"Years ago, I lived in sunny Sydney, Australia, where nearly every sparkling morning signaled a motorcycle day. I was content with my trusty old Vincent Rapide and my new 750 SS Ducati, but I still read the weekend cycle classifieds. One Saturday, there was a brief but tempting three-line ad for a BSA Gold Star.
Britain's famous 500cc "Goldie" was one of the most coveted '50s-era racing motorcycles. BSA stood for "Birmingham Small Arms," one of England's top armaments suppliers. When it wasn't waging war, it built sporting motorcycles.
Temperamental, hard to start, difficult to ride well, and wickedly quick, the beautiful "Beeza" was a bike men lusted after, but only a lucky few could have one.
Surely, there couldn't be any harm in looking.
The man who answered the phone said I was his first caller. He directed me to an address in Sefton, a working-class neighborhood in Sydney's Western Suburbs, located a few miles past an urban sprawl of factories and light industry.
The street's brick, semidetached row houses all looked alike. Many numbers were faded or missing, so it took awhile to find number 63. Walking up a neatly tended path, I was excited to see the bike. At the door, John Hearne, a trim-looking man in his 20s, introduced me to his strikingly attractive young wife, Fiona. She smiled shyly, looking strangely pleased to see me. He was cool, almost as if he weren't interested in selling his motorcycle.
Even though there was a garage tucked behind the house, we headed straight inside and into a small back bedroom. I couldn't figure it out. Once inside, I saw why: There, between the double bed and the wall, stood the prettiest Gold Star I'd ever seen. The chrome sparkled, the black enamel shone and the glittering wheels set my heart pounding. I waited, wondering what would happen next.
"We're living here with me mum and dad," John admitted. The grim look on Fiona's face told me all I needed to know about that arrangement. "We're planning to use the money from the sale of the BSA as a down payment for a place of our own," his wife volunteered. Glancing sideways sharply, John frowned at his wife, as though she'd betrayed a confidence.
To break the awkwardness of the moment, I asked if he'd start the bike. He was proud to comply. After maneuvering the immaculate machine through the kitchen to the back porch, he skillfully found the compression point. Tickling the big Amal Grand Prix carburetor until pungent fuel dripped past the float, John retarded the ignition, raised the valve lifter and kicked down smartly on the starting lever. The bike settled into a fast but very even idle with that characteristic spitting sound common to well-tuned BSA singles. He looked up and grinned. I smiled back.
"Nice," I said. "Too right," he replied, using the Aussie vernacular for "You bet."
Fiona left us for a moment. "Look, I never intended to sell this bike," he sighed. "Still don't really want to. I bought it in a basket five years ago. It's taken me all this time to rebuild it. I'll show you the bills, the used bits and all the receipts. Spared no expense, I did."
His words came faster and faster. "Me brother's a Speedway Champion and he helped. You'll see from the logbook," he said, handing over a battered green packet, "I'm the sixth owner. The machine spent most of its life on the Isle of Man. You know, where they run the TT."
I gave the bike a quick going over. It was perfect. The classic 4-gallon BSA Clubman tank had been replaced with a 5-gallon Lyta aluminum racing tank, and an Eddie Dow finned side plate had been added.
There wasn't one burred bolt. The machine looked better than the day it had rolled out of Birmingham in the summer of 1961. Bargaining on the basis of flaws would be a waste of time, an insult to the painstaking work John had done. We both knew it. This motorcycle was very special.
"Are you sure you want to sell it?" I asked, suddenly torn between wanting the motorcycle and hating to see him give up all the work he'd done. "I have to," he replied sadly. "And I've got to get every penny of the asking price." Fiona came back and stood looking anxiously over his shoulder. We were soon joined by her beamy, fierce-looking mother-in-law. She, too, wanted to see how we were getting on.
There was no need to ride the bike. I knew it was right. "I'll give you what you want," I said, "and I'll give you something else. I'll promise if I ever sell this motorcycle, you can have the first chance to buy it back." He was silent for a moment, obviously disappointed that I'd decided so quickly. He sighed, nodding. Fiona squealed and hugged him. The deal was done.
As I wrote the deposit check, my hand trembled. Driving home, I felt strange. The happiness I'd expected to feel in discovering the perfect Gold Star was tempered by what the sale meant to John Hearne. He'd traded one kind of freedom for another. It seemed a curious bargain.
A few days later, John and Fiona appeared at my lock-up garage, the BSA carefully tied down in the bed of his Holden Utility pickup. We unloaded the machine with the reverence military pallbearers show a soldier's coffin. He took a few minutes to show me the starting drill and to say good-bye.
Sitting on the bike for the last time, he caressed the clip-on bars and the fuel tank as a lover would. "It's easy to start," he said, as he demonstrated the complicated drill. When the Goldie fired, he shouted over the loud idle: "Keep the revs between 1,500 and 2,000. There's no way you can get a proper tickover [idle] with a GP carbie. It's geared high, so slip the clutch a little in 1st. With this sprocket, mate, you can top 115."
John smiled bravely as he packed up his truck, but I'm sure I saw the hint of a tear. Fiona stood still, sensitive to the solemnity of the moment. She silently took his hand. When they left, I turned to the bike and tried unsuccessfully for an hour to start it.
I owned the Goldie for three years. That BSA had its own special aura — aloof, elite, forbidding. I never registered it, preferring to start it up only very occasionally and riding it at vintage bike meets. It's odd, I suppose, but I never really felt as if it were truly mine.
After returning to the States, I succumbed to an overwhelming temptation to buy an old Ferrari. To afford it, I had to sell my motorcycles, including a Velocette Venom bought sight unseen from England, along with the Ducati and the Vincent.
Before advertising the "Beeza," I kept my promise to John Hearne, and I sent him a letter.
"If you'd like your Goldie back," I wrote, "you can have it for the price you sold it to me. I'll split the cost of crating and shipping it to Australia. I've hardly used it. I'd like you to have it again."
Two months passed. He didn't reply. I tried phoning unsuccessfully. Finally, I sold the Gold Star to Chris Wimpey, a California photographer.
In the years since, I wondered if John Hearne's new house brought him the satisfaction his classic motorcycle so obviously provided. I wondered why he hadn't responded to my letter. Long after the bike was sold, I still somehow expected to hear from him. But there was no completing the circle.
The bike's new owner created a poster of the BSA. Preserved on a dramatic black background, the Gold Star's cool perfection recaptures the moment I first saw it in John and Fiona Hearne's bedroom.
And that's the way I like to remember it."
Sunday, October 14, 2007
The Beeza in the bedroom.
From edmunds.com by Ken Gross.