Hot Rod: BSA Spitfire Mark III

In the 1960s, BSA was known for flash bikes with bright colors and lots of chrome — but the BSA Spitfire proves there was more to the English import than just shine.


| September/October 2013



BSA Handles

Picture yourself on this 1967 Spitfire Mark III.

Photo By Margie Siegal

1967 BSA Spitfire Mark III
Claimed power:
55hp @ 6,800rpm
Top speed: 117mph (period test)
Engine: 654cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 75mm x 74mm bore and stroke, 10.0:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 382lb (174kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 2gal (7.5ltr)/40-60mpg
Price then/now: $1,466/$4,000-$13,000

In the 1960s, BSA was known for flashy bikes with bright colors and lots of chrome. But there was more to the English import than just shine. Under all that makeup was a reliable motorcycle that handled well, ran fast and stopped when asked.  

Birmingham Small Arms Company’s first motorcycles in 1903 were single-cylinder machines, with a line of V-twins following in the 1920s. The first BSA parallel twin, the A7 designed by Val Page, Herbert Perkins and David Munro in 1939, was put on hiatus when World War II started and finally appeared in 1946.

BSA weathered the war well, and by the 1950s it had the largest range of any motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Most of the bikes BSA sold were the smaller, single-cylinder commuter cycles heavily in demand by British workers. And while the company had a firm policy against factory road race involvement, BSA built single-cylinder Gold Stars for clubman racers in England and flat track competition in the United States.

BSA’s better twin

By this time, BSA’s parallel twin had morphed into two versions, the 497cc A7 and the 646cc A10. In order to raise money to pay its war debt, the British government pushed English companies to export. As a result, a lot of BSA twins were sent to the United States, where the market for sport motorcycles was booming. Indian motorcycle distributor Hap Alzina was importing BSAs to the West Coast while Rich Child, the former head of Harley-Davidson’s Japanese subsidiary, was in charge of distribution east of the Mississippi. The reliability and economy that drew British consumers did not draw U.S. riders, who were more interested in speed. American motorcyclists generally had little use for BSA’s lightweights, but were enthusiastic about BSA twins.

An obvious way to prove performance is on the race track. BSA didn’t like to sanction racing, but the company had little choice if it wanted to sell bikes in the United States. American racers found that BSA twins responded well to tuning, and with the right setup were competitive in flat track and offroad events. In 1954, BSA lent assistance to a team led by AMA National Champion Bobby Hill for that year’s Daytona beach race, and the BSA Wrecking Crew, as it became known, swept the first five places. Other National winners on BSA singles and twins included Jody Nicholas, George Everett and Dick Mann.

Number77x
9/19/2013 1:34:04 PM

I just love BSA, I tried to buy a Hornet in 1965, but the dealer wouldn't do it because I was 14.


DAVIDM
9/19/2013 7:48:24 AM

My first british bike was a Spitfire Mark 111, but it was the Hornet TT version. I didn't appreciate it's good looks at the time partly because it had been repainted and had higher handle bars. Of all the bikes that I have owned since 1973 this is one that I would love to have back.


DAVIDM
9/19/2013 7:48:20 AM

My first british bike was a Spitfire Mark 111, but it was the Hornet TT version. I didn't appreciate it's good looks at the time partly because it had been repainted and had higher handle bars. Of all the bikes that I have owned since 1973 this is one that I would love to have back.






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