Rickman BSA Rocket 3 review: Bike Detectives

Date 16.4.2015

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader

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RICKMAN ROCKET 3 BSA

RICKMAN’S ROCKET

Long before World Superbikes in 1988 there was the Formula 750 championship, first won by a certain Barry Sheene in 1973, then Aussies John Dodds in 1974 and Jack Findlay in 1975. By 1977 it had become so popular many expected it would soon replace the 500cc Grand Prix class.

Instead the domination of one model, Yamaha’s TZ750, effectively killed F750 and the class reappeared a decade later as World Superbikes.

The FIM’s F750 championship had its roots in 1971, when the American Motorcyclist Association and Britain’s Auto-Cycle Union combined to develop a class that limited engine capacity to 750cc but gave free rein in the choice of frames, suspension and brakes.

That first year was the last hurrah for Brits in world racing. Rob North-framed F750 triples (both BSA and Triumph versions) won every major race: the Daytona 200, the Isle of Man TT’s F750 (and Production event), the Bol d’Or endurance classic, America’s rich Ontario 250 (with a $100,000 first prize), and the Race of the Year at Mallory Park.

While the frontrunners in all those events ran special factory-produced frames (Norton even tried a monocoque version), the privateers had plenty of options, including Seeley and Rickman.

Don and Derek Rickman had been selling frame kits since 1960. Initially aimed at the motocross crowd, by 1966 they were providing tarmac kit for privateer road racers and street-legal derivatives for road riders.

ROCKET, MAN

The Rickman-framed Rocket 3 featured here is the brothers’ ultimate British road burner. Part of their Competition Replica, or CR, range, it dates from 1972, the last year of major production of BSA’s three-cylinder.

Designed in 1965, the Rocket 3 finally went into production in 1969 and was faster than its major rival, Honda’s K1 750.

Four years later bad management decisions burnt BSA. It disappeared when a new British motorcycle manufacturing conglomerate – Norton-Villiers-Triumph – was created. Soon a revised Triumph Trident, called the T160, used the sloping cylinders of the defunct Rocket 3.

By 1972 Rickman had travelled a long and inventive commercial road. In the mid-1960s it had worked with cylinder-head specialist Harry Weslake to produce and market an eight-valve conversion for Triumph’s twin. In 1969 UK world champion Phil Read was involved with both Weslake and the Rickmans to develop a privateer Grand Prix 500cc eight-valve engine in a Rickman frame. It was stillborn.

The next year the Rickmans scooped up 200 Royal Enfield Interceptor 736cc twin engines cheaply to build and sell nearly 140 Rickman Interceptors.

rickman-bsa-1-500

In 1974 they were gonged with the Queen’s Award to Industry, the same year NVT went belly-up. By now the Rickman brothers had a huge export business, selling frames around the world to house Honda and then Kawasaki four-cylinder engines. In the late 1970s they produced a kit for Suzuki’s GS1000 – not bad considering all these frames shared the basic design of the 1966 original.

In the 1980s the Rickmans sold parts of their business to concentrate on designing and marketing kit cars. Now you can buy new Rickman frames from three different suppliers to house a range of motocross and street engines.

Don and Derek were never forgotten. In 2007 the brothers were inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in the US. What was so special about their frames?

ART IN MOTION

Any Rickman is instantly recognised by its shiny nickel-plated frame. Some people think it is chrome but that slightly yellow hue is the last process before the chrome is applied. The effect is an understated glow that oozes class, not crassness. It’s been a feature of the Rickman frame since the first scramble kit was produced in 1960. Before that the brothers experimented fitting Triumph twin engines into BSA frames with Norton forks to get a lighter, better-handling motocrosser.

The first version of the Rickman echoed many aspects of BSA’s design.

The most enduring version used Norton Featherbed-style steering head tubing for extra rigidity.

The Rickmans raced their products all over Europe and the UK. They used the French word ‘Metisse’ to describe their hybrid race winner. This translates to either ‘mixed breed’ or ‘mongrel’ depending on which school you went to.

When the Rickmans started making road racing kits they simply applied this technology to a longer, lower chassis that had similar dimensions to the famous Ducati bevel-drive twins of the next decade.

The main cradle was large enough to house every British twin, from a Norton Commando (with separate gearbox and clutch) to Triumph’s compact Bonneville. All you needed were the right duralumin engine plates.

Abbreviated versions housed Grand Prix-eligible engines.

For example, Kel Carruthers ran a Rickman-framed Aermacchi and the Metisse name continued to appear in the GP Constructors’ Championship as late as 1969. That year Brit Alan Barnett took his Matchless G50-powered Rickman Metisse to second behind Giacomo Agostini’s MV Agusta in the Isle of Man’s Senior TT. So the handling was okay then.

The frame’s downtubes contain the engine oil, with a small clear plastic tube enabling the level to be checked at a glance. Chain adjustment is a simple matter of undoing the swingarm pivot nuts and inserting eccentric discs on each side that ensure correct wheel alignment.

Rickman was the first to offer a disc brake. The company worked with Lockheed to develop a system that originally used the discs off a Triumph Herald car. It also worked with Spanish firm Betor to develop forks in ever increasing diameters up to 40mm. The stanchions may look sturdy but they have very thin-wall tubing and must never be straightened if bent in an accident.

BEEZA BEAUTY

This Rickman, part of the National Motorcycle Museum’s collection at Nabiac, NSW, could be considered a 1972 version but it was probably built closer to the 1980s.

How come? To answer the question, ask yourself this question: how long would it take you to buy a kit frame and build up a motorcycle? While you’re pondering that, let’s look at the facts.

Very few Rickman chassis were fitted with Triumph Trident engines and even fewer with BSA’s Rocket 3. The BSA was a rare motorcycle back then. Less than 6000 Rocket 3s were made and only 1000 were built for the 1972 model year (production always started late the preceding year).

The engine number on our featured Rocket 3 would indicate it was built in August 1972, so it could be among the last 200 that left the factory.

Most engines were from insurance write-offs, which would lead to the conclusion it was most likely built as a Rickman in the late 1970s.

rickman-bsa-3-500

WANT MORE CONVINCING?

It features very Ceriani-looking forks (not the sturdy Betor legs), a tinted windscreen and Mk II Amal carburettors, the latter of which only appeared around 1978 to meet US pollution laws.

By the mid-1970s Italian company Ceriani was providing suspension components to Ducati and Moto Guzzi  as well as privateer road racers and street customisers.

However, the word Betor is stamped into these forks so you have to assume they were made in Spain.

They don’t look like the Betor forks supplied to Rickman for its British-engined chassis kits, more like the ones supplied for the Japanese-powered CR range. Why bother building up a Rocket in the late 1970s? The triple’s engine was surprisingly smooth, fast and reliable, if set up correctly.

Don’t forget that it survived as the electric-start Trident T160 until 1976.

Much of its sales success was thanks to UK folk-hero racer John Cooper.

When he won the $100,000 purse at Ontario in 1971 ‘Coops’ revved his Rocket 3 engine above 10,000rpm to beat Aussie legend Kel Carruthers’ Yamaha 350cc. It was an epic victory over a reed-valve two-stroke by a pushrod four-stroke engine designed to redline at 8000rpm.

Coops pulled off a similar victory at Mallory’s 1971 Race of the Year when he beat Ago’s three-cylinder Grand Prix MV (Ago won eight GPs in a row and the world title that season). No wonder the revheads wanted a ‘competition replica’.

Only Rickman could supply one for the street.

The catch was you had to source the engine to build it.