‘A RATHER SPECIAL ORDINARY MOTORCYCLE’
A somewhat contradictory title but one that I hope you will agree is apt, when you have read this account. Let’s deal with the ordinary part first. A 1951, BSA B31, 350cc with a mild 6.5:1 compression ratio offering about 17bhp with which to propel its modest weight up to 75mph. Fitted with teles., plunger frame and finished in green, black and chrome, it’s one from near the middle of a production run spanning 1945-1959. There are plenty of examples still in use and rarely will you meet a claim that they are anything out of the ordinary. But we are going to look at one that is a bit special. It hasn’t earned that description because it has been extensively modified or tuned for speed. On the contrary, apart from the fitting of a dualseat and an improved rear-light, it is in standard trim. No, what sets this one apart from other B31s is that, except for the first eighteen months of its life, it has been in the ownership of one person. For 43 years, the majority of their respective lives, man and machine have been together.
I talked about NMN904 with owner Jack Ward of Foxdale in the Isle of Man. Jack is well known to many Club members for his involvement in Vintage affairs. An involvement fully shared by his wife Marge (for many years Clerk of the Course for the TT Vintage Assembly). She has also come to regard this B31 as one of the family over the years, travelling many miles upon it. The bike was first registered on 8th December 1951 and cost the original owner £184. In the Spring of 1953 he made the mistake of loaning it to a visitor who rode in the wrong direction through a one-way street in Douglas, within sight of the local constabulary. It turned out that the visitor had no licence or insurance and the unfortunate (or foolish) owner was penalised for his generosity by having his licence taken away for 6 months. Harsh? Seems so, but as Jack puts it, ‘the High Bailiff must have had an off-day’. Whatever, this turned out to be very much a case of one man’s loss being another man’s gain. The owner decided to sell the bike due to his enforced absence from the road and a young Mr Jack Ward happened to be looking for a newish 350 and snapped it up for £110. That was in May 1953 and it replaced an ageing pre-war BSA 500cc Empire Star.
There followed many years of reliable, all-weather use, with the B31 being Jack’s only form of transport. This use was not confined to tarmac roads, the bike has been on green lanes all over the Island, whenever fancy took to leave the beaten track.
Although having spent his working life on engines and machinery, Jack was not immune as a young motorcyclist to the common disease of imagining and worrying about noises from his own motorcycle’s engine. At 11000 miles he fitted a new big-end and had a rebore to +.010″ but, as he says now, “God knows why because it didn’t need it”. In the 60’s he had it bored to +.020″ and then to +.040″, “only being fussy”. In the 80’s he obtained a +.060″ piston, ‘honed’ the cylinder to suit and ran it for a further 25000 miles. In the early 90’s the barrel was resleeved and a ‘Far East piston’ was fitted. This cracked after 3600 miles but was reckoned to be a ‘rogue’ and was replaced free of charge. The magneto has needed attention on two occasions and takes the blame for the one and only breakdown that the bike has suffered. Little else has been done to it apart from normal maintenance. With a present mileage of 97,000, Jack is looking forward to seeing all the nines in line at 99999. It is still running on the original main bearings and on the big-end that was, perhaps unnecessarily, replaced at 11,000 miles. This longevity of the bottom-end is attributed to the use of good quality oil and regular changes. Although the B31 has been his principal two-wheeled transport for over 40 years, Jack has had periods where the use of company vehicles has restricted his time on the bike. He makes the point that, but for the use of such other vehicles, the mileage covered would be considerably greater.
One of the first on the Island to wear a crash-helmet for road use, he started with a black “Corker”. This was followed by the fitting of a black “Avon” nose fairing upon which his white registration number was fitted. The whole ensemble gave Jack the undeserved appearance of an enforcer of the speed limits and the wholesale slowing of vehicles as he came up behind them, often allowed for easy passing and swift progress on this modest 350.
Although NMN904 has been an almost one owner machine, its use has certainly not been limited to one rider. Many others have twisted its grip. His sons, Phil and David, passed their driving tests on it and quite a few visitors to the Island have been pleased to use it, particularly during TT and MGP periods. In one particular instance he loaned it to an MGP rider, to enable him to learn the Course. The rider’s promise that he would ‘take it steady’ was not borne out by the several reports that came back of the bike having been seen, ‘going like the clappers’. As it was returned in one piece, Jack, ever the gentleman, said nothing.
Whilst this machine has covered more miles on the Isle of Man than most, (and seen more TT’s and MGP’s than most whilst its owner marshals), it has also made numerous journeys to the adjacent Isles for holidays, Rallies, Parades, etc. It is an honest bike with original paintwork, apart from a tank respray, is reliable and still in use. Forty-three years with the same owner must have seen a relationship established between man and machine and, in the absence of any comments from the bike, we leave the last words to Jack who, in his usual practical manner, describes his BEEZA as a ‘good and faithful tool’