This article introduces one of the great bikes of British Bike history and came as the result of Speedtracktales receiving the 1952 ISDT gold medal of Sgt R. A. Rhodes. An Army rider who had played a part of the development of the BSA Gold Star as an International Six Days Trial machine in the early 1950’s. Much of this article in turn has been taken from an archived original publication produced by Eddie Dow who was played a significant part in that project for BSA later becoming one of the countries greatest preparer and tuner of Gold Stars. Whilst there are many good books on the Gold Star out there offering much more detail than this summery I hope this is a worthwhile introduction to this bike for persons still discovering the history of this great event.The original document this article is mostly based on can be found here and is a catalog prepared for Eddie Dow’s Gold Star based business.
Originally in the Royal Corps of Signals, he gained an emergency commission in the R.A.S.C and went with them to Trieste in November 1946. Thus began a long stay in Italy – and the sequence of events that were to lead, some ten years later, in his setting up in business.
During his Italian stay he organised trials and scrabbles for the “boys” and his own ability earned him a place in the Army team for the 1951 International Six Days Trial, in which he gained the first of his three Gold medals, riding the BSA Gold Star. His other “Golds” were in Austria (1952) and Wales (1954). On the trials side, too, he gained First Class awards, whilst in the Army, in 1953 and ’55 Scottish Six Days Trial.
Still in the Army, it was at the end of 1954 that he was delegated the task of training Officers in the use of motorcycles for the R.A.S.C intake, and it was with his help and encouragement that Roy Peplos and Ron Langston got their first “works” rides with Triumph and Ariel.
On ‘April Fool’s Day’ 1956 Capt W.E. Dow took his £1000 gratuity and said “goodbye” to the Army. He joined forces with A.R. Taylor of Shipston on Stour selling and repairing new and used machines. In 1958 becoming a specialist BSA dealer and the development of the “Britain’s Gold Star Specialists” tag.
Becoming one of the Country’s leading Road Race commentators, with colleague commentator Murray Walker he is a vice President of the BSA Owners Club.
BSA Gold Star
Whilst the M24 saw a relationship with the much loved WD model M20 it was not considered at the beginning to be a sporting model suited for high speed road or track racing. But as a trials machine the pre-war Gold Star won its spurs. Its lightweight and punchy motor proved ideal for I.S.D.T. – type events. The Royal Tank Corp. team of Cpl F. M. Rist, Cpl R. Gillam and Sgt. J. T. Dalby won the Motor Cycling Trophy for Army teams in the 1938 ISDT. Fred Rist gaining a Gold medal, and in more sporting trials Harold Tozer began a long run of pre-war and post-war sucesses with a Gold Star sidecar outfit. The B.S.A. concern did not believe in improving the breed through racing but they did believe in testing through trials. Throughout 1938 they advertised the Gold Star and “The World’s Finest Standard Sports 500”, qualifying this rather extravagant claim by recalling that it was the machine on which the late Wal Handley won on a Gold Star at 107.5mph.
The pre-war Gold Star was always shown in illustrations as a fully equipped machine with Lucas Magdyno and current large headlamp. At first it was shown with chrome guards of abbreviated sports type. By mid 1938 it had more touring, black steel guards, but of 1939 it had become a very de-luxe tourer with guards, oil tank and tool box identical to those on the other M models, including the M21 side-valve which, in 500cc form, became the W.D. model. It rather looked as if the firm had given up the idea of making a super sports machine for competition work.
A man who recalls the pre-war Gold Star with mixed feelings is Reg Spokes of Northampton who now runs the motorcycle business started by his father, the late Percy Spokes, in the early 20’s. Reg rode and Empire Star BSA as a private owner in the 1938 event.
“The Gold Star was certainly potent but it did not handle as well as my Empire Star and I think I fell off each day. We had spare fork links in the tool box so that we could alter the fork rake for different going but we didn’t have time to change over. They slipped up somehow over my bike by gearing it too high and running it on Castrol R with the result that it was a pig to start each morning. I got a Silver but the bad starting cost me my Gold.”
He had no complaints about the engine… his was timed at 96mph in I.S.D.T. trim. He thinks the inferior handling, compared to the Empire Star, may have been caused by the altered weight distribution of the lighter alloy motors. Apart from the slimmer finning, it bears a striking resemblance to the later, post-war engines. The head was held down by seven studs screwing into each cast-in inserts… late post-war engines have eight.
