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1960 BSA Super Rocket vs. 1957 Triumph Tiger 110

Motojournalist Robert Smith gathers a pair of British 650s for a proper showdown.

motorcycles
Robert Smith

Familiarity breeds contempt goes the saying. And a forced marriage offers plenty of unwelcome familiarity. No surprise, then, that in the 1950s, relations between the two senior stepsiblings of the BSA Group — BSA and Triumph — were distant, competitive and sometimes downright hostile.

By 1957, Triumph had been part of the BSA Group for six years. Yet, while Triumph’s Meriden factory near Coventry was just a 10-mile hop from BSA’s Small Heath, Birmingham plant, the two might have been at opposite ends of the galaxy. Each maintained its independence in development, manufacturing, and sales. Any potential sharing opportunities were ignored, downplayed or dismissed.

Much of this antipathy was down to the personalities involved. Famously irascible and autocratic, Edward Turner ruled his fiefdom at Meriden with an iron fist. Triumph could do no wrong (especially if Turner was involved, which he invariably was); and while Turner was well aware of trends and developments in the industry, innovations at Meriden were usually home grown.

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Even after 1956, when Turner was in charge of both BSA and Triumph (see Turner sidebar below), his focus rarely wandered away from Meriden — and Triumph’s U.S. distributors, whom he visited often. (It was while driving through South Carolina to the 1949 Daytona races that Turner spotted the Thunderbird Motel. The name seemed just right for Triumph’s next motorcycle.)

The customary reason for merging two businesses is to gain synergy — the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In manufacturing, it’s the benefit of sharing resources and technology, commonality of parts, and economies of scale. If that’s what BSA Group’s board had hoped for in 1951, they were to be disappointed. It wasn’t until 1962 (when Turner was in ill health and close to retiring) that BSA called in consultants McKinsey & Co, to find out why: their report advised streamlining operations, and especially merging the two separate sales operations in the U.S. It took until 1969 for that to happen!


The Legendary Edward Turner

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Image Robert Smith

A photograph of Edward Turner early in his career.

In 1951, then owner Jack Sangster sold Triumph to BSA Group, gaining a seat on the BSA board. Edward Turner continued as Managing Director of Triumph until 1956, when Sangster became Chairman of BSA Group after a boardroom battle, and installed Turner as chief executive of BSA’s automotive division.

This was a big responsibility: the automotive division included BSA, Triumph, Sunbeam and Ariel motorcycles; Daimler and Lanchester automobiles; and Carbodies, the company that built the famous black London cabs. In fact, Turner’s first project at the automotive division was designing the Daimler Dart V-8 sports car (changed to SP250 after a name dispute with Dodge). It was rumored at the time that, in police guise, Turner’s SP250 was the only British car fast enough to catch a Triumph 650!

In spite of his Group responsibilities, Turner rarely left Meriden. Sales Manager Neale Shilton recalls that when Turner’s desk was moved across his office, he was heard to say: “I am now sitting seven yards closer to (BSA factory) Small Heath and I do not intend to get any closer!” (Jeff Clew: Turner’s Triumphs, 2000)


bsa motorcycle

BSA A10 Super Rocket 1960

  • Engine: OHV parallel twin, iron barrels and alloy head with separate transmission
  • Bore x stroke: 70mm x 84mm = 646cc
  • Compression: 8.3:1
  • Claimed power: 43hp @ 6,250rpm
  • Transmission: Chain primary with wet multiplate clutch with separate gearbox
  • Gearbox: BSA 4-speed
  • Shift pattern: 1-up, 3-down, right side
  • Electrics: Dynamo, 6-volt battery, positive ground
  • Ignition: Magneto
  • Frame: Twin downtube cradle type, welded steel tube
  • Rear suspension: Swinging arm with twin spring/shock units
  • Front suspension: BSA telescopic fork, oil damped
  • Rear brake: 7-inch SLS drum
  • Front brake: 8-inch SLS drum
  • Front wheel/tire: WM2 x 19-inch, 3.25 x 19in
  • Rear wheel/tire: WM2 x 19-inch, 3.50 x 19in

triumph-tiger

Triumph Tiger 110 1957

  • Engine: OHV parallel twin, iron barrels and alloy head with separate transmission
  • Bore x stroke: 71mm x 82mm = 649cc
  • Compression: 8.5:1
  • Claimed power: 42hp @ 6,500rpm
  • Transmission: Chain primary with wet multiplate clutch with separate gearbox
  • Gearbox: Triumph 4-speed
  • Shift pattern: 1-down, 3-up, right side
  • Electrics: Dynamo, 6-volt battery, positive ground
  • Ignition: Magneto
  • Frame: Single downtube cradle type, steel tube with brazed lugs, bolt-on rear subframe
  • Rear suspension: Swinging arm with twin spring/shock units
  • Front suspension: Triumph telescopic fork, oil damped
  • Rear brake: 7-inch SLS drum
  • Front brake: 8-inch SLS drum
  • Front wheel/tire: WM2 x 19-inch, 3.25 x 19in
  • Rear wheel/tire: WM2 x 19-inch, 3.50 x 19in

Same difference

Of course, there’s the counter argument that competition improves the breed; so perhaps the inter-company rivalry was condoned or even encouraged. By pitching the BSA brand against Triumph through separate distributors and dealers, the Group might expect overall market share to increase. And maintaining brand independence avoided badge-engineered lash-ups like competitor AMC’s AJS/Matchless and Francis-Barnett/James motorcycles — identical machines under different brands.

