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Found on eBay: 1968 BSA Firebird Scrambler
Though this BSA sounds like it needs a little tuning to be ready for the road, it appears to be in f.
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1971 BSA Fury
Claimed power: 34hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 100mph (est.)
Engine: 349cc air-cooled DOHC 180-degree parallel twin, 63mm x 56mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 345lb (157kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.5gal (9.5ltr)
In 1971, BSA-Triumph was poised to release an all-new double overhead cam 350cc twin to take on Honda’s reigning middleweight, the CB/CL 350. Unfortunately, BSA-Triumph’s slide into bankruptcy couldn’t be stopped and the 350 never had a chance to make a difference.
By the mid-1960s, a Honda-led Japanese invasion of high-tech twins with electric start and dazzling performance had conquered the U.K. middleweight market, killing off England’s old-fashioned 4-stroke singles and wheezing 2-strokes. The British 650s had been considered safe because the “Japanese only make small bikes,” but that changed as well with the arrival of the CB450 “Black Bomber” in 1965. The British industry was under siege.
With its home sales quickly drying up, BSA-Triumph was forced to focus on the only market where its big twins were in increasing demand: the U.S. The success of Triumph-based “desert sleds” in enduro racing, together with BSA and Triumph’s success in the Grand National championships with Dick Mann, Gene Romero and Gary Nixon, and wins at Daytona for Don Burnett, Buddy Elmore and Nixon all contributed to demand for the big British bikes.
But while Brits still ruled in the over-500cc class in the U.S. Honda dominated the increasingly important middleweight market. By the mid-1960s, American BSA and Triumph dealers were clamoring for a “hot” 350 to compete with the best-selling Honda CB350 street bike and CL350 scrambler.
BSA-Triumph had nothing competitive, but could they come up with a new middleweight machine to challenge Honda in the U.S. and rebuild their lost middleweight business at home?
In 1968, BSA-Triumph chief designer Bert Hopwood and chief development engineer Doug Hele were working on 250cc and 350cc 6-speed triples they expected to form the basis of a new range of middleweight machines. The 250cc market was especially important in the U.K. because the biggest bike a “learner” could ride was a 250. You could get a motorcycle license at 16 versus 17 for a car, so red-blooded teens in Britain rode motorcycles before they got cars and the bike they learned on frequently became the brand they stuck with.
Turner’s new 350cc twin
Former Triumph boss Edward Turner (retired but working as a consultant) had been allowed to borrow company personnel to help him with a new project. In 1968, he presented BSA-Triumph with a “turn-key” 350cc double overhead cam twin that he considered ready for production. Not surprisingly, Turner’s new twin created something of a stir.
Throughout his tenure as head of Triumph, Turner had spent considerable time in the U.S. as much as six months each year forging and maintaining relationships with distributors and dealers. He had been especially close to Bill Johnson of Johnson Motors (JoMo), the West Coast Triumph distributor, so Turner had perhaps more insight than anyone in the BSA-Triumph group as to the needs of the U.S. market or at least what the dealers said they needed. Turner’s 350cc twin was the result.
In retirement, Turner was something of a loose cannon. Although his new design was under-developed, he supposedly advised his old contacts in the U.S. that the new 350 would soon be in production and available to dealers.
Turner’s new bike was powered by a 350cc dry-sump parallel-twin with a 360-degree, two-main-bearing crank (just like his landmark Speed Twin of 1938), gear-driven double overhead camshafts, a 5-speed transmission, and electric start as an option. Contrary to usual British practice, primary drive was on the right and timing on the left for a left-foot shifter and right-foot brake lever though it also meant the kickstart sat awkwardly on the left side.
The powertrain slotted into a new single downtube frame suspended by slender front forks with exposed springs. Styling was simple but distinctive, with a “coffin” gas tank and exhausts that mimicked the shape of the famous BSA “Goldie” silencer. A single front disc brake was fitted ahead of its time for 1968.
Turner claimed the new bike would produce 35 horsepower and weigh less than 350 pounds.
Good, but good enough?
In many ways, this new 350 was typical Turner: cleverly conceived, innovative and ingenious, but also somewhat under-engineered for the job. Turner’s first major design, the 500cc overhead cam Square Four for Ariel, was similarly inventive, using overhung crankshafts; that is, each crank was unsupported at its ends, with just two main bearings inboard of the big end. This worked fine at low power outputs, but crankshaft whip became a serious issue when the engine was worked hard.
The Square Four gained outboard main bearings in the 1935 1,000cc 4G version, and this revised design endured another 24 years. Similarly, Turner opted for just two main bearings to support the Bandit/Fury crankshaft; the benchmark Honda 350 used four!
As chief designer at BSA-Triumph, Hopwood was understandably angry about Turner’s maverick project taking precedence over his own designs. He wrote BSA group managing director Lionel Jofeh in October 1968, telling him he would have nothing to do with Turner’s bike because he knew if he did and did the work he considered necessary to turn it into a production machine he would be accused of deliberately delaying the project because he had “an axe to grind.” Hopwood suggested instead that BSA’s new research group at Umberslade Hall deal with it.
