Memorable Motorcycle: BSA Rocket Gold Star

Frank Melling | November 27, 2015

If there was an award for the most widely faked classic motorcycle in the world then BSA’s Rocket Gold Star would be a strong contender. BSA only made this beautiful sporting twin in 1962 and 1963, and produced a mere 1584 examples of the model. Yet look around and you will see a lot of Rocket Gold Stars – some fairly and honestly labelled as “replicas” and more than a few not!

The idea for the Rocket Gold Star came from BSA dealer Eddie Dow who was one of the icons of the British motorcycle trade. Eddie was a BSA Gold Star specialist with a highly successful record of racing these legendary singles. In fact, Dow dominated the Goldie market so much that he produced his own range of goodies for these iconic singles.

Gold Stars were the most successful, single cylinder motorcycle of their time. The later DBD models produced almost as much power as a Manx Norton or Matchless G.50, were the bike to have for motocross and also made superb touring machines. The problem was that they didn’t make any money for BSA.

Memorable Motorcycle BSA Rocket Gold Star

The BSA Rocket Gold Star was arguably the best sportsbike of its day, better than even the legendary Triumph Bonneville.

It was all well and good to have a hand built engine which came with its own individual dyno report, however profit was made not from lovingly crafted exotics but from a production line churning bikes out in Honda numbers.

By 1961, the Gold Star was also looking increasingly old-fashioned with its separate engine and gearbox and manually adjusted ignition. Even amongst the hardened bike enthusiasts of the 1960s, the smoothness, easy starting and flexibility of a Twin was looking increasingly attractive compared to the demands of a highly-tuned, big Single.

However, what the Gold Star did sublimely well was handle. Manx Nortons were considered to be the benchmark for fine handling at the time but the truth was that, in many ways, the BSA was the sweeter chassis and is certainly more forgiving, even on modern tires.

The Gold Star was a wide motor for a single and so the bottom down tubes of the frame were generously splayed – so much so that the bottom right hand engine rail actually had a kink in it, to accommodate the oil pump.

The practical outcome was that the frame was amply wide enough to accommodate a twin cylinder engine, with nothing more than a change of engine plates.

With the Gold Star’s 190mm front brake, and quickly detachable rear wheel, the Rocket-engined bike was also instantly ready for serious sporting use.

Memorable Motorcycle BSA Rocket Gold Star

The BSA Rocket Gold Star used a Burgess absorbtion silencer, which barely took the edge off the engine music. Note the quickly detachable rear wheel, very advanced in its day.

Then there was the whole range of BSA gearboxes or, more accurately, ratios available. Straight off the shelf, BSA had the RRT2 close ratio box; SCT for motocross and STD for road use.

Gold Star fuel tanks, with their trick filler caps, and Gold Star rear set footrests were also straight off the shelf. Yes, you can see where this project is going…

BSA also had a very fine engine in the Rocket Twin. It never achieved the sexy status of Triumph’s Bonneville Twin but, again like the frame comparison with Norton’s Manx, the BSA engine is every bit as good as a Bonny: it’s just not as loved.

Not only did the Rocket make plenty of power, it was stone axe reliable and built to BSA’s normal high standards. When equipped with the Super Rocket alloy head, the Twin churned out a reliable 50hp which was as good as anything in the world.

Eddie Dow knew all this better than anyone and when a customer came along for a Goldie with a Rocket engine, he was all too willing to oblige. Unofficially, the Rocket Gold Star was born.

With the help of BSA’s Service Manager, John Gleed, Dow went through the BSA parts books and, in 1960, ordered everything to build the new supersports bike – a “Clubman’s” specification Gold Star with a hotted-up Rocket Gold Star 650cc Twin engine. Thus, the first Rocket Gold Stars were literally specials built in the Taylor Dow workshop and it was a full year later before the factory took the project on board and built their own, official, RGSs.

Memorable Motorcycle BSA Rocket Gold Star

The BSA Rocket Gold Star really is a production racer on the road, complete with close ratio gearbox, racing magneto, dropped handlebars and rear set footrests.

