Mike Hailwood’s 1971 BSA 750-3 Rob North Racer
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Mike Hailwood’s 1971 BSA 750-3 Rob North Racer

By AMCN_ - 07 April 2019
Test: Alan Cathcart Photography: Kel Edge

It’s a little-known fact Mike Hailwood raced for BSA at the Daytona 200 in 1970 and 1971. But a pair of mechanical DNFs on his Rob North-framed factory triples meant it was without the success – and the headlines – of his TT return seven years later. 

The Highboy-chassised BSA-3 Mike raced in 1970 is in the Barber Museum in Alabama, but the fate of his 1971 Lowboy is less certain. There’s a case for identifying the bike pictured here as being that machine, which now belongs to British collector Mike Braid. 

Braid invented the infinity swimming pool in his day job as a civil engineer, and has a superb collection of active historic racebikes, ranging from the ex-Bill Ivy 650 Monard twin to an ex-Loris Capirossi Ducati V4 Desmosedici MotoGP racer. 

After Hailwood’s retirement from the ’71 Daytona 200 with a holed piston, his BSA-3 was returned to the UK to be converted to short-circuit spec, and raced by Ray Pickrell in the 1971 Anglo-American Match Races. On it, Pickrell won three of the six races, but crashed in the final at Oulton Park and damaged the frame beyond repair. 

The bent-up original was consigned to acting as a jig for the Triumph factory’s metalbasher, Don Woodward, to manufacture aluminium fuel tanks for Rob North’s new design of Lowboy frames. 

After the closure of the factory, this tank jig was among the many bits and pieces that ended up in race fitter Les Williams’ Triumph spares business. Mike Braid takes up the story: 

Sir Al on Hailwood’s old bike at Brands, and in 1984 racing his own BSA-3 in the TT F1 race that supported the British GP at Silverstone.

“In1987-88 I was riding a couple of F750 Rob North triples in Classic events, and I happened to be at Les Williams’ shop getting parts for them, where I glimpsed a chassis sitting behind the counter. It turned out that it was the Lowboy frame off the ex-Mike Hailwood 1971 Daytona BSA, which Pickrell had written off at Oulton Park. It had been kicking around for a long time, and I asked Les if he wanted to sell it, and he said he would. So I bought it for not a huge amount of money, and then decided I would start collecting bits and pieces with a view to building it up as a proper factory-style bike, in the guise of a works 1971 Daytona.

 “I bought a lot of stuff from Les; wheels and various other factory parts which he let me have. I took all this to Richard Peckett of P&M Motorcycles, who is generally accepted as being the world’s best preparer of BSA/Triumph triples for Classic racing, and asked him to repair  the chassis, which had some fairly bent tubes, especially on the front.  

“It wasn’t in a very good state, but Richard is rebuilding crashed triples all the time, and his British TT F1 title-winning P&M frames speak for themselves. So I asked him to cut out all the bad stuff and rebuild it as it would have been in 1971, which he did, finishing it off in 1990. 

“Without ever claiming to be the actual Hailwood bike, but a machine recreated in the spirit of it from a collection of parts, many of them ex-works, we’ve built the bike up as close as possible to 1971 Daytona spec, to the extent that it has a factory squish cylinder head on it, which has the re-angled centre sparkplug. It’s got squish pistons, it’s got the original factory ignition system with the quill drive for the points and the Zener diodes, and it’s got the original Quaife five-speed gearbox as used in the factory bikes.  

“The tank was built by Don Woodward, who made the original fuel tanks using that very frame, and the bodywork is an original fairing.

 “Without going overboard, I’ve tried to make it as close as possible, and I feel that Richard Peckett has done a really fine job in recreating it.

 “It first ran in 1990 at the Brands Hatch Super Prix, and I bring it out from time to time at major Classic events, including the Isle of Man TT Parades.  

“It is what it is – there are only so many components in a motorbike, and if they’re reasonably close to the original then it’s going to be pretty much the same bike. The engine is as close as it’s ever going to get to the bike that was wheeled out in 1971, in an original frame that nobody disputes was raced by Mike Hailwood.” 

