My trips to the USA
The BSA representatives in the USA, Alf Childs in the east and Hap Alzina on the west coast both realised the importance of racing for sales success in this market, and both were in favour of factory co-operation in these endeavours. In 1952 Alf Childs was in England for the Motor Cycle Show and while at the factory told the Board of Directors that he wanted someone to come over for several weeks and run a service school. Someone who can talk to the Dealers in their own language and who had some personality. I understand there was some talk of sending Fred Rist, he had been over before and had gone down very well, but he was not a technical man. Mr Hopwood suggested that perhaps they would like to meet Pike, he had been a motor cycle racer, has had experience and would be interesting to the Dealers and racers.
The first I heard of this suggestion was when I received a telephone summons to Mr Leake’s office, my first thought was to wonder what I had done wrong. After a quick tidy up I went up to the office and was escorted by Mr Leake’s secretary to the boardroom where the Directors, Mr Hopwood and Alf Child were waiting. They introduced me to Mr Child who sized me up and said I looked a dignified young man and how would I like to go to the States and run a service school? I looked across to Mr Hopwood and asked if he thought I knew enough about the rest of the bikes, and he said he would arrange it for me to obtain the necessary knowledge if I thought I could run a school. It was all laid on very quickly, the Motor Cycle show was in October and I was wanted in the States by November. It meant I had to get an American visa, smallpox vaccination and renew my passport and book my passage by boat. Passage was booked on the 14,000 ton cargo boat ???Media which had accommodation for 100 or so passengers, first class only. My wife and daughter accompanied me to Liverpool, we were taken in style in a company car driven by Mr Leake’s chauffeur. The ship left from the Prince of Wales landing stage the same as for the IOM packets. The ship moved out into mid channel and then just sat at anchor and on enquiry a crewman said they were waiting for flood tide. The boat drew a lot of water when loaded. I do not know what else it was loaded with but I do know it contained 14 BSA bikes that were being sent along for the service seminars. They were all painted in non-standard colours to get the Dealers reactions, this was due to a request by Alf Child, they were in chocolate, green, red, silver, you name it. As it turned out the Dealers preferred the standard colours.
The next morning when I came up on deck somebody said we were about to pass the south coast of Ireland, with my binoculars I was unable to see anything as it was rolling so much and in fact I felt quite queasy and also cold, so I went below. I had never been on a boat as big before, the cross channel boats and those that cross to the I0M were all under 3000 tons, even the boats to Belfast were around 4000 only. So the Media seemed quite big. It was fitted with Denny Brown stabilisers which cut down the rolling but not the pitching at times it would rise and fall over 20 feet, like riding a roller coaster. I had a short bout of 'mal de mer' but soon recovered and enjoyed the rest of the trip. A good many passengers spent the whole crossing below. Actually it was not a big liner and there was not much room, a small library, large lounge, a smoking room and bar and a dining room. There was a walk way round the Back to top deck, glass enclosed that if you marched around seven or eight times made up a mile. There were several friendly passengers which helped pass the time swapping yarns. Every evening at about 6 pm various ships officers invited odd passengers to their cabins for cocktails. I went to the Captains quarters one evening and also to the chief engineers cabin another time. At one of these functions I met Chris Morley the author and had a most interesting chat. Many of the American passengers tried to impress upon me how expensive I was going to find things in New York and I began to wonder if the seven pounds a day allowance I had would be enough.
Due to the rather rough crossing the boat was slowed and the trip took eight days instead of the usual six or seven scheduled. We finally arrived in New York harbour on a Sunday morning. I had never seen so many cars and traffic on the beltway. As we only had about 100 or so passengers the immigration check was soon carried out, not like on the 'Queens' where you had to stand in line for ages. The customs was a different matter, I had some films with me for use in the school, I had borrowed them from Castrol and Shell such as Geoff Dukes' 1950 TT and some Scrambler footage. Customs were quite awkward about them, wanting to keep them to check if they were pornographic. Fortunately I was met at the pier by Roy Bradley and Geoff Floyston from BSA and Malcolm ???2~lue of Castrol. Malcolm had lived for years in the States, he had come over originally to play soccer after WW1, he had a great personality and soon persuaded Customs that they were harmless.
