Two owners from new: that’s the unbelievable backstory of a 1949 BSA A7 motorcycle now in its sixth decade.
Dave Higgs is just the second owner of this 1949 BSA A7 twin. “The original purchaser bought it brand new and rode it until he died,” says Higgs. “I’ve just eclipsed him in length of ownership. I’ve owned it 32 years, he owned it 31.”
Higgs bought the A7 from the previous owner’s son while still living in Bristol, UK. Even though it was partially dismantled, Higgs rode it home!
“Which was amazing given its dilapidated state,” he says. “It was dragged out of a shed, mostly complete—complete because everything was in the right place, but incomplete in the sense that not everything was original.”
Higgs spotted right away that the dualseat on a bike with a rigid frame wasn’t right. But sad though the Beezer was, it was his neighbour Harold who persuaded him he should keep it.
The sight of the Beezer got Harold recounting tales of all the bikes he’d owned and sold or crashed—each story punctuated with a wistful gaze, and “I wish I’d never sold that bike …”
“Ever since then, aged 17 I guess I was, I decided I’m never going to have to recount that story,” says Higgs. “It’s very simple. I just won’t get rid of it. So I haven’t.”
Higgs kept his word, even through the forced sale of his house, meaning there was nowhere to store the BSA—which was now in a thousand pieces following a first restoration attempt.
“I had nowhere to live and nowhere to put the bike,” says Higgs. “I knew this guy who was a restorer, though I think he did it more for love than money. So I asked him to put the bike back together.”
Back in 1980 there was no internet, of course, so finding parts for the BSA took seven years of swap meets, letters and phone calls.
“He managed to track down everything I needed. So I don’t lay claim to having done the original restoration, but subsequent restorations I have done. In 33 years of ownership it’s about a 10- year cycle.”
Higgs has rebuilt the engine several times in an attempt to cure oil leaks. The BSA A7 camshaft-timed breather directs oil on to the final drive chain. A good idea, except that it throws surplus oil all over the rear of the bike. So Higgs modified it. He also machined the primary case for a lip seal to replace the felt packing used by the factory. And while the engine was apart, Higgs epoxy coated the inside of the crankcases to prevent oil seeping through the porous castings.
“I’ve worked extremely hard to get the thing oil tight,” says Higgs. “One more change I would make is to go from the mechanical (voltage) regulator to an electronic one, because they’re useless.”
BSA’S FIRST PARALLEL TWIN OF 1946 bears witness to several of Britain’s best motorcycle designers.
Valentine Page is credited with the basic layout, and had almost completed the design in 1939 before WWII interrupted development. Edward Turner of Triumph fame also worked on the A7 project when seconded to BSA in the early 1940s. Herbert Perkins is credited with completing the design.
The BSA A7 engine also featured characteristics of Page’s 1935 Model 6/1 650cc, the parallel twin he designed for Triumph: the single camshaft mounted behind the cylinders, for example. (Turner’s Speed Twin used two camshafts.) And several of Turner’s styling cues also endured, like the separate rocker boxes with screw-on inspection caps.
The A7 engine was built around a one-piece iron crankshaft with a bolt-on flywheel and steel connecting rods, the crank running on a drive-side ball bearing and a timing-side steel-backed bronze bushing, through which oil was fed to the big ends. A train of three gears drove the single camshaft, which in turn spun the magneto, while the front-mounted dynamo was driven by chain. The cylinder block and head were cast in iron with siamezed intake ports and splayed exhaust ports.
The long stroke (62 by 82mm) engine produced a modest 26 hp at 6,000 rpm and was bolted to a BSA four-speed gearbox behind the motor. This was unusual practice for British bikes of the time, which typically had the gearbox bolted to the frame, with primary chain adjustment achieved by sliding the gearbox backwards or forwards relative to the engine. The A7’s “semi-unit” construction was carried over into the first-generation 650cc A10 Golden Flash of 1950.
The BSA A7 powertrain went into a conventional lug-and-braze, mild-steel-tube frame, with a rigid rear and BSA’s own telescopic fork at the front, though the frame did make somewhat ingenious use of the seat tube.
Inside the tube was a serrated rod attached at the bottom to a steel bar that served as the centre stand. The stand was deployed by a ratcheting handle on the seat tube, which cranked the stand down to the ground, locking it in place with a pawl. Most owners quickly removed these stands as they had a habit of self-deploying while underway!
Other clever features of the BSA A7 were a quickly detachable rear wheel—useful in those dark days of frequent punctures—and BSA’s patented “crinkle” hub that allowed the use of straight spokes. This design stayed with BSA for another 24 years.
But what’s it like to ride?
“It’s not a revvy engine,” says Higgs. “It’s a long stroke and it’s very heavy. I think it was designed for ploughing! The brakes are awful. The back brake is good because of the long pedal arm, but the front is terrible. Fortunately you don’t get great speed out of the thing.
“It’s the bike I took my motorcycle test on when I came to Canada. It’s very good at low speeds because it has a very gentle rake on the forks, so a very slow turning speed.
“They did have to be generous with the emergency stop. There are no emergencies with this bike!”
by Robert Smith Canadian Biker #302