The chance to ride this neo-Hailwood BSA-3 came over a BSB weekend on the full Brands Hatch GP circuit – in company with some star figures from BSA’s past, including John Cooper. But I had the chance to pretend I was John, after covering a couple of laps aboard the Hailwood BSA-3 in the wheel tracks of Giacomo Agostini on his MV Agusta 500-3. 

The restored Rob North-built chassis raced by Hailwood in the 1971 Daytona 200 is now powered by an authentic recreation of the BSA three-cylinder engine.

As the former owner of a pair of F750 BSA-3s, including the factory-built Rob North-framed one that I raced in World Championship TT Formula 1 events in the mid-’80s, including the Isle of Man TT, I have a valid basis for assessing the worth of the Hailwood bike. 

I have to admit it was a combination of bloody-mindedness and patriotism, coupled with appreciation for the triple’s talents, that made me the last person to race a BSA in World Championship competition, and to score points doing so, after the FIM decided to drop TT F1’s 1000cc limit to 750cc at the behest of Honda, making our one-litre racers obsolete overnight.

Anyone fortunate enough to ride a Rob North triple will never forget it – how melodic and soulstirring that wonderful exhaust note is from the hot seat, let alone trackside, especially if the 3-into-1 exhaust is devoid of silencing, as here. 

Riding the Hailwood BSA at Brands Hatch brought the memories flooding back, made all the more poignant by sharing the track with one of my own old BSA triples, now owned by former short circuit ace Ron Chandler. 

Climbing aboard a Rob North triple requires some contortion because the footrests on all North-framed bikes are very high, so anyone not decidedly pint-sized has to stand on one footrest and lever the other foot in place – only to find you’re actually sitting quite low, with your knees pretty tightly bent. Comfortable it’s not. 

This also means it’s definitely not a bike for hanging off, and it does feel quite a bit taller than Braid’s Seeley-framed Boyer Triumph-3 that I was swapping back and forth between. Despite both bikes being fitted with original 19-inch wheels shod with grippy Dunlop triangulars, the Boyer felt much lower, slightly shorter, and quite a bit more accommodating than the North triple, even though it was designed for short-circuit use, whereas the factory bike was targeted at Daytona, Imola, Paul Ricard and the other big tracks hosting 200-milers. 

However, while the Boyer bike was easier to change direction on in the infield, once out on the GP circuit’s big turns the North triple came into its own, driving hard through those fourth gear turns with rock-solid stability, as I tried to tuck away as best I could behind that trademark letterbox fairing aboard the cramped frame.

Left: BSA triple sends tingles through the handlebars Middle: Letterbox fairing feeds the oil cooler Right: Twin Lockheed front discs in 1971 replaced the previous drum set-up

You do feel pretty much wedged in place, as I remember being on my own bikes on big circuits like Silverstone and the Isle of Man, with that big Daytona quick-filler fuel tank to lay your chest onto as you try to get your helmet under the screen in search of every last bit of speed from the pushrod-engined bike. 

Get your knees tucked in behind the flatsided fairing (and ask yourself why you didn’t remove your useless kneesliders), while reveling in the haunting but heavenly howl from the open megaphone as you rev the triple out to the 9000rpm ceiling in each gear, then relishing the way it drops an octave or two as you hit a higher gear on the sweet-shifting right-foot one-up gearshift. Paradise! 

This factory-spec Daytona motor felt more long-legged and not quite as peaky as the faster of my two bikes, but with more midrange torque, so it paid to rev it out. Yet it was also more flexible and forgiving in its power delivery, with a totally linear build from 4000rpm upwards, and just a slight bit of roughness around 5000 revs, which I suppose was megaphonitis. 