When production was resumed after the war B.S.A.s quickly rehashed the pre-war B and M range with telescopic forks and their traditional interest in trials soon produced a competition model, styled B32. This was more or less the pre-war engine, but the excellent B.S.A. telescopic made it a really good competition model which soon became very popular. Not only did it perform well but it looked the part with its chromium plated guards on very flat section. Fred Rist, now out of the Army, had joined the factory and he and Bill Nicholson blazed a trail of B.S.A. competition successes. Rist got 350 and 500cc models going very well on alcohol and cleaned up in a number of Grass and Hill-climb events. I remember well that he made a point of doing it in true clubman fashion, riding a machine to and from and event with a piece of straight pipe to replace the silencer in his haversack. We knew he could have turned up in a works truck but we admired the way he wanted to be one of us.Whatever short comings the pre-war models might have had in the handling
department, the telescopic forks cured them and thereafter all B.S.A. sports machines handled really well. After the 350cc B32 competition model of 1946 came a five-hundred version, designated B34, in 1948. This time the big engine was based on the three-fifty using the same stroke of 88mm with an 85mm bore instead of 71mm. The pre-war Gold Star had a typical long stroke of 94mm with 82cm bore. It was a slow-revving motor which turned out its peak b.h.p of 30 at a mere 5,800 r.p.m In 1948 350 c.c. Gold star models were announced with alloy barrels and heads not unlike the pre-war motors.
It was the wide range of options which could transform a Gold Star from a fast tourer (in publicity material B.S.A. warned that the Gold Star was not for tourists who wished to potter gently) to a trials machine, a potent scrambler or an out and out clubman’s racer which made the B.S.A. so attractive and accounted for its considerable sales. No other machine at that time covered such a wide range of application.
Man behind the development of the Gold Star at this time was J. H Arnott, a pre-war B.S.A. competition rider. He was a wizard at cam design.. a tuning wizard of the old school who could grind up cams to produce pretty well any characteristics you wanted.A 500 cc version was inevitable and, true to B.S.A. tradition it appeared first in an International Six Days Trial machine in September 1949 and performed with some distinction. Fred Rist was a member of the Trophy-winning British team on one, and other big Goldies won 10 Gold medals. L Wedgebury’s 1949 BSA ZB 32 Gold Star, bought new through Jayne’s Garage in Brynmawr, with an undertaking that he would ride it as a private entrant in 1949 ISDT. LW had seen the machine at the previous Earls Court Show!, where he had been told that delivery was very restricted. ‘Machine came with documentation stating it’s full performance details along with several sheets detailing adjustments and modifications to enable the machine to be Road Raced and Scrambled.
Harold Tozer won a Gold with his sidecar outfit. The 500 cc model went into production in 1950 and quite a few appeared in the Senior Clubman’s, but they were nothing like quick enough to stay with the very fast Triumphs and Nortons.
In the international of 1950 B.S.A.s tried out a new pivoted fork rear suspension. Fred Rist was the British Trophy team captain and returned with the Trophy back to Great Britain for the third consecutive time and wining a Gold medal, as did eight other B.S.A. riders.
Included in that year’s event was a team from the 31st Royal Artillery Training Regiment, riding specially built, factory prepared Gold Stars provided by Bert Perrigo.The team was captained by David Miles, included Bombardier George Brookes and Lance Bombardier Les Hill.
The above image is based on original material showing 218 as being Capt Mile on Triumph. The provisional results does not name entrants and we do not have a copy of a programme for this event yet ( Which is one of our priority acquisition requirements) and so we suspect that the caption may be incorrect.
They failed to win a club prize, after Miles demolished his front wheel on a rock and Hill broke his leg. Brooke’s carried on and rode well in appealing conditions to a Gold medal. The team’s factory prep’ed bikes were fitted with experimental oil dampened units for the rear plunger springing, these were not successful and discontinued. After the event B.S.A. agreed to sell the bikes of Miles and Brookes back to them. Miles won a Gold medal in the 1952 ISDT in Austria on his bike.It is at this point in the Gold Star story, WE Dow… Eddie Dow… comes into the picture as Lt W.E. Dow, R.A.S.C., in the Army Motorcycle Association “A” team for the 1951 ISDT in Varese, Northern Italy. Also in the squad were Captain David Miles, 2nd Lt. Les Archer and S/Sgt Eric Arnott In 1950, after service in Italy, he had been stationed in Aldershot, had met the Archers and started scrambling on an old “iron” B34 with McCandless suspension. Later posted to Thetford in Norfolk, he had been a regular competitor at local events, meeting up with Brian Stonebridge and Andy Lee. The best he managed was a third at a Castle Colchester scramble because the trials box of the old machine would not stand riding to win. The engine was running at 8 I/2 to 1 on a mixture of petrol, meths and benzene.. a not uncommon brew in those days. When the Army invited volunteers for the 1951 I.S.D.T., Lt. Dow was on the front row. His commanding officer was loath to release him but Lt. Dow got in touch with Major Lloyd, who was in charge of the operation at the War Office, and pointed out that not only could he ride but he could speak Italian fluently. Lt. Dow was in. During the selection test he tangled with a car and hurt his ankle… he was only able to ride in the speed test which followed at Thruxton because 2nd Lt. Les Archer poured a whole bottle of horse liniment into his boot.
