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|Bike Review - Posted 5th October 2012|
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1950 BSA Bantam D1
The BSA Bantam will be old enough to collect its state pension next year, but it's still the natural choice for newcomers looking to experiment with a certain sort of classic motorcycling...
'I bought this Bantam brand new on 13th July 1950' explains owner Albert Parrott whose D1 won an RC concours award at the 2012 Sleaford Show. 'It cost £84, seven shillings and nine pence. Since then it's done 35,000 miles. It's still in completely standard condition; no accessories or modifications. It's been re-painted, rebored twice, had a new horn and footrest, and a new seat cover.
'It's always reliable and has been no trouble.'1950 BSA Bantam D1
There's a good reason why everyone has heard of the BSA Bantam, and William's 62 years with his D1 just about encapsulates the spirit of these redoubtable little bikes. Historian Roy Bacon once commented that; 'the Bantam was everyone's learner model in the 1950s and few riders from that era did not own or at least try one at some time. Later it grew up and lost its early, cheeky air.'
The Bantam was built by BSA between 1948 and 1971; the smallest D1 version was the first to be manufactured and stayed in production until 1963. Famously, it's not a British design at all but arrived as war reparations from DKW in the shape of their RT125. Very similar machines were also built by Yamaha, Voskhod in Russia and Harley-Davidson in America, as well as DKW themselves in West Germany and IFA (later MZ) in East Germany. BSA weren't the only manufacturer to benefit from reparations; Royal Enfield also built a small capacity machine but theirs was based around the DKW RT98.
The D1 was initially equipped with Wipac electrics, with a Lucas option from 1950. The first bikes and competition models had no rear suspension; plunger rear suspension could be specified from 1950 but rigid bikes were built through to 1955. All were 123cc, 52mm bore by 58mm stroke which gave less than 5bhp at around 5000rpm. The next version of the Bantam, the D3, was upped to 148cc by boring it out, and indeed the stroke stayed the same through the whole model life, all the way up to 175cc.
The first Bantams were all three-speed; it wasn't until 1966 that a fourth gear was introduced. The D1 used a simple loop frame, 19-inch wheels with offset hubs and 5-inch SLS drum brakes which were almost up to their task, thanks to the bike's light weight of 170lb. Front suspension was a very basic set of tele forks with internal springs and no damping, lubricated by grease. These forks feel primitive compared to those on bigger British bikes of the time, never mind modern suspension. The plunger rear end gives a couple of inches of movement but this can feel sloppy and disconcerting when wear sets in.
Chrome was in short supply so the famous Mist Green colour scheme extended to almost all the exposed components, leaving only the engine, exhaust, handlebars and levers in bare metal.
The result was a motorcycle which could reliably travel at 45mph and return 100mpg, with above average handling and braking for a learner / commuter machine. On the downside, the D1 became known for jumping out of second gear and for its awkward main stand which is difficult to use and tends not to lift the wheels off the ground. The weak electrics affected the bike's reputation rather more seriously, with poor lighting and intermittent ignition, and an inclination to conk out in heavy rain.
Many of these issues were addressed for 1950, with a revised generator, gaiters on the forks, a tubular silencer (instead of the original 'flat' one), different stand spring (not a huge improvement), and the option to have Lucas electrics or rear suspension. Most road bikes were typically equipped with Lucas coil ignition, rectifier and battery with switches in a new headlamp shell, and plunger suspension. The plunger spring action was undamped, and the spring covers tended to wear against each other. Most off-road bikes kept the Wipac ignition and rigid frame, plus a folding kickstart and a tilted up silencer.
In 1952, the D1 headstock was strengthened and the Wipac light switch moved into the headlamp. Then in 1953, the engine bottom end was beefed up with wider big-end rollers, which meant that the flywheels were recessed to make space for them. BSA offered a dual seat as an option (intended really for use on the new swinging arm models), which would have made the plunger or rigid D1's ride decidedly uncomfortable so you're better off sticking with the original sprung saddle. Chrome finally replaced paint on the wheels rims.1961 BSA Bantam D1 Brochure
As larger capacity versions joined the chicken coop, so the different varieties of D1 were plucked from the range until only the plunger frame example with Wipac electrics (direct or with a battery) remained. New colour options were added, including black and grey, until the D1 was finally discontinued in 1963. Said Roy Bacon: 'the Bantam continued in larger and heavier form but it was the light and nippy D1 that was the real success story and the one most people remember.'
