Blood & Grease: Geoff Hawksley’s 1971 BSA Lightning 882…
Every once in a while, a bike and rider roll into our inbox with a swagger and attitude that demand attention. Such was the case with our new friend Geoff Hawksley, a carpenter / high-end cabinetmaker who’s been addicted to two wheels since the age of 5, when he wrecked his golden-brown Columbia banana bike trying to show off for his long-haired, bell-bottomed crush, who was a decade his elder.
“I don’t know why that all made me love riding, something about blood and grease feels better than aftershave and cologne.”
When Geoff came across this ’71 BSA Lightning in the parts section of the Staten Island Craigslist, he just knew there was something special to it.
“It was a mongrel with a Harley tank and other oddities. Something said it was special like my grandfather’s pocket watch or the box end wrench I’ve had since I was 8, polished from use and carrying it in my pocket. It’s got that magic.”
As it would turn out, this Beezer was owned by none other than Bobby Genise of John’s Cycle in Woodside, Queens — a legendary mechanic and racer known for his work on British iron. Magic indeed!
Of course, Geoff tore the bike down and made it his own — a machine built to put up with the heavy mileage of a man who, on his best day, has ridden 1863 miles in under 24 hours.
“It’s not a cafe racer…. It’s not made to be pretty. It’s made to ride which sorta makes it beautiful. Least to me.”
Highlights include a homemade tank, hugger, seat pan, and magnesium rear seats, along with an engine outfitted with a gas-flowed head, 882cc pistons, Carrillo rods, Megacycle cam, and a billet crank. The bike breathes through Mikuni flat-slides and 1-3/4″ TT pipes, while a GSX-R front brake hauls down this hunk of hot British metal. Geoff says he managed to cut 70 lbs from the original weight, coming in at a svelte 350 lbs.
Though they’ve had their quarrels, Geoff says he and “Elegua” (God of the Open Road) are best friends now, and he speaks lovingly of the Beezer’s mechanical symphonics:
“The little roar it lets out when you snap the throttle to settle the idle. Air sucking past the slides like a Rochester Quadrajet on a GTO when you accelerate. That delicious popping sound on the down shifts. Soundtrack to a racetrack with the volume in your right hand, replay in your left.”
Geoff estimates the bike makes 80+ hp at 350 lbs — plenty fast for an old British bike:
“I could get a little more out of it, but why? I can go over 200 on my Suzuki. They’re built for that kinda fun — this ain’t and never will be. It’s just a motorcycle like what I fell in love with as a kid. No plastic, no paint. Just a lotta angry metal.”
Amen, Geoff! Below, we talk to the man himself for the full details on his ’71 BSA. This is one more about the story than the shots, as Geoff is too busy riding and wrenching to take many photographs. Enjoy!
BSA Lightning: Owner Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
I’m a dad and husband. For work I’m a cabinet maker / finish carpenter / foreman / project manager/ estimator / finisher…whatever role I need to take depending on the project. I build the interiors of high-end homes and businesses. It’s a great trade. Roll around in sawdust, speak your mind, and swear when you want to. Check out girls walking by, maybe call out an odd fraction like 21/16ths so the other guys know to look and catch a glimpse. Split a shingle into chopsticks, sit cross legged under a tree, and eat leftovers you heated on your engine. It’s a good honest life and working with your hands in the weather does wonders for the soul.
How I got into bikes…
Back in ’72 when I was 5 there was a girl who’d get off the bus at the corner, she was maybe 16-18 years old. Long dark hair, swinging hips, bell bottoms, and a paisley vest. I’d be down at her knees riding my big wheel. She’d scruff my hair and tell me I was cute like John Denver, which I suppose to her was a compliment, but I was more into Sly Stone and T-Rex — the comparison made me sad because I wanted to be a bad boy. I had a horrible crush on her.
That year, my dad bought me a golden brown Columbia with a cream banana seat. I wanted to be Evel Knievel. What kid didn’t? On my new bike I thought I had a chance. So I did a stunt as she walked up the street to break my good boy image, but it didn’t go so well. I tried riding up a tree and doing a back flip. I couldn’t get the bike back round and caught the front sprocket in my chin.
I got up and looked at her. She screamed in horror and ran. I didn’t know why. Broke my heart. I started to cry, I looked down and saw my shirt drenched in blood, wondered where it all came from. I picked up my bike, wiped my snot nose and got Mr. Sullivan to help me put the chain back on. I don’t know why that all made me love riding, something about blood and grease feels better than aftershave and cologne.
I ended up putting the crank from an English three-speed on it so it’d go faster. Built plywood ramps and started jumping. Bent a lotta wheels got a lot of stitches.
I think my first street bike was an 1100 Yamaha Special, but I remember my Suzuki 850 more. I put sheet metal screws in the tires and rode it through the winter, chopped it, bobbed it, painted and modified the hell out of it.
I’ve been riding a TL1000R for the last 20 years and five engines. There were a lot of motorcycles in between.
My wife thinks I’m the greatest rider that ever lived, because years ago we were out riding in the country on an Honda VT1100 when a chipmunk ran out. I flicked the bike, slid it, caught some rubber and jumped over the little guy on a flat road. She tells that story a lot. Thank God she loves me. She’s the love of my life. Long dark hair, swinging hips, bell bottoms, and never thinks I’m like John Denver!
My shop is just an old carriage house with two garage bays and a hay loft. Most of it is stuffed with building materials and carpentry tools. The bay where I work is filled with bikes I gotta roll out to get anything done. Usually I work out under the maple tree taming the squirrels who live there.
