1944 BSA Restoration

As personally contributed by Jerry Greer, EWM Restoration Crew Member. This is a short story about a World War II British Army motorcycle brought to the Estrella Warbirds Museum Volunteer Restoration Crew, in 2014.

 

Restoration Notes

The Art of Restoration

This particular motorcycle is on loan from Joey Brown, of Brown's Cycles, Inc, a seventy plus year local business in Paso Robles. Joey originally traded a box of some unknown Indian Motorcycle parts, with a little cash for this sad looking nondescript 500 CC, flathead, single cylinder, WW II BSA, part of a famous brand Joey raced before the brand fell victim to the Honda generation.

A Life Member of the Museum, Joey thought the WW II British Army WD M20 BSA would be a good contrast setting next to our WW II US Army WLA Harley currently on display, (also restored by the always-busy EWM Volunteer Restoration Crew). He knew we were up to the challenge of uncovering its’ history and restoring it.

The seventy year old BSA got in line to wait for its’ restoration, behind a 1945 Marine Corps DUKW nearing the end of its’ arduous three year (everything was heavy) restoration.
By the beginning of 2015, the DUKW was done; the restoration of the BSA began.

Any new restoration generally begins not with tools, but with sweeping questions, searches for answers, parts sources, knowledgeable individuals around the world, necessary special tools, available help, and competition for limited space with other ongoing restorations (and there are always many).
Having accumulated enough of the above basic information we took hesitant steps toward the BSA restoration. We made a thorough survey of obviously missing parts and obvious malfunctions. This generates the first list of tasks to attack. Then, an assessment of restoration volunteers interested in participating, hopefully with any collateral skills, and able to juggle some time away from any other restoration projects they were currently involved with, set the stage for identifying and chasing missing parts and repairing malfunctioning components.

From this platform, a list of goals was created. As with the best-laid plans, these sequentially numbered goals often became numerous parallel goals, based on where one new bit of data would lead us on a wild goose chase for more data.

1st goal: Uncover the evolution and history of this model. Maybe critical to the restoration, maybe not, but always interesting. It is also good bait to draw other volunteers into the restoration. More later.

2nd goal: Come to an agreed-to restoration level, balancing money, time, space, capability and intended use by the Museum. For example: Is it to be Display only? Historically accurate? “Close enough for government work”? Easily movable? Drivable on the Museum property? Or the ultimate, licensable for local Parade-use?

This restoration was agreed to be “all of the above”. We would be as accurate as we could be with a beat-up 70 old British Army bike, re-painted, re- marked and redeployed from 1944 to arguably, 1965, God knows where, several times by the British military.

3rd goal: Locate the frame and engine serial numbers and uncover their meaning(s). I started uncovering various British websites, here and there, one of which was the running serial numbers history of this model, along with several dry British observations that explained a lot we uncovered as the restoration progressed below skin-deep. We were now learning, taking notes, making contacts, and starting to fill that 3-ring notebook with valuable info.
Engine s/n: WM 20-7424 = year 1939
Frame s/n: 91151= year 1944 …Hmmmm ? A 1944 frame has a 1939 engine in it? Problem? Look into. What other parts are from mixed years? Here we go, into the belly of the Beast.

4th goal: Get sources, parts, expertise to get it properly running and ridable. (Start-stop-steer) Easier said than done, but that’s what we do. To hell with looks at this time. That comes later….when we find out exactly, or, more or less what it’s supposed to look like. See below.

5th goal: Identify the most correct paint color(s), stencil/etc. markings and their meanings, finishes, materials, lighting equipment (blackout lights), air cleaner, operator and passenger saddles and their styles and materials, etc. In other words, a LOT to flesh out and make sense of. YEP! Just another restoration.

OK, so..hang on! Here we go, into the restoration unknown-Again!

1st goal gave us this: History and evolution; QUOTE “The BSA M20 was a British motorcycle made by Birmingham Small Arms Company (hence BSA) at their factory in Small Heath, Birmingham, England. Although initially viewed as a near failure by the War Office in 1936, the M20 evolved into one of the longest serving motorcycles in the history of British military motorcycling, as well as becoming the most numerous type produced for World War II with 126,000 in active service. Many are still in use around the world today.

Only it failed its’ 10,000 mile endurance test imposed by the Military on all bikes under study for the war effort. Additionally, they felt it was too heavy, too slow and built way too close to the ground to be a good fit for wartime use. However, BSA was Britain’s largest motorcycle manufacturer with 65 plants and most capable of sustaining factory bomb damage and continuing production. Cheap and easy to maintain due to its’ simplicity, it saw convoy escort and dispatch duty in almost every theatre of war. It was finally decommissioned in the ‘60’s.

2nd goal gave us this: Agreed-to restoration level; It was decided to make the BSA a fully accurate runner. We would provide the restoration labor and the owner would supply the money for parts and materials, as well as any old special tools he had stashed from his days as a BSA Dealer/racer.

