I can still remember opening my copy of Motor Cycle News and seeing BSA’s motorcycle range for 1966. I was 15, motorcycle crazy and a big fan of motocross. Jeff Smith had just won his second successive world championship on the 441cc BSA Victor, and to cash in on its investment, BSA introduced a street version. It was chunky, aggressive and had a shiny, yellow-painted alloy gas tank. I wanted one so badly I could scream.
It was another 10 years before I owned one. By the time I turned 16 and got my bike licence, the girls I was interested in preferred scooters to motorcycles. Then the advantage of four wheels to cherchez la femme became apparent, so I traded my Vespa for a 1955 flathead Ford. But the lusting for a BSA Victor never completely went away.
It wasn’t long before I was back into bikes, and after a couple of years commuting on a Honda 125, I decided it was time to move up, and found a used 1969 BSA Victor. Actually riding the BSA after my little Honda was a major disappointment. Where the Honda was sophisticated and easy to ride, the Beezer was stark, clunky and ornery. I pretty much only had to look at the Honda and it would start, while I sweated away trying to kick the BSA into life. The Honda ran like a Swiss watch: the BSA shuddered and lurched. Its favourite trick was stalling at traffic signals just as the light turned green. Trying to kick it back into life from the saddle yielded little more than an angry bruise on the back of the thigh from the thoughtlessly located oil filler tube.
I couldn’t find parts for it, nor anyone who could help with knowledge or insight. And while Gold Stars and Vincents were becoming collectable, later British bikes, especially the BSA unit-construction singles, were just so much junk. The world had moved on, and the obsolete Victor was caught in the twilight zone between trash and treasure. I had become, I found out, a “victim.”
ALL BSA-TRIUMPH UNIT-CONSTRUCTION SINGLES originate from Edward Turner’s 150cc Triumph Terrier of 1953, a simple, unsophisticated four-stroke single intended as a cheap commuter. This soon grew into the best-selling 200cc Triumph Tiger Cub. The BSA group had owned Triumph since 1951, and for 1958, BSA announced the C15, a 250cc (67 by 70mm) four-stroke single based on the Cub. This proved a solid, reliable little bike: tens of thousands of British teens cut their motorcycling teeth on one. It was cheap, cheerful … and tunable too. Before long the C15S scrambler was winning trophies in motocross, especially when piloted by team rider Jeff Smith.
BSA next produced a 350cc version of the single, the B40, increasing the bore from 67 to 79mm. This became the British army’s standard motorcycle for more than a decade. A sports version, the 1962 SS90 developed a reputation for fragility, showing ominously that the limits of the basic 150cc design were being approached.
Meanwhile, in BSA’s competition shop, an even larger capacity version was being developed. By repositioning the crankpin, experimental engines of 420cc and finally 441cc (79 by 90mm) were produced. It was a modified C15S-framed bike with the 441cc engine that Jeff Smith rode in 1964 and 1965, taking the 500cc world motocross championship both years. The bike was christened “Victor.”
BSA poured money into the Victor program in 1966 in hopes of taking a third championship against the challenge of the new lightweight two-strokes. An experimental titanium frame reduced weight but was prone to cracking and couldn’t be repaired in the field. Paul Friedrichs took the title on a CZ. New rider John Banks took up the challenge for BSA in 1968 and ’69 with a full 500cc (84 by 90mm) machine, finishing second in the championship both years. But it was the end of the line for four-stroke machines in motocross, until the recent rule changes. Nevertheless, two 500cc world championships had been won with an engine that started life as a 150cc “tiddler.”
THOUGH THE BSA VICTOR BECAME POPULAR AS AN OFF-ROAD BIKE IN the late 1960s, it had a number of fundamental flaws that plagued it over the years. First, the early street-legal models were little more than motocrossers with lights, retaining the 11:1 compression of the race bikes and Lucas’s temperamental “Energy Transfer” ignition system.
Second, the engine inherited its bottom end from the 350, meaning the big end bearing was somewhat undersized for the job, while the light flywheels meant power delivery was rough at low revs. All this was okay for a dirt bike, less so for the street. The transmission, also from the 350, suffered from the extra power, too: bearings had a short life, clutch slip was always a problem, and the engine’s torque would sometimes bend the gearbox mainshaft.
By 1969, the Victor had become more street-oriented, with lower 9.5:1 compression, battery/coil ignition, and even a heat shield for the waist-level exhaust. For the purists it had sold out, but for the rest of us, it was a much better machine to live with.
To make my own 1969 BSA Victor even more streetable, I’ve fitted modern electronic ignition, an oil filter to ensure clean oil for the big end bearing, and a larger countershaft sprocket to reduce engine revs at road speeds. A resleeved carburetor also means smoother running.
Sadly, BSA finally got the big single street bike formula right, but only when it was too late for the company. The 1971 Victor 500 used a larger big-end crankpin, three main bearings and strengthened drivetrain. The B50 engine was powerful, reliable and more user friendly. Remarkably, it was still being used as the basis for the British-made CCM motocross machines until the early 1980s. BSA went bust in 1973.
There’s a trick to starting a B44. The carburetor has to be “tickled” and the engine turned over (using the decompressor) so the piston is just past top dead centre on the firing stroke. Then with a firm, committed swing at the kickstarter with the throttle closed, a well-maintained B44 will almost always start first time. If I knew then, etc.
With modern ignition and the rebuilt carb, the BSA Victor starts easily and runs smoothly. It’s light and nimble in traffic, accelerates quickly (up to about 40 mph, anyway), and the torque (and rearward weight bias) will easily hoist the front wheel. With gas prices rising and returning better than 60 mpg, its time may be yet to come. Who says I’m still a victim?
- Robert Smith Canadian Biker #235
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