story and photography by Clement Salvadori[This Retrospective: BSA W1 Winged Wheel 35cc: 1953 – 1957 was originally published in the April 2011 issue of Rider magazine]
Following the ravages of World War II, Britain was eager to get back on wheels—preferably motorized wheels. Motorcycles were expensive, gas was still rationed and workers’ wages were pretty low. Bicycles were one answer, but not popular, especially if there was a hill on the way to work. In the late ’40s the Birmingham Small Arms factory turned out both bicycles and the Bantam 125 two-stroke single, which sold for a rock-bottom 85 pounds in 1948…about $340.
BSA could not keep the Bantam line moving quickly enough to satisfy customer demand, and in less than 10 years produced more than 150,000 units. However, the suits sipping tea knew that there was a market for an even cheaper means of transportation. Following the war a number of small-scale entrepreneurs built little micromotors that could be clipped onto bicycles, allowing the rider to putter along at 10-12 mph. Although he, or she, would probably have to use a little LPA, “light pedal assistance,” when confronted with any sort of a hill.
In Italy in 1946 Ducati was selling the T1 Cucciolo as a bolt-on motor, and in France the Velo Solex was a success, a heavy-duty bicycle with a little 45cc motor hanging off the handlebars that spun the front wheel using friction, with a price tag that the French called tres bon marche—cheap.
The BSA suits dithered, as suits are prone to do, but late in 1951 decided to get into the motorized bicycle business, telling the boys at the New Hudson factory on Coventry Road in Birmingham to get cracking. In May of 1953 the company presented the BSA Winged Wheel to the public. It was a nifty little device, really, even if a bit rudimentary, a tiny engine with clutch and gears that fit into the middle of a bicycle wheel, and selling for a quarter the price of the Bantam; all you needed was your own bicycle. Apparently, rear bicycle wheels were all pretty much the same, and this Winged Wheel could be fit onto any number of bicycles—as with the American-made Schwinn seen here.
The power came from a little 34.6cc two-stroke single, having a 36mm bore, 34mm stroke, with BSA claiming a single horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Compression ratio was 6.5:1, fuel was fed through a minuscule Amal 335 carburetor, with a Wipac flywheel magneto providing the spark for ignition. The hub was 9.5 inches in diameter and housed a very effective internal expanding brake. The wheel was 26 inches, and spoked right into the hub.
The engine was on the left side of the hub, with reduction gears on the right. The two-stage gear train had the engine driving the clutch drum, and that in turn was geared to the main hub. The clutch had three driven plates, with traditional British cork inserts, and 10 little coil springs making sure they stuck together.
The half-gallon fuel tank was included, but the owner would have to mount the rack on the rear fender of the bicycle. With the gravity feed it was recommended to turn the petcock off when the engine was not running. The fuel tank cap was the measuring device for the amount of oil to mix in, with two capfuls to the half-gallon, roughly a 25 to 1 mix. One popular nickname that the Winged Wheel picked up was “Stink Wheel,” as it could, and often did, leave a cloud of burned Castrol two-stroke in its wake.
Buy the Winged Wheel—the unit weighed about 27 pounds—slip it into place on your bicycle, and three cables ran up to the handlebars. One cable ran the throttle, one the rear brake and the third, the clutch. The clutch lever, which would be mounted on the left handlebar, had a ratchet with three positions: engaged, neutral or off. The brake lever was on the right end, with the throttle cable using a twist lever rather than a rotating grip, as the intent was to set the gas at the desired speed and buzz merrily along without having to adjust anything.
Owners were advised to shake their machines briefly before starting, in order to get the oil properly mixed into the gas. Pedal down the road in neutral, get some speed, engage the clutch and putta, putta, putta, you were off and running. BSA claimed a top speed of 25 mph was possible—though a slight downgrade would obviously help. A cruising speed of 20 mph was recommended, with the manual advising the owner not to over-stress the engine. The advertising also claimed that the Winged Wheel “requires no real mechanical knowledge to run or maintain.”
The manual did suggest that the cylinder head be removed and the accumulated “coke” be scraped off every thousand or so miles, the same with the muffler. And the air cleaner should be regularly cleaned—although our photo model has no real air cleaner, but merely a wire screen useful for keeping stones and small birds out of the carburetor’s intake.
Before the first year was done BSA began selling these Winged Wheels already mounted on BSA bicycles, either gents or ladies styles, using a specially built frame with a Webb girder fork, sprung units with a very small hub front brake. The engine’s magneto used a coil to power headlight and taillight.
Winged Wheels were also being sold in the United States, either through Rich Child on the East Coast or Hap Alzina on the West, though apparently not widely advertised. The Schwinn bicycle seen here originally had a coaster brake at the rear, and no front brake, but the Wheel’s single-leading-shoe brake works very well. Apparently no lights came with this unit, as the Schwinn has lights powered by the friction generator on the rear wheel.
However, BSA was rather late in the mobility game with the cycle-motor. Mopeds, purpose-built machines with flyweight engines, were already on the market in 1954, and received with great enthusiasm. These bolt-ons were fast losing consumers.
BSA responded by building the mechanically unreliable, and hence unloved, 70cc Dandy scooterette in 1956, which did have the benefit of 15-inch wheels. In 1957 BSA sold its bicycle line to the Raleigh company, and all interest in producing the Winged Wheel was lost. According to records, some 29,000 of the units were made, and less than 300 are known to survive today.