Across the county on a vintage Bantam

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
July 2021

I have never been a big fan of motor vehicles or motorcycles in general. Yes, they interest me, but from the functional viewpoint. Maybe that is why I drive a 4×4, often referred to as somewhat agricultural. But despite this, I do admire engineering, especially when that engineering is British. One of my early memories of such engineering involves a visit from a favourite uncle who arrived on a British BSA motorcycle. The bike may have brought some excitement to the family on our farm but I was fascinated by the badge on the petrol tank, which looked just like the one on my air rifle. How could that be? Sadly, it remained one of life’s great mysteries, not fully answered for many years. Was it the same company – motorcycles and air rifles?

My BSA badge mystery was solved many years later when I met Bryan Price, soon after he and his family settled in the south of the county, and he told me the BSA story. What’s more, Bryan has his own BSA story, one that is still ongoing, which started in his teenage years when he remembers clinging on for dear life to the back of a friend’s BSA motorbike riding pillion around his hometown of Worcester. Before then, as a schoolboy, he remembers standing in the local bike shop looking at a sleek and stylish new black BSA Bantam motorcycle costing £175. Bryan even did his homework as to how long it would take to save the money. Sadly, it was never to be: by the time he would have saved the money and been old enough to ride it, they had stopped manufacturing them.

But Bryan’s BSA love affair never died and soon after arriving in Lincolnshire, he acquired his first vintage and classic motorcycle, the 1955 125cc Mist-Green D1 BSA Bantam. It was one of the first from the production line with its single sprung saddle, ideal for the local country lanes. But the BSA story is much older than this 1955 motorcycle.

BSA began life on 7th June 1861 in a hotel room when a group of 14 local craftsmen from the Gun Quarter of Birmingham came together with the decision to make weapons using modern techniques and formed the Birmingham Small Arms Company, with the plan to take advantage of the new manufacturing processes and techniques learned during the Industrial Revolution. Additionally, there was encouragement in this decision by the War Office, with access given to the War Office’s Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.

The company planned to move to large-scale production practices as their rifles were made from precision built, but fully interchangeable parts. To facilitate this BSA bought 25 acres in the Small Heath area of Birmingham, which became the famous Armoury Road site and a factory was soon built. Machinery recently developed in the USA and initially installed at Enfield was moved to Birmingham, to maintain the principle of the interchangeability of parts, without needing additional skilled craftsmen. As full-scale manufacturing started, a major contract was awarded for 20,000 infantry rifles for the Turkish Army. But in 1879, the factory had a serious chasm between contracts and closed for a year. This lull prompted BSA to look at diversification. They used their skills and techniques to manufacture bicycle parts, then with time, moved on to producing safety bicycles.

The turning point was an early experimental motor-bicycle built at Armoury Road in 1905. In just five years the first commercial BSA 3.5 horsepower, single-speed belt-driven motorcycle was ready for the November 1910 Olympia Show. It became the great attraction of the show which reported on ‘a most comfortable mount’, commenting that ‘the general appearance of the machine is neat and workmanlike’. It became an immediate success with advanced orders ensuring future security for the company.

Whilst BSA was still manufacturing weapons, it was the outbreak of the First World War that brought a substantial demand. Before the war, typical production of weapons was just 135 per week. This grew to over 10,000 per week during the war with the workforce almost trebling to some 20,000. Soon after the Armistice in November 1918, with the company looking strong, BSA was split into three subsidiaries; the obvious ones being small arms and motorcycles, which came under the directorship of Charles Hyde, as well as a tools division to continue the production of specialist tools, jigs and purpose-built machinery.

By the 1950s, BSA was the largest manufacturer of motorbikes in the world, regarded as affordable, still workmanlike and practical. This was the pinnacle of motorcycle popularity and ownership across the country, with BSA proudly stating that one in every four motorcycles on the road was a BSA. Sadly, the British motorcycle industry collapsed by the early 1970s, with the arrival of inexpensive, mass-produced cars making more families car owners. By 1973 BSA had gone and all that remains of the Armoury Road factory is the former staff canteen, which has recently been used for restoring black taxis.

Within the wider BSA history, the iconic BSA Bantam motorcycle must be the best known; which, oddly for a company originally formed to make small arms, was a result of the Second World War. After the war, the Allies seized the design plans (as war reparations) for a bike that was originally designed by the German DKW company in Zschopau. The plan was to manufacture the bike as an affordable and practical, everyday motorcycle as part of national reconstruction. This new bike was made in France and the USA then produced extensively in the USSR and Poland. But this new style and design of bike had its biggest success with BSA at the Armoury Road site in Birmingham.