That meant there was more power at the top end, where this Richard Peckett-tuned engine delivers 62kW (83hp) at 8500rpm at the crank, so changing gear at nine grand meant I was always in the upper reaches of the power band, thanks to the well-chosen gear ratios. But it also meant that I could let the revs drop quite low exiting the tight Surtees left-hander leading upwards out of the Brands infield, and be rewarded with a smooth but relentless drive onto the back straight – and that was where I passed Ago when he, ahem, ran wide on the apex. 

Triumph’s million dollar Dream Team at Daytona in 1971 – Gene Romero, Don Castro, Tom Rockwood, Gary Nixon and Paul Smart – but victory went to BSA’s Dick Mann.

Yes, I passed Ago! Too bad it was probably because the MV engine had begun smoking quite badly. But while the two of us were running around together, the sound of the two unsilenced triples had spectators misty-eyed. One chap even made a recording and came to find me in the paddock to play it to me.

There were high-frequency tingles through the BSA’s handlebars after the engine passed 6000rpm, two-thirds of the way to the redline. I used to fit thicker foam grips to combat this, though after a long race like the TT my hands would still be swollen from the vibes. Towards the end of my first session at Brands I started missing the shift from fourth gear to top, and Peckett found that the selectors were getting worn. Using the clutch and a little more caution cured that. 

The BSA ran well for the rest of the weekend. Its motor felt improbably modern for a vintage-era two-valve pushrod – taut yet torquey, rev-happy and musical, with a completely linear power curve. So, while impressive horsepower is on tap up high, it isn’t at the expense of a peaky, awkward power delivery lower down. The BSA engine does like to be kept above 6000rpm, but it will still pull cleanly from 5000 in third.

You revel in the haunting but heavenly howl from the open megaphone. 

Although the way the Peckett-tuned worksspec engine picks up revs so easily betrays the hard work invested in reducing inertia inside it, there’s still good, meaty acceleration thanks to a torque curve you can ride from midrange up. But 9000rpm in every gear is the approved changeup point on the Kröber tacho, with an eagerness to rev on that you have to restrain by dabbing the smooth-shifting right-foot gearshift to hit another gear higher. 

In spite of feeling more statuesque than the lower, Seeley-framed Boyer Triumph, the BSA steered well in tighter turns, probably aided by the 19-inch front wheel’s lighter steering via a narrower footprint – it didn’t require too much muscle, despite its long 1450mm wheelbase and rather hefty 180kg (with oil, no fuel). It goes where you point it around slower turns, while being beautifully precise and stable around faster ones, with neutral handling even under power. Nice and predictable. 

Cathcart shadows Ago at Brands Hatch before pouncing when the great man ran wide.

The 50/50 weight distribution delivers a balanced bike, and the longer wheelbase and more conservative steering geometry that North adopted in his second-generation frames, with a 28° head angle and 121mm of trail, make the way it stops one of the BSA-3’s highlights. 

The super response of the new-generation two-piston Lockheed calipers matched to twin 254mm machined-down Triumph Herald castiron steel discs was a generational change in high-performance motorcycle brake systems, but after starting my racing career a handful of years after this bike was built aboard a Ducati 750SS fitted with the production version of this brake package, I’ve always been a believer in the Lockheed caliper/ cast-iron disc cocktail. 

Left: Tank was made by DonWoodwood, who made the original tanks Right: Caution: Team Zimmer at work

Here, in spite of the BSA’s quite beefy weight, the trio of such brakes haul the triple down well from high speed, at the expense of strong lever effort and relatively little dip from the well set-up fork. The good brakes encourage you to trail-brake deep into the apex, ready to use that glorious engine’s linear response to drive out the other side. 

The North-framed BSA/Triumph triples have rightly gone down in history as the ultimate expression of old-school British race engineering, before the advent of the Norton Rotaries and next-generation Triumph-engined Moto2 bikes. My ride down my own personal memory lane on the Hailwood BSA-3 only confirmed that – to the accompaniment of that glorious baritone exhaust note – high-pitched yet melodic, with deeper overtones driving out of a bend at low revs. 

Is this the best-sounding racebike ever made? Certainly, it must be, at least on one with a production-based engine. 

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