At the risk of sounding somewhat bike racist, and unusually for someone as pro-BSA as me, I dislike BSA C15s intensely. I abhor their poor performance and dreadful build quality but most of all I despise their meanness. At a time when all three Japanese motorcycle manufacturers were offering wonderful experiences for riders of lightweight motorcycles BSA provided less, and worse, with the C15.
If you rode a BSA Spitfire, or raced a B.50 MX on the dirt, you could hold your head up high because these bikes had flair and performance – even if they were becoming ever cruder in comparison with the Japanese.
By contrast the C15 dripped inadequacy from every pore, and leading the mediocrity pack was the SS80 – BSA’s sports version of the basic C15.
The story starts in September 1958 when BSA announced their all new, one stop motorcycle shopping experience: the C15. The idea was that this single machine would replace the 250cc C12 as a commuter motorcycle capable of taking the working masses from the new, post war housing estates to their factories. The same bike would then carry the head of the family, always a man of course – at least in the demographic which the C15 inhabited, to the football match or the canal for a day’s fishing. In short, it was intended as a working utility vehicle.
The recreational motorcycling slot occupied by the dull, heavy, expensive to produce and poorly performing 350cc B31 would also be taken over by the C15. Now, the cute little woman of the house could cuddle adoringly up to her man as he took her for a ride in the countryside on Sunday afternoon.
Better still, the C15 would be the core DNA for a whole range of motorcycles which would enable BSA to amortize the tooling costs of the new bike very effectively.
At this point, 21st Century observers need to stand back and see the situation in some sort of historical context – and this includes me too.
1955, when the C15 project was started, was only ten years after the end of the war in the Pacific – in which Japan had suffered a humiliating, total defeat. If anyone at BSA had bothered to look at Japan, which they most certainly would not have done, they would have seen that the most successful manufacturer was Honda. And what were they offering in competition to the mighty BSA group? In 1953, Honda launched the Model E “Dream” – a three speed, 150cc oddity producing a far from earth shattering 5.5 horsepower.
In every way, even including reliability, the 15hp C15 massacred the little Japanese pretender.
If BSA trounced the non-existent Japanese opposition, they didn’t do nearly so well against the other beaten foe in WWII – the Germans. BMW produced the slightly less powerful R25 but this little bike had shaft drive, a four speed gearbox and could be ridden flat out all day – albeit with only 12hp, not very fast all day!
If you wanted speed and reliability, BMW’s neighbor NSU would sell you the fabulous 18hp, overhead cam, 250cc Supermax complete with leading link suspension and enclosed rear chain so that the not too reliable chains of the day lasted well and needed adjusting only rarely.
The NSU Supermax was state of the art for the early 1950s and had a huge influence on Soichiro Honda and his right hand man Takeo Fujisawa. Not only was the Supermax technically advanced, it was designed for mass production. Instead of a conventional frame fabricated from steel tubing, the German bike made extensive use of steel pressings. A frame made from tubing required vastly less investment in tooling than a chassis made, like a car, from pressings but – until the arrival of automated manufacturing processes – tubed frames were slow and expensive to make.
NSU built sufficiently high numbers of the Supermax machines to be able to commit to press tools and, of course, the production costs plummeted.
The C15 raises a number of questions and they are all interesting in their own way. First, it is important to remember just how Britain viewed itself in 1955. I was in Kindergarten at the time and when the playground bell was rung we all gathered in our class groups and marched into school to the stirring tune of: “We’re Soldiers of the King.”
My tiny hand was held by an older girl and I was encouraged to swing my free arm in time with the martial music being belted out on the school piano by a teacher. We were British. We had saved the world and we were the chosen people.
Having won the war, the idea – the merest hint of the concept – that we could learn anything from either the Germans or the Japanese, who had lost to us, was inconceivable.
Added to this mind set – and it was still prevalent all the way into the Swinging ‘60s – was the accurate belief that the world lay at BSA’s feet: which it did.
Large swathes of the British Empire had only just been granted independence and lumps of prime African real estate were still ruled from London. These colonies, and the former ones, were open doors for BSA sales. If BSA deigned to grant you a motorcycle you should feel blessed.
