BSA 650 Lightning
Where do you find something brand new that’s 42 years old? The story of Stuart Strickland’s BSA Lightning is one of time, patience and a bit of luck…
Seven miles. It’s a trip to the shops, a morning jog or, for some, a walk to school ‘back in the day’. It’s also the mere spitting distance this 42-year-old 650 Lightning had travelled, until recently. And even so, those meagre miles accounted for BSA’s factory test ride before it was crated and freighted Down Under.
Just look at it: it’s a rarity and privilege to unearth something so old that’s actually brand new. We’ll occasionally hear of an unopened action figure, issue #1 of an old comic or perhaps even a classic car that’s never turned a wheel by would-be investors. Then there are the dubious pub tales about near-mythical bargains that become folklore.
But the story of the seven-mile Beezer is no fiction. Instead, it’s Stuart Strickland’s fortuitous account of patience and luck that reunited him with his bike after more than 40 years. His story also has a ring of familiarity where the responsibilities of a mortgage and young family and little disposable income hindered him from owning it outright in the first place.
Strickland’s long career in Australia’s motorcycle industry includes more than 10 years with Melbourne’s Milledge Brothers where he held a host of senior management roles for the multi-brand distributor. Milledge Brothers was the first distributor of Yamaha motorcycles outside of Japan but it was also a long-time distributor of BSA.
With the demise of BSA in the early 1970s looming, Strickland asked his then employer, Alec Milledge, if he could buy one of each of BSA’s five models and pay him at a later stage. His boss gave the nod.
Five bikes, still in their crates, were stored in the roof of Milledge’s warehouse: a B50SS Gold Star, B50T Trail, B50MX Motocross, A75 Rocket 3 and an A65L, or 650 Lightning.
They would be forgotten about for the next 40-odd years.
But before we unravel the story of these British bikes we have to digress to a Spanish one: Ossa. In the US Strickland met John Taylor, the North American distributor for Ossa and CEO of Yankee Corporation.
“Typical for a bloody Yank, he decided 250[cc] wasn’t big enough,” Strickland recalls. “So he put two 250s together and called it the Ossa Yankee.” The skunkworks beast took Strickland’s fancy and he bought one but, once home with the off-road boys, the Yankee’s monstrous heft proved too cumbersome up greasy hills.
“I struggled to start the bloody thing and keep it upright. I finally got it to the bottom of a hill and said: ‘This is the last time I take this bloody thing out!’”
The Yankee was tossed into Milledge’s collection. Fast forward to 2011 when Alec Milledge contacted Strickland asking whether he wanted his Yankee back after all these years.
“It’s not my cup of tea. But do you have any of those Beezers left, those ones I put away?”
“There might be one left. Would you like that?” asked the voice at the other end.
“‘Bloody oath!’ I said. So I ended up with that,” Strickland gestures, as he looks over at his gleaming, red machine.
Finally, after more than 40 years, Strickland was reunited with one of his five Beezers: the Lightning.
When it arrived he noticed time had been kind to it. The sun, however, had not. The tank’s paintwork had faded from years of constant exposure to sunlight while in storage. It also had a dented tank, a few knocks on the side covers and the footpeg rubbers were damaged, too. Somebody had pulled down and opened each of the five crates with little care.
“It’s a shame because they’d have been really special if they were still in their crates,” Strickland says. “Lord knows where the other four went.”
While part of Milledge’s extensive collection, the Lightning sat around in various warehouses but never fired a shot. Even the factory packing grease was still on it.
Strickland stored the bike in his shed when, a few months ago, he decided to take it to former motocross gun and historic racing mechanic, Rex Wolfenden of T-Rex Racing Developments in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
“I needed someone with good technical knowledge,” Strickland says.
“The last series of the Lightning models had a lot of warranty problems because the tooling was shagged. By this time, they weren’t too particular in the way the bikes were put together either.”
Forty-two years had gone by and the motor hadn’t been started, as Wolfenden discovered. “I shone a torch on top of the pistons and it still had ‘BSA standard’ written on top of them and the spark plugs had only a tiny trace of carbon,” he says.
A carburettor was removed and inspected. It was squeaky clean, so they didn’t bother with the other. A faulty ignition switch was replaced, too.
“We put fresh fuel and oil in and did everything you do on something brand new,” Wolfenden says.
“I tickled the carbies, brought a bit of fuel up and gently rotated it over to get the kickstarter in the right position.
“I got half-way down and it gave a little kick on my foot, which told me she just had a tiny bit of explosion.
“I then let the kickstarter come up and I didn’t even jump on it – I just gave it a decent prod and she went ‘Brum, brum, brum, brum…’ Stuart and I looked at each other in amazement.”
The farthest the bike’s been in 42 years is the odd test ride along the quiet, industrial backstreet of Wolfenden’s spotless workshop.
“It’s an amazing story,” says Wolfenden. “Where do you find something brand new that’s 42 years old? To get the goodness out of that bike it needs to be ridden at 3000-4000rpm. If you do that it’ll putt along for years.”
As a former managing director of Honda Australia, Strickland isn’t short of weird and wonderful stories from his “30 years as a Honda man”.
“I’ve heard of bikes being left in sheds, covered in chook shit, and they’ve just had a bit of fresh fuel in them and away they go,” he says. “I thought we’d have some issues getting the Beezer to fire up but we didn’t. Amazing.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
The faulty ignition switch has been replaced, the tank dent fixed, two new side covers have been ordered and a friend is cutting up some Lightning decals. After that it’s ‘job done’.
When he decides to call it a day, Strickland says he’ll pass the Beezer over to his son, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast who’s “keener on older bikes than the go-fast stuff”.
Until then, though, “I’ll look after it, put it on club plates and do a few runs with the Beezer club,” Strickland grins. “And I’m just going to enjoy it.”