Birmingham Small Arms Company rode the wave of off-road motorcycle racing popularity when it released the 1967 BSA Hornet.
1967 BSA Hornet
Years produced: 1964-1967
Claimed power: 53.5hp @ 6,800rpm
Top speed: 102 mph
Engine type: 654cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin
Weight (dry): 382lb (173kg)
Price then: $1,182 (1965)
Price now: $4,000-$6,000
MPG: 40-50 (est.)
Powering along in low gear, you ignore the heat enveloping you. Despite the bandanna over your face, alkali dust fills your nose, but you stay fixed on negotiating the washed-out gullies and rapidly changing terrain.
Two more turns and you give your 1967 BSA Hornet the gas, running up the gears as the trail straightens out and the checkpoint in the distance comes into focus. There’s no one in front of you, and your watch says you’re on time. You’re winning. Focusing on your line, you completely forget about the heat.
The Sixties were boom times for motorcycles and off-road motorcycle racing. Stoked by Baby Boomers who were just entering their teens and helped by Honda’s campaign to convince Americans that “you meet the nicest people” on two wheels, motorcycle sales shot from less than 60,000 in 1960 to 609,000 imports alone in 1965. While most of these were small-displacement Japanese and Italian bikes, more than 33,000 were imported from England, mostly 500cc and 650cc Triumph and BSA motorcycles.
Many of those people buying British motorcycles were using them for amateur competition. Flat tracking was hot, and the stands were packed as local favorites went wheel-to-wheel. Enduros, motocrosses and cross-country races drew full fields, and drag racing was so popular that contemporary motorcycle magazines published quarter-mile times instead of top speeds.
While lightweight 2-strokes were increasingly showing up at off-road motorcycle racing events, the winner’s circle was still dominated by heavy-duty overhead-valve singles and twins. “The sound of a 4-stroke intimidated some people,” remembers John Huetter, former managing editor of Cycle News, who raced a BSA Hornet in the desert in the late Sixties. “Huskys [Husqvarnas] dominated at the time, and when the BSA Hornet started doing well it was hailed as the return of the 4-strokes to desert racing.”
Southwestern riders, including Hollywood star and offroad competitor Steve McQueen, were hooked on desert racing. When Popular Science asked McQueen to evaluate offroad competition motorcycles in 1966, he set up the test course himself. “We assembled all the bikes on a scrambling course of 6-mile perimeter, which had just about every type of terrain I could think of: cow trailing with a top end close to 70mph; a sand wash with some rocks (to be avoided at all costs); sand dips of the washboard type with a depth of two feet maximum; several high speed jumps of the TT variety; and a lot of fast trailing with quick changes, both up and down and side to side,” McQueen said.
One of the six bikes McQueen evaluated was the BSA Hornet. McQueen praised the powerful engine and “damn good air cleaner.” The Hornet’s appeal was not limited to desert racing — many amateur flat-trackers did well on Hornets. “I learned a lot of valuable lessons through all this,” wrote motorcycle industry veteran Paul Dean of his introduction to flat tracking in 1966. “One of them was that in the 650 Spitfire Hornet, BSA had built a pretty decent flat-track bike right out of the box. Only through my naïveté and inexperience was it rendered the most wicked, evil, mean and nasty BSA dirt tracker that ever turned a wheel. God, I loved that bike.”
The American desert might seem a far cry from the wet streets of Birmingham, England, but good publicity from American desert racing and flat-tracking competition was vitally important to the Birmingham Small Arms Company.
Unlike BSA’s economy-minded customers at home, American riders wanted horsepower, speed and handling, something the Japanese couldn’t yet deliver, but BSA could. Since the early 1950s, BSA had been developing special U.S.-only versions of its standard bikes to satisfy sport-minded American motorcyclists, who found BSA and other Britbikes easily adapted to flat tracking and other forms of American competition. Although many national competitors in the U.S. rode Harleys (Indian quit making motorcycles in 1953), most amateur and semi-pro riders were seated on BSAs and Triumphs.
BSA rang in the New Year in 1962 with brand new 650cc and 500cc twins. The A65 (650cc) and A50 (500cc) featured true unit construction (combined engine/transmission), a one-piece aluminum cylinder head, hemispherical combustion chambers and alternator ignition. New frames and a 2-inch shorter wheelbase complemented the updated engine. Twelve-volt electrics became an option in 1963.
At the end of that year, BSA announced a higher performance version of the A65, with 9:1 compression, an aggressive camshaft and a heavy-duty clutch. Competition versions of this bike were campaigned in the U.S. in 1964. In late 1964, BSA unveiled a new cylinder head with splayed ports fed by twin carburetors. Two America-only sporting twins with this head were produced: a road racer and the Spitfire Hornet, also known as simply the Hornet.
Intended for offroad competition, the BSA Hornet came without any lights. BSA quickly learned that West Coast desert racers wanted their bikes set up differently from East Coast flat trackers, so starting in 1966, the bright red Hornet came in two versions: one, sent to Hap Alzina’s West Coast distributorship, had shorty pipes terminating just aft and under the engine, and a threaded boss welded on the frame to hold a 3-quart oil tank and no toolbox. The East Coast version had high pipes, a smaller oil tank and a tab welded on the frame for a toolbox.