Finally, and again it’s due to the victory in the war, Britain was exhausted. When my Mum was very elderly I remember pressing her to try to discover what an ordinary, working class woman thought of the decline in Britain’s manufacturing prowess. She was weary with 21st Century Britain but what followed was a rather touching moment as she held my hands between hers. I wrote her words down at the time. This is what she said with tears in her eyes: “We were tired love – tired out. We were tired of the fighting and going without. We were tired of seeing people killed.
“My cousin Arthur was a rear gunner in a Lancaster and he was shot down and killed on the last day of the war. Everyone was the same. Lovely young men killed when they should have been dancing with their wives and girlfriends.
“After the war, we wanted a break with proper clothes and no rationing and so we were just worn out and that was the start of all the trouble, love, I honestly believe that was the start.”
So, now we have a heady combination of a complacent management with a conservative and risk-averse frame of mind, encouraged by very strong sales. There were designers and engineers capable of producing world class motorcycles but it was never going to happen without the support of a management which was willing to invest in the future.
It’s something of a myth to say that Britain lacked the designers capable of producing a world beating lightweight motorcycle. Valentine (Val) Page was at the head of the queue. He had drawn the overhead cam JAP engines which, in 1922, dominated racing. Moving to Triumph, he showed that he had a fine eye for mass production with his range of single cylinder engines. Page’s problem was that he wasn’t political and, in a sea where the egotistical Edward Turner swam as the predatory shark, Val was always going to be a long way down the food chain.
Alongside Page, not literally but within a short motorcycle ride, worked the world’s finest motorcycle development engineer in the form of the genius which was Doug Hele. Given management support these two could have produced a world leading lightweight motorcycle. Instead, the C15 crawled inconsequentially into life.
To be fair, twice, to a motorcycle I abhor the C15 was an improvement over the truly, breathtakingly appalling C12 it replaced.
At the heart of the bike was a unit construction engine – a concept where the gearbox and engine are one unit. To anyone under 60 – or who isn’t a classic bike fan – it probably seems bizarre that the gearbox could be separated from the engine and the two joined by a chain. But in the British motorcycle industry of 1950s, this was common practice.
Unit construction engines were not unknown. In the case of BSA, the idea was actually very well understood because they produced the BSA Bantam – a right-hand side gear change of the pre-war DKW RT 125 design which BSA were given as part of the war reparations.
So BSA had the talent, the capital available and – potentially at least – the engineering ability. What it lacked was ambition.
Triumph were part of the BSA group and across Birmingham at Meriden, the Triumph team had produced the 150cc Triumph Terrier – a motorcycle with even lower aspirations than the C15. Arguably, the Terrier had an important part to play in the demise of the whole British motorcycle industry for not only was it the progenitor of the C15 but the grandfather of the BSA B.44 and, later, great grandfather of the B.50. Edward Turner and his henchmen in the Meriden drawing office had a lot to answer for.
The engine part of the C15 was a desperately unambitious push-rod motor with an iron cylinder barrel and a two-valve, aluminum cylinder head. Ignition was via a car type points distributor which sat uncomfortably on top of the crankcases. The points gap was usually set using a handy cigarette paper – really, truthfully, honestly – or about four-thousandths of an inch. I was at a distinct disadvantage in this respect since I was one of the very few non-smokers in my peer group.
Not that the antiquated ignition system was the only problem. The core issue was that the Lucas alternator was only 6v and so the lights were immensely underpowered. The lights are another interesting case of history being re-written. Ask a current C15 owner about the lights and he will smile benignly. For getting home in the last hour before the sunset of a summer evening, they’re fine. By contrast, as a sixteen year old, I rode through the pouring rain and sleet of an English winter – or at least part of it – and my abiding memory is of peering out through a tiny arc of tired, yellow light which barely indicated the sidewalks – and never the road ahead.
In fact, that’s not actually wholly accurate. My C15 was one of the better ones because the lights did, usually, come on when asked. Very often, the Lucas alternators failed altogether.
The crankcases were split vertically and inevitably leaked oil. In fact, a C15 without at least some sign of minor incontinence on the garage floor was considered to be “A right good ‘un.”
The big-end bearing was a simple plain bush and was, from birth, not up to the job. As penniless teenagers my peer group often ended up with C15s because we could afford nothing better and we simply destroyed the plain bearing big ends and cast iron crankshafts. The fix then was to fill the engine with a monograde SW50 oil and advertise the bike in the local paper. There was usually a greedy older person, who thought that he was spanking an innocent youth in terms of the price, so we could invariably off load a C15 with the treacle thick oil concealing the clonking from the bottom half of the engine – at least for a few miles!