When we went ashore Roy said they were going to show me a bit of New York, Malcolm however fancied a drink but the bars were not open so we went in a little coffee shop across from the pier, my first experience of a 'diner'., The place was full of longshoremen and sailors from the Cunard and White Star liners that were tied up there. In those days most everyone came to the States by boat and the docks were always busy, now its like a ghost town except for the odd Cruise ships. I still felt as though I was going up and down, after you get your sea legs it takes some time to get steady again. The lads were all for taking a cab but I felt I would rather take a walk as I had little exercise whilst aboard. So we walked up about 8th Avenue where they found a bar open, I settled for a beer not being a drinking man, they others fancied something more lethal. After Malcolm left us we took a subway to Times Square and we went to Jack Dempsey's restaurant for lunch and I enjoyed my first meal American style. There was an English movie then playing on Broadway called "Sound Barrier" so we went to watch this, later we collected my luggage from a locker in the bus terminal and ??? into our car.
After driving through the Lincoln Tunnel we passed through towns with to me strange names like Hackensack and Passaic finally reaching Nutley, NJ where I booked into a motel for one night with the arrangement that Roy would pick me up in the morning and have breakfast together. The motel was steam heated, and I having always been used to cold bedrooms opened up the windows as I felt I could not stand the stuffy atmosphere, however by morning it was cold enough for me to regret being so rash. After breakfast Roy took me to Rich Child Cycle Co and I was introduced to a bewildering crowd of characters, most of whose names I forgot almost immediately.
The schedule arranged for me was to, start a school that same morning which did not leave me much time to prepare, none of the bikes or literature had arrived but I did have the two films. It was my first introduction to American motorcyclists who appeared to me to be in some type of uniform, leather jackets and peaked hats not unlike Nazi Storm troopers and some had Harley Davidson emblems on. They appeared to be a tough looking crowd but in actual fact were a friendly bunch. We soon settled in-to the Service Department which Bill Carlton the Rich Child mechanic had turned into a class room for the week with blackboard, easel and chairs. Showing one of the films gave the fellows a chance to relax as most had been travelling over the weekend to attend the school. One had ridden his Star twin all the way from El Paso in Texas 2,500 miles, and he was not a youngster either, it had taken him nearly a week. In talking to these Dealers during the lunch break and in the evenings when we went out to eat I discovered that most of them were working as dealers part time, one of them ran a radio and electrical shop, motor cycles were a side line. Another worked in a factory all day whilst his wife ran the bike shop and he sold and serviced bikes in the evening. If he sold a couple of bikes a month he was happy. There was one who ran a full time shop in New Jersey and another in Washington, Long Island , but these were the exception. Most worked only part time in the cycle business which may be why BSA did not sell as many bikes as Honda did later on, as Honda built up a proper dealership network.
Shortly we had our materials unpacked and talked about the new models and what was coming along for 1953. They were interested in what I did at BSA and how the factory was organised, we showed the films of Scramblers and of the Ulster Grand Prix in the wet in 1948. They could not understand how the bike could do 100-120mph in the pouring rain and not slide off the road. They were also interested in my own racing experiences.
The actual Service part of the course was a bit haphazard, some would bring up a problem, we would discuss what we knew of it and a possible cure, to me it did not seem they we were accomplishing very much, but they went away at the end of the week apparently quite satisfied. On the Friday we went into some details of the Ariels, which I knew only a little about but Bill Carlton and one of the roadmen were able to cope quite adequately. Alf Child, Roy Bradbury and myself sat down on the Saturday and held a review of the first week, Alf wanted more emphasis on sales, so Roy had to lay on a bit of high pressure stuff and he suggested I talk more about the Star twin, so I prepared for that. The second week with a fresh group of Dealers went off better. Roy warned me that the third week was likely to be the toughest as the Dealers expected were practical men and likely to be argumentative. He kindly pointed out the most likely trouble shooters, one in particular was Herb Suddeth but as it turned out he was the most helpful co-operative pupil of the whole three weeks and I got along with him extremely well. Another pupil Sam Avelino who came from New England told me he had worked in the ship yards during WW2 repairing a number of British boats and he hoped I was not going back on any he had worked on because they were bound to have engine trouble. On hearing I was returning to GB on the Brittanic he was shocked and said it was a terrible boat and always breaking down, at that time I thought he was all bull, he said it had two big diesels that went wrong every trip. Sure enough on the journey home I noticed ,early one morning the thump thump thump of the engines was absent and on enquiry, I happened to be having breakfast at the Chief Engineers table, he said the inevitable engine breakdown had taken place with the old engines.
