Thursday, July 25, 2024
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Notes from the Sticks: Rebirth of a rusty BSA


This week I am handing over the first item in the column to DEREK REYNOLDS, a regular ‘Wheels of the Week’ contributor, for his account of the restoration and rehoming of an ancient BSA motorbike.

I NEVER did like the Ford Popular (a 100E). It smelt of vinyl and oil, and unbeknown to me, someone had fitted a brake backing plate the wrong way round on one front wheel, causing it to pull to the left on braking. So when in the late 1980s a friend, Ian, offered a straight exchange for a 350cc BSA single of 1954 vintage, I gladly saw the back of that awful Ford.

The BSA, a model B31 single cylinder with a plunger rear suspension, had been languishing under a tarp in Ian’s coal shed for a very long time.

The bike was mostly all there but rusty, with a fading red paintwork, missing badges, rusted wheel rims and missing hand control levers for the front brake and clutch.

The tyres were flat and the sidewalls were crazed and perishing. ‘How long have you had this, Ian?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. Got it from a bloke who owed me a favour.’

Amazingly, despite the cobwebs and some very old petrol in the tank, on second kick it burst into life for a few seconds. So we heaved it on to the trailer and hauled it back to St Albans whereupon it was stashed outside the father-in-law’s garage, covered with some tarpaulin, until 2005, when I cleared the f-in-law’s garage (major task, he threw nothing away) and began pulling the Beezer apart.

All the tinware came off: tanks (oil and petrol), side panels, mudguards and headlamp nacelle). It was pretty rough. Cylinder head and barrel came off, primary drive, clutch and gearbox. There was nothing that didn’t need completely overhauling or replacing. The heads were probably the best bits, the barrel was just about serviceable and I got away with new piston rings without replacing the piston itself. However, there was an issue with the ‘bottom end’ (crankshaft, big-end and main bearings). I split the cases to discover the big-end journal retaining nut on which the big-end runs, and which holds both halves of the crankshaft flywheels together – was finger tight!

Not only that, but there was a spacer missing which allowed the ‘loose’ journal nut to carve itself a nice pattern on the inside of the crankcase on one side – and it ran!

Further investigation into the gearbox brought to light certain items well past their use-by date. Bearings, seals and bushes were replaced, new gaskets, debris flushed out of the oil tank. The engine crankpin had seized up at some point in its history, largely due to the oil-way, essential in lubricating it, blocked with a compound of metal particles and dirt so solid that it took a drill bit to move them. It was scrap. So a new big-end assembly complete with crankpin was ordered (£££ ouch!), and an engineering firm commissioned to assemble same (more £££ ouch!).

I took a trip back in time when I went to C & D Autos in the Birmingham suburbs for spares. It was a double-fronted shop run by some brothers who specialised in BSAs, both old and new, with advertising still on the walls from the 1950s. The shop dripped with parts hanging from beams and shelves, drawers contained tiny components, and the floor was crowded with second-hand machines for sale. Walking into the shop, the nostrils were met with a smell similar to a steam locomotive engine shed. Nectar! But the place had an air of finality to it, and while I was able to purchase a great many items for the old Beezer, it was clear that this shop, like the ironmongers of old that were essential for tools, tinware and advice, was of another age and destined to disappear in the not-too-distant future. (They are now in an online incarnation in Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire.)

Meantime I had been building a ‘super shed’ at the bottom of the f-in-law’s garden. When it was ready, what was left of the bike was set up on crates for a thorough de-grease, clean up and paint.

Stripped down to the bare frame, access to those important nooks and crannies was easier. Preparation for paint is an all-important task and worth spending as much time on as necessary. With quality brushes and paints, a very good finish can be achieved without the need of compressors and spray guns: within the confines of a shed, paint spraying has distinct disadvantages, especially to health.


Time marched on, and the bike began to look quite presentable. Gone was the faded red; it was now all black, with silver painted side panels to the fuel tank.

Minolta DSC

Should I keep it as a ‘runner’? Or should I sell it to help finance other projects that have been queuing up for far too long? The BSA B31 is a classic machine, epitomising a post WWII age. When it was introduced in 1945, it sported telescopic forks at the front with a ‘rigid’ back end. This saved a great deal of weight which the later ‘plunger’ rear suspension systems and the even later swinging arm suspensions systems made heavier, reducing the original’s nimbleness in handling and acceleration. I decided to sell.

