Today, you’re on a hiding to nothing with specials, aren’t you? If you use the best available frame and motor, critics will immediately accuse you of cannibalising two perfectly good machines. Yet if you use commonplace components, they’ll sniffily ask why you bothered to do anything in the first place.
It was totally different when the British motorcycle industry was dying away in the late 60s and early 70s. Donor machines were 10-a-penny, and with the trade so obviously unable to come up with the goods, nobody turned a hair if an enthusiast chopped up a couple of bikes trying to achieve his personal ideal.
The bike featured here dates from that era, when somebody thought that a Triumph engine in a BSA frame would be the bee’s knees, and set to work producing yet another TriBSA. Whether he was pleased with the result is not recorded, but we do know for sure that the special passed into the hands of south Hampshire racer, engineer and enthusiast Cyril Malem, and there it remained for a third of a century.
I’m recounting this history partly out of interest, and partly to forestall any criticism. You see, whoever sacrificed two motorcycles on the altar of innovation had good reasons for thinking that he was doing the right thing. Tritons might have been the archetypal café racers, but the combination of an easily tuned Triumph engine in a strong and reliable BSA frame had nearly as much kudos, and it also had the reflected glamour of success in off-road racing, where it had formed the basis of the original Rickman Métisse. With the appropriate parts cheaply available, instead of asking why an enthusiast would make a special, you might as well ask ‘why not.’
When Cyril bought the hybrid, the deed had already been done, and there was no point worrying about a redundant BSA engine and Triumph frame that had either been re-used or scrapped. And by the time he got round to making a good bike out of what he describes as ‘a mess, daubed with yellow and mauve paint,’ it had been a TriBSA for most of its life, so turning it back into anything like factory standard would have been greater historical vandalism than its original creation.
Anyway, it is certainly an eye-catcher (and ear-splitter) now, for it’s become the sort of bike that many coffee bar cowboys-cum-home mechanics aspired to, but seldom managed to achieve. Remarkably, after owning the bike for so long, Cyril completed its restoration in just five weeks, and he acknowledges all the help he received from his friends, notably Malcolm Harkins in whose garage much of the work took place.
Perhaps the speed of the rebuild is not so remarkable, though, as Cyril is a doyen of motorcycle building, being mainly associated with the fabled designs of Fritz Egli. He reckons that over the years he has made about 75 Egli-type frames, quite a few of which he has built into complete bikes; mainly with Vincent engines, but half a dozen have been given Triumph propulsion and some even use Norton and Moto Guzzi units.
On this special though, he has contented himself with tidying up the original builder’s efforts, and the only trace of Egli heritage is the use of a similar hump-backed seat. The frame is almost pure BSA – from an A7 or A10 – but it has the tasty addition of the Superlegera aluminium fork yokes that were supplied by contemporary Gold Star goodies specialist Eddie Dow.
BSA’s duplex frame always gives very adequate handling but here it is pushed into Norton Featherbed territory by upgrading the already-decent forks with two-way damping, and fitting wide, sticky, modern tyres to the genuine Dunlop alloy rims. Cyril bought new Hagon suspension units for the rear of the bike, but actually re-used the perfectly serviceable original Girlings, which had presumably seen very little use before the TriBSA’s long hibernation.
The brakes are standard BSA units, with the front one featuring the large and handsome full-width aluminium hub used on the last Gold Stars, (the larger spindle of which, incidentally, means that the original builder must have changed to a Goldie’s lower fork legs). Both brakes work as well as can be expected, which is to say a lot better than most classic motorcyclists are used to, but nowhere near as sharply as the discs on a modern bike.
The engine started life in a Tiger 100, but has been reconditioned and subtly reworked. Most noticeably, it has a racer’s splayed inlet head adorned with a pair of hefty GP carburettors fed from a central float chamber. Internally, E3134 Bonneville camshafts complement the carbs, and there are new Australian-made high compression pistons. Externally, there are the swept-back pipes that are virtually obligatory on café-racers, and they terminate in rowdy, but genuine, Triumph reverse-cone racing megaphones with removable baffles. The pipes were made in stainless steel by Armours (01202 519409), and are non-standard – even for a TriBSA – because they had to allow for the way Cyril has aesthetically inclined the engine ten degrees forward to match the line of the frame’s down tube. Armours also fabricated some dinky little Goldie-type silencers that Cyril may one day substitute for the meggas.
If you’ve studied the photographs before reading the text, you’ll probably have been wondering what lurks behind the shapely bulge on the timing cover. Alternatively, you may be a student of clubman racing history, in which case you will recognise this as one of the improvements featured on Monard (Monty and Ward) clubman racers. “I bought it from Geoff Monty many years ago,” says Cyril, “he reckoned the AMC oil pump was better than the Triumph one, and to make space for it inside the cover he had to add the hump.”
In fact, Cyril’s TriBSA relies on the standard Triumph reciprocating pump, but he has used the cover, ‘just because it looks different and nice.’ You can’t argue with that, it’s the sort of thing that draws the eye and it’s so skilfully crafted that you have a job to see that it’s a welded addition rather than part of the original casting. As it was intended for a racer, the cover naturally incorporates a tachometer drive, and a neat aluminium alloy plate attached to the top yoke houses the rev counter alongside the speedometer, both instruments benefiting from Gold Star-style anti-vibration mounts.
