When compared to many other machines that have achieved classic status, the BSA Gold Star seems rather innocuous at first glance. It does not look as if it would intimidate its rider, or even generate all that much speed; nor does it bristle with unique technological or design features that set it apart from a myriad of other single-cylinder British motorcycles. In fact, it appears so simple that it might be nothing more than a low-priced, basic bike with a few boy-racer pretensions.
And yet, the Gold Star is a racing legend that enjoys an enthusiastic following among contemporary connoisseurs. This hard-won appreciation did not occur overnight. In fact, most historians suggest that during the first two years the Gold Star was offered, it made almost no impression at all. Time and continued development transformed it from an unappreciated bike into a long-lived success.
At the time the first Gold Stars were built, BSA seemed an unlikely source for anything but rather pedestrian motorcycles. Two-wheelers were, after all, only one part of the company’s wide-ranging interests. As the name suggests, Birmingham Small Arms began as a weapons manufacturer. Birmingham had a thriving armament industry dating back to the 17th century. Bicycles were the first step away from arms production, circa 1880, followed by a motorcycle 23 years later.
Like similar firms, BSA tried its hand at racing early on, but abandoned its factory-backed efforts in 1921 after some poor results. Without the impetus provided by competition, its range of motorcycles seemed destined to never be more than simply good. The Gold Star ultimately changed all that.
The Gold Star’s story begins with another BSA, the Empire Star. Though rather unexciting, the Empire Star had tuning potential, at least in the minds of some enthusiasts at the factory who modified one extensively. In 1937, it was sent to the track at Brooklands in the care of one Walter Handley. The brave Mr. Handley, who came out of retirement for the occasion, was to compete in a three-lap race around the 2 3/4-mile banked oval track. (Click image to enlarge)
Though an eight-mile race may not seem noteworthy, Handley’s victory in this sprint was no small achievement. The Brooklands circuit’s aging, treacherous surface and uneven bankings were capable of inflicting severe damage on both two- and four-wheeled machines. Any pilot error carried with it the potential for major injuries or death. Handley’s fastest lap of 107.5 mph took considerable skill and courage; it also earned him a gold star badge, which was awarded by the Brooklands race organizers to anyone who circled the track at more than 100 mph.
A year later, BSA introduced a new 500cc motorcycle, which for marketing purposes had its M24 model designation somewhat immodestly supplanted by the Gold Star name. In initial form, its 90-mph maximum speed rendered it incapable of putting its riders in line for their own Brooklands gold stars. Even so, the Gold Star was a handsome machine, and keenly priced at £82 (about $6,300 in today’s American currency). This was not, however, a good time to introduce a civilian motorcycle. Within a year, Europe would be at war and Gold Star production would end after a mere 500 examples were built.
It took several years for BSA to return to civilian production, but one of its first new products in 1948 was again called Gold Star. Like its predecessor, the new “Goldie” was an exceptionally simple machine, cradling a 350cc single-cylinder engine/transmission assembly, largely made up of light-alloy castings, in a minimal frame. Despite its stark appearance, the Gold Star justified its £211 price (about $9,100 today) by having a considerable amount of extra attention lavished on it; each engine was hand-assembled from specially selected components and was run-in on a test bench before the bike left Small Heath.
Almost immediately, the Gold Star made a name for itself in competition. At the Isle of Man TT, a Gold Star won the Junior (350cc) class for the first time in 1949; Gold Stars would dominate this class through the late 1950s. A companion 500cc model was added in 1949; it too would become a perennial class challenger in the Manx races. But Gold Stars were not just for road racing; they were also used to great effect in trials and scrambles events, as well.
The first major changes in the postwar Gold Stars appeared in 1953, when a new double-tube frame, swing-arm rear suspension and upgraded gearbox were introduced. The new frame and suspension improved the bike’s handling noticeably, a good thing in light of the power increases wrung out of both engines the following year. Even more was done in 1955 and, in 1956, the “ultimate” Gold Star was introduced.
In essence, the DBD34 was an evolution of previous Gold Stars; new cylinder heads, tapered mufflers and the use of larger Amal carburetors made them potent indeed. Though some found them pleasurable road bikes, the factory and most customers were more interested in racing. BSA offered Scrambles and Clubman versions, with engines tuned specifically for racing, close-ratio gearsets and, at least in the latter model’s case, clip-on handlebars. These were, as BSA readily admitted, “unsuitable for touring.” The DBD34 was offered only in 500cc form.
Oddly enough, it was not obsolescence or lack of demand that ended Gold Star production in 1963. The bikes were still winning races with regularity, and BSA’s U.S. distributor clamored for more. Management simply wanted to stop building them and, when notified that Joseph Lucas, Ltd. was no longer willing to produce the magneto used in the Gold Star engine, the production line was shutdown. (Click image to enlarge)
That might be said to have been the beginning of the end for BSA. The company was going through changes, selling off divisions—Daimler went to Jaguar in 1960—and the motorcycle business was eventually absorbed by the short-lived Norton Villiers Triumph combine in 1972. This government-ordered consortium dropped the BSA name and had no use for the Small Heath motorcycle factories. After further ownership changes, the BSA Regal Group took over in 1994. Among other projects, the re-organized company produced the BSA Gold, a Gold Star look-alike with a Yamaha engine, but this effort failed after a few examples were built.
Though BSA has essentially vanished from the motorcycle world, the Gold Star is still supported by loyal owners who restore and race their treasured machines. The example seen here is owned by Bruce Meyer, a Californian known for his collection of hot rods and exotic sports cars. In the 1960s, Meyer raced Gold Stars and formed a solid appreciation for them. This one, purchased some 20 years ago in fully restored condition, does not receive such hard use.
Like most of Meyer’s machines, this Gold Star has a history. Its first owner was racer John Surtees, a World Champion on both two and four wheels. Best-known among motorcycle fans for his years with MV Agusta, Surtees bought the Clubman-model Gold Star in 1960, just as his bike-racing career was coming to an end. It was sold in 1962; the next year, he signed with Ferrari, for whom he would win the Formula One championship in 1964.
Beautiful in its simplicity, reliability and speed, the Gold Star has more than earned its place among the great machines in motorcycling history.