#299 BSA Lightning: The Mystery of the Red Bike

When an odd coloured BSA Lightning appears, it’s all hands on deck to solve point of origin issues.

This is how it went down. A guy named Dave from Bozeman, Montana buys an old 1971  A65L BSA Lightning. He “believes” it’s a Canadian model because the exchange rate in 1971 then made shopping in Canada a popular option for folks in Montana. The bike is in solid red livery and this puzzles Dave, who seems to recall the 1971 A65Ls in America being two-tone.
Keen to sort out the mystery, he emails his old buddy, CB Tech Advisor Rich Burgess: “Rich, do you have a source to determine if this solid red was a Canadian color?” Dave asks.
He’s a networking kind of guy, so Rich promptly passes the query on to me.
“Hey John, wondering if you can answer this one?” Rich asks.
Being a networker myself, I send out a call to action to a crew of guys who I know can be counted on for prompt, thoughtful opinions, Orville Olm and the Saskatchewan section of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group:
“Hey Orv, hope all is going well as we head into winter’s big chill,” says I to Orv in a pre-Christmas email before recapping the question now swirling around the paternity of one previously quite humble BSA A65L Lightning. “Was the solid red version of that particular model unique to the Canadian market?”
At this juncture in the saga of Montana Dave’s merry red BSA Lightning, it must be pointed out that our legendary Vintage Motorcycles Editor Robert Smith was conducting a research program on the beaches of Hawaii, leaving the home office down a quart or two on our vintage tech in his absence. But our ongoing harmonious relation with the great state of Montana was on the line. If diplomacy was to continue, we needed to sort out this solid colour vs. two-tone mess in a hurry. The boys in Saskatchewan came through in the crisis, with John Bennett dropping his duties on the farm to send in his thoughts on the matter:
“This will be one of the last out the door so there is a great likelihood that specific models (colours) for specific markets rules might not apply,” writes Mr. Bennett, who is an organizer of the long running Biggar Classic Bike Rally, which was actually staged for many years on his rural property, near the town of Biggar, 90 kilometres west of Saskatoon. The man knows him some old bike stuff. “The large capacity fuel tank hints at a home market (UK) model. In Canada we seemed to get a blend of UK and US, which often had smaller fuel tanks,” he says. “To be certain it would be necessary to check the shipping records from BSA.”
John calls the BSA Lightning “one of the last out the door,” and he is of course referring to the decision of the BSA Group in 1973 to halt BSA production.
When our friend and frequent story contributor Rick Epp in Saskatoon heard about the raging debate, he put aside his snow shovel and hurried inside to his desk to pen the following:

“I’d really like to see the serial number on that BSA Lightning. The frames of BSA motorcycles were painted dove grey for the 1971 season and the BSA Lightning tank was in bronze. For the following (and last) 1972 model year the frames were black and the Lightning tank was in firebird red.
If this is indeed a 1971 model the second letter of the serial number is an ‘E.’
A 1972 model would be a ‘G.’
“The red tank and black frame would seem to indicate a 1972 model. It is known, however, that the details sometimes changed late in the model run to the next year’s specification.
“I had a 1971 B50SS that had a black brake plate that was supposedly fitted to ‘72 models. A friend was once purchasing a used Bantam and was having trouble believing that the exhaust hadn’t been altered. I asked him to read the serial number again and found that it was within the last dozen or so to have been made. BSA had already put the next year’s high level D10 pipe on a D7.
“I look at the bike in question and am reminded of the words of an old Stetson wearing friend, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad colour on a good horse.’”

Quite right about that horse, Rick. Except for Paints. Not a big fan of Paints. Too splotchy or something. But it seemed like Saskatchewan was in agreement: there were oddities coming out of the BSA plant during its final years, with serial numbers being the key to unlock the mystery. When he got wind of the roiling controversy, Smith instantly dropped his research, caught the first homebound jet from Hawaii, and weighed in:

“Looks to me like a home/general export 1972 A65L BSA Lightning in Firebird Red with optional four-gallon gas tank (vs. 2.5 gallon). The ’71s were painted bronze, so if it’s a ’71, it’s been repainted.
The ’72 front hub would originally have been black (bare aluminum on the 71), but looks to have been polished anyway. Engine/frame numbers would confirm month and year of production.”

So, there you have it: Smith concurs with Saskatchewan—the numbers of the Firebird Red home market model must be checked for verification. And full disclosure here, this whole exercise was intended from the start to keep Saskatchewan’s mind on other things than the Polar Vortex now engulfing the prairies and most of the rest of Canada … you’re welcome.