Talking of catching the eye, what about that enormous petrol tank? It came with the bike, and is beautifully shaped. A coffee bar cowboy would have spent many a happy hour burnishing this with metal polish back in the 60s. The TriBSA transfers used on it came from a batch made up for another local enthusiast, but – although they look ok in the photographs – Cyril is a bit dissatisfied with their slightly dull appearance compared with gleaming metal. The mini-version of the transfer used on the black seat hump is even less noticeable, and he may well get some more colourful ones made up.
Straight out of the box
That’s if he’s not too busy with other projects and riding this one, of course! It worked pretty well ‘straight out of the box’, starting second or third kick, and Cyril and his cronies immediately set off on a trouble-free, 100-mile, round trip. I’m too tactful to ask if he had any aches and pains the next day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had, because the café-racer riding position only works properly when you are riding fast enough (say over 60mph) to get some support from wind-pressure. At urban speeds, the low clip-on handlebars throw an awful lot of weight onto the rider’s wrists, and you soon begin to wonder if it’s all worthwhile.
But riding a café racer is not about comfort, or urban riding, is it? It’s about making use of the open road, and – to be honest – impressing small boys of all ages. The TriBSA cuts the mustard on both counts, rather surprisingly in the latter case; as you’d expect kids to deride anything with less than four-cylinders doing under 8000rpm. But perhaps it’s the very novelty of the relatively low frequency bark that draws their attention, and then the pseudo-racing crouch means they can’t fail to realise that this is no ordinary bike.
Whatever, the TriBSA certainly gets the juvenile thumbs-up accolade that is normally reserved for Harley-Davidsons, and it’s difficulty not to go into pose-mode when you are on it. Despite what I’ve already written about the riding position, posing is not too uncomfortable for short periods, as the single seat is well-shaped and padded, and the footrests are not set so high and rearward that they immediately induce cramp. In fact – given the inevitable constraints of the TriBSA’s style – my only main complaint is that the excellent location provided by the seat pushes my knees too far forward to tuck into the shapely indents in the petrol tank.
All that is forgotten when you get going with the wind in your hair, the red-mist in your eyes, the flies in your teeth and all the other platitudes that seem compulsory when describing extreme bikes like this. Those impressive racing carbs don’t prevent this being an easy starter, provided you remember to flip up the right-hand footrest before you use the kick start, and keep the engine going by blipping the twist grip with your left hand (no throttle-stop you see) while you flip it down again.
But it’s difficult to forget the GP carburettors once on the move, because they are less forgiving than ordinary Monoblocs or Concentrics. I suppose that’s not surprising, because wrenching them open at low speed simply leaves a couple of holes through which air moves too slowly to suck up the required amount of petrol. And then things are made more difficult by a gearbox with ultra-close ratios – presumably one of the racing goodies that Triumph marketed in a low-key way – and that gives you a first gear somewhere in normal third-gear territory.
Except for the easy starting, this is the sort of stuff that spawned the legends about riding BSA’s Gold Star. You have to get the revs up to a raucous 2000rpm or so, and keep them there as you feed in the clutch, any lack of coordination being punished by an embarrassing stall. Only when you get to somewhere near the urban speed limit do you feel that you can take your left hand away from the clutch lever and just ride on the throttle. Accuse me of a lack of investigative curiosity if you like, but I never got into top gear during my ride, and – to be honest – only used third gear on a dual carriageway to see how well the engine pulled at comparatively modest revs. The riding shots were done at 30-40mph, with the engine sounding not at all busy in first gear, while second sufficed for any speed that’s legal on the open road in this country.
Oh, I forgot to mention another little complication; the gearbox is fitted with Triumph’s ‘Slickshift’ clutch mechanism. If you are not familiar with this, it’s simply a gadget where every movement of the gear lever also lifts the clutch. Like the notion of housing the headlamp in a nacelle, it was a feature of Jawa/CZ motorcycles even before it appeared on Triumphs, and it was continued much longer too. It seems like a good idea, and it does mean that you can ignore the left-hand lever once you are on the move, but it doesn’t make for smooth or particularly quick changes. And unless you quickly get your foot well away from the gearchange lever after a change, you have the disturbing feeling that the clutch is slipping… because it is! This innovation was introduced in 1958, but Triumph quietly dropped it again when found that most owners regarded it with apathy, distrust or dislike, and disabled it at the first opportunity.
In detailing these slight difficulties, I’m not intending to be critical, because mastering them – so that you feel as much a racer on the road as your mount looks like one – is what makes this TriBSA special so rewarding to own and ride. And what makes it a special in the strict dictionary sense (ie distinguished from, or excelling others of its kind) is that it’s been put together with equal regard for the cosmetic, mechanical and peer-approval aspects. As a result it’s a talking point, a pleasure to the eye and the ear, and it works exactly as its builders intended.
Cyril Malem’s TriBSA may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s tasty enough to boost any rider’s ego at the coffee bar.Enjoy more The Classic MotorCycle reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.