Mexican 500 Machine: BSA Hornet Desert Sled

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

Scott G Toepfer’s NORRA 500 Beezer… 

Introduced in 1964, the BSA Spitfire Hornet was destined to become an icon of California desert racing. While the sooty streets of industrial England may seem a long way from the alkali sands of the American Southwest, the Birmingham Small Arms Company was listening to their American riders and dealers, who wanted a stripped-down, higher performance version of their 650 twin for desert racing and flat track:

“Unlike BSA’s economy-minded customers at home, American riders wanted horsepower, speed and handling, something the Japanese couldn’t yet deliver, but BSA could.” —Motorcycle Classics

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

The Hornet was a purpose-built competition bike on the A65 (650cc) platform, available in East Coast (high pipes / smaller oil tank / 3.5-inch front rim) and West Coast (shorty pipes / 3-quart oil tank / 4-inch front rim) versions. Both versions had a 10.5:1 compression ratio, twin Amal Monobloc carbs, and a factory claimed 53.5 hp that drew high praise from contemporary testers:

“Faster in the ‘quarter’ than any other scrambler we have tested, and within mere fractions of being the fastest accelerating motorcycle we have ever tested.” —Cycle World, 1965

None other than Steve McQueen reviewed the BSA Hornet for Popular Science, testing it against six other bikes on a 6-mile closed course he’d set up:

“It’s a keen bike, but I found it awfully heavy. A lot of weight would have to be stripped off to make the bike competitive. The Hornet also had a tendency to want to go its own way. I always had to stay on top of it. But it sure has a good-functioning power train.” –Steve McQueen, Popular Science, 1966

Steve McQueen Popular Science

Enter our new friend Scott G Toepfer (@sgtoepfer), a renowned commercial photographer and director who came to motorcycles via BMX. After a brief affair with art school, he returned home to find most of his riding buddies had swapped out their pedal bikes for motorcycles, so Scott sold a few possessions and got his first bike.

“The motorcycle industry became the foundation for my career in photography, and I’ve been surrounded by motorcycles on a daily basis since.”

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

Over time, Scott gravitated toward vintage, race-oriented bikes, and he’d long wanted a Hornet. Unfortunately, when he took delivery of this “bastard mix of a BSA Spitfire and a BSA Hornet,” it had water in the tank, a resin-gunked valvetrain, and barely ran. Fortunately, Scott is friends with one of the world’s desert sled masters, Hayden Roberts of Hello Engine MC:

“Hayden Roberts (@helloengine) is my guru and inspiration for all things English, and he agreed to help me make the bike worthy of chasing him in the desert. We got to work stripping it down, and prepared it for riding the Los Angeles, Barstow, Vegas (LAB2V) ride.”

Mexican 500

As it turned out, the LAB2V was just the first step in transforming the bike into a machine capable of finishing the legendary NORRA 500 (“Mexican 500”). Scott gives us the full specifics in our interview below, but suffice to say both he and the Hornet finished the race despite a blistered backside:

“Riding 500 miles together in Mexico was punishing, but I wouldn’t trade it for a modern ride. Crossing the finish line in Ensenada, engine puffing smoke and cranky, I couldn’t have been happier.”

Mexican 500
Mexican 500 finish line!

Scott says this desert sled may not be for everybody, but he loves it:

“There’s some sort of bond formed when you and a bike go through some rough and tumble times and find the way back, and I have that with this one.”

Amen to that. Below, we get the full story on the build from Scott himself, and he took the awesome studio shots, too!

BSA Hornet Desert Sled: Owner Interview

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.

My path to motorcycles came through an upbringing of BMX, and photography. When I returned home from a brief affair with art school in Boston, most of my riding buddies were on motorcycles. I sold a few worldly possessions, and got my first bike. The motorcycle industry became the foundation for my career in photography, and I’ve been surrounded by motorcycles on a daily basis since.

As the years went on, I personally gravitated mostly towards vintage bikes and race-oriented shenanigans. My workshop is really wherever my tools happen to be, which seems to change every couple of years. Currently, after a big family move to Kansas, my tools are split between my back patio and a storage unit.

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

• What’s the make, model, and year of the donor bike?

This motorcycle started as a bastard mix of a BSA Spitfire and a BSA Hornet. I had always wanted a Hornet, as it was BSA’s performance offering in the mid/late 1960s. The bike was setup as an “East Coast” model, with a high-exhaust pipe on each side of the motorcycle. It looked great from a photo in a text message, but by the time it was delivered from NYC to California, I realized I was in for a rude awakening. The fiberglass tank was half full of water, the valve train was gunked up with melted fiberglass resin, and it barely ran on one cylinder.

