The story of how I came to work for BSA really started in 1951 when I rode a 1949 Gold Star in the Senior TT and actually finished on it. Through Hallets, my local dealer in Canterbury and Charlie Salt, who already worked in the drawing office of BSA who put me in touch with Herbert Hopwood. I told Mr Hopwood I would like to build two racers for the coming year, using BSA Gold Star engines but in lighter welded frames of my own design. He agreed to supply the engines through my local dealer. After a while I was sent for and told the policy of the company was not to make a 500 Gold Star, but they were willing to provide a 500 twin. I was doubtful, as I did not know anything about twins.
I enquired as to what they would supply me with and they agreed to an all aluminium engine that gave 44 horse power. This sounded terrific to me and I agreed to accepting it. Little did I know how awful the engine was. The power band was so narrow that you could step off it either way in 600 RPM or so. The 44 horsepower was a dynamometer reading that seemed difficult to reproduce on the track. I wasn’t the first to fall for horsepower figures, and I made the two machines one with the unit construction twin and one with a separate Albion gearbox and 350 Gold Star single cylinder engine. I had in the back of my mind to substitute a 500 Gold Star engine if the twin was no good.
The frame that Roland built - all welded & lighter than the BSA frame
I sold my AJS 7R and spent the winter and spring 1951-52 building these two as Pike BSAs. The rear part of the frame looked something like a featherbed Norton, but I used a single front down tube. One bike had an oval & tapered down tube and the other a round one, which subsequently broke and had to be replaced with a tapered oval section tube. Girling rear shock absorbers were fitted and originally Silentbloc swing arm bushes, but these proved to have too much give and had to be replaced with bronze bushes.
Later on when Dennis Lashmar owned the twin, he had many engine blow-ups, so we got permission to put in the 500 Gold Star single. This was two years later when the Gold Star produced 44bhp, and he did very well, engaging in some neck and neck rides with the great John Surtees at Brands Hatch. Surtees told me himself that Dennis used to give him a run for his money. In those days Surtees was running double overhead cam featherbed Nortons, the very best, so Charlie Salt wrote to me and asked "are you going to spend your life building and riding these back yard specials or are you to finally retire and look for a job in the industry?"
If I wrote to Mr. Hopwood at BSA and tell him a little bird told you, but don't mention his name, that you understood there was an opening that would interest me. I don't know why they were so secretive but that was typical of BSA. I wrote to Mr Hopwood and he asked me to come and see him. Hoppy took me to lunch and we had a long chat, about the development shop he'd set up, and the test shop, also the metal shop. The experimental shop built and tested bikes, the test shop did the routine production testing of Gold Star engines. Mr Hopwood had told the bosses they needed a test shop, remember this was in 1951, BSA was the biggest motor cycle manufacturer in the world, and they agreed telling him he could have the shed down by the foundry where Arthur Lupton had been developing an engine. Ever heard of that one? Phillips then patented a "hot air" engine and tried to sell the idea, ??? had carried out a lot of development work on it, and another two years, but they did not make any progress, so was dropped.
A competition rider, Jack Amott was taken out of the test shop and put in charge of development. I never met him, but I think ??? us in many ways. He really started the Gold Star off; and was brilliant at mathematics, but being outspoken he upset Hoppy every other day. Amott had been an old factory Rudge Racer years before and was injured in a crash, at I think Greeba. After that he became a good trials rider to the core. Unfortunately he got himself disliked and Mr Hopwood fired him because of his criticism of the MC1 250 racer then being built at BSA. Unaware of the fact at the time, I was brought in to build the 250 racer. At that time the MC1 wasn’t even in the test shop but in the research dept under Donald Bastow, who want ??? it but was asked to look after it, because of Jack ???.
Bill Bentley was put in the shop to assemble and run it. Every time the engine was run on the dyno, lubrication was ??? and rockers became blue with heat. Jack Amott had told them that the lubrication system was inadequate, they thought he was being obstructive, so he was fired, which paved the way for me to come up from the south to Birmingham to do the job.
