Sunday, 25 November 2012

BSA M20 Motorbikes

My father was a motorbike enthusiast. Here he is in 1937 in the yard of the engineering firm where he was an apprentice, Geo. W. King in Hitchin. He's sitting on what I think must be a BSA M-series, probably an M20, 499cc single-cylinder (I'm no expert, does anyone out there know)? I suspect there have been some modifications made: the tank looks non-standard, compared to other photos I've seen.

If I'm right about the model, it was good preparation for the war years, as Dad became a despatch rider in the Royal Signals, and the BSA M20 was the model used by the military.  It's a lot of bike for a 19-year old.  Don't you love the fishtail exhaust pipe?  Nice shoes, too --  Dad was a bit of dandy in his day.

Here he is again, five years later in Calcutta, outside a requisitioned house, Tivoli Park.  Still looking sharp, Doug.  Note my mother's name painted on the rear mudguard.

And here are a couple of the other guys in his section, giving a better view of the bikes.  Is it obligatory, do you think, for DRs to look ultra-cool?

Standard issue BSA WD M20, I think? Not long after this, the army decided to replace the BSAs with American-made Indian bikes, and the DRs were not happy.  Dad wrote in his memoir:
Our next surprise was the arrival of a lorry-load of timber crates all with American markings. On opening them they contained American-made Indian motor-bikes in knocked-down condition, which we were obviously supposed to assemble, and use, instead of our BSAs. They had "cow's horn" handlebars, plus foot-boards instead of foot-rests, a long hand-change gear lever, foot clutch, an immense leather saddle, sprung from the front, and coil ignition! The engine was a V-twin, and altogether we were not too happy with the idea, as on wet roads the very long wheel-base would be tricky to handle. Our worst fears were realised, and in wet weather they were very difficult to start and skidded out of control on bends unless we were very careful. We soon found out that the enormous leather saddles did not dry out during the monsoon, so we always started off with a wet seat.

It was around this time that my genes had one of several narrow war-time squeaks:
Whilst we were not using our bikes I took the chance to strip mine down for a good overhaul. I undid the bolts holding the two halves of the petrol tank together and when I took them off I found tucked up between the two halves a stick of bamboo about six inches long. One end was the large knot which formed an effective seal, the other end had been plugged with some sort of cement, from which protruded two wires - one was earthed to the bike frame and the other was supposed to be on one of the spark-plugs, but it had come adrift. Had it been connected, as I kick-started the bike it would have exploded and I would have had a lapful of burning petrol.

The British Army was not universally popular in the last days of the Raj, of course.  Having survived Dunkirk and the North African Desert, that unit of DRs had a number of very close shaves in the "friendly" environment of Calcutta.  I think they were glad to ship out to Burma.


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Certainly look like the ancestors of my 441 Victor. Ahh, youth.

Martin said...

My grandfather had a BSA with a fishtail exhaust, probably dating from the same period. I only ever knew it as being covered with a huge tarpaulin. The life had gone out of it, but I was occasionally allowed to sit astride and act the part.

These photographs of your Dad must count among your dearest treasures, Mike.

Mike C. said...


Did you use it as a dirt bike, Bron (what we would call "scrambling")?

Motorbikes are nature's way of removing foolhardy young men from the gene pool. My biking career was luckily cut short after I was stopped by the police riding "no hands" on what was little more than a German moped (NSU Quickly...).


Mike C. said...


I have a surprising quantity of family photos -- my Nan was an avid accumulator, and passed them all on to me in a large holdall bag, and Dad had a really great wartime album (someone in his unit -- not him -- was a keen photographer). I think a lot of my interest in photography was stimulated by shuffling through them all as a kid.

I've promised the Royal Signals museum I'll leave them the contents of the album, so I'm gradually scanning the best ones.


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...


Yes, some off road, which is why my left ankle is a mess. I later loaned the bike to my elder brother, who promptly drove it into the front of a big truck, resulting in much metal and pain on his left side. "On Any Sunday"??
Big influence. Somewhere, in one of his barns, my brother has my other thumper, a 250cc ducati scrambler, mid sixties.