Steve McQueen BSA Hornet
McQueen testing the Hornet in 1966…
• Why was this bike built?

Knowing the bike was in for a full overhaul, I decided to get creative. Hayden Roberts (@helloengine) is my guru and inspiration for all things English, and he agreed to help me make the bike worthy of chasing him in the desert. We got to work stripping it down, and prepared it for riding the Los Angeles, Barstow, Vegas (LAB2V) ride. We started with that as a goal, and it proved to be just the first step in a long process with the motorcycle’s form.

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?

Design influence is an interesting phrase when it comes to this bike. In terms of using it for off-road riding and racing, it suffers from a few drawbacks. It’s too heavy, underpowered, and has pitifully short suspension by today’s standards. But, that’s sort of the point. The racers through the 1960s just took production models and tried to set them up incrementally better to survive tough conditions. The inspiration came from the “desert sleds” of the 1960s.

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

• What custom work was done to the bike?

I’d barely call this a “custom” bike, but it’s more of a period modified setup. The idea was to keep the custom work in line with what would’ve been done in the era this motorcycle would’ve been actively campaigned as a racer. I kept the stock front end on for the initial ride through LAB2V, but needed only a single day in the dirt to know that was a terrible idea. After that ride, and in preparation for the NORRA 500 (“The Mexican 500”), Hayden and I fitted a 35mm Betor fork from a Bultaco to the frame. We had to go through a few forks to put the right setup together, after the fork completely separated in a riverbed ride and left me stranded. I upgraded the rear suspension to give slightly more clearance as well. I traded the useless fiberglass tank for an aluminum tank from a Gold Star, installed an aluminum rear fender, a stainless front fender, and a modified Bates seat (via Ginger at @newchurchmoto) in the rear. The seat in the photographs is also being replaced now for something more fitting for the tank/frame combo.

In the motor, we swapped the dual carb top end for a single carb head, which simplified the cable and fuel systems. In the desert, the fewer things I need to replace or repair, the better. The footpegs have been modified to accept harder impacts (via Jake Wreesman of @metallhaus), and we went with a modern battery-less ignition system. The exhaust headers are from a later BSA Spitfire Scrambler, fitted with stainless reverse cone mufflers. Only BSA lovers will recognize them and that heat shield with any affection.

In terms of lighting, currently the bike has a Preston Petty style front number plate/headlight combo, and some red LED strips for the rear. I’d love to run the bike without lighting, but the races often require lighting and legal registration. Since there is no battery on the motorcycle, the LEDs offer some lighting with a minimal draw on the charging system. The lighting is a continual lesson in trial and error.

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

• Does the bike have a nickname?

We just call it The Hornet. There are so few of these things on the road, or in the desert, that it’s enough to call it by its given name. There is only one other Hornet I’ve ridden with, and its name is so good that it’s useless to try and outdo it (“The Backdoor Man”).

BSA Hornet Desert Sled

• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?

This motorcycle is punishing. Even with the suspension upgrades, it’s not enough to call it comfortable in off-road situations. The brakes barely work (which is fine for open desert), and the seat in the photos was abrasive enough to blister my backside while riding in Mexico. I’m not kidding. The second day of riding was as painful as I’ve ever felt on a motorcycle.

If we can remove comfort from the equation… I love riding this motorcycle. It’s loud, brutal, and charges through sand. It’s sketchy, but I’m not the best off-road rider anyways, so we have fun pushing each other through some tough situations. Riding 500 miles together in Mexico was punishing, but I wouldn’t trade it for a modern ride. Crossing the finish line in Ensenada, engine puffing smoke and cranky, I couldn’t have been happier.

Photo: @slowbaja / @luchalibreracing
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?

I love the aluminum tank, and the exhaust. I snagged a couple parts from different years to put on this bike, just sorta making my “perfect BSA twin.” It’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s probably worth less than the cost of the tires I have on it, but I love it. There’s some sort of bond formed when you and a bike go through some rough and tumble times and find the way back, and I have that with this one.

Parts and Help from:

@helloengine
@metallhaus
@newchurchmoto
@mouthfulofjoy
@lowbrowcustoms

Follow Scott

Website/Photographer: sgtoepfer.com
IG: @sgtoepfer

3 Comments

  1. Love the bike and the story. Inspiring sentiments and tips for my BSA B50MX and I.

  2. Frank Falcon

    Love the bike, and the fact you told it like it is. I’m trying to build my XS650 into something similar. I’d rather have a brit bike but the XS was within my budget. Happy trails to you and the Beeza!

  3. Looks great. I have a ’68 Lightning on the way – fingers crossed, which might be way too shiny for me to tear apart; but it’s tempting…they look great covered in oil and dust dont they!

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