The Army tackled the I.S.D.T. in the way it ought to be tackled. The two teams first rode in the National Rally on W.D. machines, all gaining maximum marks, and were then issued with new Gold Star B.S.A.s which they took out to Trieste.
From Trieste they went on training expeditions to Italy covering the whole of the trial route and the night section three times. After a first and prohibitively expensive stay in a hotel, the teams lived rough, taking tents and rations. They found dust was the biggest problem. W.D. goggles did not keep it out, the air filters on the machines had to be changed every 500 miles. The machines were very reliable but Dow’s machine had a valve guide work loose. A local police workshop got over the trouble by turning up an alloy bush. Incidentally the Italian Defence Ministry originally refused to allow the British Army teams to compete in the trial but finally agreed providing that they wore plain clothes. By the end of the 16,000-mile training period the original machines were a little secondhand and for the trial B.S.A. supplied six new ones.
In the trial an unexpected snag cropped up. Oil filters … the fabric element in the tank would not pass oil quickly enough… for some reason the texture of the fabric had been changed. Sgt. Monk stopped with a sump full of oil and lost nine marks. Once the trouble was diagnosed the riders were told to remove the filter all together. Although Les Archer did not remove his filter and it cost him 24 marks.
Sgt Rowthorn of the “B” team hit a lorry and was out of the trial, Sgt. Whittingham lost a mark on the fifth day which cost him his Gold, and in the speed test Captain Miles retired with a stuck exhaust valve. Lt. Dow got his Gold, as did S/Sgt. Arnott for the third consecutive year, and their team finished fourth in the club team contest. On his return to England Lt Dow went to see the medical officer regarding an injury he had sustained on the third day to discover he had finished the event with a dislocated shoulder.
During 1951 the Gold Star engine had been redesigned in detail. Barrels and heads were die cast and, reverting to pre-war practise on iron engines, the rocker boxes were bolted on in stead of being cast in one piece. Later in 1952 the BB type of engine was introduced, with a shorter connecting rod and larger valves.For the 1952 International this type of engine was introduced to the Army teams in a new experimental pivoted-fork frame. This frame was the duplex frame which was later to become standard on all larger B.S.A. models. The firm believed in testing through trials. Eddie Dow recalls that these Nicholson built swinging arm framed machines were a great all-round improvement and with the experimental 63-degree steering head angle, steered perfectly. In production the head angle was increased to 61 degrees in the interests of standardisation throughout the range of big singles. The change in head angle was not down to any science but practical experiences. Billy Nicholson was competing in the Scott Trial, notorious for its bike punishment, and noticed his bikes handling improved as the day progressed. On finishing the trial, he found the wheel base had shortened by 1 1/2 inches. The continuous bulldozing through mud had forced the steering head back, which on measurement had produced a head angle of 64 degrees.
Army-type training paid off in the 1952 ISDT and Capt W.E. Dow, Capt D.G. Miles and Sgt R.A.Rhodes won golds. After winning the first class award in the Scottish Six Days Trial in an Army team, Eddie Dow bought his first personal Gold Star, a standard 500cc Clubman’s model, and entered for the Clubman;s T.T.Eddie Dow, because of his organisational expertise was asked to select an Army team for the ISDT 1954 in Wales. After eight weeks training on the ground, living in Army barracks, they won eight Golds and a Silver. The two teams finished third and fourth in the club contest and winning 8 Golds and a Silver medal. This time the mounts were a mixture of B.S.A. Gold Stars, Triumphs and Matchlesses, The whole exercise carried out on a budget of £1,000.
One of the great riders for Triumph factory, John Giles was originally a B.S.A. mounted privateer, using a production 1950 B34. After a ride on the works mount of David Tye realising the handling was far better pulled his own bike to pieces and set about reheating and twisting it into the same spec as the works bike resulting in a win in the 1951 Bemrose trial.Eddie Dow again returned to San Pellegrino, Italy for the ISDT 1968, however only to help the British team through some of its language and organisational problems.
Bert Perrigo explains the reasoning which led to the Gold Star idea… “ we needed a more sporting image”. Bert Perrigo now B.S.A. development engineer who was the firms leading competition rider before the war explained “in 1937 we were seeing the motorcycle change over from a utilitarian, ride-to-work machine into a machine for sporting use. B.S.A. had always enjoyed a good reputation for utility machines but lacked a sporting one. We felt that if we could demonstrate that we could make real sports models we might get a share of both markets. We had always been able to make engines go when we wanted .The 499cc model I rode in the 1932 ISDT.. it was subsequently marketed as the Special… was faster than some of the detuned racers which other riders were using. What we needed was a more sporting “image,” as you say today. We had made Blue Stars, were now making Empire Stars. It seemed a good idea to go for a new Gold Star by laying at over 100mph in a race and add a newsports model to the range.
Regarding the use of experimental machines in the I.S.D.T he agrees that it might have been risky but says that in fact such machines and been completely tested first. They were not using the I.S.D.T as a test so much as a first public appearance of new models.