a gas tank; rounded-off nuts attacked by mis-sized wrenches; telltale boogers of silicone oozing from a hastily fitted primary cover. All these speak to the past indignities suffered by our old iron.

Humble beginnings
Take Gary Carpenter’s 1970 BSA Firebird Scrambler, for example. (I should confess up front that I’m part of its history, because I sold it to him.) I first saw the bike advertised in the local newspaper as a 1969 BSA Lightning “basket case.” Checking the bike’s serial numbers, I could tell it was a 1970 model but with a 1972 engine in place.

The original engine was also part of the package, and a quick look at the pieces told the story. Punched in the back of the crankcase and primary was a three-finger-sized hole, certainly the result of a snapped drive chain. Likely, then, the old Beezer hadn’t enjoyed the most fastidious maintenance program. A good sprinkling of rust told of lengthy outside storage, and the paint told another tale: The original white headlight ears had been brushed black to tie in with the hand-painted Lightning gas tank.

So there was the probable story: A broken chain had trashed the engine, and the previous owner had bought a 1972 Lightning parts bike and swapped out the engine. The twist in the tale? He must have fitted the Lightning’s gas tank, too, because the frame number prefix revealed the bike’s true personality — A65FS — the designation for a Firebird Scrambler.

Birth of the ‘Bird
The A65 designation means the Forgotten Firebird was built around BSA’s unit-construction twin-cylinder 650cc engine introduced in 1962. The engine’s “square” dimensions of 75mm bore and 74mm stroke were housed in smooth, rounded casings soon to become known as the “power egg.” BSA steadily increased the performance of the new 650 from around 34hp to a claimed 52hp in the twin-carburetor Lightning Clubman of 1966. A new, finned rocker cover was introduced in 1967, and this essentially became the Firebird’s power plant.

Street scramblers, as they were called, were hot in the mid-Sixties: bikes like the Honda CL77, Triumph’s T100C, TR6C and T120C, and the Norton P11 were all designed to benefit from the interest in offroad racing — though few riders would ever actually take these heavy street bikes into the desert. In a curious piece of marketing philosophy, BSA had introduced street-scramblers in 1965: the 500cc A50 Wasp and 650cc A65 Hornet. These were stripped-down versions of the street Cyclone and Lightning models with a choice of high- or low-level exhaust pipes. But BSA offered these heavy street (though offroad styled) bikes without lights or charging systems. What were they thinking?

So when the Firebird 650 was launched in 1968 with both high pipes and lighting, it was less a compromise than a practical alternative to the Hornet, and it sold reasonably well. The 1968 model sported the “peanut” fiberglass gas tank used on all twins that year, but with a 6in headlight instead of the 7in unit on the Lightning, and Cyclone-style waist-level exhaust pipes, one on either side.

Styling grew even more outrageous in 1969 with the Firebird adopting Triumph TR6-style pipes, both high on the left and covered with a “chicken wire” heat shield, and a slender, single-braced front fender. (A modern iteration of this exhaust system adorns the new Triumph Scrambler.) All the 1969 twins used a sleek fiberglass gas tank with scalloped sides.

For BSA’s 1970 lineup the story gets a little hazy, and what happened next has to be put in the context of BSA-Triumph’s fortunes at the time. A number of issues came together to conspire against the company. For starters, BSA’s own marketing department had predicted a downturn in motorcycle sales, leading to a cutback in production when in fact the U.S. market (now taking more than three-quarters of BSA’s output) was booming. Further, a new computer-based production management and parts ordering system had recently been installed and was proving troublesome, leading to production delays. Additionally, the factory was tooling up for the new P39 oil-in-frame models planned for 1970. As a result of these issues, BSA botched its marketing for the critical April-June sales season, when more than 90 percent of motorcycle sales are made.

Most reference books show the 1970 model Firebird as essentially identical to the 1969: high pipes on the left, small headlight and scalloped fiberglass gas tank. But the Canadian sales brochure showed the Firebird with low “street” pipes, a fat chrome gas tank and double-braced fender (borrowed from the earlier Lightning model), and a lurid color scheme of electric blue and white with red pinstriping.

Firebirds were delivered to other countries with the chrome tank and high pipes, or with the fiberglass tank and low pipes. It seems that every possible combination from the BSA parts bin was used at some time, and the Firebird appears to have been the “vehicle” for BSA to use up its stock of obsolete gas tanks, headers, mufflers and fenders.

BSA repeated its earlier production faux pas in 1971: The new A65 models, based on the P39 oil-in-frame, were late, and BSA missed the essential April-June sales season yet again. Barry Ryerson, in his book The Giants of Small Heath, calls this the “mechanics of failure” for BSA: critical U.S. sales seasons missed and a resulting cash-flow crisis leading to bankruptcy.

But when it finally arrived, the 1971 Firebird was one of BSA’s more attractive offerings, reprising the 1969 model’s left-side high-pipes. (Many consider the last two years’ BSA twins to be the best.) Yet apart from a very Seventies brown and cream paint job, the rest was strictly Lightning, and the Firebird failed to reappear in BSA’s abbreviated 1972 catalog.

By this time the factory had taken considerable pains to reduce two major engine complaints: vibration and oil leaks. Quality control and component selection improved, and joint faces were widened to improve sealing — but it was too late to save the company. BSA-Triumph was set to join with Dennis Poore’s Norton-Villiers company in a government-sponsored merger, but a mysterious run on BSA-Triumph stock allowed the sly Poore to snap up his competitor at a rock-bottom price.

Poore’s first major decision as owner of Norton-Villiers-Triumph was to announce the closure of Triumph’s Meriden factory, initiating the famous sit-in of 1973. But that’s another story for another time.

From the ashes …
I can’t claim any credit for the Forgotten Firebird’s present condition. Gary turned the crusty, rusty basket case into the smart machine seen in these pages. And he admits the project isn’t complete yet: The wheel rims would benefit from re-chroming, the front hub could use some paint and the mufflers are a little tired. But this version of the 1970 Firebird is so rare that it’s worthy of study.

With no authentic, original bike to use for reference, Gary took cues for the paint scheme and decal designs from a 1970 BSA sales brochure, the latter reproduced by Loomis Art Store in Vancouver, British Columbia. He found the correct gas tank at Walridge Engines in London, Ontario, and many of the other parts Gary needed came from Motoparts in Edmonton, Alberta, and British Cycle Supply in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

The result is a fascinating piece of British motorcycle history, reflecting the chaotic state of the industry at the time. So is the Forgotten Firebird a factory custom, concept styling exercise or parts bin special? You decide. MC

Read about the other motorcycles mentioned in this article:
1967 BSA Hornet
Honda CL77: The Gentleman’s Scrambler
The Norton P11 Prototype Replica

  • Published on Jul 28, 2009
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