These days, the D1 is an ideal machine for new enthusiasts to try with minimal risks, to see if they actually enjoy mucking around with old bikes. They are extremely easy to start (when the ignition and fuelling are correctly set up), and were always intended to be maintained at home by folks with minimal experience. They're light and manoeuvrable and relatively low cost, especially compared to four-stroke lightweights like the Tiger Cub. The Bantam also benefits from an extremely well organised and enthusiastic owners' club, the BSA Bantam Club, who delight in welcoming new riders to the breed.
On the downside, if you own a Bantam for any length of time then you'll have to learn exactly how to mix your petroil properly, and will become a dab hand a whipping out the spark plug, or doing a roadside decoke. That's part of the fun. You should also expect leisurely performance - it can feel like you're committing an act of cruelty if you try to maintain reasonable progress uphill on main roads - and commensurate braking: the pressed-steel drums might have been OK in 1948 but they can't possibly match ABS today. The D1 is definitely suited to byways, not highways.
When buying, it's definitely worth checking that the gears engage cleanly and that the lever action is positive and clean. If the return spring has snapped then you'll have to split the crankcases to replace it. On later (1957-onwards) models, the crank seal can fail which shows up in the form of copious quantities of oily smoke. However, over-oiling and failing piston rings can contribute to similar symptoms - so unless you are keen on learning how to strip down a simple two-stroke, it's best to avoid engines which continue to send smoke signals even after they're warmed through.
Prices for D1s range from around £500 for a rough runner to £2500 for one in excellent condition with plenty of paperwork and a dealer's guarantee. Bantams often sell for extremely reasonable amounts at big auctions, where they attract few bids as most folk have gone to buy the big-ticket items. For instance, a restored plunger D1 with recent T&T fetched just £575 in June 2012 at Bonhams auction - it would've gone for much more on eBay…
Bear in mind that the cost of restoring a Bantam will be much the same as the cost of restoring a heavyweight British single, so if you do buy a restoration project then you're unlikely to recoup the time and cost of components. Andy Tiernan had a couple of useful examples in stock at the time of writing (www.andybuysbikes.com). The first is a very original 1952 rigid D1, showing 18,000 miles on its pleasingly patina'd Smiths speedo, up for £2450. Or you could kick the tyres of what looks like an older restoration, in ride-away trim, for £2250.
Private prices vary from a few hundred pounds up to £2000 for a top-notch example; a recently restored 1950 D1 which 'runs great' has been advertised at £1999. At the other extreme a non-runner on eBay attracted just one bid at £800; it was complete and in one piece and came with some paperwork and clearly described as a restoration project.
And at the ridiculous end of the scale, we came across a rigid D1 in GPO colours being offered by a trader for £4000. By strange coincidence, a remarkably similar motorcycle was sold by Bonhams just a couple of months ago… for £2000 less. And to be blunt, £1850 was quite enough to pay for an over-restored museum piece.
BSA built around 200,000 Bantams, and the D1 stayed in production for 15 years so, even 60 years later, there are still plenty to choose between. So don't buy the first one you see on impulse. Shop around and test ride a few - ideally find one in good running trim which isn't for sale (try the BSA Owners' Club or VMCC if there's no one from the Bantam Club near you) - so you get an idea of what a chirpy chuck should feel like in full flight.
In the Book of the Bantam, WC Haycraft suggested that 'the Bantam steers with precision, holds the road tenaciously and can cruise at around 40mph almost indefinitely without fuss.' BSA themselves reckoned that 'no machine in the history of motorcycling has achieved the worldwide popularity of the Bantam, a thoroughly reliable lightweight of proven performance.'
They might have been over-stating the case, just a touch. But for the modern classic enthusiast, Bantams are cheap to buy and benefit from excellent spares supply. They're physically small and light and easy to ride. And, as author Gordon May proved with his overland to Egypt expedition, Bantams don't have to be restricted to the barnyard. Just be prepared for moped performance and pre-war technology, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Who knows, maybe 60 years later you'll still be riding the same bike, like Albert Parrott and his award-winning D1…
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