The package was impressive. The 650cc Rocket Twin engine gave as much power as even a really good 500cc Gold Star Single but was vastly more user friendly. Instead of the quasi-religious rites necessary to coax a high compression big Single into life, along with the sprained ankle which followed when you made a minor mistake and the beast kicked back, the Rocket engine burst into life like a biddable Spaniel off to retrieve.

Where the Goldie needed lots of clutch and 40mph before things became harmonious the affable 650cc engine pulled like a tractor and, by the standards of the day, was smooth too.

Both bikes would do a genuine 100mph plus but the Goldie required commitment and skill whereas the Rocket-engined bike just simply picked up its skirts and got on with the job.

Just as importantly, all the Goldie’s handling qualities were retained in the new hybrid. So, Eddie had made a bike which handled like a Gold Star; stopped like a Gold Star; had a Goldie’s top speed but with better acceleration and was vastly easier to ride.

Even BSA’s notoriously incestuous and inward looking management had to take note.

The final part of the equation was that in 1960 a whole new range of unit construction BSAs was about to be launched. As an aside, this was one of those seminal moments when history could have been changed. In 1960, BSA was an immense industrial giant with huge resources stretching from electronics to car production.

If the BSA management had stood up straight and gone ahead with the range of overhead cam engines which their designers offered to the Directors, Honda would never have developed the stranglehold it did and history would have been different.

As things turned out, the BSA management lacked the courage and, instead, the new bikes were old fashioned even before they had left the drawing board.

Instead of a five speed, overhead cam engine with electric starting, the new BSAs were four-speed, push-rod motors which had to be kicked into life. These would have been fine for 1947 – but not for 15 years later.

4 Photos

Even these new, “old” bikes were not going to be available until 1962 and a stop gap supersports bike was badly needed. Enter then Eddie Dow’s Rocket-engined Gold Star.

Not only was this bike easy and cheap to make, it had the added advantage of requiring almost no new parts. Instead, it was a question of just emptying the Gold Star parts’ bins.

BSA upped the Rocket’s compression ratio to 9:1 and added the high lift, Spitfire cam and this boosted the power to around 50hp – which was Manx Norton and G.50 territory. The factory also made use of a two-into-one exhaust and this broadened the power band and reduced the noise levels allowing a free flowing Burgess absorption silencer to be used.

The Goldstar parts’ bin was raided for a close ratio RRT2 gearbox, 190mm front brake and the drop-dead gorgeous chrome and silver gas tank.

The final result was probably the best British café racer of all time and this is reflected in sale prices. If you want a really nice Rocket Gold Star, and they nearly always are nice because the bikes repay the money spent on restoration, expect to be signing a check for $35,000 plus – and that’s not a cheap classic motorcycle.

Here’s where the story gets interesting and the old Latin tag of Caveat Emptor is truly worth remembering. BSA’s basic single cylinder road bikes, the B31 and B33 have a chassis, and gearbox, very similar to a Gold Star. There are plenty of rough B.31s about for $5000. An A10 Rocket in similar condition is available for a little more. So, now you have $10,000 worth of donor bikes and the basis for either a lovely Rocket Gold Star replica – or a fake with $25,000 profit in it.

If you want one of these beautiful bikes and you are not a BSA expert then do join one of the many excellent BSA clubs in the USA (http://www.bsaoc.org/north_america.htm) and seek their expert help.

A genuine Rocket Gold Star can be accurately authenticated all the way back from its birth and will come with a whole bundle of good, solid history. Take your time, enjoy the buying process, be guided by expert advice and you will end up with one of the best classic motorcycles ever made.

Our thanks to Lawrence Rose, of Classic Motorcycles Ltd (classicbikes1@yahoo.co.uk), who will sell you a 100% genuine Rocket Gold Star.

avatar

Frank Melling

Contributing Editor |Articles | 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.

Facebook comments