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Bike Review - Posted 21st September 2016
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1952 BSA B31 / 33: A Single Thing

A serving of grey porridge or the taste of a simpler time? Martin Gelder plunges into the world of classic 1950s single cylinder motorcycles. The first of many reports, we suspect...

I have bought a BSA.

It's the first British bike I've actually owned, and it's the oldest bike I've owned in several senses by a country mile.

1952 BSA B31 / 33

It's a 1952 BSA B31 converted to B33 specifications, in its day a typical example of the everyman bike that, in the company's own words, led a double life; work-a-day means of transport during the week, play-mate at the weekend. Unremarkable but typical of the breed, a post-war manufactured but pre-war designed simple and basic British single, a world away from the bikes I grew up with.

It also has to my eye a simplicity of line that was lost with the advent of swinging arm rear suspension. I look at it and I can see the bicycles that its forefathers were based around, not just in the shape of the frame but in the way the cycle parts are constructed. It looks... right.

1952 BSA B31 / 33

A new challenge then. But one carefully chosen to be not too challenging. I know my limits; I bought a bike from a friend, that had previously been owned by another friend, and that not only ran but was ready to ride. A project would have been interesting, of course, but I have a shed full of other potential projects, bikes I know well already, whose workings I understand, whose fasteners fit my spanners. Taking on something completely alien that also came in cardboard boxes would have been a recipe for slow progress followed by eventual neglect and certain despair.

1952 BSA B31 / 33

Ready to ride? It's more ready than I am. It has levers on the handlebars, many levers. Levers I know the names of but whose finer functions I have yet to fathom. To start it needs no key, just a ritual. And confidence. And a decompressor. And big boots, for when the advance lever is left on full advance. Or is it right on full advance?

Off the trailer and in its new home, it starts third kick. Nothing to it, what's all the fuss about? At the next attempt it needs nearer thirteen kicks. With each ride, I'm learning its little ways and we're reaching an understanding of each other. It starts easily enough now (a couple of slow priming swings then one or maybe two healthy lunges) for me to do it in front of the neighbours. That's confidence, more so because a fair proportion of those neighbours seem to have owned something similar in their courting days. They've seen my other bikes, but they notice the BSA.

1952 BSA B31 / 33

Then it shuffles me off down the road with a smile and a wave, the down for up gearbox shifting cleanly when I remember the vast gulf in ratios between second and third, the intake and exhaust chuffing and doff-doffing away, the chronometric speedo ticking up the emm-pee-aitches, the sun peaking out from behind the clouds and woodland creatures bursting into song as we roll by. Well maybe not the last bit, but riding it does promote a feeling of unhurried progress, of calm. That's another way of saying it's slow.

1952 BSA B31 / 33
BSA Singles on Now...

Just as well that it's slow, because the brakes are... classic. Of their time. The front one, which I'm told is considered an upgrade, dips the forks but does little to slow the bike, while the rear is perfectly effective but on the wrong side of the bike for my modern feet. The plunger rear suspension conspires with the sprung saddle to provide a comfortable if bouncy ride and at its natural cruising speed of 45 to 55mph the BSA rolls away the miles in a gentle, gentlemanly manner.

It's not without faults, however. It came with the worst sort of bar end mirror, already despatched to the spares shelf, and the sidestand has a less than tenuous grip on the frame it's supposed to support. There's also a misfire at larger throttle openings which is almost certainly either a fuelling problem or an ignition problem. I suspect the carb, and specifically the main jet, but for now it's rideable so investigations will take place... eventually. More pressing is my complete lack of Whitworth spanners, and the BSA's complete lack of a reserve tap. Time for some online shopping...

Words and pictures: Martin Gelder

1952 BSA B31 / 33

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