Turner had indeed told BSA management that Hopwood “would delay production for one or two years if I know my man.” So Hopwood’s concerns were well founded. Though Turner and Hopwood had worked well together at Ariel in the 1930s, it’s fair to say by this time there was no love lost between them. So was Turner’s design any good?
The Bert Hopwood version
This is where things get a little murky. In “Turner’s Triumphs,” Jeff Clew writes that the Turner prototype was tested by racer Percy Tait, who rated it highly and managed 112mph on it at the Motor Industry Research Association test track.
Hopwood was eventually persuaded to evaluate Turner’s new bike. In his engine evaluation report, he wrote that it failed to produce the promised horsepower, and in 1,500 “road” miles on the dyno the engine broke two crankshafts and the valve gear failed. Excessive mechanical noise and high oil consumption were also noted.
The report on 5,400 miles of street testing was similarly scathing, noting oil consumption as high as a quart every 50 miles, four complete engine rebuilds due to failure of major components (including main bearing collapse and broken crankshafts), while excessive frame flexing was also noted. The front forks were labeled “fundamentally unsafe.”
At least that’s how Hopwood presented the situation to BSA-Triumph management. It is arguable that his objectivity may have been compromised. However, he agreed to bring the project in-house, and with Hele embarked on preparing the 350 for production with a major redesign of the engine
In making the power unit as compact as possible, Turner had used a small diameter flywheel with little rotating mass, fitted to a crankshaft that Hopwood said was “hopelessly skimped.” These components were crammed so tightly inside the crankcase that oil drainage to the sump was compromised, possibly explaining the high oil consumption. Hopwood and Hele had to design a new crankshaft (with 180-degree throws) and crankcases, and replaced the cam drive geartrain with a chain drive, still on the engine’s left side.
The revised drivetrain went into a new double downtube frame fitted with the group front fork and cycle parts. The disc brake was gone, replaced by BSA’s twin-leading-shoe, conical-hub drum. Like the Honda 350, the Fury and Bandit were prepared in street and scrambler versions, the street version with a dual low-level exhaust and the street scrambler with two high pipes on the right.
Though Hopwood was in charge of the project, Hele would certainly have done most of the engineering work. It was Hele who had steadily developed and improved the 500cc Triumph twins that won Daytona and the AMA Grand National championships. It was Hele who engineered the Bonneville Thruxton that won the Isle Man production TT in 1969 at an average speed of 99.99mph.
And it was Hele who developed the Daytona-winning BSA triples.
On the road
There’s little doubt Hele would have produced a practical and efficient motorcycle in time but time was running out. Somewhat prematurely, the Bandit/Fury was announced in late 1970 together with the rest of the “new” BSA and Triumph models. One of those invited to test the new bike was Bob Greene of Motorcycle Sport Quarterly, who took the Fury street-scrambler version for a lap of the Silverstone circuit.
“Thriving on RPM, the Fury motored down the front chute and into the first turn,” Greene wrote. “It felt light, eager to turn into the bend, and there was seemingly no end to its revs, which frequently passed the 9,000 mark.” Then oil started pouring from the tachometer drive as a result of a stretched cable. Back to the factory it went.
Greene then took a Bandit out on the roads around Meriden, noting that the (adjustable) footpegs were too close to the seat for a tall rider, and that the shift lever needed shortening. However, the “Ceriani-type” front suspension and the 8-inch twin-leading-shoe drum front brake worked well.
“It was evident that the Fury was more revver than lugger,” Greene concluded, “though when the whip was applied, it reacted smartly it does its best work when kept ‘on the boil.’” Greene noted that the Fury “lacked the ‘tractor-like’ lugging power of its Japanese contemporary when the revs dipped low.” It was near the rev limit that the Fury shone. “Imagine a 5-speed 350 with a 90mph fourth gear!” Greene enthused, noting that fifth was really more of an overdrive.
“Dual cams, dual carbs, dual exhausts, an engine of unprecedented rakish appearance in an ultra-modern chassis; frankly I was amazed that a manufacturer could get so much together in one package at one time,” Greene concluded.
Philip Vincent’s view
In assessing the technical details of the Fury/Bandit engine, MSQ’s U.K. correspondent, one Philip Vincent (yes, that Vincent) agreed with the designer’s decision to use just two main bearings: “From a balance point of view, the 180-degree crank seems to offer all the advantages of the long-famed horizontally-opposed twin in this connection, the absence of a center main bearing seemed to be an advantage.”
Vincent also praised the choice of double overhead cams, “ very reminiscent of that used on fine modern cars like Jaguar,” as well as the camshaft drive system, “more akin to modern sports car engines than the old-time spidery nature of small motorcycle engines.” Vincent supported the choice of a half-time gear in the camshaft drive to reduce noise and wear, and the ease with which the chain could be serviced. Similarly, he liked the cast-in iron cylinder liners that sealed to the cylinder head with waisted steel rings, eliminating a head gasket.
