Memorable Motorcycle BSA Bantam

March 8, 2004
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The BSA Bantam sold 50 000 units by 1951.
The BSA Bantam sold 50,000 units by 1951.

What was the most successful ever British bike? BSA Gold Star? Manx Norton? Triumph Bonneville? Sadly, none of these exotica get near the modest little BSA Bantam in terms of numbers sold.

Just how many Bantams were produced in the bike’s 23 year production run will never be precisely known. Bantam advocates claim half a million trundled out of BSA’s Redditch factory. Certainly, by 1951 50,000 had been made because BSA had undertaken a big press campaign to celebrate the fact. Also the fact is that in the same year production was approaching 200 a day – a huge number for a factory that was hand-building 350cc Gold Stars to individual order at the time.

The Bantam was a bike of its time – and of good fortune too. The core of the bike was the DKW RT125 designed by Herman Weber before the Second World War. At the time, DKW were the world leaders in two-stroke design with over 150 technicians working in their race department alone. The RT125 then became the Wehrmacht’s bike of choice and so was thoroughly developed in the most gruelling conditions. After the war, BSA ended up with the design as part of the war reparations.

Not only did BSA like the RT125 – so did Harley-Davidson in America and even Yamaha all of whom made tributes to the RT125.

To meet the British government’s demands for exports, the first Bantams built in March 1948, the D1s, were allegedly produced to meet, “…a specific overseas contract” – although no-one ever actually saw the contract.

In fact, the bulk of the first Bantams were exported, finding their way all over what remained of the British Empire, and proving very popular in Scandinavia too.

The Bantam accelerated briskly up to 30mph and cruised all day at 40mph returning over 120mpg if driven sensibly. It had telescopic front forks, but a rigid rear end, and handling was sweet and predictable. The bike was eminently practical too. It weighed a mere 153lb and had deep mudguards, to cope with the vagaries of poor roads, and a strong carrier rear carrier for luggage.

But the Bantam was far more than merely a motorcycle. It had a huge social impact on post-war Britain. Costing a fraction more than £80, workers could buy a Bantam in a few months and then had the blessing of mobility. No longer did they have to live in sight of their places of employment or rely on buses or trams. The Bantam opened up the world.

Many a bored schoolboy looked to the glamour of Bantams too. There was no greater object of envy than the Royal Mail telegram delivery boy screaming past the classroom window on a bright red Post Office Bantam – until the Maths teacher’s slap re-focused the errant’s attentions!

The Bantam proved to be a formidable competition machine in every motorcycling discipline from trials to grass track. So good was the little BSA that the factory even produced a dedicated competition version of the Bantam until 1955. They were raced even in the Isle of Man TT and the fastest alcohol burning Bantams, tuned by Australians and New Zealanders, would manage a solid 120mph.

The Bantam continued to evolve until, when production stopped in 1971, the tiny two-stroke had grown into a 173cc lightweight with 70mph performance.

Even this should not have been the end of the Bantam. BSA had a 250cc Bantam ready for production in 1973 and by all accounts it was an extremely nice bike too. But, in a fit of pique at losing his job, a disgruntled worker destroyed the tooling and drawings and so the very last Bantam was never produced.

For information contact:
Brian Pollitt

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