We would be allowed to display the bike at the Museum for 3 years after the restoration was complete. (He also wanted to ride the bike in the local parades for us, which was pretty cool.) He also wanted it to be a representative restoration, not one of those over-perfect non-realistic restorations you see at motorcycle and car shows.…..in other words, factory-like paint sags, OK.

3rd goal gave us this: Find and decipher the serial numbers; We were beginning to find British websites, each with their own pearls of info, sometimes contradicting each other, or so we thought, until the tapestry of it all began to fall into place.

Our first big concern over the 1939 engine in the 1944 chassis came to a screeching halt. A footnote in the serial number explanations and history website said…repair depots were everywhere, with rebuilt power-plants on the shelves, salvaged from junk motorcycles, so that it would be impossible to come upon a WD M20 BSA with identical engine and frame serial numbers as it left the factory.

Any bike in for rebuild gets a rebuilt engine off the shelf, not its’ own engine rebuilt. Hooray! One big problem solved!
As we move along, learning more about what this restoration in front of us requires, this business about the rebuilt components in repair depots explains much. We’re identifying components on the bike that belong to earlier and later years, according to parts lists and period photos we’re now combing over. OK to restore them, or do we hunt the period-correct components and restore/install them? This is all really quite fun!
From all appearances, this is turning into a “Run what ya’ brung” scenario. As this military bike lived its’ working life of many years, possibly thru many different outfits and repair depots, none of which we can positively identify, this is the way the bike was used.
And this is how we will restore it! (We’re now snugly within the belly of the beast. It wants to breathe.)

4th goal gave us this: Get sources and parts and get it fully running;
OK, now we’ve found a few rudimentary parts sources and tribal lore information. Not very good, yet. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?
Magneto sent out by owner for professional rebuild before he brought bike to us. It bench-tests perfect. That’s good.
Rare carburetor, missing. First overseas quote is $1,000 US Dollars, used as-is, no returns. That’s bad.
Keep searching. What’s this? Brand-new manufacture of this carburetor by the original manufacturer, AMAL, for $500 (+-) Shipped from Montreal. That’s good.
Gearbox stuck in 4th gear. Pull gearbox shifter cover off, look around and “Have a talk” with shifter pawl ratchets. Gearbox understands. Fixed. That’s good.
Non-running engine turns over with good compression once a little shot of Marvel Mystery Oil is squirted thru the spark plug hole. That’s darn good!
Gas tank dented, missing fuel valves, but not rusty. That’ll be good once I find the odd sized fuel valves. Gotta find a source.
Found a new British Motorcycle parts supplier in Iowa, BAXTER CYCLE, and he’s, get this, knowledgeable, approachable, quick, comparably inexpensive, got good quality parts, and steers me to replacement parts I can modify to fit when original styles aren’t being produced. Nothing coming out of India. That’s good. Did I mention that’s good?
Got engine running/shifting. Clutch is shot, but it leaks oil like a proper British motorcycle. That’s bad.
Take clutch apart. Oddly, BSA thought the bike was so simple it didn’t need a Repair/Maintenance Manual. 126,000 bikes...no manual. Whaaa?
Removed massive clutch spring nut which had been previously welded and creatively modified. Observed it fly past my head @ 100 MPH, heading for the other side of the shop, with several less threads than it started life with. Woaaa!
I didn’t kill the transmission shaft threads, though. That’s good.
“Hello! Baxter Cycle Parts Department? HELPPP!”
Get the British-manufactured nut for $36 and change, and all-new reproduction clutch plates. They’re good good good!
Go into owner Joey’s stash of BSA pullers to figure out how to install clutch spring nut safely. (No Manual, remember?) Make one puller/spring compressor from three different pullers. Ugly, but it works. That’s good. Back together, clutch works perfectly. That’s good.
Later data uncovers offhand disassembly note “One should use care disassembling clutch, as nut is nearly lethal.” Pretty typical British understatement.
Pour gas in tank, tighten fuel valve more.
First kick…nothing. Whatsoever!
Second kick, bike start, better yet, bike runs great!
Too much luck? Kill it, kick it again. Runs again!
YEAHHHH BABY! It’s a runner!
Time for a well-deserved lunch break with the guys. After lunch, test-ride. Test-ride again. Test-ride again and again.
OK, it’s not a test-ride anymore; I’m just riding it around in the dirt behind the hangar. (It’s FUN!)
OK, I decide we now disassemble bike for restoration. Let’s get after it!