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So given this background, it’s not surprising that the flagship models from BSA and Triumph shared very little, apart from the usual proprietary parts like Amal carburetors, Lucas electrics and Smiths instruments. The 650 Triumph Tiger 110 gas tank was brightly painted (as Triumphs always were) while the 650 BSA Super Rocket tank was mostly chrome, as usual. Frames were brazed together at Triumph using cast iron lugs and a traditional forge, while BSA’s duplex frame tubes were bronze welded together. The Triumph gearshift pattern was one down, three up: BSA’s, one up, three down.

Bigger engines

Both the Tiger 110 and Super Rocket were hopped up versions of their respective manufacturers’ standard 650 twins: the 6T Thunderbird and A10 Flash. BSA and Triumph both launched their first 650s in 1949 in response to American market demands for more power.

At Triumph, Edward Turner simply stretched the existing 500cc Speed Twin engine (with minor upgrades) from 63mm x 80mm to 71mm x 82mm for 649cc. So the 360-degree parallel twin inherited the 500’s bolt-up crankshaft with plain bearing big ends (but using a drive-side roller main instead of the 500’s ball race) with two gear-driven camshafts and external pushrod tubes. Drive to the separate 4-speed gearbox was by chain and wet clutch.

BSA engine

Image Robert Smith

The BSA engine clocks in at 3cc less (646cc vs 649cc) than the Triumph.

 

At BSA, Bert Hopwood, recently arrived from Norton, redesigned the existing 500cc A7 twin (a product of development work by Val Page, Herbert Perkins and Edward Turner himself while at BSA in the World War II years). Like Hopwood’s 1948 Dominator twin for Norton, the new 650cc A10 twin used a single camshaft, but behind the crankshaft, not in front, as in the Dominator. The A10 inherited the A7’s gear drive to the camshaft, while pushrods ran inside the cylinder block and head.

Hopwood completed the 650 Flash engine in time for prototypes to be ready for the Earls Court, London show in October 1949, with full production starting in November. In the race with Triumph to be first with a 650, few changes were made to Hopwood’s drawings, many parts going straight from drawing board to production tooling.

triumph engine

The A10 used “semi-unit” construction, with the separate gearbox bolted directly to the rear of the crankcase and an adjustable chain slider to take up slack. Triumph’s “pre-unit” assembly used a separate gearbox mounted on sliding plates for primary chain adjustment. Both the BSA and Triumph 650s used a rigid rear frame with rear suspension as an option — by Triumph’s sprung hub or BSA’s plunger frame.

But it was a Triumph publicity stunt that captured the headlines. While BSA was showing its new 650 in London, Triumph was running three stock Thunderbirds around the Montlhéry circuit in France. They covered 500 miles each at an average speed of over 90mph — and were then ridden back to Meriden!

More power

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More is usually better where power is concerned, and by 1954 both BSA and Triumph offered high-performance versions of their 650s. The Tiger 110 engine, still using an iron cylinder head and single carb, was tweaked to produce 42 horsepower (from 34) and fitted in a new swinging-arm frame, thankfully abandoning Turner’s awful sprung rear hub. An alloy cylinder head arrived for 1957.

BSA, meanwhile, had introduced the Super Flash in 1953, a tuned (also for 42 horsepower) version of the A10 Flash for the U.S. market with an Amal TT9 carburetor, but still in the old “plunger” frame. New in 1954, though, was the Road Rocket with the Super Flash engine fitted in a new all-welded swingarm frame. In 1957, the Super Rocket arrived with an alloy head, higher compression and an Amal Monobloc carb for 43 horsepower.

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So the Super Rocket and Tiger 110 were pretty evenly matched. BSA had the advantage of an all-welded frame, more rigid than Triumph’s lug-and-braze affair with its bolted-on rear subframe. But the Triumph engine was more easily tunable for performance. It’s interesting to note that neither bike used twin carburetors: this would have to wait, in Triumph’s case until the 1959 Bonneville, and for BSA until the 1964 unit-construction Lightning Rocket.

The single-carb Tiger 110 stayed in production alongside the twin-carb 46 horsepower T120 Bonneville until the changeover to unit construction in 1962, when it was relaunched as the TR6SS. The Super Rocket was similarly discontinued with BSA’s introduction of its unit construction twins in 1962, though the A10SR engine continued for one more season, installed in Gold Star cycle parts and sold as the Rocket Gold Star — now perhaps the most collectable of BSA twins.