Roland Pike's twin at Braddan Bridge. pic FoTTofinders
I was quite excited about the bike, and asked if they had had it running yet. Not yet was the answer but it will be run any time now and we want you to be here to watch it. I was asked if I had any criticism of the plans, but not wanting to upset anybody I pointed out I was an amateur racer after all, not a professional designer. They insisted however saying I had enough experience and that they valued my opinions. After examining the drawings, I pointed out that I did not think the oil would return to the crankcase from the rocker box due to the almost horizontal angle of the cylinder. Also that I thought plain bushes for the vertical shaft would not take 10,000 - 12,000 rpm. I didn’t think the fine tooth gears for the cam drive would stand up and I did not like the idea of the oil pump case being made of aluminium, and suggested cast iron, which eventually had to be done.
They listened politely to all this criticism from me, perhaps because I was new and had just started to work there, yet they had just fired Jack Amott for saying the same things. Of course they didn’t change anything until it eventually gave trouble, and eventually all the things I had criticised did give trouble, not all at once, but piecemeal, each time causing a delay of a week or months whilst the parts were re-designed and made.
The compression ratio was too high, after burning a number of pistons we went to a forged piston. Bill Bentley insisted on running the engine on 50-50 petrol benzole, as he could not keep it running on the standard pump fuel that TT regulations called for, so he was pulled off the job because of this. Alan Sandilands took over then and by some ingenious modifications to the lubrication system got the cam and rocker wear under control.
The MC1 took up a great deal of time and effort on my part, and the thanks I got for it was hearing via the grapevine that Geoff Duke, who was set to ride the machine had been told it had been taken away from me because I did not believe in it anymore and was said to be holding up progress.
Next they brought in Charlie Edwards the Norton race team mechanic, he was not an engine development expert just a very good and thorough race mechanic, and they seemed to think that as he was a Norton expert he would be able to fix the problems. A small test shop was built and Bill Bentley was assigned back on the MC1 development. Not surprisingly the problems continued, mostly overheating due to insufficient cooling fin area. The primary chain gave problems too, the chain case had as many cooling fins as the cylinder head.
There was a lot of bad feeling and BSA Managing Director Jimmy Leake complained that four years time and money had been wasted and were they going to race it or not? Finally he gave the ultimatum that they could race it if they could win. Finally I was called to a conference and asked if I thought it could win in the Isle of Man and I told them I doubted if you could even finish in the IOM. That was heresy of course, because whatever happened you were supposed to agree.
In the meantime I had got myself into more trouble by building a 250 Gold Star which on test at MIRA timing strip had gone ??? mph faster than the MC1. We had no lightweight frame for this engine and we had used a Gold Star frame. This did not go down very well as Hoppy thought I was trying to make him look foolish and he said "did I think I was smarter than they were?" to which I responded that I was only trying to prove a point, that the Gold Star was fundamentally right and the MC1 was wrong in several ways. I continued to suggest it needed redesigning, more cooling fins and gear primary drive. They had said it wasn’t possible, so my advice was to drop it. That’s how they got the idea that I had it in for the machine, but they were wrong.
I saw a lot of good in the MC1, we had worked hard on that engine, had got it to produce 34bhp at 10,500 albeit unreliably. We could get 31 to 32bhp at 10,000 rpm fairly reliably by dropping compression ratio, but Hoppy would not agree to this, he wanted 10:1 compression ratio. At this time the fuel for racing was about 80 octane.
We had measured the fin area on the cylinder head, it came out at 206 sq. ins. When you realise that the C12 had 224 sq ins, the 350 Gold Star 520 sq. ins and the 350 KTT 600 sq. ins, it was obvious that some difficulty with heat dissipation was likely. The primary chain was not used on the dyno so we had no knowledge of its problems until the engine was installed in the bike. It first showed up as a problem when the gearbox repeatedly moved forwards and tightened the rear chain. An extra strong adjuster had to be made.
Next the chain overheated and rollers flew off. A new chaincase was designed incorporating cooling fins. I believe this phenomena was due to the high rpm causing that chain to experience high centrifugal loading, enough to move the gearbox, there must have been a loss of power due to this, possibly as much 4bhp. Normally the rear chain had the stronger pull due to torque multiplication at the sprockets and gearbox. During the testing of the complete MC1 bike on the test track we had some interesting experiences.