The British bike appeared as the BSA D1 in 1948, with the first delivery going to the Post Office for telegram messengers, obviously painted GPO red. Following a rechristening with the introduction of the name Bantam, the bike was built to a target price of just £60, plus purchase tax, but still aimed at being a ride-to-work, lightweight machine with its 125cc two-stroke engine, able to reach 45mph and deliver 120mpg. Over 100,000 Bantam D1s were built in the first three years on an assembly line that was almost exclusively female, with only a handful of men employed to carry the engines. For BSA, profit margins were slim, but given the numbers manufactured the Bantam was a winner, helping to fund the company as they developed larger-capacity motorcycles.

The market for BSA Bantams was enormous, as an entire generation of motorcyclists learned to ride thanks to a Bantam, at a time when motorcycle ownership was much larger than today. It remained the working man’s commute to work in post-war Britain, plus Bantams were used by the Royal Navy, the RAF and several Police Forces in addition to Civil Defence units and the Auxiliary Fire Service. Equally, the Bantam was used throughout the British Commonwealth by local government officials and administrators, plus sheep farmers in the Australian outback, and its versatility was displayed by district nurses serving isolated African communities.

With time the Bantam evolved. The D3 model emerged in 1954 with a 150cc engine and a dual seat. Further changes in the late 1950s and 1960s found an increase in engine size to 175cc, gearboxes went from three to four-speed and there were changes to modernise its look and style. By the early 1970s, the B175 Bantam could challenge any modern day motorcycle for looks and style, now capable of 65mph, but it still had a two-stroke engine. The Bantam’s ruggedness, simplicity in design and easy maintenance, plus its high reliability helped BSA to sell around 400,000 Bantams between 1948 and 1971 when it was discontinued.

Looking at the three Bantams that Bryan now owns was a privilege. In addition to his original 1955 Mist-Green D1, his next purchase was a 1957 Black D3 with a 150cc engine and the dual seat, which he would often use to commute to work before retiring. His third Bantam, a later 1966 175cc Black D14/4 which stood beside the other two, certainly looks like a modern motorcycle.

Bryan commented: “Vintage and classic motorcycles have a huge following across the country, plus there is also a well developed support industry of restoration, along with spare parts and remanufacturers if needed.”

I had to confess, I had never looked at a motorcycle as a collector’s item, but as Bryan added, “the BSA Bantam is an ideal first vintage classic bike for any budding enthusiast. Today Bantams are reasonably priced, even fully restored they are still sensible money, with just about every part readily available. Add to this the two-stroke engine, which is simplicity itself – and the remainder of the cycle parts are pretty basic.”

While Bryan’s bikes are kept clean, they have the odd little blemish, mark or paint chip which is evidence that these are roadworthy bikes that are ridden, as they were intended to be – they are not bubble-wrapped static museum pieces. Following recent retirement, Bryan now has more time and rides the bikes regularly, often to and from home for routine maintenance, cleaning and preparing them ready for a club meeting or ride-out, from a local secure lock-up.

It would be easy to say Bryan is just a Bantam fanatic, but he is much more than that. He is also involved with the BSA Bantam Club, formed almost two decades ago with a growing membership spread across the country and overseas. Since its inception, he has been a committee member and for most of the time the membership secretary. As he explained, locally in Lincolnshire there is not only a strong, but a busy growing membership actively involved in regular monthly meetings across the county and ride-outs often into the Lincolnshire Wolds on Bantams, which he admits can be very social.

“Every year we have new local enthusiasts joining the club, often looking to restore a Bantam as their first step in vintage bike ownership. For me, the main effort is to try and help them as we attract new members, especially younger people, who simply do not get taught things like basic engine maintenance.”

There is no doubting Bryan’s dedication and passion, for what I now can recognise as an icon of British engineering that reached across the Commonwealth, is addictive. I even found myself feeling a little nostalgic seeing three BSA Bantams together. When I add to this Bryan’s depth of knowledge about the history of BSA, but especially the Bantam, it was an enjoyable afternoon. But if there is one moment in his company I will remember and savour, it is his reply to a question about his oldest Bantam, the 1955 D1. Why was the paintwork, including the wheel rims, an off-green colour and was this the original BSA colour? Like any master storyteller, the reply came from Bryan in a moment as he looked and said: “Remember it was just after the war and green paint was available in abundance, left over from wartime contracts, 45-gallon drums everywhere, this dark green paint was used on some early models. But they looked like Army surplus motorcycles and not the image BSA had hoped for the Bantam.

“The answer was simple: add some white paint to the 45-gallon drums of green paint. This was done every Monday at Armoury Road, it was done by eye, no technical measuring, just a good stir with a long broom handle. This was then called Mist-Green and today if you were to line up a few 1955 D1 Bantams you would the variation in the colour.”

Watching Bryan return from a short ride on his beloved Bantam, one thing took me back to my childhood and my first encounter with a BSA: the smell of a two-stroke engine and its drifting blue smoke. I must thank Bryan for solving my childhood mystery of why a motorcycle badge was on my air rifle; strangely, I still have a BSA air rifle with the same badge, but do I need a BSA Bantam to go with it?

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