BSA’s Stellar Single

After single-cylinder British bikes like the BSA Gold Star ceased to be competitive in international competition, according to Ian Falloon they continued to be very popular with club-racers and sporting road riders…

“It may have been a temperamental beast but despite its foibles in many ways the Gold Star epitomised the sporting British single.”

During the 1950s the European motorcycle-racing scene changed. The Germans and Italians began to dominate Grand Prix racing as their new breed of exotic multi-cylinder machines rendered the traditional British singles obsolete. But as the ever-resourceful British manufacturers dropped out of the Grand Prix game they began to concentrate on producing specialised motorcycles for a variety of sporting uses. England’s World Championship dominance came to an end but the average weekend club-racer and sporting road-rider benefitted mightily.

One of the most popular and successful of these new generation sporting bikes was the BSA Gold Star. Here was the perfect bike for clubman races for standard sporting road models or as an ultra-sporting roadster and this was epitomized by the DB series introduced in 1955. They were available in 350 and 500cc versions and were specifically Clubman and racing models.

Setting the Clubman apart were the clip-on handlebars and light alloy Dunlop 19-inch wheel rims.

The pushrod overhead-valve single was continually developed – the 500cc DB34 produced 40 horsepower by 1955, and 42 horsepower in the ultimate DBD34 of 1956. With a bore and stroke of 85x88 mm, an 8.8:1 compression ratio and a huge 1½ inch Amal GP carburettor the DB Gold Star was a challenging beast to kick start. And once underway the Gold Star was even more demanding. Disinclined to run below 2,000rpm a Gold Star with the infamous RRT2 close-ratio gearbox was difficult to get off the line. Then there was the vibration that was so bad that the carburettor float-bowl needed to be remotely mounted on rubber bushings to prevent the fuel from frothing. Although the engine provided exhilarating performance the handling still left something to be desired, partly due to the rather considerable weight of around 180 kilograms. The bike was a little top heavy as well and the effort needed to control it was exacerbated by the clip-on handlebars. It was also hard going at slower speeds. The Gold Star was really too radical for street use.

It may have been a temperamental beast but despite its foibles in many ways the Gold Star epitomised the sporting British single.

Melbourne-based wheel restorer Phil de Gruchy had hankered after a Gold Star since he was 18 years old. “My first bike was a 1957 BSA A10 Gold Flash but I simply couldn’t afford a Gold Star,” says Phil. So instead of trying to buy a complete bike he set about acquiring all the parts. Once the frame arrived Phil was able to start the process of building a bike around it.

“The motor came from Mike Reilly in Queensland and it was fortuitous that it turned out to have been built within one week of the frame’s build date, which was in July 1955,” said Phil.

Years of searching the world eventually unearthed all the components to build a complete bike.

“The Internet and Ebay have revolutionised the recreation of bikes like this,” commented Phil. “Gold Star experts the world over will provide advice on authenticity and the parts eventually become available.”

In its day the BSA Gold Star wasn’t especially exotic or horrendously expensive, but it was accessible to enthusiasts and produced in reasonable numbers. Now there is a clan of followers who believe the Gold Star was the last real English motorcycle. And Phil de Gruchy is one of them.

Many thanks to Phil de Gruchy of Lightfoot Engineering, Melbourne, for the use of the 1955 DB34 Gold Star featured.

Fast facts

Before World War II, Gold Stars were awarded to those who managed to lap the Brooklands circuit in Surrey, England at more than the magical 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). Recipients of the badge were relatively few because it was a heroic achievement to attain this speed on the bumpy concrete Brooklands bowl.

In 1937 BSA decided that a change of image was required and a special 500cc M23 Empire Star single was prepared for the great racer Walter Handley. Handley came out of retirement for the event and promptly went out and lapped Brooklands at over 107 miles per hour.

The next year BSA decided to capitalise on this success and released a replica, the Gold Star. The first M34 500 cc Gold Star featured a magnesium gearbox shell and an aluminium head and barrel, and like all Gold Stars was individually prepared from selected parts.

The Gold Star was so successful by 1955 that 33 of the 37 starters in the Clubmans Junior TT at the Isle of Man were Gold Star mounted. With its pushrod and rocker overhead valves the Gold Star was never a true road racer in the style of the Manx Norton but it responded extremely well to tuning.

Much of the Gold Star’s appeal came from its adaptability to various forms of competition. In America dirt track riders loved it, managing to extract as much as 50 horsepower at 8,000 rpm. Even in an era demanding more sophisticated twin-cylinder machines the Gold Star remained popular through until 1963 but by that time the Gold Star was becoming uneconomic to build and by 1964 it was gone. 

Many thanks to Chris Harris, Editor - Motorcycle Trader & Café Racer for the article.

Richard Cooke