1970 BSA Rocket 3 Rob North Factory Road Racer
Engine no. 2614AX
It was the last great crusade of the British motorcycle empire, a race bike with an improvised engine in a hand-built frame that took on the world and won.
In the summer of 1968, the modern multi-cylinder superbike era was ushered in by the BSA Rocket III and the Triumph Trident, similar designs from the same parent company. In specification the three-cylinder 750cc engine in the bikes seemed a bit of a lash-up, in simple terms being a Triumph 500 twin with an extra cylinder grafted on. It was certainly upstaged in 1969 when Honda upped the superbike ante with its blockbuster CB750 four-cylinder. To steal back some of the fanfare, BSA/Triumph would go racing in the newly constituted Formula 750 class, which coincided nicely with rules for AMA Grand National roadraces, including, of course, the prestigious season-opening Daytona 200 classic.
With less than six months to get ready for Daytona 1970, the factory concentrated on race prepping motors and farmed out construction of purpose-built roadracing frames to specialist fabricator Rob North. His brazed steel-tube frames were innovative, a perimeter-style design before that term was commonplace, with top rails that plunged directly from steering head to swingarm pivot. A total of six factory machines were shipped to Daytona, three BSAs and three Triumphs, popularly called "Beezumphs." Despite an engine that could trace its roots all the way back to 1938, the factory triples showed speed. Decades of tuning tricks learned on Triumph twins applied equally well to the new engine and slick bodywork developed in a Royal Air Force wind tunnel didn't hurt, either. Still, it was one of the dreaded rival Hondas that took victory at Daytona that year.
BSA/Triumph corrected that situation in 1971. In a display of excessive spending the motorcycle racing world had never seen, the factory fielded 10 bikes at Daytona, including one for the previous year's race winner, Dick Mann. Over the winter, development had continued on the triples, some of the bikes now sporting altered Rob North frames with lowered steering heads that gave better handling through a lower center of gravity. These quickly became known as "Lowboys," with the older frames now referred to as "Highboys." When the checkered flag flew it was a dominating 1-2-3 sweep, Mann's BSA the winner, Gene Romero's Triumph in second both new Lowboys and Don Emde's BSA, a Highboy, in third. The rest of 1971 was a dream year for BSA/Triumph. Mann went on to win the AMA championship. In England, John Cooper, also BSA-mounted, was victorious at Mallory Park's Race of the Year, vanquishing the hitherto unbeatable combination of Giacomo Agostini and MV Agusta. Percy Tait and Ray Pickrell won the 24-hour Bol d'Or endurance race on another triple, and Cooper wrapped up a memorable international season for BSA/Triumph with victory in the 250-mile race at Ontario, California.
It would be a last hurrah. Cutbacks were immediate for BSA and Triumph, both companies in dire financial trouble. Many of the all-conquering factory triples were sold off, some dismantled and parted out piecemeal. A San Francisco privateer ended up with one of the factory Highboy frames and matching oil tank. Wanting the later modifications, he returned the frame to Rob North, by now relocated to Southern California. North altered the older frame to Lowboy specs except, it was found out later, he made a mistake. A misread of his protractor resulted in the steering head being kicked out to a rake of 32 degrees, not the desired 28. Handling suffered as the frame was much less nimble, a fault not found until the bike's next race. It was all a bit of a moot point as by this time the BSA even in top form was uncompetitive against the Yamaha TZ750 two-strokes just coming to the fore. The triple then went underground as old, obsolete race bikes often do, only to resurface in the early 1990s with the upswing in vintage roadracing.
New owner Fred Mork with the help of rider Dave Russell undertook a restoration with two goals: 1) To make the bike competitive in vintage racing, which included a second steering-head alteration to proper Lowboy specs; and 2) to achieve a level of fit-and-finish that would do justice to the North-framed Beezumphs' place in motorcycling history. Mission accomplished on both fronts, as Russell was 1995 Champion of the AFM Vintage Class on the bike, and from 1993-2009 it was a trophy winner in virtually every concours it entered.
No less an authority than Rob North has inspected the bike and identified the frame as one of the original factory jobs, from a batch of what he now believes was 11 in total. "Absolutely dead certain, no doubt about it," he said in a recent interview about the frame's authenticity. In regards to the frame's re-altered steering head, even he was impressed by the high quality of the work carried out by welder Dennis Echeverry at Kosman Specialties, so much so that he wondered if he himself had done the repair! Dave Russell picks up the story: "Rob North is a bit of an eccentric genius when it comes to welding as such his welds are comparable to a fine artist's brush strokes. To fully do justice to the BSA Rocket III, the new steering head had be brazed in place using the same welding style."
While it appears the engine is not original to the frame, it is nonetheless a fully blueprinted, race-ready version of the BSA triple with lightened flywheel and clutch assembly, cross-drilled oilways, extensive cylinder-head work and extra center studs. Says Mork, "The goal was to make it as good, if not better, than the original race motors."
Besides riding the BSA and minding it between events, Russell has tracked down much of the bike's history, always a bit cloudy with race teams as they invariably are better at making history than fastidiously recording it. Nonetheless, in a detailed 9-page study (a copy to be included in this sale) Russell makes a convincing case that this bike's frame and oil tank can be traced to BSA team rider Jim Rice, who finished second overall in the 1970 points chase. It's Russell's contention that Rice rode the bike again in '71, after which it was used by sometime team member Eddie Mulder in '72. Both men have autographed the restored bike, as has Rob North and original team members Dick Mann, Don Emde and the late Gary Nixon, who rode this BSA to a fine fourth-place finish at the AHRMA Historic Cup Races in Daytona Beach in 1998. It's also Russell's belief that the bike's Lowboy fairing is a rare original 1971 piece, not a modern reproduction, albeit repaired and repainted.
This is an important racing motorcycle, representative of a time when hard work, tried-and-true technology, a concerted team effort and, not least, a genius frame gave British motorcycles one last shot at glory.