Lightning Strikes

      

The Lightning was the backbone of BSA in the 1960s and when Shahwar Hussain rode a restored example, he found that it still retains a lot of thunder.

 

Photographs: Ramesh Pathania

 

Big British twins are the bikes to ride and own. Riding is the easy part but owning them is not. They are in such high demand that in recent years the prices have practically shot through the roof. I guess among all the post war British twins, the BSA Golden Flash A10 commands the highest price. There are better bikes than the A10 of the same period but few of them could match the kind of glamour that is associated with the A10, with the possible exception of the Triumph twins.

In 1962, BSA launched the 650cc A65 Lightning. It was a natural progression from the successful Golden Flash. The Lightning is ruggedly built, fun to ride with its deep exhaust note. It is stylish in a typically British understated way. And it has loads of attitude too. We don’t get to see much of the beautiful Lightning in this part of the world, the man made ones I mean. The heavenly lightning is in abundance and is beautiful too, but each year they kill dozens of people. So I will stick to the earthly Lightning, it is safer any day. All the A65s that I had come across (actually that’s only a few of them), needed restoration in varying degrees but the one I came across a few days back was a beautifully restored 1969 A65. One look at it and I knew that the bike would move as well as it looks.

A year back, the Lightning was a far cry from its present glory. Its owner, Fateh Singh, faced some persistent problems and the bike would stop every two kilometers. It was a Lightning, yes, but it had lost all its brilliance. By the time it was delivered to restorer Gurmukh Singh’s garage, the engine had packed up in totality and there was no compression worth the name. The pistons had seized because all the oil lines were jammed but luckily, the seized pistons did not damage the barrel too much. Of course the barrels had to be bored out and British made Hapolite sleeves were put in, which comfortably took in standard sized AE (Associated Engineering) pistons.

Comparatively, this A65 was in a much better condition, mechanically. Other than the pistons, the engine did not need any drastic changes. Well, since the engine was dismantled, it made perfect sense to change all the bearings, if even only for mental satisfaction. New valves were put in but the valve guides had to be made out of gunmetal.

 

Most BSA bikes had excellent gearboxes but some had niggling problems. When stripped, the Lightning’s gearbox did not show too much of wear and tear but anyway the bushes and bearings were changed. The single biggest weak point of this motorcycle is the gear-shifting shaft. The shaft that also incorporates the shifter and the dog very often bends and wears out. Even if the shaft bush wears out on one side, the shaft stands a chance of getting bent and damaged. And it is so rare; it might take months to get hold of another shaft.

This Lightning is fitted with a Mikuni carburetor, sourced from a Royal Enfield Bullet 500. Since the size of the jets has been increased, it performs admirably and shows no sign of fuel starvation even on hard acceleration. This is the single carbureted version of the A65 and initially had an Amal monoblock. But new monoblocks are very hard to come by and when an Amal concentric carburetor was fitted on, there was hardly any space left for the air filter. So, Mikuni it was. BSA had continuously worked on the development of the A65 and by the end of its production run, many of the problems were ironed out. The A65 had become much more reliable and a less leaky bike to ride.

 

Electricals were always a major cause of headache for these classic motorcycles but since the A65 was fitted with an alternator it made things that much easier. Both the coils and the two contact breaker points were also changed and now starting the bike holds no terror. Some of the old components were so well made that they just needed a bit of servicing, for them to start working like new. The alternator, still in its original form, works perfectly and charges the 12volt battery more than adequately.

Done up in sandle wood gold, black with lots of chrome and the starburst tank badge screaming at you, the bike looks just stunning. The engine has been sand blasted while the clutch, gearbox and tepid covers have been buffed. And I was right. It does move as beautifully as it looks. It roared to life with one kick and soon started purring delightfully at idling speed. Just opening the throttle lets out a deep-throated rumble from the twin exhaust that is symphony to any motorcycle enthusiast’s ears. The clutch, which has seven plates, is surprisingly smooth and as I

dropped it after engaging the first gear, I got a fair bit of wheel spin. Wow! I thought, not bad at all for a 35-year-old bike. The four-speed gearbox was very precise and on sharp turns, the bike held its own. The swing arm got new gunmetal bushing and this also helped keep the bike steady, although the road holding and handling was definitely compromised a little because of the rear tyre that was not of the specific size. The front tyre has 3.80 x 18 while the rear has been shodded with 100/90 x 18 MRF tyres. The specified tyres are a bit fatter but they are not easily available in India. Fathe plans to import them in the near future.

 

The sitting position is a bit laid back due to the slightly raised handle bar but it is comfortable. Up front I could see the Smiths chronometric speedo and the chromed headlight dome with the idiot lights. One of these lights is for the high beam and the other is an oil pressure light. But knowing old technology, I wonder how effective the oil pressure light will be. The Lightning is capable of speed in excess of 100mph but unfortunately I couldn’t figure out how fast I was riding because the speedo didn’t have a cable. The speedo drive is located in the rear wheel and the long cable had to be locally made. It’s still on its way though.

We have been spoilt silly by disc brakes and somehow feel rather insecure on drum brakes, especially while riding fast bikes. But the 9-inch front drum brake of the Lightning is very effective indeed and safe with this knowledge, I opened up the throttle quite a bit. But thankfully, I didn’t have to test the braking powers. The bike rides so smooth and the rumble is so very addictive that I wouldn’t blame a rider if he decides to go whole hog. But of course you have to be a nut case to do that kind of stuff.

 

Throughout the swinging 60s, the Lightning twin formed the backbone of BSA. In fact it was so popular that BSA went overboard and at one point of time there were eleven different versions of the Lightning! But the 650 sold the most. Anyway, better sense prevailed and the range was trimmed down to six.

Racing was important to the manufacturers and the Lightning was the all round sportsbike for BSA. It was an able rival to the Thunderbolt and the Spitfire and held its own against some superior machines. Later on with the arrival of the multicylindered bikes, the Lightning was relegated to sports tourer, a role that it took to with great élan.

As far as post war twin goes, the Golden Flash and the Triumph twins took all the limelight but it was a Lightning that James Bond got onto. One that was fitted with car seeking missiles! Well, the one that I rode had a similar type of engine but had a lot less thunder! After all I don’t have a license to kill. I only thrill myself with Lightning. '