Fortunately they had a complete workshop down below and were used to having to' fix the engines, they were working on the one that had broken down, they had stopped both diesels as it was easier to work on them. Due to my interest he arranged for me to have a tour of the engine room and a young engineer was my guide, after donning a set of white coveralls, the two of us squeezed into a tiny lift and shot down into the bowels of the ship. It was pretty crummy compared to the spotless oil fuel steam turbines on the Media which I had visited on my trip over, to the US There were two big diesels twenty cylinders ten in a row but double acting like a steam engine, they were made in Ireland by Harland and Wolf. One of their problems was breaking valve springs, they used to stop the engine and change them, these engines ran on absolute crude oil, black globby dirty stuff which was fed through a De Lavel centrifugal separator just like those used in a dairy! Each cylinder had its own injector operated by the camshaft, to run the ship backwards they did not change gear but stopped the engine and reversed it. In order to reverse its operating rotation, this being a four stroke engine, they slid the camshafts along to an alternative position, so that a different set of cams came into play. In the meantime all the cam followers were held up by a sort of rack. The engine was then restarted in the reverse direction with compressed air, this accounted why this type of boat is not easily manoeuvred as a steam powered one.
The Brittanic had twin screws and was very broad beamed and weighed about 32,000 tons. Despite the breakdown I thought it very comfortable trip even though it was rough the passengers barely noticed any discomfort. The last week of the four I spent in the USA there was no school and we spent some time sorting out Rich Childs service problems. One day I took a day off and Bill Carlton and I went off to see Triumphs at Towson near Baltimore, Maryland.. The Service Manager at that time was Rod Coates, a great competition rider, Rod had won the 100 mile Amateur race at Daytona Beach in 1950 on a Triumph Grand Prix model. He showed me a special racer with all the wangles and fiddles he had conjured up to make it eligible for AMA class C racing. Later when be became an AMA scrutineer I am told he was not nearly as lenient as be had found the officials in his day as a racer. We very much admired the set up, of Triumphs at Towson which had been custom designed and built specifically as a motor cycle distributorship. BSA was running what was originally a car dealers premises in Nutley, however it was adequate for all that, it had a good parts department and a large showroom, although what good a showroom in Nutley I could not fathom. Whilst at Towson I met Dennis McCormack who managed the Triumph distributorship for years. Alf Child did not like us going down to see the Triumph outfit but as BSA had bought up Triumphs he could not really complain, he always regarded them as the opposition instead of a sister company.
During my stay in Nutley I was fortunate after a false start to find accommodation with Bill Carlton at a very pleasant house, the landlady Mrs Weidlich was a very pleasant widow around 70. I enjoyed staying with her and went back again on my second visit to the States in 1953. It was about seven or eight miles from Nutley but I was able to ride in with Bill Carlton each day.
On my return to the factory I had to give a report of my trip for the management and it was read out at a meeting and met with their approval, so much so that I was asked if I would be willing to go again in 1953 to Daytona. I knew many of the US dealers had asked if I could come for Daytona as they thought I would learn a great deal more of their requirements for short track events. Evidently Alf Child had approached Mr Leake with their request. The results were that in February 1953 I was aboard the Queen Elizabeth heading for the States. This time I sailed from Southampton and it was much more 'de luxe', even Cabin Class on the Elizabeth was more comfortable than first class on the Media. The voyage across was luxurious but uneventful, I spent three days at Nutley preparing for the trip to Daytona. Alf Child and Mrs were flying and wanted to take me but I preferred going by road with Bill Carlton as I felt it would give me more time to see the country. We were taking a half ton van loaded with all manner of spares, even complete engines, catalogues and literature for the bike show in Daytona. The van was so well loaded it had a tendency to wander and was very tough to drive. We did not get started till midday and it was snowing lightly, which did not make for a pleasant drive, just as it was getting dark we fancied something to drink so pulled off into a diner just into Maryland on Highway 301. Bill ordered coffee and asked for tea for me, the waitress recognised my accent and remarked as I was from England I would like a proper cuppa, she reached to a shelf and took down a teapot, which she dusted off and made me a decent pot of tea. I thought this rather good after being served in other places with the inevitable tea bag flopped into hot water.
We pushed on finally stopping at a motel in Maryland. Next morning we made an early start, sBack to topping in Virginia for breakfast. We took turns at driving and I remember passing lots of tobacco factories around Rocky Mount, NC we stopped finally for the night near Allendale, SC. We were really beat after driving that over loaded truck all day. Next morning was a sunny mild southern day and drive through Georgia down towards the coastal swamps, which did not impress me at all. By the end of the day we had reached Jacksonville, Florida where we visited the BSA dealer Bob King who was a great pal of Bill Carlton. Bob found us a motel close by and to our amusement were installed in the bridal suite. Next day we visited a dirt track meeting just outside Jacksonville. My first introduction to dirt track in the US, with some smart talk by Bill persuaded the officials that we had factory authorisation so between races we were allowed to cross the track to the pits. After watching two or three heats came the big final and we had been told to look out for Bobby Hill on his Indian. It was a sort of borderline eligibility case and a lot of folk opined it should not have been allowed on the track. It was a 750cc side valve though it had a lot of one off, non Indian parts on it. It had got passed the scrutineers by pointing out that Indians were not longer made and it was impossible to get genuine Indian parts and they used what they could find. The bike had modern forks and superior looking brakes that no Indian ever had. It was however, a genuine Indian flathead 750cc, very highly tuned with a ultra light frame.
