Assuming that President Trump doesn’t invade North Korea, instigate World War III and transform us all into radioactive dust, and that there is a still an interest in British motorcycles 50 years from now, the most transparent window on to the reasons for the death of the British motorcycle industry might well be the BSA/Triumph Triples – a tragedy which would have made Shakespeare proud.

Currently, the three cylinder machines have a fanatical following and their acolytes will hear no wrong of them. However, this is what Bert Hopwood, BSA Group Engineering Director, thought of the model in 1981.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
BSA Rocket 3.

“The triple machine which found its way to market in 1968 was a flop and it was not until we reverted to the original prototype style that it started to sell and earn revenue. It (the BSA/Triumph Triple) should have been in production in 1963, thus five years of production were lost, the Japanese became ever more firmly entrenched and our reputation suffered yet another severe setback.”

So what went wrong – and right too, for this very simple machine did achieve some outstanding results?

The wrong element is multi-layered but is centered on weak senior management and political infighting, which made the Roman court of Caligula look like a kindergarten Christmas party.

Let’s start at the very beginning. The oft-quoted myth is that Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele, Triumph’s Chief Development Engineer, were like father and son. This is wrong in fact. I came to know Doug reasonably well, and I was the last person to interview him just a few days before his death. Hele’s view of Hopwood was unambivalent: he neither liked nor respected him.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
BSA – once the letters stood for quality and style, but not on the Rocket 3.

This is how Hele described the much-vaunted BSA MC1 that Hopwood had designed as a world-beating racer.

“It had a quite serious set-back, in so far as the valves were the wrong way round and so would not open. The radial valves couldn’t work because they got entangled. But it was very stylish…
“The bike wouldn’t have handled either. The original frame was very much like a 7R and simply would not have worked in a racing environment. Other than that, it was very stylish.”

In 1962, Hele had been headhunted from Norton by Hopwood. Doug jumped at the opportunity because Norton had been taken over by AMC and was becoming very much the junior partner in the enlarged company.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
For its day, the Rocket 3 was a big lump of a motorcycle.

Hopwood, to his credit, saw the end of the road for the 650cc Twins. In particular, he disliked the harshness of the larger Triumph Twins as ever more power was squeezed out of them. The problem was that the Twins were the children of the autocratic Edward Turner whose word was law at Triumph – and within the wider BSA Group too. Senior management’s adoration of Turner was to be a major issue in the Triple tragedy.

Hele, an enthusiastic advocate for three cylinder engines, felt that the only solution was to add another cylinder to the 500cc Triumph Twin and provide a stopgap Triple until the planned OHC engines came on stream.

Turner famously thought the idea “potty” – not for any engineering reasons but simply because the new engine was not a Twin but a Triple.

Regardless, Hopwood recalls the moment that the Triple egg was actually fertilized.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
With its 15-degree forward cant, the Rocket 3’s engine looks much sportier than the vertical Trident version.

“One evening, late in 1963, after everyone had gone home, we sat in his (Hele’s) office and to amuse ourselves we laid out the basic outline of what later became the 750cc, three cylinder Trident.

“We thought that the result was very encouraging indeed, but in view of the rather abortive conversation which I had already had with the Managing Director (Edward Turner), this drawing was filed away as a memento.”

In fact, this is not what happened. Doug had a drawing board in his front room at home and there, in his own time, he drew the Triple engine – and, in view of the constraints he was working under, he was very proud of the design.

This is Hele again. ““He (Hopwood) was also keen to claim credit wherever possible. The Triumph T150 Triple was entirely my design regardless of what Hopwood, or anyone else, said later. I drew the Triumph Triple completely unaided and on my own.”

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
Styling touches looked old-fashioned and home spun at the bike’s launch.

Doug had the complete engine drawings finished by early 1964. It’s worth remembering that this is a full five years before Honda’s 750 four cylinder machine and even a year before the Japanese factory’s launch of the CB450 Twin.

