The history of the British Motorcycle Industry is a long and storied tale. However, by the 60s, it had fallen on hard times. Multiple mergers and government involvement and support was basically unable to save it. Many famous brands went under and really only one survived. Triumph has had a good come back, but one of the 50s and 60s favorites, BSA, is gone forever.
The causes of the death of these great British brands including Norton, AJS, Vincent, and so many others are also numerous, but one main cause was an inability or lack of updating the designs and the factories that produced these legendary bikes.
There was a glimmer of hope near the end. The merged companies of Triumph and BSA actually beat the Japanese to the punch in producing what became known as super bikes. Before Honda released their game changing Honda CB750 four-cylinder, the British delivered on a new design moving beyond the twins. They were triples sharing much in common in their basic design, yet they were also different mostly due to the rivalry between the two famous British brands.
These were both 750cc Triples — three cylinders. They were good designs, although the styling could have been improved — that’s part of the following discussion. The BSA version borrowed from their famous brand name and was called the Rocket 3.
Starting in 1968 and introduced to the press and public in March of that year as the A75 Rocket 3, along with the similar Triumph T150 Trident. Both had a 740cc three-cylinder engine set across the frame and in unit construction with a four-speed gearbox. Although many of the internals were common, the design owed much to the Triumph Twins that preceded it. Yet the BSA design was distinguished from the Triumph by having its cylinders inclined forward and its timing cover shaped to blend to the gearbox. These relatively major design changes had delayed the project and may be one of the ultimate causes of failure of these brand new competitors from the British Isles.
The frames were also different, following the lines of the two firms’ respective twins, so that the BSA had an all-welded type with duplex downtubes. The forks and wheels were common and taken from the earlier twin designs, the front brake of the dual-leading-shoe type. A four-gallon tank was fitted with an oil cooler mounted beneath it at the front.
It was a most impressive motorcycle which reached its home market in 1969 and soon built up a fine reputation. Unfortunately, its production had been delayed, and late in 1968 the Honda CB750 burst upon the scene to steal much of the triple’s thunder. For all that, the British machines sold well and works racing versions had considerable success in 1970 and 1971, winning the Daytona 200, the Isle of Mann TT, the Bol d’Or, and the Truxton.
The overall design of the BSA triple was not met with much regard. The oddly shaped tank and other features were not well received. One interesting story was an attempt to improve the looks in the X-75 project.
The Triumph X-75 Hurricane was a 'factory special' motorcycle designed by fairing specialist Craig Vetter. The X-75 had swooping glassfibre bodywork, a three US-gallon petrol tank, lowered gearing, and a distinctive triple exhaust on the right-hand side. The motorcycle is credited with creating a new class of motorcycle, the cruiser.
The X-75 was ultimately released as a Triumph model in 1973, the BSA factory having closed its doors in late 1972. Vetter was commissioned by BSA's US distributor to customize the BSA Rocket 3 to appeal more to American tastes.
When, in 1968, the new BSA Rocket 3 / Triumph Trident triples were shown to the American BSA-Triumph management, they were underwhelmed. They knew Honda had an important bike (the CB750) coming along, and they felt the triple's price of $1800 was too high and that technical details (like vertically-split crankcases and pushrod OHV valve train) were far from "cutting edge".
However, they acknowledged that the bike was fast, and a sales team led by BSA Vice-President Don Brown decided to launch the bike by using a Rocket 3 to set some records at Daytona, records which were broken in 1971 by the Kawasaki Z1.
Brown felt that the BSA / Triumph triples needed a different look to succeed in the USA, and he engaged designer Craig Vetter to give the BSA A75 a customized face-lift, with a brief to make it "sleeker and more balanced.”
Vetter created the Triumph Hurricane in the summer of 1969, and in October 1969 he unveiled the prototype with "BSA" on the tank as the new Rocket Three.
Thornton and the American officials were impressed, and Vetter's bike was then sent to the UK, but the bike arrived in England just as the BSA marque was about to end. At BSA-Triumph's design facility at Umberslade Hall, the design was seen as too "trendy" by chief designer Bert Hopwood; but after very positive public reaction to the design when it appeared on the front of US magazine Cycle World in September 1970, the UK managers changed their minds. They realized they had a large stock of obsolete BSA Rocket 3 parts that could now be turned into a premium-priced motorcycle.
Engineer Steve Mettam was given the job of supervising production for the 1972/3 season; and the Vetter BSA Rocket 3 became the Triumph X-75 Hurricane. 1,183 engines were put aside for X75 production. However, BSA was facing bankruptcy and the design went into a limited production run of 1200 as the Triumph X-75 Hurricane in 1972. Production stopped in 1973 after the X-75 was unable to meet new American noise standards.
An odd side note to this tale is that Vetter was not paid for his design work for several years. Brown revealed the Vetter project to Peter Thornton, President of BSA/Triumph North America, but as Brown's initiative had not been authorized by BSA, Vetter had problems being paid, waiting two years for his fee.
This was the last gasp by BSA. By 1972 BSA had quit production, although some Triumphs continued on. It was the end of a great and storied brand. BSA to be no more. There’s an X-75 for sale at the Mecum auction in Las Vegas at the end of this month. I don’t think I’ll be bidding on it, but I’m curious what it will sell for. BSA lives on in the hearts and minds of we enthusiasts.