Wrecking Crew Redux: Kenny Eggers recreates his race-winning 1954 BSA Star Twin
Claimed power: 31bph @ 6,000 rpm (factory rating, racer would be higher)
Top speed: 123.69 mph – speed trials at Bonneville, 1951
Engine type: Air-cooled, overhead valve four-stroke parallel twin, two valves per cylinder
"The BSA Wrecking Crew was Al Gunter, Dick Klamfoth, Bobby Hill and me, all originally on rigid frame Star Twins, and Gene Thiessen and Tommy McDermott on singles. BSA only made four of the rigid frame twins, and shipped them over for Daytona. We had to safety wire everything, and then we started testing them on the Jungle Road, testing for top revs. Cyril Halliburton, the British BSA tuner, was there to make sure everything worked properly.
"Hap Alzina, the US importer, took care of us and paid all our expenses. We were staying at a big hotel on the beach, and we had a candlelight dinner every night. That was NOT how racers were treated in those days. Usually, you had to pay your own way." — Kenny Eggers, Wrecking Crew member
In 1954, and for many years previously, BSA, based in England's industrial Midlands, was one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world. Most of its customers were a type of motorcycle rider that has almost disappeared from the road. The typical BSA rider of the era wanted reliability, economy, and ease of maintenance, and was uninterested in performance. Fifty miles an hour was fine as long as the old scoot started up every morning and got the owner to work.
The one exception to the dull but reliable output of the BSA company was the Gold Star 500cc single, introduced in 1937 and a mainstay of amateur racing until it was discontinued in 1963. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, BSA faced new challenges. England had huge debts, and needed to export as much as possible to pay them, so all English companies were prodded to sell overseas. There was an expanding market in the United States, but most Americans had expectations of a motorcycle that were completely different from those of the traditional BSA rider.
American customers wanted acceleration and speed. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." was a popular slogan with American dealers. While European customers babied their bikes, Americans thrashed theirs. Most European riders were happy with small singles, but American customers wanted large capacity twins. The BSA executives decided (probably very, very reluctantly) that if they wanted to increase sales, they would have to go racing. Even so, BSA left most of the race effort to its American distributors.
BSA started developing a vertical twin before World War II, which was intended at first to be just as reliable and boring as the rest of the lineup. The first 495cc machines were ready for sale by September 1946. Bore and stroke of the new A7 was 62 x 82 mm. The single camshaft, operating pushrod actuated valves, was located at the rear of the cylinders. The four speed foot shift gearbox was bolted to the rear of the crankcase, in "semi-unit" construction. Cylinders and heads were cast iron. It produced 26 horsepower at 6000 rpm.
The dual downtube frame had a rigid rear and telescopic forks. Comparable American motorcycles also lacked rear suspension. However, the 45 inch (750cc) Harley W was much heavier (thus cancelling out its horsepower advantage), and was built with springer forks and hand shift.
At the end of 1948, BSA stepped out of character and announced a sport version of the A7, the Star Twin. The Star Twin had plunger rear suspension, two carburetors and a somewhat higher compression ratio, which enabled it to put out 31bhp at 6000 rpm. For 1950, the bore and stroke of both A7 models was changed to 66 x 72.6 mm, and the Star Twin received a newly redesigned single carburetor head, which, beginning in 1954, was cast of aluminum. The other big news for 1954 was a swingarm frame.
Meanwhile, Hap Alzina, a long time Indian distributor, had taken over the West Coast BSA distributorship. He actively campaigned his English imports in flat track races and speed trials. In 1951, he hauled a Star Twin, a 650 cc BSA A10, and racer Gene Thiessen to Bonneville. Thiessen did the mile in 123.69 mph on the Star (basically stock but carefully prepared), and set a record of 143.54 mph on the highly modified A10, running on methanol.
Hap started sponsoring racers, and soon had his eye on Kenny Eggers, an up and coming speedster. A protege of San Francisco Bay Area Harley dealer and cam grinder Tom Sifton, Kenny was one of the top contenders at Belmont, a track south of San Francisco.
In 1952, Sifton told Eggers that Harley management had vetoed his ride for Daytona. "They don't think you can hang on for 200 miles." Eggers resigned himself to staying home, but Hap Alzina swooped in and signed him to ride a Star Twin.
Daytona in the Fifties was not the same as it is now. The crowd was much smaller and dressed more conservatively. Most people came down for the racing, not the party. The race took place partly on the beach and partly on a paved road that ran alongside. The first few yards of pavement were covered with sand, and treacherous.
There was no practice on the racecourse, but Kenny ran into Tex Luce, an older racer from Southern California, who gave him some valuable advice. "He told me to stay just inside the waterline, next to the orange cones. He said it was best to race on the wet sand. He said, if you see a pileup, head for the water. Tex also said to hit the pavement at a slight angle. He told me to hang on when I hit the pavement- there would be so much more traction that the bars would jerk out of your hands."