This point needs stressing. Triumph could have been selling their 750cc Triple when the biggest, and fastest, Japanese opposition came from the 450cc Honda.

The BSA Group stood in front of an open goal, with the ball ready to kick and the opposition team not even in the stadium – but only by concentrating a lot of effort on the bike.

Much as I admire Hele, and my admiration – and affection – for this wonderful engineer is truly unbounded, Doug was not a great designer. A more apposite description would be to say that he was the world’s best garden shed designer and the Triple reflects this. As a piece of practical, cost saving engineering using the minimum of new tooling, the engine is the work of genius. Critically, it could have been garden shed cheap, as well as garden shed simple, to put into production.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Rocket 3 is a big bike for a classic.

Not that the first version of the Triple engine was fit for purpose because it wasn’t. Norman Hyde was an apprentice in the Triumph experimental department and remembers that Hele’s first version of the Triple was full of faults.

“There were problems with the oil pump which was of shaft drive design. The iron barrels were also a real issue and caused the cylinder head to leak. But the biggest issue was with the gear primary drive. The co-efficient of expansion of aluminum, and the distance between the crankshaft and the clutch, meant that the gear drive was never going to be successful – and it wasn’t!

“The bore and stroke of the engine was altered from the original 63mm x 80mm, which was the configuration of the pre-unit Speedtwin, to 67mm x 70mm used on the unit construction singles.”

Despite the engine not being ready for production, Hele took the finished design into Meriden and there were two reactions. First, Hopwood took over the project and claimed credit for it. Secondly, it immediately became mired in BSA Group politics.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
Bits of the Rocket 3, like the slightly humped seat from earlier models, do look right.

With the nominal retirement of Edward Turner, although he did remain as a non-Executive Director of the BSA Group and his looming specter still walked the corridors of power both at Small Heath and Meriden, McKinseys – a US company of management consultants – were brought in to completely re-vamp the company.

Harry Sturgeon was appointed Group Managing Director. He came from the Churchill Grinding Machine Company, another BSA company, but knew nothing about motorcycles.

The politics are important to the practical story of the Triple because all the BSA group senior management had bigger fish to fry than Doug’s garden shed special. Harry Sturgeon was obsessive about increasing production and, from an outsider’s point of view, Triumph were selling everything they could make so what could possibly be wrong?

As McKinseys tried to build a single, highly centralized motorcycle manufacturing entity within the BSA Group, so the infighting and desire to protect individual empires became ever more frenetic.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Rocket 3’s manual choke and steel controls were pure 1950s.

One Triple prototype, the P1, was made and, in a wonderfully ironic reprise of Turner’s shoe horning of his Speedtwin engine into the chassis of Triumph’s single cylinder Tiger 90, Hele squeezed the new three cylinder engine into a Bonneville frame. And what a lovely thing it was too – very Bonnevilleish and yet clearly different.

There were initial problems with the width of the engine and cylinder head gasket sealing but these were quickly resolved and the bike was ready for production in the autumn of 1965 – ready for the critical spring selling season in the USA.

Norman Hyde again. “The bike had flaws but we had skilled fitters who were capable of looking at fits and suggesting solutions to management. I was an apprentice but even I was involved in the discussions. Bert Hopwood would come down and say to me, “Well young Hyde, what do you think of this?”

So what stopped the Triple going into production? First, and most importantly, the re-organization of the BSA Group motorcycle manufacturing in an attempt to unify it and the demotion, or early retirement, of key managers.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Rocket 3’s instrumentation was not state of the art.

Ariel was closed and the already tense relations between BSA and Triumph reached new heights. It was said, with a degree of justification, that Triumph would rather share their research with Honda than BSA – and, to be fair, vice versa was equally true!

Then there was a chaotic dilution of effort. Hopwood wanted a modular family of Singles, Twins and Triples and these were to be based around an 83cc Single that would morph into a 249cc Triple. There was to be an eight speed, DOHC, GP racer and a six-speed SOHC road bike. All this was wonderful – but nothing happened and meanwhile the eminently production-ready Triple prototype remained at the back of the queue.

