Cover Bike Owners

Bill Clay & His 1971 BSA Thunderbolt 650

August 1, 2012
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Dad would cuss under his breath and shut the doors and windows when the neighbor kids would ride their two-stroke dirt bikes in the field across the street. So you can imagine my surprise when he asked me one day if I ever thought about getting one of those. Not a ring-ding as he called them, but a street bike you could take trips on.

Coming home from work one day, I see a new BSA Thunderbolt 650 and a Honda CL175; my first bike. I told him in so many words that the BSA wasn’t very pretty. It was a long time before I got to ride it. The 175 eventually was traded for a CB350, which I rode everywhere. It could be raining, snowing, cold or hot, and Dad would tell me “Get your gear, we’re going riding.” I was to ride through any weather condition possible, to see what could be thrown at me.

In the spring of 1972, we started taking longer and longer trips to “get our butts ready” as he put it. He had recently joined the Retreads Motorcycle Club, for riders 50 and over. It seems they were having a national meet in August, at someplace called Sturgis, South Dakota. The Honda 350 wasn’t going to make it, so in April I traded it for a new Suzuki 500 Titan. That trip was another story, but upon our return, it was decided that something bigger was in order if we were to go back next year. That 500 2-stroke couldn’t keep up in the hills when riding two-up. I had to keep shifting, while the BSA just kept putting along. Enter a new Suzuki 750 Le Mans, the Water Buffalo.

We never made it back to Sturgis; life went on, and I got married in 1976, when the Air Force hit. License tags were due, insurance was due, and the rear tire with six patches had to be replaced. I told Dad I was going to have to sell it. His reply was “If you sell the bike, you’ll probably never get another one.” But I did get another one in 1994; his old Breezer. It had been put away in the garage a long time ago, still wearing a 1977 tag.

Mom didn’t want him riding anymore, and a burned value didn’t help. He wanted to clean out the garage, and having moved to Grandview in 1994, I’d seen the old British bikes riding around the KC area. My idea was to sell it for him, but I bought it for myself. It sat in my garage for about two years, when the wife told me “Get rid of that pile of sh*t and buy a Harley!”

The fire was lit under my butt to get going, so I ran an ad in the Kansas City Star looking for parts, and mainly advice. Jay Wilson called one day and said he could help. He told me the Twin Drive-in Swap Meet was the place to go, and I was to ask around for Mudball. John McMillan; or Mudball to his friends, was a big help. I bought a few parts from him, and like Jay, he told me I needed to attend Ralph Wayne’s Backyard Nationals to see some neat old bikes and to meet people who were passionate about Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs and anything to do with the old British iron. I had met Ralph, but was still reluctant to intrude into what I thought was a private backyard party, with fires, beer and bullsh*t!

1999 was my first time there, and what an impact it had. It’s been my pleasure to be part of the staff since 2000. A sincere thank you goes out to a lot of new friends concerning the re-build of this motorcycle, and I want to mention a few of them; Kerby Harding pretty much put everything together, “His “Kerbyness,” as I called him. Fred Holter is the smartest man on the planet when it concerns anything British; a national treasure, if you ask me. Jay, Ralph, Wally, Roscoe, Matt the Barter, Al Borja, my brother Lynn, a lot of good people kicking my butt, telling me to keep at it, get it finished, which we did in 2004.

In 2005, Mudball, Ralph and I took the bike to my brother’s shop in Lebanon, Missouri so Dad could see it. His knees were getting bad, so the plan was for Lynn and I to run along beside him while he putted along in first gear. It was pouring down rain so hard that Dad settled on just sitting on it upon the center stand, revving the throttle and changing gears like a kid at a motorcycle shop. He never got a chance to ride it though, as he passed away in 2006 at the age of 84.

I believe he liked it, and the wife does now. To anyone thinking of a project like this, I say “Just make up your mind and do it!” An issue of Walneck’s Classic Motorcycles is a good place to start for any old bike, no matter what the make, and if you’re as fortunate as I am, you’ll make new friends who know what they’re doing, and anxious to see it completed. Priceless!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Just for fun, I did a brief interview with Bill, and asked him a few additional questions.

Mike: Do you have hobbies other than motorcycling?

Bill: Yes, I’ve been a coin collector since starting my paper route at the age of 14. I also enjoy hunting, fishing, and old firearms. I also read a lot.

Mike: Why do you ride?

Bill: It’s hard to describe. To be alone, to be with friends, and you just gotta want to!

Mike: How long have you been riding?

Bill: Since 1971.

Mike: How many bikes have you owned, and how many do you have now?

Bill: I’ve owned nine motorcycles, and the BSA is the only one I own right now.

Mike: What do you like most about your BSA?

Bill: The fact that when I bought it, it was my Dad’s bike, but I turned it into mine.

Mike: What is your dream bike?

Bill: I should have never sold my Moto Guzzi 850 T-3 California.

Mike: Please tell us about your most memorable ride?

Bill: Riding to Sturgis in 1972.

Mike: What was your least favorable ride?

Bill: Riding to Ha Ha Tonka State Park at Lake of the Ozarks in the early summer of 1972 to go camping in the woods. Ticks, snakes, and chiggers!

Mike: To what motorcycle clubs and organizations do you belong?

Bill: I belong to the Santa Fe Trail Antique Motorcycle Club and the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.

Mike: Do you have a favorite bike night hangout?

Bill: I haven’t been to many, but Russo’s Pizza stands out. Best pizza in town!

Mike: Do you have any tattoos?

Bill: No, but my daughter has enough for both of us.

Mike: Do you prefer riding by yourself or in a group?

Bill: I enjoy riding in a small group, but riding by yourself has its benefits.

Mike: Who are some of your closest riding buddies?

Bill: My cousin Tom Kay, my little brother, and anyone associated with Ralph Wayne’s Backyard Nationals is fun to ride with.

Mike: Thank you for the great story and interview, Bill.

Story and vintage photos by Bill Clay

Interview by Mike Schweder

Studio photos by Bruce Stimpson with Stimpson Photography.

Published in Cover Bike Owners