Tried & Tested: TriBSA Sidecar racer

Words: Geoff Baldwin Photography: Luke Ray.

In the early eighties the build of the Francis family TriBSA sidecar started thanks to Allen’s good friend Don Cooper. Don and Allen were racing a BMW R69S and were enjoying some success before a couple of “catastrophic” blow ups. Allen decided it was probably wise to have a back-up incase they experienced another blow up and were left sitting on the sideline. As it turned out, Don had a frame, a set of BMW forks with a front wheel and other various bits and pieces which he donated to the cause. With that Allen decided to put together a Triumph/BSA racing outfit like he had owned in the ‘60s and the project began.

At the time Allen’s finances wouldn’t allow him to undertake the build so without Don’s generous contributions the bike would never have been made. Over the following twelve months the build came together. Boosted by a change in employment and a fatter paycheque, Allen found a 650cc Bonneville engine and a head from fellow racer Wayne Pierce. Junk sales, swap meets and fellow racers also contributed to the original build and Allen soon had what he needed to pull a bike together.

Racing the TriBSA began in ’85 with Don Cooper before he decided to drop out of racing due to the increased costs of running the rare BMW R69S. It was Allen’s son Garth who then put his hand up for the role of ‘monkey’ for future races, despite his mother’s disapproval (In sidecar racing the individual in the sidecar is commonly referred to as “the monkey” because of the acrobatics they perform to keep the bike balanced). Allen admits that he never pushed the bike to its full potential during those days of racing. Taking part to make up numbers in the field and bagging an occasional third place was enough to satisfy his passion for the sport, all the time while Garth was learning the ropes. Some time during these years Garth and Allen built a strong, high performance engine for the bike and were enjoying racing together when a nasty accident left Garth with a broken collar bone so the bike and their racing efforts were parked for seven years.

In 2009 Garth and Allen started looking at getting the TriBSA up and running again, but Allen’s days of racing were over. Having plenty of experience Garth stepped up to become the bike’s pilot and one of Allen’s old passengers Richard Cromley joined him. When Richard also decided it was time to retire from the sport Garth pulled his old school mate Paul Kelly into the sport. Paul’s training began in motocross sidecar racing where Garth helped him to build his strength and master the techniques and Paul was hooked. The guys pooled their funds to improve the bike’s engine and gearbox and the period 3 (pre-1962 motorcycles) title wins started racking up. Between races at the track or back in their home garage Allen, Garth and his brother Ryan spent their time turning wrenches to keep the high maintenance TriBSA at the top of its game…and from rattling to pieces!

In 2010 Garth and Paul took home four first place trophies then another one in 2011, three more in 2012 and yet another two in 2013, placing a close 2nd or 3rd in most of the events where they didn’t place first. Of all their racing achievements Garth is most proud of the day they set the 1 minute 18.8 second lap record at Barbagallo Raceway in Western Australia. It was 40+ degrees in Perth that weekend and Allen was planning a late night engine swap thinking that the bike’s motor would give way under the scorching heat.

Despite the whole team being nervous that any second something was going to give, the TriBSA powered through the weekend without anyone so much as placing a spanner on it. Fresh fuel and oil at every stop was all it took for the bike to smash out the lap record (which still stands today) and an overall second placing against a lineup that included bikes half the TriBSA’s age. As fate would have it at the next race they attended (the Broadford Classics in Victoria) the engine made it through two laps before “it blew itself to bits!”

Today the bike appears to be much the same as it was back in its early years of racing with the exception of the front fairing. The heavily modified frame started out as a BSA A10 frame that’s been shortened four inches in the head stem and lengthened four inches in the rear for extra stability. Allen built the sidecar himself after having the tubular steel bent to shape by a local exhaust expert before he welded them together using nickel bronze. The sidecar fiberglass fairings were made from a homemade plug that Allen built himself and despite its long racing history is one of only two they’ve ever had to produce. The design was based on a photo he found in a ‘60s sidecar racing publication that featured a Rennsport Racing bike.

A period correct 12 inch Renault wheel supports the sidecar while the rear of the bike uses an A10 hub laced to, of all things, a 16 inch Harley Davidson rim. Up front used to be a BMW double sided twin leading shoe that Garth custom made, but he’s stolen that for his Norton period racer, so it’s now running a single sided version of the same brake. Finally the gearbox is a 303 universal unit used by UK motorcycle manufacturers such as AJS, so in reality the TriBSA is much more than a Triumph/BSA amalgamation, it’s a concoction of period correct parts from whatever was available at the time.

The design of the TriBSA has been an ongoing work in progress. Everything about the bike from the frame dimensions to the engine configuration has been tried and tested out on the track. The TriBSA’s engine started life as a set of Triumph 6T crankcases with a Bonneville head and Bonneville cams. In the eighties small bore racing expert Karl Morelang made a set of racing cams and the overall capacity sat at around 825cc. Since then the bikes also run a 750cc set up (when it set the Barbagello record) and currently runs a 650cc top end. With the old engines and the extra stress on the cases from racing, breakages necessitated rebuilds and redesigns with almost every season of racing.

The Francis brothers are skilled fabricators with Garth turning parts and Ryan covering repairs with his welding skills. They build their own cranks and repair cases until they’re completely demolished (We spotted a good six or seven destroyed engines in their home workshop). The exhaust is also a homemade system using original Triumph headers that are rerouted to work with the frame and the megaphone muffler that was off another of Karl Morelang’s old race bikes. The bike runs 12:1 compression, extra big jets in the carb, drinks methanol race fuel and Garth told me with a grin “It will do over 100 miles per hour.”

Sidecar racing is all about balance and “if you don’t move at the right time you’re off.” Without the passenger the bikes are virtually impossible to drive so everything relies on his or her ability to move their weight around the bike to keep the thing on track. In the early days Allen lengthened the frame four inches, which meant the sidecar wheel was out of alignment with the rear wheel. This resulted in problems with the rear wheel lifting off the ground and left turns became a real handful when the wheel dug hard into the road, but rather than reworking this particular design feature they opted to keep it. With the monkey and the pilot working together the TriBSA has the ability to be drifted into right-hand corners and it’ll turn like it’s on rails. To deal with the left-hand issue Garth adapted to the problem by learning to lift the sidecar wheel in the air and navigate the corner on the other two wheels. Allen often said they should change it, but Garth insisted on keeping it that way as he and Paul had the issue sussed. So with its riders able to manage the lefthanders and the TriBSA eating up right-handers it was a force to be reckoned with on most of Australia’s racing circuits due to the fact that they run predominantly clockwise.

For now the TriBSA is being retired while Garth and his brother take part in the period racing circuit on their classic Nortons. It’s battle scars are real, it’s long list of racing achievements are hard earned and for now its chapter is over, but after hearing the Francis team reminisce about it I’m sure the TriBSA will soon find its way back on to the track.

This article first appeared in Tank Moto issue 05.