Turner also had his hand in the pie and, in semi-retirement, had designed the disastrous BSA Bandit/Triumph Fury Triple which suffered from a multitude of engineering problems.

It’s worth recording just how bad this engine was. Here is an extract from Hopwood’s report on the bike to the BSA Main Board.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
Despite the counts against it, the Rocket 3 gives a thoroughly modern ride.

“The complete motorcycle (BSA Fury/Triumph Bandit) we have on test now has 5400 miles registered and in this mileage 3000 have been completed by a tester who rode most of the time at very low speeds because of the severe problems.

“The machine used four pints of oil every 100 miles and the tests are worthless because of a lack of power. The other 2400 miles by various riders embraced four complete rebuilds of the engine unit due to failures of the crankshaft, gudgeon pins and main bearings.

“The frame of the machine has already been redesigned due to excess flexibility in the main, which constituted a hazard and the front forks are also considered to be fundamentally unsafe.”

Another shambles was taking place at Small Heath and this was a very different elephant squeezing into the Group’s already overcrowded R&D bathroom.

Jeff Smith had won the 1964 and 1965 World 500cc Motocross Championship and the BSAists were determined to get a third world title – if only to put their sworn enemies at Meriden in their place!

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Ogle-designed tank enjoyed the unflattering sobriquet of the bread bin.

BSA Competition Manager Brian Martin’s idea was to build the lightest 500cc motocross bike in the world. It was to have an all titanium frame and the engine was largely magnesium and titanium. In terms of engineering, this was at the far end of cutting edge – and it was a disaster.

On paper, the bike was a world-beater. Four-stroke pulling power and traction with the weight of a two-stroke should have swept all before it but things went disastrously wrong right from the start and the Ti bike was soon scrapped.

Not only did the Ti BSA consume a huge amount of money and engineering time but there was another, unreported, problem. Before his untimely death I was very close friends with Fred Barlow who, as an apprentice, worked on the Ti project. Fred and I spent many happy hours discussing the tales of the numerous “foreigners” which were done by BSA tool room staff to help the race team. These unofficial jobs caused BSA Works Manager, Al Cave, to call Fred, and his race shop colleagues, “The worst of professional thieves” because they not only stole materials but vital, and irreplaceable, tool room time and staff, from production R&D effort.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
Triple thoroughbreds.

Could things get worse? Well, yes they could – and considerably so too. At the time, the distribution for the BSA Group products was a shambles. Triumph Baltimore and Triumph Los Angeles handled Meriden products whilst East Coast BSA sales were in the hands of BSA New Jersey and in the West by the privately owned Hap Alzina Company based in Oakland, California. Johnson Motors had been bought out by the BSA Group but the old rivalry between TriCor, on the East Coast, and JoMo on the West still remained. In short, the situation was a total and utter chaotic mess with rivalry not only between East and West Coast BSA Group organizations but also a BSA versus Triumph pistols-at-dawn shootout too.

If the rivalry between Meriden and Small Heath was fierce in England it was near psychopathic in the US with each organization running their own race teams and often battling it out for publicity with their sister company. It would have never happened in Japan.

The realpolitik of the situation was that any new BSA Group product which looked like a money-spinner had to be given, in fair shares, to both BSA and Triumph dealers. This, I feel, more than any other factor, was the reason for the two different versions of the Triple.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Triple exhausts look terrible but actually work very well even as far as production racing.

Meanwhile, in this maelstrom of political infighting and management ineptitude, Hele’s garden shed special took a back seat, which was a real shame because the bike worked a treat. Now acceptably slim after some more Hele tweaking, the engine produced a reliable and consistent 58 horsepower at 7250 rpm – against 45ish from a Bonneville – and was smooth and torquey. Almost as important, just like Turner’s Speedtwin, the emotional gap from the old bike to the new one was narrow because the new Triple felt very Triumphy.