Both East and West Coast Hornets had a 10.5:1 compression ratio, “energy transfer” coil ignition (voltage came straight from the alternator) and a 19-inch front tire, but the West Coast Hornet’s front rim and tire were wider than the East Coast version (4 inch vs. 3.5 inch). Two 1-5/32-inch Amal Monobloc carburetors fed the overhead valve cylinders. The factory claimed 53.5hp.
Contemporary testers praised the BSA Hornet for its strong engine and its speed off the line. “Faster in the ‘quarter’ than any other scrambler we have tested, and within mere fractions of being the fastest accelerating motorcycle we have ever tested,” crowed Cycle World in November 1965. Points were also awarded for the Hornet’s seating position, reliable transmission and effective engine shield.
“It was easy to ride,” Huetter says, recalling his bike. “It was super in sand. The 2-strokes would dig a trench in the sand, and if you fell off the pipe you were screwed. The BSA had torque anywhere along the rpm band.
“The frame was better than the Triumph of the time, but the handling was twitchy,” John continues. “I think the geometry got a little wrong when they increased the suspension.” BSA had lengthened the swingarm to accommodate longer rear shocks.
“It’s a keen bike,” Steve McQueen said at the time, “but I found it awfully heavy. A lot of weight would have to be stripped off to make the bike competitive. The Hornet also had a tendency to want to go its own way. I always had to stay on top of it. But it sure has a good-functioning power train.”
The BSA Hornet was produced with few changes through 1967. By this time, light and powerful 2-strokes ruled the desert, and sales started falling off as Japanese manufacturers proved they could build large capacity bikes to rival the Brits. BSA staggered on for four more years, and collapsed in 1972.
Gary Edwards learned to ride on Yamaha 55s and Suzuki 80s. A neighbor had a thrashed BSA Gold Star, and let the teenaged offroad enthusiast ride the bike on the local fire roads. Young Gary, who weighed about 130 pounds, couldn’t figure out how to kickstart the big single from cold, but could always fire it up by coasting down a hill and kicking it into gear. “I remember falling over with the bike on top of me and trying not to kill it, because I didn’t think I could get it started again,” he says. Gary loved that bike. “It was the sound, that 4-cycle sound. You could almost count the piston strokes. It would climb a tree at idle. It had tons of torque.”
Gary grew up and got involved in a wide variety of things, all with fast engines. He did hot rods for a bit and was in the drag boat scene for a while. He spent 10 years building an experimental airplane. Despite these forays, he still had a soft spot for BSAs. “I’m forever branded with the BSA logo,” he says.
About 10 years ago, he acquired a BSA 441 Victor and turned it into a special. He often goes cow trailing on the Victor. He then bought a second 441 and built it up into a show bike. At this point, Gary started attending American Historic Motorcycle Racing Association (AHRMA) events. “I listened to the 40-inch twins, and decided I wanted a BSA twin. I started looking around and found one I wanted to mess with,” he says of his favorite ride, a 1968 BSA Firebird. Not satisfied with a daily rider, Gary decided to build a show bike and settled on a Hornet: “Finding a decent Hornet was tough. People used them for desert racing, thrashed them and they ended up in the bone yard.”
Gary continues: “The ET coils got used up and they are hard to find. You can convert the bike to a modern Podtronic electronic ignition or Japanese ET coils. The rear fender was Hornet only. To make things even tougher, the exhaust has to match the frame. You can’t have a West Coast exhaust on an East Coast frame — and the West Coast exhaust is very rare. I am running a database of where West Coast TT pipes are.”
Despite all these hurdles, Gary has managed to build an almost perfect East Coast Hornet. “When I got the bike, it was in terrible shape. The prior owner had cut up the fender with tin snips and converted the bike to street use. I thought I would have to make a rear fender, but I found one through word of mouth,” he says.
He tore the bike down to the crank, rebalanced the crankshaft and put the engine back together, restoring the compression to its original 10.5:1 ratio. “BSAs always benefit from balancing the lower end,” Gary observes. “Most of making them work is careful assembly. You torque to spec, and use Whitworth tools so you don’t round off the bolt heads. One problem I had was finding NOS [new-old-stock] nuts and bolts. You can get reproductions, but they don’t have the right markings,” which can lose you points in concours judging.
Most people go with modern tires and stainless spokes, but Gary, a perfectionist, has opted for cadmium plating the spokes and shoeing his BSA Hornet with new-old-stock Dunlop K70 tires and new-old-stock Dunlop rim locks.
For the moment, Gary is taking his BSA Hornet on the show circuit. “I’m not going to be riding it much until I’m done showing it, maybe two more years,” he says, although clearly he’d like to get it out on the road more. “I’m debating whether I should continue showing it or just fire it up and ride it.”
The truth is, Gary really enjoys the concours circuit. “I had it judged at the Antique Motorcycle Club of America meet at Dixon [California]. I pushed it into the judging area and stood back as the judges went over it,” he recalls. “I answered some questions, and then they filled out the form and pushed it under the front tire. I didn’t think I was supposed to look at it, but then I couldn’t stand it any more, so I opened it up. The bike got 99.5 points.”
For Gary, that’s a big part of the allure of old bikes. “My interest in motorcycles is in large part the fun of restoring. Motorcycles don’t take up much room, not like that airplane did!” MC