Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G

January 18, 2012
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.

Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G
Not all motorcycles are memorable for they’re positive reasons. Such is the case of the C11G, which exhibited the weakness of BSA in post-war Britain.  

Viewed by any objective standards, the BSA C11G is an almost totally bad motorcycle with little to recommend it. It’s not a bike which I would want in my garage and not one I would want to ride – unless the only other option was walking.

However, the little BSA is historically a very interesting machine finishing production in 1958. This was a seminal point in the history of motorcycling, marking the moment when the Japanese manufacturers first began to flex their muscles on the world stage. The contrast between the giant BSA company, and its Japanese rivals, was stark.

Let’s begin by looking at the bike itself. In almost every way, it has little to commend it. The engine is a 250cc overhead-valve design which produces an anorexically low 11 horsepower. If any attempt is made to rev the engine, it vibrates like a jack hammer and it doesn’t pull particularly well either. It will, just about, propel itself and a rider around up to 45mph. Its only virtue is that, ridden with circumspection, a C11G is extremely frugal in terms of fuel consumption.

The C11’s ancestors were three-speed, pre-Second World War side valve bikes, but by the end of its production life the motor had been mated to a separate four-speed gearbox which at least gave some flicker of hope in terms of riding flexibility.

If the engine is bad than the bike’s chassis is almost criminally incompetent. The brazed lug construction was the hot set-up before the first World War, and yet BSA still had the temerity to use it on a bike which should have had a light, strong, welded frame.

Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G
Though BSA engineers had developed a powerful and durable 250 powerplant, the C11G was fitted with a weaker overhead-valve design that produced little power and vibrated excessively.

The reason for the use of a brazed lug frame is two-fold. First, the method of construction is cheap. Effectively, the frame is made up of straight tubes which then fit into cast iron lugs. The tubes are then “glued” into place by having brass melted into the lugs. Brazed lug frames meant that the tubing did not have to be melted, as in welding, and were therefore cheaper to make – especially when semi-skilled workers could be employed rather than very highly skilled welders.

However, far outweighing the savings in cost were the limitations which brazed lug frames imposed on designers. A straight tube design is fine for something like a bicycle, but a motorcycle demands double curvature tubes to flow around the engine and gearbox.

The suspension was just as crude. The front forks were telescopic but with only compression damping. Plunger suspension, which gave two inches of undamped wheel travel, was used at the rear of the bike – again as a cost cutting exercise.

The end result was a very heavy motorcycle powered by a weak 250cc engine.

These are the design weaknesses of the bike but there is a more fundamental problem: there is no joy or love in the design of the bike. For that, as we will see, the crime lay in the hands of the BSA management.

This brings us to why the bike is so very interesting in historical terms. In 1958, Britain faced three problems. First, there was a sense of utter exhaustion after six years of World War. A little over 450,000 died: around 1% of the population. Every family knew someone well who was killed, maimed or injured.

Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G
Dire and dreadful… no rose-tinted glasses for our man Melling when looking back at the BSA C11G’s suspension and brakes!

Throughout the war, the British had faced severe rationing restrictions. Everything from soap, to clothes and every form of food was controlled by the government. Rationing continued after the end of hostilities. Even as a post-war baby, I had a ration card and my mother feared malnutrition as a very real threat to my health.

An interview I did with the legendary American racer, stunt rider and actor Bud Ekins revealed how badly the British had suffered. “I got off the boat at Southampton (in 1952) and walked into a different world. I had come from California where the sun shone and everyone looked good.

“The first thing which struck me, even before I had left the dockside, was the greyness. The people looked tired and grey. Their clothes were poor quality and their faces were lined.

“Everything looked tired – the docks, the people, their clothes, the terrible food – everything.”

As far as Britain was concerned, we had won the war and wanted – and desperately needed – a rest.  Some 60,000 people were killed in German air raids and many hundreds of thousands were made homeless. As a result of this physical, and emotional, assault on the people of Britain there was a feeling that there should be social change on a massive scale once the war was over.