Again, like a Speedtwin, the weight was perfect being only 40-pounds heavier than a Bonnie. Now, Triumph owners could have a much faster, smoother and sexier bike but one that didn’t alienate them: perfect in every way for the 1965 season.

But no. That would have been too sensible.

The crunch came when Harry Sturgeon, who had been very ill with a brain tumor, announced the news that Honda were about to release a 750cc four cylinder bike. Now this really was a gigantic tank parked on the BSA Group’s lawn and the Board went into full panic mode in an attempt to give their dealers something with which they could compete. In actual fact, it wasn’t going to be a something but two somethings to keep American dealers sweet.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
Are the Rocket 3’s ray gun silencers worthy of the hate we heaped on them originally?

At this point in the story, it would be easy to criticize Ogle Design and the mess they made of the Triples’ styling. Certainly, at the time, I was right at the front of the loathing queue. As a 16 year old, I knew what a British sports bike should look like and it was predicated on being sleek and feline – with an undisguised eagerness to go fast.

Now, with the benefit of long sight, and maybe even a tiny smidgen of wisdom, I can see what happened. In 1967, anything was possible – as long as it was “modern” – and with a capital M. You could walk past a tip and see Victorian mahogany sideboards piled up for firewood simply for being old fashioned. I had, very briefly before she dumped me for being far beneath her social standing, a girlfriend whose proudest possession was a piece of plastic on a pink, Terylene cord which her brother had brought back from Carnaby Street. Modern was good – and everything else was bad.

Ogle Design had already styled the Raleigh Chopper bicycle – a truly dreadful thing – and were now given the task of making the Triples properly space age. The problem was that the brief from BSA was vague and confusing. Jim English, from Ogle, remembers the shambles. “We were told they (BSA) wanted a flashy American look, like a Cadillac. We really let our hair down doing futuristic stuff. I never thought that BSA would go for my flared silencer with three tail pipes. To be honest, as a motorcyclist, I thought that the Triumph they brought in (the P2 prototype) looked fine just as it was.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Rocket 3 rates right alongside the Munch Mammot and MV Agusta in terms of presence.

So, instead of the lithe, slim, sporty and eager 120mph sports bike we all wanted, Ogle gave us a dumpy, square machine borrowed from a Flash Gordon comic strip – and we enthusiastically reviled it.

Most of all we hated the “ray gun” silencers, which gave the bike a big fat bum – and, in the interests of political correctness, I’ll not explore this area further!

If the styling was a mess, the specification wasn’t much better. At this point, let me reiterate the launch date: 1968. If the bike had been on sale three years earlier, things would have been very different.

The problems began the moment a Triple was wheeled out of the garage because the engines needed kicking into life: no electric boot here. The starting procedure was straight from the 1950s motorcyclists’ handbook. “Tickle” the outside of the two Amal carburetors – a wonderfully sanitized verb which meant that you held the float chamber down until petrol slobbered all over your gloves and on to the engine.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
BSA Rocket 3.

Then, set the cable operated choke at ¼, ½ or ¾ position according to the ambient temperature and swing the long kick-starter until the engine coughed into life. In 1958, this was acceptable. Ten years later it wasn’t.

The Triples were four-speeders which was inexcusable. Six-speed gearboxes were very well proven in racing. They could be bought over the counter by anyone with a healthy bank account from Austrian Michael Schafleitner from the late 1950s. In 1965, Quaife Engineering in England began making five speed clusters and these were used by Triumph for racing.

An ultra-modern, space age, flagship product absolutely demanded a five-speed gearbox.

BSA also knew about disc brakes. They had used an Airheart disc on the ill-fated Ti motocross machine and their West Coast office was well aware of the Lockhart discs. Instead, they chose to use the twin leading shoe front brake from the existing Bonneville range.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The Rocket 3’s engine is always impressive.

