With the lack of any significant R&D funding, BSA had to make due with utilizing already existing designs. The result was a bike not much different from the original model launched in 1947.
There are two ways of looking at the BSA Bantam Sports, and both are correct in fact and interpretation. The first is that the bike is a not very extensively updated version of the original Bantam launched in 1947 – and that was a direct lift from the pre-war DKW design. Looked at in this way, the little BSA is a crude, outdated, poor performing embarrassment when compared with the automatic lubrication, six-speed pocket-rocketship which Suzuki were selling in the form of their iconic T20.
But there is another view which can be taken of the bike. It is such a cheerful little thing, in both looks and riding experience, that it brings a smile to any rider’s face. Technically, the Bantam already belonged in a museum at the time of its launch in 1967 but, like a good, solid Lancashire hotpot, you can’t help feeling satisfied with a solid plateful.
Although BSA was around another six years – depending on how exactly one marks the final demise – before production folded, things were already in a dire mess at the famous Small Heath factory. The Japanese, with the huge advantage of a fiercely protected home market and therefore immense home sales to serve as a base for exports, had already captured the high ground in small-capacity motorcycles.
Even the most fanatically loyal fans of British motorcycles were severely tempted by such wonderful little bikes as the Honda S90 and the bigger Benley and Dream models from the same factory. By the time the 90-mph Suzuki T20 hit the market in 1967, BSA had already decided that the factory’s survival depended on the high-profit, large-capacity machines which sold particularly well in America.
However, BSA dealers still demanded an entry-level bike, and the factory’s answer was the Bantam Sports. The problem was an almost complete lack of R&D funding, so BSA engineers were instructed to cobble together the best they could – whilst spending virtually nothing on development or new tooling.
The BSA Bantam Sports’ engine was reminiscent of the pre-war DKW motor, keeping the 52mm stroke. A major factor in the bikes lukewarm reception was the fact that the engine was pre-mix lubricated.
Incredibly, the Bantam had only just been given a four-speed gearbox and 12-volt electrics for the 1967 season, but these two factors were a huge improvement over the three-speed ‘box and six volts of a year earlier. The frame remained virtually unaltered, as did the dire front fork. BSA even had the temerity to sing the praises of the single leading shoe brake, full-width hub which was lifted from the Triumph Tiger Cub. This at a time when the Japanese supplied high quality, die-cast, twin leading-shoe brakes on virtually every bike they made.
The engine was still very much a mirror version of the original pre-war DKW motor – even down to retaining the same 52mm stroke. Lubrication was still by pre-mix and this, perhaps more than anything else, crippled sales. Children of the ’60s, new to motorcycling, simply did not take to the idea of removing a bottle of oil from a knapsack – usually an old ex-Army Gas Mask carrying bag – and then calculating the correct amount of lubricant for the amount of fuel to be added to the tank. This was a pre-war crudity that simply seemed out of place when the same customer merely filled up the oil tank on contemporary Japanese two-stroke every 500 miles.
The cycle parts show that the hard pressed designers had a truly gifted knowledge of BSA’s parts inventory. The end result is that the Bantam emanates the sort of chirpy happiness of a terrier on a rat hunting expedition. In fact, all the bits work together so well that the casual observer would never know that few of them were produced uniquely for the Bantam Sports. Best of all, the Bantam truly captures the spirit of the cafe racer – lots of chrome, flat ‘bars, humped seat – all the styling cues are there in abundance.
Given its out-dated componens the BSA was a competent performer, able to cruise along at low highway speeds. As a project it was emblematic of the fading fortunes of the British manufacturer.
Despite all its technical deficiencies, the whole motorcycle works very well for such an old design. The simple piston-ported engine starts first kick, the gearbox is sweet and light, and there is delightful burble from the 12-bhp engine. Fifty-mph cruising is comfortably possible – with a bit more for emergencies. At these speeds, the brakes are fine and the chassis gives good handling.
If this bike had been trundling out of Small Heath in 1957 it would now be firmly established as a star in the British bike firmament. As it is, the Bantam Sports is an even stronger reminder of just how deep was the hole which BSA were busily digging for their soon-to-arrive funeral.
For information contact Brian Pollitt
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