Despite starting on the back row, ("There were about 130 racers.") and having his clutch lever fall off, Kenny came in tenth. Shortly afterwards, Eggers had a final falling out with Sifton, and started riding a Triumph for Phil Cancilla. Hap Alzina lent him the 1952 Daytona BSA for the Portland Pacific Coast Championship race in 1953- which Kenny won.
The Triumph deal never really worked out, and when 1954's Daytona race rolled around, Kenny was slated to ride one of the BSA team's four Star Twins, outfitted with special dual port heads. His teammates were well known veterans. Bobby Hill had been National Champion in 1951 and 1952. Dick Klamfoth was a three time Daytona winner on Norton Manx singles, which had what was then state of the art rear suspension. Al Gunter was well known as the man to beat at Ascot, the fabled Southern California half mile. Gene Thiessen and Tommy McDermott were well known contenders.
The BSA team was matched against Harley riders like Joe Leonard and Everett Brashear, and Triumph riders like Ed Kretz and Ed Fisher. Indian had ceased American production in 1953, and cut race support for Norton, which Indian had been distributing in the United States. Klamfoth had been the top Norton rider, liked the Norton rear suspension, and was not unhappy when his rigid frame twin broke, forcing BSA to substitute a swingarm frame Star Twin.
At least 111 riders (Kenny Eggers thinks there were more) lined up in rows, with the flagger sending them off at ten second intervals against a cold wind blowing down the beach. Joe Leonard led the first laps, but broke down early, leaving the field to Ed Kretz, Bobby Hill and Dick Klamfoth. Hill moved in front on lap twenty with Klamfoth breathing down his neck.
Klamfoth took the lead for six laps before Hill got by him, eventually extending his lead to over twenty seconds. The win went to Hill at an average speed of 94.24 mph, with Klamfoth second, Tommy McDermott third on a Gold Star, Gunter forth and Kenny Eggers fifth. It was total victory for BSA.
Hap Alzina brought Kenny's Daytona ride back to the West Coast and left the racer at Ang Rossi's BSA dealership in Northern California. Kenny next campaigned it at Willow Springs, one of the first European style road racing coursesin the United States. "We lined up for the race and started engines- I started on row five or six. I looked down and saw a pool of gas, three feet in diameter. I waved at my crew and pointed at the gas and Johnny Knapp and Ang Rossi ran out on the track."
"They changed the carb needle without stopping the bike and hit me on the leg. By that time, the race had started. I dropped the clutch and left. I figured I had spilled a lot of gas, and wasn't going to be able to finish, so I decided to have fun, and run like I was running a sprint race. I passed everybody and just kept going. I had no signals, no nothing. I just kept going."
Despite his conviction that the Star Twin would come to a grinding halt someplace on the course, Kenny not only finished the 125 mile race, but came in first. "Towards the end, I did get a signal, "GO!" I found out later that Tom Sifton tried to tell Hap Jones I was wearing out my tires. That was the signal Hap put out."
Kenny raced BSA's until 1957. By that time, Tom Sifton had figured out how to get the Harley racers to go fast, and BSA was unwilling to spend the money to keep up with the Harley factory. Kenny Eggers tried riding a Harley again, blew it up, and decided to hang up his iron shoe. "By then, I had two kids." He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
Shortly after Kenny stopped racing, BSA ran into financial trouble. Its customers had become more affluent and had started buying small cars. At the same time, Japan was beginning to export technologically advanced motorcycles to Europe. Once again, BSA management was unwilling to make the investment needed to upgrade the product so it could compete. Sales collapsed, and the company stopped making road going motorcycles in 1971.
Kenny got the restoration bug around 1990, and began building replicas of the bikes he had raced during his salad days. "I wanted to build a twin for years, but I couldn't get the parts." The project got off the ground when Kenny met Mike Riley, an Australian dealer in BSA parts. Mike started making phone calls to his connections.
Mike unearthed the very rare twin port heads, racing pistons and a rigid frame, which a British friend flying to Daytona brought over in his airplane luggage. Meanwhile, Kenny located a 1954 Twin Star, which although it had the roadgoing swingarm frame and single carb head, provided a useable engine, forks and cycle parts. Kenny also met Colin Washburne, who had been an apprentice at the BSA factory when the '54 racers were being built, and was able to locate the special oil pump. Megacycle Cams ground cams to the 1954 BSA racing specs. and two time National Champion Dick Mann found a transmission with the special road racing bearings. Once all the engine parts were located, Kenny packed them all up and carted them to Rick Price of Raber's Parts Mart in San Jose, who rebuilt the engine and tranny. While Rick was putting the engine together, Kenny assembled the rolling chassis. Although the wheels are stock, the brakes are assembled one quarter turn up from stock, which increases stopping power.
Rick says he didn't do anything really trick to the motor, although he did match the ports using stepped studs from a later A65 BSA and machined the manifold to fit. Engine Dynamics of Petaluma, California used their special process to clean the aluminum parts to an as-new finish.
The Star Twin was completed last spring. Kenny brought it to the All British show in San Jose, California. He went to get a cup of coffee, came back, and found Mike Riley on hands and knees looking under the bike. "How did I do?" asked Kenny. "It's beautiful," said Riley.