An advertisement was placed in the usual places, and – nothing. Not one inquiry for months on end. Maybe I’ll keep it. Then the phone rang with a caller asking if the B31 was still for sale. I was asking £1,900 (this was 2008), and the broad Scottish voice at the other end said that’s fine, not a problem. We arranged that he would come down and collect the bike, but a snag suddenly arose. He had put his back out at the weekend – could I deliver the bike if he paid for my fuel to and from my place to his, plus the cost of the ferry one way, and he would put me up overnight. ‘Ferry? Just whereabouts are you?’ ‘Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis.’ And I was living in Hertfordshire!

This was turning into an epic adventure. My sister was living in the Spey Valley, so I arranged to drive my Citroen Acadiane (the ‘van’ version of the Dyane which was basically a Citroen 2CV with a different style of body) with the bike on a trailer and stay overnight, leaving early for the Isle of Skye to catch a ferry from Uig to Lewis. Here I am en route.

It’s a fair journey from Kincraig to Uig, and I caught the evening ferry arriving in Tarbert after dark. The buyer met me and we set off for his flat in Stornoway where I was fed and watered handsomely. Early start next morning, still dark, and board the return ferry. Did I see the Hebrides? No, I didn’t. But I did see the most glorious sunrise at sea, lighting up the islands behind me as I headed back to Skye.

I got back to my sister’s for another stay-over, and the phone rang. It was the buyer. He wanted to me to know he had started the engine, and for the first time since the B31 spluttered into life in Ian’s coal shed about 20 years before, I heard it living again. He’d got it going second kick! Maybe I should have kept it . . .


Back to me: I am often astounded by the price of fruit and vegetables – because they are so cheap. I cannot understand how, for instance, a supermarket can sell a lettuce for 70p when it has had to be sown in a greenhouse (presumably heated), probably pricked out, tended, harvested, packed and transported. There can be precious little profit for the grower (I imagine the supermarkets do ok).

Some stores sell ‘wonky’ produce, supposedly not perfectly shaped (as if that matters), even more cheaply. The other day we bought a pack of wonky parsnips at Morrisons marked down from 55p to just 17p.

And here they are peeled and ready to be cut up for roasting. There doesn’t seem much wrong with them to me.

I hope we are paying growers a fair price for their labours.


I SUPPORT a charity called Buglife which campaigns to protect invertebrates under the slogan ‘Saving the small things that run the planet’. (As far as I can see it does not claim that invertebrates are being threatened by the ‘climate crisis’, which is a refreshing change. Anyway they would have a hard time making a case since invertebrates have been on earth for at least 650million years, sailing through enormous variations in climate. Cf modern humans: about 200,000 years.) Buglife have started a petition to ask the government to ban the import of soil and potted plants which can conceal all sorts of unwelcome guests such as Asian hornet larvae, fire ants and flatworms. These can cause immense damage to native species. It’s not a particularly glamorous cause, but hugely important. I would be really pleased if you would sign the petition here


Sheep of the Week

THIS fine fellow is a Dalesbred ram. Below is a ewe. They are unmistakable with the white marks on either side of the muzzle.

This breed is mainly kept in Yorkshire and Lancashire, though I don’t think I have seen any in our part of East Lancashire.

It is derived from the Swaledale and Scottish Blackface breeds, and at one time Swaledale and Dalesbred were lumped together. In 1925 the breed society split and each part concentrated on different specifications. (Both breeds keep their long tails, though, when most others are docked.)

Dalesbred sheep are hardy and capable of surviving harsh upland conditions. They are generally bred for several generations in this environment, then ewes are sold to lowland farmers for cross breeding to produce meat lambs.

They are noted for having better teeth than most sheep so they tend to have a longer productive life. Dental problems are a major cause of early culling in sheep – if the front teeth (incisors) are broken or lost the sheep cannot bite off the grass it feeds on; if the back teeth (molars) are worn down or lost the sheep cannot grind the fibrous foodstuff.

The thick wool is used for carpet making.

I couldn’t find much in the way of videos – this is the best I can do, and the sheep don’t look very thrilled at being pursued by a drone (I assume that is what they used). Or maybe it’s the terrible music they can’t stand.

The Dalesbred Sheep Breeders’ Association has a website here,  but I think there may be more happening on their Facebook page here. Since I don’t have Facebook I can’t tell you much more about it.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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