Despite anything Ogle tried do with the styling, kick-starting a four-speed gearbox and drum brakes made the Triple old fashioned at launch.

Of the two bikes, my teenage loyalty drifted towards BSA. I knew that one day, when I was a big boy, I was going to grow up and race motocross and be a World Champion on a BSA and lots of pretty girls wearing little, tiny, fluorescent yellow mini-skirts and circle stitched bras would sit in the front of my van and share my bag of chips and look admiringly and, hopefully, longingly too at the big trophy on the dashboard – and maybe even a little bit at me too. Incredibly, a few bits of the fantasy actually happened so you never know your luck in life’s raffle…

The BSA “Flamboyant Red” was nicer than Triumph and the fifteen-degree inclination on the cylinders also looked sportier than the Trident’s upright cylinders. Finally, the BSA duplex frame was much racier. Given an alloy tank, a pair of clip-ons, some rear-sets and meggas, my 16-year-old brain could see me riding a Rocket 3.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The alloy rear light is one of the few bits of the Ogle design which hardcore BSAists liked at the Rocket 3 launch.

The problem was that, like all garden shed specials, the engine was a nightmare to mass produce. The two valve, push-rod operated engine was superficially simple, and old fashioned, but the asymmetric, vertically split crankcases were a cheap solution to expensive tooling.

As for an electric starter, this was absolutely necessary – but only the Japanese would provide it for you.

Disregarding Ogle’s lumpen appearance, the rest of the cycle parts were actually rather nice. The Rocket 3 duplex frame was a typical BSA product and provided excellent handling. Interestingly, Norman Hyde – a Triumph man to the core – doesn’t like it. Truly, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Hele was very familiar with both the Oldani and Fontana brakes and you can see the Italian manufacturers’ influence in the rough cast, eight-inch twin leading shoe front brake from the 1968 Bonneville which is really rather good. Certainly, this race-derived stopper is light years better than the die cast, conical brake which replaced it. The seven-inch rear brake, although dating from the 1950s, works okay.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
The eight-inch twin leading shoe front brake was old-fashioned but worked as well as the front fork.

The narrow front mudguard is really neat and enthusiasm for the “3” starts to build – until you reach the really crude Smiths speedometer and tachometer which, accompanied by crude switch gear and wiring, is straight back to the 1950s.

So what did you get for your $1800? The first thing was a real shock. In 1968, the average annual wage – what a skilled US tradesman would be earning – was around $5000 so it was going to take a quarter of your gross annual earnings to buy a Triple.

Then you got what was effectively a Bonneville with an extra cylinder and one with styling you didn’t like. Finally, quality control was extremely variable so you could expect to be taking your lovely new bike back to a BSA dealer near you on a regular basis.

Against this, the Rocket 3 was the fastest production bike readily available, handled well and stopped too.

BSA Rocket 3 Triple
A tubby thing for a classic.

Today, the package is better – but still much the same. There is no argument that a sublimely restored Rocket 3, such as the one we had on test, is one of the most impressive classic motorcycles in the world. It’s big, with a huge personality, and sits right alongside exotica like the Münch Mammut or MV Agusta America. Compared to the top hitters in the classic world, a truly top rate Rocket 3 is actually rather cheap at $18,000.

A well-sorted Triple is also one of the few classics capable of running right alongside modern retro bikes in terms of speed – certainly in license retaining territory speeds. So, there is much to like and a lot to recommend the Rocket 3 – and then there isn’t. The Triple still has to be kicked into life, remains a four-speeder and is both wider and heavier than a Bonneville or Spitfire and these, despite whatever Triple enthusiasts might argue, are facts.

So, for me, I would have a BSA Spitfire every day which is lighter, handles better, is virtually as fast and looks drop gorgeous too. And I’d enjoy looking at the $7500 I’d saved over the cost of a Rocket 3.

Our thanks to Lawrence Rose, of Classic Motorcycles Ltd, for the loan of this truly stunning Rocket 3.

Photos courtesy of Frank Melling.