How Honda made its K0 punch
BSA'S ANSWER TO HONDA: No, the BSA Rocket III didn't stem the Japanese tsunami of the 1960's and leaked oil all the time.
Author: DAVE FALL
Well, well, well.... in 1966 it seems the Brits had known about the Honda motorcycle factory’s full-on intentions to launch a four-cylinder CB750 motorcycle TWO YEARS before it actually arrived in the late 1960's to take its rightful place as the world’s first superbike.
For some reason – and maybe you thought so, too – the CB750 had simply crept up on an unsuspecting British public... no, make that the world. It had certainly heralded the end of the domination of the British motorcycle.
FORECAST OF THE DECADE
I found the above information in Bert Hopwood’s book 'Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry' – an out-of-print tome I had been seeking to add to my auto library for quite some time and found last week. (Flea-markets can be great places to find those obscure treasures – especially books.)
With Edward Turner (Triumph Speed Twin/Daimler Dart SP250 accolades to his credit) retiring as head of the BSA Group in 1964 (Triumph Motorcycles had already been absorbed into the conglomerate) it was Hopwood, chief designer and engineer at Ariel and Norton before he was head-hunted by BSA and elevated to BSA Group deputy MD, who revealed in his book that both Kawasaki and Honda were widely believed to be on the cusp of launching a four-cylinder machine. (in fact Kawasaki’s four' only came along some years later).
What I was amazed to discover in the book was that Turner visited Japan in 1959 and toured several of the motorcycle factories - among them Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki (Yamaha was late out of the starting blocks) and declared on his return to the UK to make a media statement on par with "peace in our time".
He declared: “There’s bugger-all to fear from the East as far as I can tell!”
Back to Hopwood, an astute engineer and businessman who was certainly well-qualified to read the writing on the wall by pushing through a “secret” 750cc triple that he and Doug Hele, the Triumph development engineer who sorted the weave and wobble of every Triumph machine sold until the mid-1960's (frame weaknesses). They were called the BSA Rocket III and Triumph Trident but too little, too late to halt the imminent Japanese tsunami.
SHORT ON SKILLS
The book says: “Lacking sufficient time for further development, the Rocket III – with its inclined barrels, twin loop frame and signature ray-gun exhausts – finally went into production in 1968. Alas, if the truth were known, the BSA and Triumph work stations weren’t really up to the job of producing good quality triple-cylinder machines."
The factory was short of skilled tradesmen and more than 50 machining operations were needed on the vertically split crankcases alone using a series of jigs in the sequence to ensure alignment. Oil-leaks were built-in and virtually guaranteed; the plan was to ultimately have horizontally split crankcases to eliminate all this but the R&D guys hadn’t come up with a solution.
After several false starts, long after the arrival of the Honda CB750, the Rocket III and Triumph Trident became fairly decent bikes to own – and, more importantly, to ride. There are a few to be found around South Africa but there are far more of those first Honda CB750's around, I can tell you!