This included the introduction of the country’s highly laudable National Health Service, which promised free health care for Britain’s citizens. Then there were new, modern, out of city, state-owned housing areas built as, “Fit for Heroes to Live in”. These new “Council Houses” were to have inside toilet facilities, instead of a brick built lavatory at the end of the yard, kitchens, purpose-built bathrooms and small gardens.

Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G
Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G
The BSA C11G is memorable as a by-product of its times. War-time destruction had long-term consequences, and rationing of food and other raw materials extended well beyond the signing of any peace treaty.

In terms of what they offered, they were vastly better than many of the terraced houses they replaced, but the new housing also posed a huge problem. The old terraced houses were built, quite literally, as dwellings for a factory’s workers, who walked a few hundred yards to work and were bonded to a particular company for life.

The new housing estates were often miles from the factories – if those factories existed at all after the bombing. For example, the Triumph works in Coventry city center was destroyed during the blitz of November 1940 and a brand new factory was built in the virgin countryside of Meriden.

To reach these factories, or to commute from their new homes, workers needed independent transport.
BSA’s problem was not so much in improving the quality or design of its C11, which was its main commuter machine, but obtaining sufficient raw materials, in the post war shortages, to actually make the bikes.

Finally, Britain was in the dying days of its Empire. In 1900, most of the world was under the rather benevolent control of the British Empire. Fifty years later, huge numbers of the old colonial countries were being given independence – or had achieved it.

Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand had already gone, and the African countries which the British ruled were about to achieve independence. However, if the nominal control disappeared – and the British Empire was more of a worldwide trading organization than a military super power – the infrastructure still remained. If you had been a British colony, and wanted anything industrial after independence, then you went to the Mother Country – and once more BSA struggled to fulfill demand.

But here is where the story gets really interesting. Contrary to what is sometimes reported today, the BSA design and engineering staff were all too well aware of the weakness of the C11 – and also of the threats posed by Japanese and European manufacturers.

BSA’s Chief Engineer, Bert Hopwood wrote: “As responsible management they should have known that the Continental manufacturers were bearing down on us with models which would make some of our products look pitiful.”

Hopwood’s response was a simple, cheap fix which would give BSA a five-year window in which to design all new lightweight motorcycles to take on the fast improving worldwide opposition. In one of his cleverest designs, he took what was effectively half of his well proven, 500cc Twin and produced a very neat 250cc Single.

Memorable Motorcycle: BSA C11G
The C11 proved a failure of BSA management, a missed opportunity for the one-time industry powerhouse to produces a durable post-war machine.

The new bike proved to be an instant success literally straight from Hopwood’s drawing board. Three of the new 250s were built and they were both quiet, and ultra reliable, completing 30,000 trouble free miles.

To prove that the new bikes were everything the design team claimed, one of the prototypes was taken to the Montlhery speed bowl, just outside Paris, and circulated steadily at 90mph. This was a world beating performance for the time. As a finale, BSA works rider Billy Nicholson turned in a batch of near 100 mph laps with ease.

Hopwood again: “With its performance, appearance and reliability I am sure that the new 250 would have had a successful run of many years. It would have obviated all of the aches and pains which were associated with the small capacity 4-stroke machines which BSA later produced and were to prove so troublesome during a period when our performance was being underlined by the first class products of foreign manufacturers.

“M. Rabuteau (who was BSA’s French distributor and who had been present during the Montlhery test session) pleaded with the BSA Board to be given the right to set up a works near Paris and manufacture the motorcycle for sale on the Continent but, for some reason, his request was turned down and so yet another opportunity was missed. There seemed to be no excuse for this rather stupid decision, for the financial situation was good and the weakest part of our marketing strategy was the small capacity class of machine which was being catered for by a model 20 years old. (source: Hopwood B. Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry – pp. 112/113).

Now, the C11 remains either a fascinating piece of industrial history – or a thoroughly drab, dull thing worthy of avoiding at all costs. For me, I would prefer to invest in a good pair of walking shoes.