The BSA/Triumph Racing Triples

The British multi attack

Mike Hailwood's 1971 BSA 750-3 Rob North Racer
Image: Shannons

The BSA/Triumph three cylinder racers were a revelation. They struck a chord with all motorcycle enthusiasts, not just British bike fans. It seemed at the time that the British were actually doing something about their dying industry by seriously going racing to promote their multi-cylinder bikes. And what bikes they were. A sweet handling 750 in line triple that put out 81-84 hp at 8500 rpm, a five speed Quaife gearbox, wrapped in an extremely good looking bodywork package, and the sound, the glorious sound. Despite the fact that Honda released their CB 750 road bike almost at the same time as the triple cylinder road bikes, and the CR 750 racer later on, the three cylinder racers put up a mightily impressive showing. The sales of the Honda CB 750 had taken the street bike world by storm. It would change the face of motorcycling forever. Despite reasonable sales of the triples, helped no doubt by their racing successes, the CB 750 was basically the last nail in the coffin for the British bike industry. The British however, didn't go down without a fight. This was the era of full-blown racers with engines derived from big road bikes and BSA/Triumph thought that they had a winning formula.

Mike Hailwood was temporarily lured away from his four-wheeled forays to compete in the 1970 and 1971 Daytona 200s

The street bikes were sold from 1968 to 1975. The two road bike engines were virtually identical, but the cylinders on the BSA were inclined 15 degrees forward. Power was 58 hp from a pushrod activated valve train with two per cylinder and four-speed gearbox. A five speed was added in 1971. The crankpins were offset at 120 degrees, rather than 360, in order to combat vibration. This produced an engine with the grunt of a twin and the higher revving capacity of a four. It is worth noting here that the 750 triple had been on the drawing boards since 1964 and there was a running prototype at the end of that year. The company lost a full five years of potential sales at a time when the biggest Japanese rival was the Honda CB450 twin. The project was only rushed into production when news of the CB750 surfaced. The delay was primarily due to political infighting throughout the company.

The official factory photo of one of the bikes prepared for the 1970 Daytona 200

It was late 1969 when BSA/Triumph decided to take their triples racing. BSA/Triumph's designer Doug Heale was responsible for the original road bike design and Heale drew up the frames. Although Bert Hopwood (another Triumph designer) attempted to take credit for it, the bike was entirely Heale's design. Well known constructor, Reynolds, did the fabrication. The design drew heavily on experience with the 500 cc racers that had won the Daytona 200 Mile race in 1966 and 1967. 11 to 1 high compression pistons were used on polished and matched stock conrods, attached to a lightened stock 120 degrees crank with the triplex chain primary drive running a Quaife five speed gearbox. Squish technology was used in the pistons and cylinder head. The head had a re-angled centre sparkplug. Three Amal smoothbore carburetors were used. A three into one exhaust was handling the music. Doug Heale had designed the exhaust himself, testing different versions on a dyno for a final gain of 5 hp. It is interesting to note that Triumph's current 765 Moto2 triples also use a three into one exhaust.

There were only minor differences between the two bikes

A modern Triumph Trident factory replica

Triumph rider and tester at the time, Percy Tait had formed a good relationship with nearby frame designer, Rob North. North, in conjunction with Tait, developed a new frame. It was this combination that made a race winning chassis. The resultant chrome-moly duplex frame of Reynolds 531 was bronze welded with a 1450 mm/57 inch wheelbase with a 26° head angle (later modified to 28°) with Girling rear shocks and what appears to be modified road bike forks. Some later versions had Ceriani front forks. The weight was 180 kg/396 lbs with oil but no fuel and distributed 50/50%. The perimeter frame was a forerunner for future designs in that the top downtubes formed an almost straight line to the swingarm pivot. The under financed design team had basically taken a Triumph 500 twin and grafted on an extra cylinder, managing to make it only three inches wider. It was the sophisticated chassis and fully useable power that made the bike competitive despite the ageing engine design.

Gene Romero rode the Trident to second place at the Daytona 200 in 1970 and 1971

The 1970 bikes came with a 250 mm four leading shoe Fontana front brake, cast in magnesium, with a 254 mm rear disc brake from AP Lockheed. These early brake discs from Lockheed were apparently machined down Triumph Herald items! In 1971, the front drum was replaced by two more discs when North re-designed the chassis. The steering head on the new frame was 50 mm lower for better weight distribution and top speed. It was known as the lowboy frame.

Dick Mann winning the 1971 Daytona 200 for BSA

The company took the racing project seriously and waved a big cheque in front of Mike Hailwood to temporarily lure him away from his four wheeled exploits to ride for them in the prestigious Daytona 200 Mile race in 1970 and 1971. Unfortunately Mike retired in both races due to mechanical problems. The 1970 race was won by Dick Mann on the new CR750 Honda, with Gene Romero second on the Triumph triple. The modified 1971 bikes however, were incredibly effective and at the 1971 Daytona 200 they took the first three positions with Dick Mann/BSA first, Gene Romero/Triumph second and Don Emde/BSA third. After Hailwood's retirement from the '71 Daytona 200, 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. Pickrell won three of the six races, but crashed in the final at Oulton Park.

The Triples were also used for a while to power the Triumph flat trackers. Left to right- Gary Nixon, Don Castro and Gene Romero

A modern BSA Rocket Three factory replica

The triples were consistent winners all around the globe. BSA mounted John Cooper won the Mallory Park Race of the Year, beating Giacomo Agostini on the MV Agusta. Cooper also won the 250 Mile race at Ontario and in Endurance Racing the Trident took an unexpected win in the Bol d'Or endurance race, twice in fact. Firstly in 1970 with Paul Smart and Tom Dickie, and then again in 1971 with Percy Tait and Ray Pickrell. Meanwhile, back in the UK, a modified street bike was being prepared by Les Williams for the Isle of Man Production TT races. The Trident based bike was nicknamed "Slippery Sam" and was to win the Production TT races for an unprecedented five years in a row from 1971 to 1975 in the hands of Malcolm Uphill and Mick Grant. Privateer triples were winning races for years after the official factory effort ceased.

The legendary "Slippery Sam" won the Production TT five years in a row from 1971 to 1975
Image:Stoo Mathiesen

The Trident won the Bol d'Or Endurance race twice

Many years on, there are still countless hard-core fans of both the racers and the road bikes, and rightfully so, they have earned their place in history. The three cylinder bikes were originally only meant to be a stop-gap measure while the company developed new O.H.C and D.O.H.C models, but like a lot of things talked about before the demise of the then British bike industry, it didn't happen. Had the bikes been released closer to their 1964 inception date, the company may have had the means to move forward. Regardless, the good handling, torquey bikes with the beautiful sound live on in the hands of enthusiasts, collectors and racers. The bikes have been a potent force in Classic Racing and complete bikes can be built up from parts from various suppliers. The rights to the North chassis were acquired by Miles Engineering and later by Trident Engineering who currently produce them.

Written by Paul Harmon, 20-6-19

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