Came the start of the big race and Bobby Hill stalled his engine, it looked as if the chance for a win by the number one champion was nil, all the competing BSA twins, BSA Gold Stars, Triumphs and Harleys were long gone, however the referee motioned to Hills mechanic to give him a push start and away he went. It was a twenty lap race event and unbelievably Hill worked his way up through the field to win. I had never seen anything like it, that was my first introduction to Bobby Hill. Later he used BSA doing extremely well on them, winning Daytona in 1954 on a clubman type twin.
After the racing we returned to Bob Kings staying another night in the motel. Next morning after some difficulty to change some GB travellers cheques only by going to a bank we drove on down to Daytona Beach, we found ourselves an apartment about two miles down the beach, we did this on advice from Cyril Halliburn and Bob King to avoid having riders bother us twenty fours hours a day. It was a very nice place with a view of the ocean but rather far out and you needed transportation to get to the BSA headquarters which that year were in the old Hudson dealers service department. We had the use of half the garage for BSA servicing and all the dealers and their riders came crowding in, talking and getting in the way. Alter unpacking our parts and tools we proceeded to service our machines. This being 1953 all we had were the heavy plunger rear suspension, iron barrel, alloy cylinder head Star twins. They were supposed to put out 43bhp, but we were experiencing valve spring problems. The prototype built in the Engine Development did put out 43bhp but all the Star Twins sent to Daytona were built by Production and tested in the engine test by Cyril Halliburn, who issued power curves showing 43bhp but when we got them to the beach for practice it was obvious that they did not have the power and were getting passed by all and sundry.
There were three of the previous years Star twins there, one of which had been hand built by Jack Amott, it was considerably faster than the new 1953 models. I would have liked to get a look inside that engine. In the race these wretched twins we had brought folded up one after the other, Warren Sherwood nursed his home into fifth place, the rest were nowhere. Paul Goldsmith won on a Harley and was sporting enough to come over to us and commiserate. One of our riders fell of and broke a leg. I persuaded Alf Child who owned the machine anyway, since the Dealer now declined to pay for it, to let me take it back to the factory and test it on my dyno, to which he agreed, remarking they were not as good as the previous years machines. As you can imagine he was pretty miffed with me, the bikes and the race results. I did not feel it was my fault as I had only been at BSA ten months and had not built any of These machines. The company was not too pleased to see the crashed bike but Bert Hopwood agreed that it was a good idea to test it and rind out why it was running as it did arid to then try and get the bugs out of it. Back on the dyno we got 39bhp and it took a good deal of work to get it up to 43.
The Directors asked me to come and give them a talk on my experiences in the US at Daytona particularly, as Alf Child had complained to them about me. Naturally I was not going to let him get away with this and I told my side of the story, particularly my dislike of being sworn at in a hotel in front of a whole crowd of people. Mr Leake wanted to know the exact wording which I was not keen to repeat, but he insisted, he queried my repeating and wanted to know why such an occasion had occurred. It was due to my late arrival at the garage to work on the bikes and I explained to Mr Leake we were situated nearly three miles from the garage and it was difficult to get a lift and on this particular morrning they had forgotten to collect me as arranged. Mr Leake appeared rather annoyed with Alf Child and complained to him of his attitude, this in turn upset Alf Child and I did not get invited to Daytona again.
During my two trips to the USA I had the opportunity to talk to some knowledgeable dealers and our Distributors and the impression I got was that whilst Daytona was an important event there were many other races in other parts of the States of equal importance to the sale of BSA It appeared they wanted lighter machines that could be used on the half mile and one mile tracks as well, a rigid frame but telescopic forks. I pointed out to them this was against everything we had been doing. In the IOM we had been busy developing swinging arm suspension and now the States wanted rigid frames and I was not at all sure the company would be willing to make them.