Zouk Delors said...

Coïncidence! Je disais juste l'autre jour que je ne me souvenais plus ce que j'avais fait avec ça! (Moi, je m'ai cassé la clavicule en tombant du même moped!)

Mike C. said...

OK, um, "Zouk", English from now on, please -- my French isn't up to much, and most of my readers won't have any at all.

The Quickly was a nice relic of a previous age -- it looked like it had been run up in an afternoon by the same pre-war design team that had done the VW beetle.


Zouk Delors said...

S'il te plait, ne pas parler en bas à moi, Mike. C'est en haut à moi quels mots je utilise, et tu et tes suivants ont machine-traducteurs à votre disposition si vous n'êtes pas en haut à la tâche de traduction. Merci.


Salut! Your labels are impeccables.
Tesco, eh? Est-ce que le Maître Honorable du Blog m'appelle bonne marché? En ce cas, je suis d'accord!

Mike C. said...

Suit yourself, Zouk Delors! You are very welcome here but, although it was fun exchanging a bit of French, I'm now going to stick to English.

My hint to Martyn was not to call you cheap (which would be insulting) but to call you English (which is most definitely not insulting) -- there's something not quite comme il faut about your French, but mine is far too rudimentary to say what it is.

Even if that's not the case (accept my apologies), I'd still urge you to comment in English, or it will get a bit exclusive. Trust me, no-one is going to machine translate a comment on a blog!!

(Hmm, it does occur to me that only a French person would even think of suggesting that as an option...)

Now, that's quite enough meta-commentary (comments about comments).


Paul Mc Cann said...

Does anyone remember the old Private Eye, or perhaps Punch, strip cartoon caled "Franglais" ?

Would have given you all a run for your money.

Paul Mc Cann

Mike C. said...


that was Miles Kington in Punch, "Let's parler Franglais", a joke that wore thin after about the third outing -- I cannot believe he squeezed an entire career out of it ...


Zouk Delors said...

"Je vais à bâton à anglais"

Ça va.

"Il y à quelque chose pas entièrement properly autour de ton français"

Mais ça c'est l'entier point du blague: je suis sûre qu'un vrai français n'aurait pas le plus brumeux que je suis sur autour. Il faut utiliser machine-traducteur.

Au fait, Miles Kington avait un colonne hebdomadaire dans l'Indépendant et il était souvent sur le Quiz des Nouvelles (ou il à dit qu'il "likes Sainsbury, because it keeps the riff raff out of Waitrose").

Mike C. said...


Our very own robotic Miles Kington, super!

It used to be fun to put a poem into Google Translate, and translate it back and forth a few times. It was like playing Chinese Whispers. Unfortunately, Google's got too good at translating in recent times.


eeyorn said...

Hi Mike, I have a FB friend who's seriously into bikes, will ask him to take a look at your pics. One of my uncles(long dead) also served in Nth Africa and we have pics of him on a motorbike - will try to locate them.

cheers, Ian

Mike C. said...

Cheers, eeyorn, that would be interesting.

DRs in N. Africa had to abandon bikes for trucks, for obvious reasons. It is a matter of amazement to me that guys were expected to find units "out there" in the desert somewhere, using nothing more than a "sun compass". I can lost going down the shops.


Zouk Delors said...

Humble apologies to the family, friends and fans of Alan Coren, Kington's arch rival in humour, and true author of the Waitrose gag, he of the regular spots on The News Quiz.

Ditto the 3f of Miles Kington, whose column in the Independent was daily, not weekly, a feat never known before or, to the best of my knowledge, since.

Richard Payne said...

I realise that it's been a long time since the photos were posted but the machine in the pre-war photo doesn't seem to have been confirmed. It looks to me like a 250cc 'Red' Panther - an OHV model sold uniquely via Pride & Clarke in London.

It has a London registration dating from mid-1936.

Thanks for posting the wartime photos by the way. Nice clear images.