Saturday, 24 January 2009

Roland Pike Autobiography - Chapter 19

The Importance of the Export Market

After the war Sir Stafford Cripps devalued the pound sterling to help Britain compete in the export markets, but unfortunately few businessmen appreciated the value of exports. I did not realise it myself until I was sent to America by BSA, then I realised Britain needed dollars to buy food, raw materials and fuel and to get them we had to export. To export you have got to give the customer what they want and that is what I tried to do at BSA. To be sure, Mr Rawson their Export Manager and Mr Leake were aware of the need for exports, but it was on the factory floor that this was not appreciated. Anything special was a nuisance it was an uphill job. I was not high-up enough to carry any weight.

Bert Hopwood and Bert Perrigo understood and did what they could and Mr Leake managed to give the Americans what they wanted. BSA had two representatives in the United States, Hap Alzina on the West coast and Alf Child of Rich Child Cycle company on the East. Alf Child was a great promoter, no doubt about it, but unfortunately he did not understand motor cycles as well as Hap Alzina. Mr Childs depended on others for the technical or specialised advice so that some of the information he gave us was not always good. As a result a lot of what he told us was disregarded, good or bad. Hap Alzina was just the opposite and was a pillar of strength, supporting the design and technical depts wherever he could. He was able to pull strings with the AMA that Alf Child could never do.

Alf Childs was British, born in Nutley, Sussex, UK. He ran away to sea when he was only 14. He had lost an arm and was known inevitably as the 'one-armed bandit' in New Jersey. He was a flamboyant character and often rude to people, but once you got to know him was very likeable. At first you could be very put off by him as he had a habit of being abusive and used the most crude language, not just about things but personal with it. At that time I did not understand his attitude and took offense. I intimated to Mr Leake that I did not want to visit Alf Child in the US anymore.

Finally Mr Leake found out my complaint and gave Alf Child a dressing down. I was sent back to America in 1953 for Daytona, during this visit I listened carefully to what the Dealers, their riders, Tommy McDermott, Warren Sherwood, Gene Thiessen and Al Gunter had to say and went back to the factory and explained to them that BSA had to produce a bike entirely for the American competition market. As a result I was given the go ahead to produce a prototype. I used one of Bill Nicholson’s production trials frames, welded light and rigid. The Dealers in America had said Daytona is only one race a year and we were putting everything into it, what would they do with the bikes afterwards? They were no good for the half-mile as they were too heavy, they wanted something light. So I decided that they could get something light and produced a prototype that weighed 276lbs by using a lot of light alloys, fitted with a Gold Star engine, it would do 114mph on the timing strip, mean speed.

The twin engine in the meantime had been developed to give more power and reliability using an alloy head and a hot cam, the power was available from about 5250 to 7250 RPM, but it was not so tractable as the single although it gave more power and was 2mph faster on the timing strip. Running side by side the single would reach the end of the timing strip first, although finishing the measured mile at a lower speed. We went to Daytona in 1954 with eight rigid frame lightweight racers, four with singles and four twins. Alf Childs wanted an extra bike for Bobby Hill, all we had available was a 500cc twin in a Clubmans type spring frame, ironically this was the winning machine! We collected five of first eight places, the best BSA ever did at Daytona.

The AMA at this time were very strict with compression ratios, the maximum allowed was 8:1, we were allowed 1 mm oversize pistons, so naturally all these bikes had the extra few cc capacity (508cc) and it did give a wee bit more power. BSA made 100 of these rigid frame, short track machines and some were still being raced on half mile and mile circuits twenty three years later. Later on the AMA allowed up to 9:1 compression ratio, which was more helpful to the twins than the singles. By 1958 the factory was not giving much support to the American racers. I remember we had difficulty in obtaining Nirnonic 80 valves in the US. Nimonic 80 is made by Henry Wiggins in the UK and should be readily available. A similar material is available in the States under a similar name.

An overhead valve engine running at high speed presents a difficult problem for the valves due to the weight of the push rods, tappets and rockers the valve springs have to be fairly powerful which in turn puts a load on the valves, particularly the exhaust valve which runs at bright red heat. A Gold Star running under full load and full throttle can demonstrate this, just look into the carburettor intake, a small segment of the exhaust valve is visible glowing red hot . The British motorcycle industry was at its peak of success in the days when people rode their motor cycles to work as well as for pleasure, owning a car was not so affordable then and the bike was much more convenient than bus, train or tram.

I think motor cycles are a viable solution to the future need for low cost transportation and with ever increasing costs of fuel. The bike takes up less room on our crowded highways. The utility bike of the future may well be a 250 single or a 350 twin, these could easily give 80 mpg, US or imperial! Bikes for Class 'C' Racing. When I first had anything to do with Class 'C', we felt very restricted due to the strict regulations. 8:1 compression ratio, kick- starters etc. Any competitor in a race could claim the winners bike on payment of $1500. This was to discourage excessive investment of money and time into a certain machine by the factory or dealer, and to ensure that all the race bikes were reasonably equal in performance. In other words a no-hope rider could theoretically buy himself the best machine at a race by simply claiming it. In practice this did not happen too often because anyone who did this would be regarded as un-sporting. I heard of a case where a bike was claimed and the factory concerned bought the would-be purchaser off by offering him more money not to claim it. Any special machines had to be approved by the AMA and at least 100 produced for sale to dealers. In 1953 we had got into quite an argument over this rule. BSA claimed the 1953 racer was a Star Twin with a few modifications that were available to the public. The AMA did not agree and told us we had to make a 100. Since we had not had any good results with the model, we knew we would never sell a 100 of them and finally made about 40 or so.

I remember Fron Purslow bought one and tried to race it in England on short circuits, with no success. One of the friendliest racers I met at Daytona was Al Gunter in 1953 and last saw him at Daytona in 1958 by which time he was a changed man. He had been terribly mutilated in various crashes although you saw flashes of the old Al Gunter in the smile and enthusiasm. He had tried to make a career out of motor cycle racing in the 50's, this was difficult and as he got older had to compete with many up and coming younger riders. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair and in 1976 we heard of his suicide. Al Gunter had been a very enthusiastic racer of BSA's and co-operated a great deal in our experiments. In the mid '50's he was one of the fastest BSA men in the USA. The last time I talked with him, Al said he was getting over 50bhp at the back wheel of his Gold Star racer at 8000 RPM.

Harman and Collins helped him in these experiments, using special cams and special push rods to aid higher revving. At 8000 RPM I did not expect a Gold Star to last very long, which Al confirmed and said the motor was only good for a short track. Dick Mann another BSA rider who was riding Harley Davidson at Daytona in 1958. One time he handed me a factory racing Harley 45 cu. inch, flathead twin and asked if I had ever had a ride on one. I had not and he suggested I have a go. This was in front of all the Harley people and their eyes were popping out. Before anyone could stop me I hopped on and a rushed up the beach. It was fantastic and felt like a Manx Norton. It steered well, brakes were good, the motor pulled hard to 7400 RPM, then the power dropped right off and you went to the next gear. Torque was strong all the way. I don't know how our BSA riders ever competed with them.

Gold Stars that were raced on other US tracks got a certain amount help from the Distributors but the factory support was very limited. S&W valve springs came to our attention through Hap Alzina, he thought they might help the twins, they certainly did and Gold Star singles as well. We had tremendous success with them. According to theory they should not work! But then, theory says the Bumble Bee cannot fly.

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