Retrospective: 1964-1965 BSA Beagle/Starlite

BSA Beagle Starlite
1965 BSA Starlite 75. Owner: Vincent Schardt, Danville, California.

Cute name, BSA Beagle. Dog names for motorcycles were not unusual in England, as with the Triumph Terrier of the early 1950s. But when this little motorcycle got to the United States, the word Beagle on the gas tank was gone, replaced by Starlite. Pretty boring.

Here was the essential commuter bike, a mildly attractive machine with a 75cc single-cylinder, four-stroke engine with a 9.5:1 compression ratio, which could put out some five horsepower at the crankshaft…somewhat less at the rear wheel.

The BSA folk had looked at the small-bike market around 1960 and realized that the original 125cc D1 Bantam was getting pretty long in the tooth. After all, it had originated in 1948 as part of German reparations after World War II, and was actually a DKW 125 which BSA had flipped around in order to have the gear shift and kickstarter on the right side, traditionally English. And the English do like tradition.

BSA Beagle Starlite
The Beagle/Starlite’s 75cc engine was a bored-out version of the 50cc single used in the Ariel Pixie.

The Italians had been selling their small bikes in England for several years, and now companies like Honda were looking to expand their markets. It was decided that the D1 Bantam should be dropped, and a smaller, cheaper motorbike would replace it. Ariel, a company wholly owned by BSA, was also thinking about a small bike. Edward Turner, now head of the BSA group, put pen to paper and came up with an OHV design, and said that Ariel would use it as a 50cc (stroke: 42mm, bore: 38.9mm) engine in the new Pixie (love those names!), while the BSA version would be bored out to 47.6mm for a total of 75cc.

Late in 1963 the first Beagle appeared at the London show, and early the next year the Starlite showed up in the U.S. Much to the disgust of most dealers, because few American motorcyclists commuted to work on their bikes—cars were plentiful and inexpensive. The BSA shops were happy selling the big Beezas, like the 650cc Road Rockets and Spitfires, and wanted little to do with this tiddler. But when BSA Inc. in New Jersey said, “Take these flyweights, or else,” the dealers did, and tried to sell it as a sporty lightweight…without much success.

BSA Beagle StarliteThe design looked good on paper, with engine cases split vertically, and a seven-fin iron barrel topped by an aluminum head, which had an “elliptoidal combustion chamber”…one can only presume that means somewhat oval. A wet sump held the engine oil—unusual for the British, who liked to keep it in a separate container. A geared primary drive went back to a wet clutch, through a four-speed transmission, then chain-drive to the rear wheel. The clutch had no need of a drum, as the clutch plates had teeth and served as the driven gear…a minor saving of weight, which was around 145 pounds for the whole machine.

This engine was hung from a pressed-steel, spine frame, with no front downtube, making it look quite bicycle-like…which was not an asset in the American mind. The leading-link front fork was a bit dated, but adequate, and a pair of shocks suspended the rear end. Nineteen-inch wheels and drum brakes were used at both ends, the wheels having properly valanced fenders to keep the rain at bay. The buyer could choose between a solo and a double seat, and a luggage rack was offered. A 2-gallon Bantam tank held the gas, and that was more than enough to take the rider 200 miles. Curiously, the on/off/reserve petcock was not on the tank itself, but on the float chamber of the Amal carburetor.

BSA Beagle StarliteSounds good? Unfortunately, to quote a fellow who knew these bikes well, the end result was “a quaint bit of engineering malpractice.” Apparently the factory was told to rush production, and that is never good. First there were problems with lubricating the crankshaft, as one rather feeble oil pump with a single piston did not do a sterling job. Rolling along at a moderate pace was OK, but if you were late for work and flogged the bike, bearings could go bad. Also, anyone wanting to change gearing by changing the front sprocket would have to split the cases to get at it. Not convenient. The chassis was a bit too flexible should a sporting rider try to test the limits of performance and find himself in a bumpy corner.

BSA Beagle StarliteAnd while the Beagle had lights, it had no battery, and all the electricity came off a flywheel magneto. This was fine for a daytime commute, but a lot scarier on a dark night. The ignition was merely a toggle switch under the right side of the saddle, not something that thieves would be unaware of.

And the wet sump? Instead of a good strong cover, the bottom of the engine had a tin plate keeping the oil in, and should the rider happen to ride over a curb and bump the sump, chances were very good that a leak would develop.

This rush job had not worked. The Honda 90 proved to be cheaper and better. Production of the Beagle ended in August of 1965, with a little more than 3,200 units built, of which fewer than 600 came to the U.S.

One final note on BSA names. By 1973 the brand had vanished into the Norton-Villiers-Triumph conglomerate, but a last effort was made to resurrect the stacked arms logo in 1979 by putting out three 50cc two-strokes, called the Beaver, the Brigand and the Boxer, powered by an Italian engine. They did not last long either.

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