Despite the ship going down, the Victor Special proved that somebody at BSA still cared about creating a great motorcycle.
While the large-capacity four-stroke single defined the British motorcycle industry for several decades, it is ironic that one of the final British big singles, the BSA Victor 441, originated from a basic 150cc commuter.
BSA bought Triumph in 1951 and following the introduction of the 150cc Terrier and 200cc Tiger Cub in 1953, BSA introduced a similar 250cc C15 in 1958. Compared with the usual British single, Edward Turner’s Terrier and Tiger Cub looked extremely advanced.
The high-specification overhead-valve engine included a die-cast aluminium cylinder head with the engine and gearbox as one unit. Unfortunately, both the Terrier and Tiger Cub were initially stricken with problems, but these were gradually ironed out over the next few years and tens of thousands of riders worldwide learnt to ride on these humble machines.
BSA’s C15 initially had a lot going for it. The Cub’s dimensions of 63x64mm went up to 67x70mm and it was significantly lighter and more compact than its C12 predecessor. The C15 soon evolved into C15T Trials and C15S Scrambler and during the early 1960s the C15 was the only bike making money for BSA. In 1961 it grew to the 343cc B40 through a bore increase to 79mm with a fragile sporting SS90 introduced in 1962.
By 1964 BSA’s future looked promising and, with money to burn, the jewel in the crown was the factory motocross team. Under the guidance of Brian Martin and Ernie Webster, progressive boring and stroking of the C15 initially resulted in an unsuccessful 420cc motor and eventually an alloy-engined 441cc version. With a Ken Sprayson-modified C15S frame, Jeffrey Victor “Whizzo” Smith took the 1964 and 1965 500cc World Motocross Championships, with the bike named “Victor” after Smith’s middle name.
The production B44 441cc Victor Scrambler and Victor Enduro Trail appeared for 1965, the 79x90mm engine featuring an alloy barrel, a strengthened crankcase and stronger main bearings than the B40. Also included was Jeff Smith’s two-way damped front fork but the Victor had a number of fundamental flaws that plagued it over the years. As the earliest street-legal models were little more than motocrossers with lights they retained the 11:1 compression of the race bikes and were fitted with Lucas’ temperamental “Energy Transfer” battery-less ignition system. Trying to kick-start a big, high-compression four-stroke single with intermittent spark was a challenge.
NO SMALL CHANGE
Several B44 versions appeared over the next few years, notably the VR Roadster in 1967 and SS Shooting Star for 1968, before arguably the quintessential B44, the 1969 441 Victor Special. Produced only for export markets, the B44 engine now included a wider mating surface between the crankcase and chaincase to combat perennial oil leaks but, as the bottom end remained that of a 350, reliability was questionable and the light flywheels contributed to rough low rpm power delivery. Although the gearbox was improved that year, torque could still bend the gearbox mainshaft and clutch slip was a problem.
Another welcome improvement was a change to UNF Unified threads, replacing a cocktail of BSF, CEI, Whitworth and BA threads that had made working on the earlier models a nightmare for the home mechanic. Other improvements included a new 7.0-inch twin-leading shoe front drum brake, while a lower, 9.5:1 compression ratio, battery and coil ignition and even a heat shield for the boot-level exhaust contributed to an easier machine to live with.
The claimed output was 30 horsepower at 6000rpm, good enough for a theoretical top speed of 155km/h. Fortunately the vibration ensured the 441 never spent much time flat out, saving the motor from self destruction. Where the Victor Special really scored was that it was effectively a 250 on steroids.
At 125kg ready to roll and anorexically slim, the weight and size were comparable to a motocross machine.
Once the knack of starting was mastered, the 441 Victor Special becomes a serious and sensible classic alternative. Contemporary road tests praised the 441 Victor Special engine as “a paradigm of flexibility” and the suspension “almost perfect for knocking around the rough.”
The BSA C15 and some of the later derivatives were frequently attacked for epitomising all that was bad, old-fashioned, slow and unreliable about British bikes but that is doing the 441 a disservice. By 1969 BSA may have been in its death-throws but the 441 Victor Special showed that someone at BSA still cared about creating a great motorcycle.
Many thanks to John Gee of Antique Motorcycles, Cheltenham, Victoria, for the use of the BSA 441 featured.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Join the BSA Owners Club:
New South Wales
The International BSA Club is a great resource
A British Bike forum:
A great site for British bikes:
BSA, or Birmingham Small Arms, was once the largest motorcycle manufacturer in Britain. During the 1950s, 75,000 motorcycles left the factory at Small Heath in South Birmingham each year.
BSA was known primarily for producing “bread and butter” machines, largely for the British Army and many police forces around the world. The B40 was the British Army’s standard motorcycle until 1978 when the Can-Am Bombardier replaced it.
After Jeff Smith won the 1964 and 1965 500cc World Motocross Championships BSA produced a lighter 500cc machine for 1966. Built at a cost of around $250,000 this was nearly all titanium and was a failure. The experimental titanium frame reduced weight, but it was prone to cracking and the special techniques required to weld titanium meant it couldn’t be repaired in the field.
During 1968 and 1969 John Banks campaigned a steel-frame 499cc BSA Victor, finishing second both years in the 500cc World Motocross Championship. It was now the end of the line for four-strokes in motocross but BSA had claimed two 500cc world championships with an engine that started life as only 150cc.
For 1971 BSA released three versions of the 499cc B50: the B50SS, B50 T Trail and MX Scrambler. These all included a new frame that incorporated the oil tank, the 84x90mm engine now with a larger big end, three main bearings and a strengthened drivetrain. The final B50 was built in 1973 but the B50 engine was still used as the basis for British-made CCM motocross and trials machines until the early 1980s.
What’s it worth?
Price new (1969) $950
Now fair $9,000
Article by Ian Falloon