The Ace and the Ton

If nowhere else, inter-brand competition was fierce on the highways around London’s Ace Café in the late 1950s. And while contemporary reports in Britain’s tabloids were likely exaggerated, street racing certainly happened. The goal: to hit the magic “ton,” 100mph on a busy stretch of the North Circular Road near the Ace (see the Ace Café sidebar). Both the Super Rocket and Tiger 110 were capable of this speed, even if courtesy of an optimistic speedometer.

If Gil Yarrow and John Farguson had met on the road in 1960, and if they had the bikes they rode for this story, a race would certainly have been on the cards.

I met Farguson and Yarrow at Farguson’s condo in Surrey, British Columbia. A couple of ex-pat Brits, they owned between them a pair of quintessential Fifties ton-up bikes.

carb

Image Robert Smith

The Super Rocket uses an Amal Monoblock carb .

Farguson acquired his 1957 Tiger 110 as an incomplete basket case and set to restoring it. But the basket did at least include a new old-stock gas tank (complete with its infamous “emasculator” parcel grid) in the correct ivory and powder blue paint. Why the Tiger 110?

“It was a beautiful bike,” noted Farguson. “I’ve always favored pre-unit Triumphs.”

carb

Image Robert Smith

The Tiger also uses an Amal Monoblock carb.

Victoria, B.C. motorcycle dealers C&S rebuilt the engine’s bottom end, and pre-unit specialist Ken Brown put the bike together, after acclaimed British Columbia spray man and pinstriper Rick Brown completed the paint. It was at Rick’s shop that Farguson found his rear fender. Rick was painting a 1957 fender for another customer. It turned out each had the correct fenders for the others’ bike, so a swap was arranged. The hardest part to find turned out to be the correct period Triumph headlight nacelle. “They were not very popular at the time,” Farguson said. “Many owners removed them so they could add a tachometer.”

The result was a motorcycle that Farguson described as “very sweet to ride. Everything works nicely. It’s a very smooth-running bike.”

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Gil Yarrow’s 1960 Super Rocket came from Billings, Montana, also as a basket case. “It needed a complete restoration,” he said. “Everything was in pieces, and $7,000-worth of parts were missing.” Yarrow rated trying to figure out exactly what was missing as the most difficult part of the restoration.

Yarrow completed the restoration in two years. Finding the right BSA parts wasn’t a problem, even the correct carburetor drip tray (intended to keep gas dripping off the carburetor from dousing the magneto’s spark — or worse!). And he’s pleased with the end result. “It’s a lovely bike to ride,” said Yarrow. “The handling is especially good.”

riders

Image Robert Smith

Top speed of the Super Rocket and Tiger 110 were similar at close to 110mph.

Of course, it would be difficult to recreate the hypothetical 1960 road race in the Vancouver suburbs. But we did find a stretch of road where these classic road-burners could stretch their legs. We didn’t try for top speed, of course, but the combatants were still keen to crank the throttle.

Which was faster? Well, let’s just say it was pretty close. MC


The Ace Café

cafe

Image Robert Smith

The Ace Café London after it reopened in 2001.

Originally a greasy spoon truckers’ café and diner, the Ace Café opened in 1938, and though bombed out in the London Blitz during World War II, it reopened in 1949. The Ace wasn’t elaborately furnished — linoleum on the floor and melamine counter tops, with chairs and tables bolted down, and the solitary tea-stirring spoon chained to the counter. In war-surplus flying boots, jeans and leather jackets — with the omnipresent layer of oily grime — bikers fit in perfectly.

The signature music of the late Fifties was rock ‘n’ roll, and the Ace was the best place to hear what was new through the jukebox. Domestic life in Britain was pretty bleak; the economy devastated by war meant a persistent trade deficit that kept food rationing in place until 1955. The temptation of glittering palaces like the Ace, with the heady rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll and the frisson of furtive criminal activity was irresistible. Not to mention the bikes and the “birds.”

If the jukebox was the metronome of cafe racing, it tolled the death of many — victims of “record racing.” It was said that from dropping a coin in the slot, it was just possible to rip up the highway as far as the Neasden roundabout, negotiating the railway viaduct, a set of traffic signals and the notorious Iron Bridge on the way, and just get back — in the time it took to spin a typical pop record. Café racing was born.

In his book Cafe Racers, Mick Clay documents that the Iron Bridge claimed as many as seven bikers’ lives in one two-week period. Reducing the speed limit to 40mph did little.

“Ton kids creed — live fast, love hard, die young,” gushed Britain’s Today magazine in January 1961. The subjects — Ace Café regulars — might have been forgiven for wondering whom the story was about.

Then on February 9, 1961 the tabloid Daily Mirror published a special “investigation” into the “suicide club” of Ace Café motorcyclists. Public outrage obliged the police to take notice: they duly raided the Ace on the night of Friday, February 10th. The days of ton-up exploits were coming to a close. In 1969, the Ace’s owner retired and the building became a tire store, which it remained for the next 30 years — until it was revived by present owner Mark Wilsmore. Check it out at Ace Cafe London.

Updated on Aug 11, 2021  |  Originally Published on Jul 26, 2021

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