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Bike Review - Posted 9th October 2015
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BSA Gold Star – First Ride

He's tried Bantams, he's tried Bullets; now it's time for Mark Bailey to try BSA's booming big single. Can he start it? And if he does start it, can he stop it? ...

The usual roles had been delegated. RealClassic’s Ace Tester Miles also does some part-time work as an optician and when I went down to try out some contact lenses he suggested that I bring my riding gear and he’d have something from his collection for me to road test.

I saw it across the road, loitering against a wall: A BSA Gold Star, looking as menacing and purposeful as it should. Now, I know all about BSAs – I passed my test on a D7 Bantam, and after riding an Enfield Bullet round India and Nepal, British singles held no fear for me with their upside-down gearboxes and lack of brakes.

But the Gold Star has a rather different reputation. Make sure you have an orthopaedic surgeon handy when you try to kick-start it, be aware that it won’t tick over and will stall if it’s not on full throttle (and you won’t be able to re-start it), and book a session with your chiropodist the next day and a visit to the dentist to replace all those fillings that have fallen out.

All this, together with the fact that we were in busy south London, made me rather apprehensive as Paul showed me how to start it. Advance/retard lever slightly open, both fuel taps on (two, for one carburettor?), choke lever on the Mikuni carb up, and don’t forget to remove the bath plug from the bellmouth. Pull in the decompression lever and swing the kickstart to get the piston at/near TDC, and then give it a good long kick. A sigh from the engine and then nothing. Paul, wearing very smart Italian shoes, gave it another kick and it burst into life, scaring all the local pigeons and pedestrians. He stopped the engine and I tried again, and again, finally getting that raucous bark and twitter from the exhaust.

BSA Gold Star – First Ride

And then it was time for my baptism. Choke off, ignition advanced, and pull in the light clutch lever before toeing the reversed gear lever up for first. Check for a nice clear road behind me and then gently let the clutch lever out, keeping a handful of revs. Balancing the revs against the clutch proved very difficult, and I was wincing as I had to slip the clutch up to 30 mph, by which time I had to brake for the traffic lights ahead.

But all seemed OK and my nerves calmed down as the motor ticked over happily as I waited for the lights to go green. I clutch-slipped around the corner onto a wide empty road and opened the throttle gently. A while later I felt it was time for second gear and with a deliberate prod on the gear lever the revs dropped and we carried on. I looked down at the Spartan machine below me: big alloy petrol tank, vintage Smiths rev counter and speedo, ammeter and a little headlight poking out from the front. And all around was that lovely staccato sound. I was starting to enjoy this.

Confidence growing, I started to think more about the experience. The ride was much softer than I was expecting and the vibration felt right rather than intrusive. A stable ride with a tendency to wiggle on white lines, and the brakes were OK, once I found that I had to lift my left foot two inches to press the rear brake pedal. The kickstart was in the way of my right calf, so I moved my feet back to the café-racer crouch, which meant that I had to lift my right foot up and forward each time I changed gear, which wasn’t that often in town. (I could have just stayed in first until 60 mph… ) My wrists took a lot of weight, and the wind pressure at higher speeds would have made life much more comfortable. A few counter-steer wiggles on the bars showed that the Gold Star was very responsive, but needed to be told what to do with a firm hand.

And the attention it drew! (I don’t think it was me that everyone was looking at). Cars, bikes and scooters would slow down or speed up in the next lane to get a good look; pedestrians stopped and turned their heads; there were thumbs-up all round. This all makes you feel very proud, self-important or self-conscious and I was glad I could keep some sort of anonymity inside my crash helmet. It underlined what a legendary machine I was being allowed to ride.

My route was basically an anti-clockwise circuit: up into Hammersmith, west along the A4, down the A3 to the South Circular and back along the side of the Thames to Barnes. There was only one right-hand turn which was a relief, because signalling right while slowing for a mini-roundabout while watching a large Mercedes waiting to cross the road towards me was not the most relaxing of situations.

On the 3-lane A roads I could open the throttle properly and the Gold Star just loped forwards: no real urgency, just a sense that it would keep going faster for as long as I wanted it to. I only got into third gear a couple of times, changing up at a gentle 3,000 rpm, but second was flexible and responsive enough to be the town-riding gear of choice. There was still plenty of throttle-blipping and clutch-slipping to do when traffic was heavy though.

I didn’t get the chance to try any serious cornering, but the bike felt as though it would be a very happy thing given some curving country A roads. It did exactly what I wanted with reassurance.

When I set out on the ride I really just wanted it to be over so that I would have the experience under my belt and could look back on it as one of those bucket-list achievements. But it wasn’t long before I was really enjoying myself, savouring the character of this all-time classic. By the time the ride was over I was ready to do it all again.

BSA Gold Star – First Ride
500cc BSAs on Now...

I pulled up opposite Paul’s shop and sat in quiet for a minute, listening to the engine ticking over. Then I realised I couldn’t turn it off. I pretended to give the bike a nonchalant look-over, trying to find the ignition switch. The only likely-looking knob turned the headlight on. Eventually I just pulled in the decompression lever and it died quietly.

And that was it. Compared to more modern machines, including my 1970’s Morinis, it’s primitive, ponderous, slow and a bit unwieldy. But it has character, and these characteristics make it a unique experience. It’s a living thing, and it’s got soul. And I now know why it’s also a legend.


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