A duplex chain linked the engine to a fragile four-speed gearbox which had a thoroughly feeble clutch fitted. We reduced both the gearbox and clutch to scrap too.
Compared to the C12, something akin to deciding whether you prefer dysentery or typhoid, the C15 looked smart(ish) and modern(ish). It had 6” full width hubs which sort of worked but these were cast iron drums with single leading shoe brakes. The Japanese were simply producing motorcycles from a different planet.
Instead of the pressed steel frame which would have permitted the right production costs the C15 chassis was made from tubing which was joined with brazed lugs. This system was simple and went right back into 19th century bicycle manufacture. A piece of steel tubing is slotted into a cast iron lug and then the two parts are “glued” together using brass. Done this way, production costs are low and the system is tolerant of errors.
Again, it’s not that BSA lacked the knowledge of how to use pressings. They were located in the very center of Birmingham and the factory was surrounded by companies making things from pressings – notably the Austin works at Longbridge and BSA’s own sister companies Carbodies and Daimler. The problem was BSA’s utterly chaotic business model.
For example, in the 1963/64 selling season BSA offered 42 different machines but made only a total of 18,000 units. Some models had ludicrously low production. Only 31 C15S motocross machines were made – which was less than many British specials’ builders of the day were producing.
In an attempt to make the most of every opportunity, BSA produced a bewildering number of flavors of each model. Again referring to the 1963/64 season, there were eleven variants of the C15 alone.
One of them was the SS80 – a sports version of the standard C15. BSA’s 250 was not known for its speed. Theoretically, a C15 could manage 70mph but this was only on a good day with a following wind, slightly downhill and so on. Also, if the bike was ridden towards its claimed maximum velocity it would self-destruct in a surprisingly short distance.
In 1960, the law was changed in Britain so that the maximum engine capacity for a learner motorcycle was 250cc. Up to this time, you just got on whatever bike you wished and went for it. Now, new riders had to be enticed on to something a bit a tasty and would, hopefully, develop a long-term affinity for the marque which earned them their motorcycle license. The new law was the driving force for the SS80.
Clever tuners, and there were a lot of them in the Birmingham area, were getting C15s to go ludicrously quickly and so the knowledge of tweaking the 250 was well-known. Plan “A” was to put a 10:1, high compression piston in the new sports bike but this didn’t last long because, even with the addition of a double row, caged roller bearing big end and a steel crankshaft, the bottom end still wasn’t trustworthy. The compression ratio was reduced to 8.75:1 but a hotter cam, bigger valves and carburetor to match, jacked the top speed up to, very hopefully please, 80mph.
Closer gear ratios, but still a four-speed gearbox, helped the optimistic rider make the best use of the available performance.
The chassis, brakes and suspension were all untouched but there was a slightly larger fuel tank and flat “sports” handlebars.
Just before I went to College in 1969, I took an SS80 in part exchange against a dog rough Velocette Viper and rode it for a couple of weeks. Compared to the Honda CB72 which had been in my garage not long before, the BSA was rubbish and made me very angry that the company I most admired in the world had been reduced to making bikes as bad as this. As a sports bike, the SS80 was a pure fake.
So this brings us to the present day and the situation is rather more complex than it seems at first sight.
First, the bad news. A C15 in any form is an expensive restoration job. It is, more or less, going to cost the same money for a C15 front wheel to have a new rim as it is a Gold Star. Chroming and paintwork are the same whatever the model.
For the fiscally smart rider, the important thing is to buy a bike on which someone else has lavished their money and time because this brings us to the good news.
A really nice SS80 is always going to be cheap, even if it is stunningly immaculate and has had a zillion dollar restoration simply because this is not a lust inducing motorcycle. The bike is light and therefore easy to handle, sounds vaguely Goldstarish and therefore rather attractive – and, with a modern battery and electronic ignition, it starts well too.
If you want an SS80 today you will also treat it with respect. Ridden at 50mph, it will sip gas and provide a pleasant experience which, in many ways, is more satisfying than either a Japanese or German bike of the same capacity.
In all, this is yet another case of history being written in the 21st century.