Right now my garage has an XS650 I’m building for Bonneville, a ’68 BSA Thunderbolt for country rides with my wife, 2000 TL1000R, and the ’71 BSA lightning. I got a few friends’ bikes stuffed in there too that I need to work on. Upstairs in the hay loft I’ve got a plunger frame, Matchless G12, and older BSA frames. A lotta parts and a pool table.
• Please tell us about the bike.
It’s not a cafe racer. Those guys do shit to make their slow bike pretty and sniff each others asses like dogs at the tofu or froyo joint after going on a 25 mile ride. This ain’t that!
I get gas station coffee, fuel up, and light a cigarette as I hit the road, alone! I don’t carry bags. Just throw tools in my pockets and go. I’ve done over 70 thousand miles in a year and 1863 miles in under 24 hours on my best day. Usually ride over a thousand in a day.
Anywho, the bike is built to put up with me.
I found it in the parts section on Craigslist Staten Island while looking for stuff for my ’68. It was a mongrel with a Harley tank and other oddities. Something said it was special like my grandfather’s pocket watch or the box end wrench I’ve had since I was 8, polished from use and carrying it in my pocket. It’s got that magic.
When I called, the then owner “Rick” said it was previously Bobby Genise’s ride; he got it from Bobby, but then got COVID and couldn’t balance well enough to ride. I’m sorry Rick. I bought it on the spot.
If y’all don’t know who Bobby is, you should look him up. He owned John’s Cycle in Queens with his brother John and was the mechanic for 60+ years. He lived the life…wrenched on bikes and hit the track. When he couldn’t throw a leg over a bike, he retired. Can only hope to do the same.
When I got the bike I took it apart because I like to know every nut and bolt before I ride it. If a part doesn’t work well, it gets tossed. If I don’t like it, it gets tossed. If they don’t make a part, I make it.
But if it’s a good part, it gets the love. Shot peened, micropolished, speed bored, honed then boiled in diesel and rinsed with tequila. After a while the bike suits me. It’s not made to be pretty. It’s made to ride which sorta makes it beautiful. Least to me.
- I made rear set kicks from aerospace TZ31 magnesium. They sit on vibration isolation dampeners.
- Rolled the hugger, seat pan and tank.
It’s an 882cc now …..not a 650. J&E pistons. Gas-flowed head.
- The engine has Carrillo rods, custom followers on a Megacycle cam, billet crank…
- The regulator is from a Rotax helicopter engine and the back plate is a beryllium alloy piece of a guidance system from a decommissioned Patriot missile.
- For gauges, it’s got a Barons tach next to the headlight and a temp sensor.
- The oil comes through a spin on oil filter in a clear braided hose so I can watch it flow.
- It breaths through Mikuni flat slide pumpers and TT 1-3/4″ pipes slung under the frame on exhaust stubs milled into the gas-flowed head. Could probably write a story about every part.
- Check out the GSXR disc brake on a Triumph hub or the steering stabilizer. It’s built to perform well because that’s all you got to be safe. Stop, go and turn as best you can.
It weighed 420lbs when I got it, I’m down to 350 now. Thank you, Jenny Craig. There’s still a lotta Bobby in the bike but he may not recognize it anymore. Thank you, Bobby. I love this bike.
Right now it’s hanging from a winch like a pinata while I rebuild the head and fabricate a Helmholtz air box, because it sucked the screen out of the velocity stack and shat it out the exhaust. I tried the velocity stacks because it collapsed every other pod filter I tried…but hey, at over 9000 RPMs it gets hungry and’s gotta eat something.
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride?
I love kick-starting this bike and letting it rumble till the temperature comes up. Cigarette smoke burning my eyes as I zip up my leather jacket. The little roar it lets out when you snap the throttle to settle the idle. Air sucking past the slides like a Rochester Quadrajet on a GTO when you accelerate. That delicious popping sound on the down shifts. Soundtrack to a racetrack with the volume in your right hand, replay in your left.
It’s loud! I carved stainless tips to wrap around the rear tire so the rubber would kill some DB’s, but that just made its voice deeper. It’s a motorcycle. A real one. The kind that makes you want another tattoo or get in a fight so y’all can share some beer listening to Johnny Cash while your lip swells. All my best friends were made that way. This bike broke four ribs on a dirt road soon after I got it. I rode it home with the throttle on my lap. Now we’re best friends.
I appreciate the oil in frame. I don’t know why they get such a bad rep. A few welds and gussets is all it takes. Its stiffness makes it handle damn good for a ’70s ride. Way better than my ’68. It’s stable and responsive. It goes where you think more than what you tell it. I can sit up no-handed and change lanes by tightening an ass cheek or spin round backwards to see pretty blue lights that seem to follow me.
It’ll go low and slow decently, carbons up a bit and run hot after a while of that shit, when you’re stuck behind a line of cars. The excuse for a seat does nothing to stop the vibration. You’ll lose feeling in your ass right quick. Gotta give it what it likes, and that’s anything over 5000 RPMs. Will pull like a thoroughbred off the gate, gets in a smooth gallop around 7000. I don’t push it too much over 9000, but at that RPM the vibration is gone and it’s happy.
Is it fast? I guess so for an old Brit bike. I think I’m pushing 80+hp at 350lbs. I could get a little more out of it, but why? I can go over 200 on my Suzuki. They’re built for that kinda fun — this ain’t and never will be. It’s just a motorcycle like what I fell in love with as a kid. No plastic, no paint. Just a lotta angry metal.