5th goal gave us this: Identify correct colors, markings, meanings, finishes, materials, equipment, etc.
I’m unable to find any color specs for years of this military model when we strip and get parts primed and ready for paint. Desperate, I see how close the left-over Marine Corps WW II green DUKW restoration paint is. So, I spray one half of the front fender, which still has pretty fair 50 year old British Army paint. New paint right next to old paint…impossible! Color and sheen is AN EXACT MATCH! That’s good! We’ll go with that. Bet on it!
(Later, I find the full paint color/sheen history, and am fully exonerated) Here’s why.
And I paraphrase:
Sheen: glossy, semi-glossy, flat. Anyones’ discretion.
Colors: Deep bronze green to blue-black, including browns. (10 different colors, each paint color manufactured by at least four manufacturers, all of whom supplied their own different shade of that one color) final tally = about 40 shades of paint with a few RAF specials thrown in with leftover RAF Blues. Numerous examples of field repaints documented which included the tires and saddles enjoying the repaint, wink, wink nudge nudge! Anyones’ discretion.
Markings/stencils: I’ll make this one short. Only Canada’s Army markings of this bike were documented. This wasn’t a Canada bike. A gazillion other markings in photos, all meanings unknown. More, later.
Engine/transmission finishes: Cylinder and head always black (except ours was partially over-sprayed chassis color).
Crankcase: natural aluminum or painted chassis color. Ours was chassis color.
Clutch cover: (“Primary”) always painted, either black or chassis color. Ours was chassis color.
Chassis: entire chassis and running gear painted one color, except when a rebuilt repair depot has been installed with a different shade paint. It’ll be a few shades different. I copied this patchwork paint to achieve a real-world restoration look.
Generator, etc.: Black; I chose “rattle can” Ford engine accessory semi-gloss Black, straight from the NAPA store. Don’t tell anybody.
Handlebar grips: Canvas or wood inserts due to rubber shortage for the war. Unobtainable. Used late-40’s rubber grips. Don’t tell anybody.
Gas tank rubber knee-pads: Ours hadn’t had any for a long time, but why? Don’t install.
Exhaust pipe & muffler: Ours was bright silver painted. Old photos showed silver or black. We painted it with left-over DUKW exhaust hi-temp Flat Black. Don’t tell anybody.
Saddle and Pass. Saddle: Located a pretty fair reproduction copy, but poor quality (likely India), saddle cover, with correct black pebbled vinyl/cotton finish. Nobody makes any of the 3 or4 different passenger saddle varieties found in photos. Took it to a local upholstery man that Joey, the owner, uses for his restorations. Good enough.
Headlight/blackout light: Here, it gets fun. Research found at least five different versions of blackout headlights. They ranged from painting the lower half of the headlight reflector black, to a metal lens cover with a complicated metal “eyebrow” that let out a small light beam undetectable from an airplane. When asked what he preferred, he said “The eyebrow. Gotta have the eyebrow.” Stupid me. Can’t find an eyebrow blackout assembly anywhere at any price.
Tom Gorham, retired Army Aviation Warrant Officer, volunteer restorer and our Museum Library Manager (didn’t know we have a Library?) said “With Ron’s (Ron Boyte, volunteer restoration shop manager) help I’d like to tackle making the sheet metal eyebrow assembly.” They did a marvelous job after a couple of tries. Just marvelous. And they learned a lot.
Air cleaner: Several varieties evolved over the years, from none, to a toaster-oven looking thing, mounted on top of the gas tank. We chose “none”, as the gas tank unit couldn’t be copied, and “none” was pretty easy to copy, wink, wink.

LITTLE JEWELS: All restorations have their good and bad moments buried in the restoration, but not in the minds of the restorers. This is a small sampling of bad moments followed by good moments, which were created by those bad moments, all near the very end of the restoration.

I wanted to correctly resurrect the original stencils that were all over the bike’s last paint job. But they were virtually obliterated, worn off or worn through. Not usable or traceable. I started wet-sanding the gas tank, a method to gently uncover such things. Down to the second layer of paint after 8 hours of sanding, the stencils were obliterated from wear. Down to the third layer of paint with yet a third different set of stencils. Also obliterated. Too much time squandered in search of what? And why? The other guys are starting to bug me!
Don’t they get it?

Bad news. No luck and I’ve lost my patience. Maybe I WAS wasting my time.
Irritated at myself and at BSA and at anybody within ten feet of me, I grab the paint stripper; slather a big coat over the tank, ready to strip off this last layer of paint. The paint stripper ”alligators” the old paint immediately, uncovering pristine, first stencils applied, over another, the first coat of factory paint. I wipe the stripper off with my hands and wipe them on my Levi’s. Time’s a’ wastin!!! Pencil and paper! Copy it fast before the stripper destroys it!

The upshot is, I got perfectly legible stencils to faithfully copy on this restoration. We don’t know what they mean, but we got’em!

On reflection, the big gas tank-mounted air cleaner, it turns out, requires the rubber knee pads to be removed to mount the air cleaner. And that big air cleaner sitting on top of the gas tank paint job wears out the stenciling beneath it. So, that’s where the stenciling went and why the knee pads were missing.

Two more mysteries solved.
“TP 22” was stenciled 6 or 7 locations and on all different paint layers. What could be so important? A mystery whose code I can’t break.

Tom Gorham, looking at me with some pity, said “Tire pressure, 22 pounds. All Army vehicle fenders are stenciled this way.”
Wham-bam! Last mystery solved.

Great way to finish up a restoration!

This restoration was helped immeasurably by Zack, a High School Student, by Tom, a Librarian/restorer, and Ron, a Plumber/Restoration Shop Manager. And the guys at BAXTER CYCLE. We Volunteer restorers come in all sizes and descriptions!

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