Memorable Motorcycle BSA B.40 350

August 7, 2009
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

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.

Memorable Motorcycles - BSA B.40 350
The BSA B.40 may be remembered by some with rose-tinted glasses, but Melling’s recollections are far less appreciative of the British design.

It must be something to do with age. When I was a young man, I was so much more tolerant of incompetence. If politicians made huge mistakes – and British politicians were world class in the 1970s when it came to ineptitude – I shrugged my shoulders, smiled weakly – and went racing.
When another new regulation was brought launched in an attempt to ruin my life, (take a bow Ralph Nader) I shrugged my shoulders, smiled weakly – and went racing.

If airlines lost my bags what could I do? I still had my helmet as hand luggage so I borrowed a set of leathers and yes, you’ve guessed, stayed sane by going racing.

Now, perhaps because I race much less frequently, my intolerance is growing: with fruitcake politicians who invade countries because God gives them instructions so to do; with faceless bureaucrats who want to regulate us into mindless acquiescence; with incompetent airlines who put profit before customers – and with the latest crop of young journalists writing about classic bikes.

Take the BSA B.40 featured in this story for example. I’ve just read a story written by a barely post-fetal journalist singing paeans of praise to a similar machine, as if it were a cross between Valentino Rossi’s current MotoGP bike and Agostini’s 1967 World Championship winning MV “3”.

The truth is that the B.40 was, and is, a dull, poorly engineered, lackluster machine. The fact that it might be a beautifully restored, lovingly maintained and 45 years old does not alter the evidence. The bike was a disgrace to what, at the time, was one of the world’s leading motorcycle manufacturers.

So, let’s have a look at the truth regarding BSA’s middleweight flagship. First, it is important to remember that cost cutting was the golden key at BSA. Forget quality of product, or long term investment, the shareholders wanted immediate profit and not long term stability. Does that ring any bells with General Motors’ current crisis?

Memorable Motorcycles - BSA B.40 350
The B.40’s small Single was oversized for its gearbox and clutch.

In 1958, BSA had launched the all new 250cc C.15 model. In truth, it wasn’t a bad little bike by the fairly low standards of the day. Its four-speed, push-rod engine was cheap to make and riders of the day were content with a non-destructive cruising speed of 50 mph and the potential of maybe 70 mph if you were desperately keen.

Just as important was that sensible riders – and C.15 owners were invariably sensible – could coax 80 miles, or even more, from every gallon of gas. This meant that a week’s commuting to the factory where you worked, plus a trip to the canal for a Sunday fishing trip, could be achieved for a couple of dollars a week. The 1950s were simple times and C.15 owners had simple needs.

That the C.15 didn’t handle particularly well, nor did it stop or have lights which were anything better than the lumen output of an arthritic glow-worm mattered little. The C.15 was made by the mighty BSA and was one of the best 250s available.

Now move on just a single year and the landscape is changing so very, very rapidly. “Pops” Honda brought his team to the Isle of Man TT in 1959 and the won the team prize at the first attempt. By 1961 the young Mike Hailwood had provided Honda with its first TT win riding a double overhead cam, twin-cylinder, 125cc machine which revved to 13,000.

So, in the same year that Hailwood screamed Honda’s technical masterpiece round the TT course, BSA’s reaction to the wave of fresh, innovative Japanese engineering was typical. Spread the butter a little more thinly on the bread and cut costs.

Memorable Motorcycles - BSA B.40 350
While Honda was innovating with new design concepts and racing to success, BSA plodded along with its B.40, squeezing the last cent out of its original C.15 platform.

So, the C.15 was bored out from 67mm to 79mm and the 343cc B.40 was launched, now boasting a yawn inducing 20 hp at 7,000 rpm. Inevitably, as a cost saving measure, the gearbox and clutch, which was already fragile on the 250, was retained. The bottom half of the engine was also incapable of taking full power usage so BSA’s fix was to reduce the compression ratio to near side-valve levels of 7:1.

Whilst the Japanese were busily introducing neat, light twin-leading shoe brakes on their bikes BSA stuck the dull, inefficient, cast iron, single leading anchors on the B.40.

The suspension was equally basic with only compression damping on the front forks and no adjustment whatsoever on the rear shocks. Hey, save a few cents and damn the customer!

In fact, the styling of the B.40 told the whole story. The bike looked like the overweight, conservatively dressed, near pensioner that it was. It was ridden by dull, careful, devoted BSA customers who were way out of step with what we, as “The Beatles” generation, wanted from a bike.

The B.40 was saved from death by a thousand boring cuts by a huge military order. What the armed forces wanted was a dull, plodding workhorse which could be ridden by the most incompetent squaddie without killing himself. In this role, an up-rated B.40 did rather well – and made a ton of money for BSA.

Memorable Motorcycles - BSA B.40 350
“The bike looked like the overweight, conservatively dressed, near pensioner that it was. It was ridden by dull, careful, devoted BSA customers who were way out of step with what we, as “The Beatles” generation, wanted from a bike.”

Now here’s the sting in the story. Take a beautifully restored BSA out for a gentle ride through the summer scented English country lanes and it really is a magical experience. Duff, duff, duff, duffing along at 50 mph, the B.40 is very unstressed. There is ample time to stop gently, so the incompetent BSA brakes are never challenged and who is going to be so unreasonable as to hurl a 48-year-old bike through corners? Only a motorcycling philistine.

Which brings us back to the start of this polemic. Stick a baby journalist on a B.40 made 25 years before he was born and you will, almost inevitably, get a rose tinted report. So, a round of applause to Motorcycle USA’s management for publishing classic bike stories which tell the truth – in all its gory detail!

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