“To sum up,” Vincent wrote, “the new Bandit/Fury models are thoroughly up to date in design conception and ruggedly built, representing a new higher standard in these respects over the predecessors.”
Unfortunately, the Bandit and Fury fell prey to the problems facing BSA-Triumph. By the end of 1970, numerous production delays made it clear the company would miss the critical U.S. sales window in April-June 1971. That didn’t stop them from advertising the promised Bandit/Fury in the March and April 1971 issues of Cycle, with full page color ads of both machines.
Unfortunately, the BSA Group was close to financial collapse: The banks and creditors were circling, the unions were restless and parts suppliers were spooked. Before long, the company was technically bankrupt.
With the company effectively being run by chief creditor Barclay’s Bank from mid-1971 on, major cuts in production were inevitable. BSA’s model range for 1972 showed just four machines: the B50SS “Gold Star,” the 650cc Thunderbolt and Lightning, and the 750cc Rocket 3. The Fury was gone.
An owner’s view
It was a chance 1971 sighting of a BSA Fury that led Surrey, U.K. resident Tony Page to a long-term obsession. It was parked outside a house where Tony often saw new motorcycles. He suspects a motorcycle journalist lived there.
He decided he must own one, even if he had to build it himself.
“It took my life over completely for two years, and I became known all over the world for this obsession,” Page told British Bike magazine in a 1993 interview. He started by accumulating everything he could find out about the Bandit and Fury, sorting through the information, speculation and opinion, rejecting the “facts” that he knew were spurious and noting “things I know to be true” in a notebook. He also ran small ads in motorcycle publications on both side of the Atlantic, requesting parts for and information about the elusive twin.
Perhaps the most useful find was a parts book. That enabled him to find components common to the Bandit/Fury and other machines in the BSA range, such as the instruments, suspension (though with different stanchion lengths) and wheels (from other 1971 model range BSAs), the swingarm (from the A65 Lightning/Thunderbolt, but used upside-down) and the primary drive (from BSA’s unit-construction singles). Page even moved to the U.S. taking a car delivery job so he could travel around.
It’s believed 60 Bandits and Furys were built, and Page’s search eventually led him to 18 complete and running machines found across the U.S. Australia and New Zealand, most of them demonstrators.
He was still determined to build his own, but he was hampered by an almost complete absence of spare parts. Usually, ramping up for new model production involves generating parts for distributor inventory. The story goes that a shipment of spare parts arrived in the U.S. but with BSA out of cash the distributor couldn’t pay the import duty and the containers were simply dumped in the ocean.
By this time, Page had acquired almost everything he needed to build one complete bike, including two test bed engines complete with tester’s notes and a box of camshafts. A machinist made the last items Page needed a set of gearbox internals from the drawings he had acquired in his search. He was now able to assemble a complete Triumph Bandit.
Then a complete pre-production Fury turned up, which Page was able to buy. So now he had two.
The next incident would have destroyed lesser men. The shop in which the bikes were stored caught fire. Both bikes were damaged, the Bandit more so. But Page’s network came up trumps again with some of the more obscure parts.
Page notes Les Williams of Triumph parts supplier LP Williams and Rob North himself as helping out at this stage.
So how did Page come to acquire the BSA Fury? “It was owned by the father of Steve Rothera, a friend and fellow Triumph and Rocket Three Owners Club member. I was searching for parts for my Bandit and Steve told me his dad had a new Fury! I went to see it and took countless detail photos to assist my Bandit build. I said if he ever wanted to sell it
“A few years later, he did. I first saw it in about 1980, and bought it in 1985. Paid £3,500. That was quite a bit then. It was immaculate, with 30 miles on it.”
But is the final Fury/Bandit any good? “Maintenance-wise, no,” Page says. “The cam covers cannot be removed as the bolts foul the frame; the gearbox level dipstick cannot be removed as the carbs block it; the carb ticklers are virtually obscured by the frame. Only one Triumph I’ve seen has a functioning starter motor. But it starts easily (on the kickstart) and is quite fast,” Page says.
“The handling is excellent. The BSA has very few miles on it (less than 60), and most of them were put on by me at Cadwell Park on demonstration laps. I rode my Triumph (Bandit) on the streets and it was fine. Good brakes and a compact, nippy bike to ride.”
But if the cam cover bolts can’t be removed, how does Page check the valves? “I don’t,” he says. If the gearbox level dipstick can’t be removed, how do you check the gearbox level? “It can be removed; you need to remove the carbs first!”
We’ll never know if the BSA Fury and Triumph Bandit would have stood comparison with the CB350 and CL350, especially in reliability and durability.
There’s little doubt that Hele, one of the best development engineers in the business, would have produced an efficient, competitive and cost-effective product. But BSA-Triumph’s final 350s show all the signs of a good, sound design let down by insufficient development. As has become the epitaph of the British motorcycle industry, the effort was too little, too late.
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