On my return to the factory I had a conference with Hopwood and Bert Perrigo and told them of the Dealers requests. I pointed out that Daytona consisted of two straights both fairly smooth, one on sand and one paved with 180 degree turns at each end, there was not real cornering involved so I did not believe a spring frame was essential and that a rigid frame might be just the thing for the hale mile tracks. They also wanted to know what type of engine would be best and I suggested the single would be lighter and have better torque but they argued it probably would not have enough power, but I pointed out the superior torque and reliability. In the end Hopwood said why not go ahead and make a prototype and see what we can come up with. This was the summer of 1953, our alloy twin race engine was producing about 44bhp, the best 500cc BB Gold Star single about 40. We were planning new bigger finned Gold Stars for the Clubmans TT races but they would not be ready until after Daytona, but the 350 BB Gold Star had had a new head with slightly more finning than the old ZB and much steeper down draft inlet port. So I got the engine shop to machine one of the 350 cylinder heads to 500 dimensions, the hemisphere was enlarged and 500 valve seats fitted, we used a large inlet valve and a moderately sized exhaust valve, of course doing this left things a bit thin in places but we cut up a scrap head and decided it was a worthwhile risk. On its first test run a 500 with this head did 42bhp despite the AMA restricting us to a 8:1 compression ratio. I put Reg Wilkes to work an this, he got real interested in this and tried everything and soon got 44bhp .
In the meantime the twin was also doing some 46bhp. To meet AMA regulations all parts had to be stock and have production part numbers and available to the public. So I drew one of Bill Nicholson's lightweight rigid trials frames and started work on it, we stiffened up the rear chain stays, made an oil tank from toolbox pressings mounting it low ,on the right side. We used aluminium alloy for the mudguards, chain guard, brake pedal and fork crown. Ultimately we made three prototypes in the Engine development shop, we got some extra help from apprentices, at one time having eighteen men in the shop in place of the normal seven or eight. We fitted a single cylinder engine in one frame and our best alloy twin in the other and gave the third to the production people to copy as we knew that possibly another hundred would have to be made.
The big day came when we took the two prototypes to MIRA. For our testing, we ran them in both directions on the timing strip, the single did 114mph, the twin 116. Mr Hopwood was of the opinion we would have to take the twin, two miles an hour was a lot and at the end of a 200 miles at Daytona that bike would be miles ahead. I did not agree and he wanted to know why. He was aware I liked the single and that it was reliable but it did not appear fast enough and therefore it was no use taking it. I pointed out that in racing it's not always the fastest bike that wins. Torque is important and the winning prize goes to the first across the line, not the one that crosses at the highest speed. He was anxious whether I could prove this theory. David Tye had his leathers on and so did I, he got aboard the twin and I got astride the single. We agreed to race by riding at about 20mph in bottom gear then as we passed a little white post open up for a sprint of about a mile. The torque of the single was so much better than that of the twin that it leapt away from the 20mph start and simply ran away, towards the end of the mile the twin started to catch up, because of its slightly higher maximum speed, but the single still got to the end first. Back in the pits Hopwood said to change bikes and try again to see if the rider influences the result, so we changed over and sure enough the result was the same. Hopwood looked at me and grinned and agreed I had made my point and that we would send four singles and four twins.
The results were better than we even hoped for, we won the 200 mile race and had five out of the first eight finishers. Gene Thiessen had the bad luck to have his bike damaged going up to the start which spoilt the handling and he finished 17th. The rest of the season BSA did very well on the half mile tracks. Many years later in 1970 when these bikes were quite old I saw two of these models at Reading Speedway in Pennsylvania still giving a good account of themselves.
The early CB and Daytona engines had oval flywheels with a short connecting rod from the 350, which we had found gave good results The short connecting rod enabled us to use shorter barrel push rods and so on and made it lighter. Not to mention other more subtle technical advantages. The flywheels were made oval to clear the bottom of the piston skirt, this was fine for us making a handful of experimental engines but when the production people had to make a hundred of them they complained bitterly. One day Reg Wilkes took a pair of oval flywheels and turned them down until they were round again and we tried these lightened flywheels in a bike, frankly I did not think the engine was as smooth, but the riders thought otherwise so that is how they were made from then on and that was the beginning of the DB series. The shorter connecting rod definitely gave us something, a little more power all over the range, I have carried out the same trick on VW engines and again found the shorter rod was better. In 1954 at Daytona the Harleys gave more trouble than usual so we had a bit of a walk over, but in 1955 the tables were turned, they had some excellent riders and the best we could manage was a 4th place. In 1956 we did fairly well to take 2nd to 5th places, a Harley won. Al Gunter made the fastest lap in the race at over 104mph before retiring with a broken swing arm bolt on the BSA single. In the time trials before the race the fastest Harley did 126mph The fastest Gold Star was around 120mph. Despite this the Gold Star was a match for the Harleys during the race.