Modern-day scramblers are mostly styling exercises, not true offroaders (although Ducati and Triumph are trying to change that). So, are adventure bikes the modern-day replacement for the classic scrambler models?
Maybe—ADVs are fast bikes, with the latest technology onboard, and made for offroad utility but best kept to the street.
This is the sort of question that bikers love to argue about, but if you want a definitive answer, there’s only one way to find out for yourself: Buy this 1969 BSA Firebird Scrambler at Mecum’s August 12-14 auction in Monteray, California.
Faster than a speeding bullet
BSA was flying high through the 1960s. The UK-based manufacturer’s reputation was mostly based on reliability, at least in the minds of those riding its bikes (not hard, really—all they had to do was outstrip the Brit bike competition, and that was a pretty low bar). They had bought out competitors Triumph, Ariel and Sunbeam, and brought out its Unit Twin engines, much-improved versions of the old A10-series engine. Through the ’60s, BSA sold machines like the Lightning and Star series, and other bikes that dominated the tracks and streets in the UK and the US.
The A65-series parallel twin was a big part of the success story. Like almost every British engine from the first half of the 20th century, BSA built this engine with various configurations matched to different bikes, but it was the same basic design every time. It’s similar to what Harley-Davidson does today, with variations on its Milwaukee Eight or Evolution Sportster V-twins.
While most A65-powered bikes were asphalt-only, there were a few offroad models as well: The Hornet and Spitfire Hornet, and the bike here, the Firebird Scrambler.
The Firebird Scrambler was built in extremely limited numbers in 1968, after BSA stopped building the Hornet.
In stock form, this engine supposedly made 55 horsepower. It ran a four-speed gearbox. A pair of 32mm Amal Concentric carburetors came as stock.
Unlike other dirt-only “desert sled” models, the Firebird was intended to be ridden on the street as well as offroad. Headlight and taillight came as standard equipment (whether or not you could rely on them was another question entirely, and there were no turn signals). At least the Firebird Scrambler came towards the end of the Brit bike boom, at least, so some issues were sorted from the factory. Yucky 6V electrics were gone, replaced by a 12V system. No electric boot, but the charging system had an alternator arrangement instead of dynamo, with coils providing spark instead of a magneto.
Electrical gremlins are probably the biggest issue you hear of with old made-in-the-UK machines, but the mechanicals themselves have their own problems to watch out for. The Firebird Scrambler is no exception. The A65 engine was an improvement on the A10, but not perfect.
Although the owners might think A65 engines were reliable, they vibrated a lot. That, in turn, meant added wear and tear on the engine and chassis, as well as rider fatigue.
The A65’s main bearings, at least on the right end of the crank, also had a reputation for blowing up. The vertically-split crankcase leaked oil, and the left con rod also had a rep for wrecking itself.
Some of these woes were especially notable in high-performance models. In order to stay current through the ’60s, BSA would hot rod these engines for go-fast bikes. Jam in some high-performance cams and high-compression pistons and call it a day—too bad for the Yank whose engine melts down a couple of thousand miles down the road.
However, the good news is that the best minds in the moto industry have had 50 years to sort these problems out now, and if your BSA has a problem, someone’s already figured it out, and can tell you how to fix it. You might even find an aftermarket part easily available that solves the problem easily.
This particular machine has the engine rebuilt; it was restored by Don Harrell, a BSA rebuild specialist. Harrell was a racer-turned-wrencher with an excellent reputation for quality work. He began collecting vintage Brit bikes in the 1970s, and ran British Motorcycle Works in Visalia, California. Sadly, Harrell is no longer with us; he died in January of 2021. Mecum already auctioned several motorcycles from Harrell’s collection earlier this year, in Las Vegas.
The bike sold here is a 1969 model, which might be the most desirable year for the Firebird Scrambler. The ’68 models are much harder to find (only 250 built, supposedly), but they had a single mid-rise exhaust pipe on each side (see an example here). Some might prefer this arrangement, and it is a classic British scrambler look, but the dual high-rise pipes on one side is the pattern that’s prevailed over time, like this ’69 example.
Later Firebird Scrambler models were more street-oriented, so if you want a good-looking machine that was still aimed at offroad capability, this might be the one to get. Some buyers do prefer the final 1970-971 years of production, though
The advert says the machine was recently serviced, and saw a “Concours level restoration.” Translation: Get ready to pay more for this bike. The front forks are rebuilt, and the bike rolls on Dunlop Gold Seal tires. If you think you can afford to throw a bid at it, find more details at Mecum’s website.