In the Spring of 1954 we reserved use of Silverstone for a day. It was a cold damp day, Charlie Salt clad in racing leathers ready for a days testing, and after warming up the engine Charlie set off, he only covered a quarter of a mile when he returned and complained the bike would not pull, he thought it had seized up. I took a look in the oil tank, revved up the engine but could see no oil returning. So I got astride and letting in the clutch attempted to take off, but realised immediately what was wrong and turned to Hoppy and said "the big end has gone". They all wanted to argue except Hoppy, who accepted my explanation that I had experienced the symptoms before on my 7R. So it was agreed to put the bike back on the trailer. We subsequently discovered that the so-called experts in the experimental department who had installed the engine had reversed the oil pipe lines from tank to engine, so that it got no oil through and crankshaft was ruined. They were all intrigued to know I was so sure of my diagnosis and so quickly as there was no tell tale "knock". I recounted how with my 7R at Scarborough one time when running an alloy connecting rod with plain big end bearing I experienced the same symptoms.
The next testing was at MIRA test track on Good Friday 1954. This time we had a good run round the outer circuit, Charlie Salt lapping at 100-102mph, I was a little slower due to my extra bulk and weight. We then went to the timed straight and ran the bike up and down timing in each direction, Charlie was timed at 104mph in one direction. I took my turn and got over 100mph mark in one direction turned around to get a run back and had got up to the maximum speed and was approaching the timing lights when the bike started to weave and snake about, I shut off and gently eased the bike on the front brake, thinking I had a burst rear tyre.
Finally at about 120mph it went almost out of control and I averted a spill by jamming both feet on the ground. The back wheel had collapsed. They had used cast iron for a spoke flange on one side, this broke up and allowed all the spokes on one side to come loose, I had to push the bike back to where they were all waiting.
It was a comfortable, good steering bike and quite light. The Earles forks were specially made by BSA for this machine. A novel feature was the head stem arrangement, this being reversed from the usual set up. On the MC1 the head stem was fixed at Back to top and bottom to the frame and the head lug rotated about it, this allowed lower front end and fitted in with streamlined fuel tank, funnily enough I had suggested this arrangement to Doug Hele, when we were discussing a fork crown to clear the tank. The original fuel tank fitted at this time held less fuel than the later one which was intended to do the Lightweight TT non-stop.
We had the whole machine in a wind tunnel at Cranfield RAF College, to get the wind resistance down, the results led to a more streamlined tank. The people concerned with BSA racing (Hopwood, Doug Hele, Dennis Hardwick and Charlie Salt) all seemed quite happy with the performance of the 250cc racer but the 1954 TT came and went and the 250cc NSU was said to develop 38bhp and judging by the way they flew past everyone else this was no exaggeration. As it turned it out it was a good job we did not enter for the IOM with the MC1. I had some ideas for further development but was not allowed to do much more than change jets, we should have experimented with inlet pipe lengths, exhaust pipe length and diameter, even maybe some different cams, but unfortunately we spent two years just keeping it running.
When I was first at BSA I lived in lodgings near the factory, riding home to Canterbury each weekend - 186 miles each way. The experimental dept. loaned me a bike for this purpose. Most of the time I had a 1952 Gold Star touring version with lights & silencer and mag dyno. This machine had telescopic front forks and plunger rear suspension, with a hydraulic damper built in. It worked quite well, the performance with low compression and standard sports cams was quite moderate, maximum speed about 82-85mph. This commuting went on until late August 1952 when I bought a house in Olton.
I purchased a 1952 Gold Flash sidecar outfit from the company, the whole thing was overhauled and repainted dark red. I kept this outfit for some time and did quite a big mileage on it, experiencing most of the problems that customers had such as primary chain case running dry at steady 50mph crumbling, timing side main bearing failure and a broken sidecar connection, said incident occurring 80 miles from home at the start of our vacation on a Saturday, was fortunate to find a garage that allowed me to make sufficient repairs using their tools so that we could return home - the family’s comments will not be recorded.
Next post - Roland Pike Autobiography Chapter 18 - The Development Shop & Clubmans TT