Back in 1969, bikers across the world were captivated by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s exploits on their choppers in the now-legendary road movie Easy Rider.
Chris Cracknell, then 19, was no different and, chatting at his home in Westcliff-on-Sea more than five decades on, he says the film “planted a seed” that led to his dramatic reinvention of a 1960 BSA A10.
“That was the sort of image I wanted,” he says, “but I couldn’t do it immediately because at the time I was riding a 150cc Honda.
“But once I’d seen Easy Rider I was on the lookout for a bike I could convert.”
The Honda was his first bike, bought at 17 when he was an apprentice motor mechanic, and it wasn’t until 1970 that he saw the 650cc BSA advertised in the local newspaper for £145.
Chance to create the Easy Rider style
Now he had the chance to create something similar in style to Hopper and Fonda’s Harley-Davidson choppers – based around a very different sort of old British bike.
“My friend rode me up to Benfleet to see it on a Lambretta LD150, and we just about made it,” he laughs. “It had some parts and trim missing to make it lighter – that was the sort of thing people did in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“It was owned by a guy who was a roadie for a fairly famous Southend band called The Kursaal Flyers.
“I had to get a loan out to pay for it – £145 doesn’t sound a lot now, but back then it was a lot of money because I was only on about £4 a week.
“I went straight from a Honda 150 to a BSA 650, and rode it home. But it was fine, I didn’t really have any problems.”
From BSA to stateside custom
Chris, now 73, immediately went to work on the 10-year-old bike, gradually turning it into a ‘Stateside custom’, with the vibe of Easy Rider if not the full chopper style.
“It wasn’t a chopper as such, because the forks aren’t raked,” he says, “but it looked the part and I always got loads of attention.
“I had loads of chopper magazines in those days, booklets and stuff, so it was in the style of a chopper, but not quite.”
As the BSA was Chris’s only transport at the time, the work was, by necessity, a rolling project.
“I rode it in between doing the work on it,” he says. “For instance, the chroming only took a couple of weeks at the most, and I’d put all the bits back on and use it again, and then I’d do something else to it.
“I remember having it in my mum’s kitchen with the barrels off doing the piston rings, putting the barrels in the oven to heat them up so I could paint them. That’s what you used to do in the old days. I used it every week, every chance I had, locally and round about the town.
“I didn’t intend on keeping it for 50 years”
“I never took any pictures of it before I did the work, because I didn’t see any need. I didn’t intend on keeping it for 50 odd years. I thought I’d probably sell it and buy a car or whatever, but the way things happened, I’ve still got it.”
While much has changed cosmetically – the exhaust, fuel tank, handlebars etc – under its new skin, the bike remains a totally standard BSA A10.
“I just made it look different,” says Chris, spraying the fuel tank, toolbox and oil tank in a Rootes Group blue, with an aerosol custom colour on the frame.
“I’ve no idea what the tank or offset headlight came off – in those days, you’d just get hold of what you could from places like Hadleigh Custom, which has gone now.
“You could get loads of accessories – the headlight’s probably from a car to be honest. There was no internet in those days, so you saw what you were buying. You’d just go to local motorcycle shops where you could possibly see something that you wanted to buy.
“The handlebars were welded out of tube from scratch, as was the backrest, while the seat was bought as it is from a magazine, MCN or something like that.”
Six month transformation
Chris reckons it took about six months to turn the BSA from a somewhat run down, very British bike into a Stateside custom that sparkled along Southend’s Golden Mile.
“It attracted lots of interest, but at the time there were other motorcycles around similar to that,” he adds. “Not many, but there were some.
“I just used it for pleasure, weekends and evenings out. I remember me and my brother went out on carnival night, and the lights weren’t working.
“We came round the corner and there was a barrier of policemen, one of whom put his hand out. But we got away with it.
“I used to go out with my hippy bag on and no helmet, and it was fantastic, riding around Southend. It was never a bike to do long distances on, because it’s a real boneshaker.”
Two other incidents stand out in Chris’s memory from those early years on the bike.
“I was out one evening and a Mini Clubman ran me up the back, so I dropped the bike,” he remembers. “I had to have the frame braced, but I got the money off the guy for the damage, about £130 I think.
“Another evening we were going out to the pub when I got near the airport at Rochford and broke down. I pushed it about four miles home, and only then did I realise it had just run out of petrol.”
A decade of regular riding
Chris rode the BSA regularly for over a decade, mostly storing it at his mum’s house, while also having a succession of cars as befits someone working in the motor trade.
“Some time around 1984 I stopped riding, because I got married and the bike then wasn’t really a priority,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I lost interest, but it went to the back of things, and then of course the kids came along in the late ‘80s, and then I had other priorities.
“After I moved out from mum’s, the bike remained there, but for some reason it had to be moved and I can’t remember why. It then moved to about three locations over the years, in various lock-ups.
“When I moved to this house in the early ‘90s, I built the shed, which is where it’s been ever since.
“I didn’t abuse it”
“That’s the reason it’s in the condition it’s in now really, because it has been preserved. I didn’t abuse it, and I didn’t let it go to rack and ruin.”
So why didn’t he sell it at some point during all those years when the BSA was sitting idle in various garages and sheds?
“I think because I loved it so much,” he says. “People did say to me ‘why don’t you sell the number plate?’ and I said ‘well, if I sell the number plate I’ll sell the bike because they both go together’. I wouldn’t want one without the other.
“But I really wouldn’t be very happy if I had to get rid of it. It’s hard to put into words what it means – achievement, nostalgia. It’s not only part of the family, it’s part of me.”
Remarkably, the bike is in more or less exactly the same condition it was in when Chris stopped riding it regularly, its last outing about 10 years ago when bikers descended on Southend from the Ace Cafe at Easter.
“I just put an air filter on, new tyres because they were starting to perish, and just some paintwork on the yoke,” he says.
The reason for this renaissance was an appearance at the 2023 Bike Shed Moto Show in London.
“We went to the Bike Shed show a couple of times, and my boys Jack and Tom said to me ‘you really ought to get one of your bikes up here’,” says Chris.
“Again, it planted a seed, so I got in touch with the Bike Shed and they accepted it, so I had to get my skates on and get the bike ready.
“The show was unbelievable – I didn’t want it to end. Some people, it’s not their cup of tea, but Jack was standing there all day talking to people who were asking things about it. I was sitting on the couch!
“I’d never shown the bike before, and I was quite proud, actually. A lot of people thought it was a new-build because it does look like it was done last week.”
All the old bike needs now is a splash of oil and Chris will once again take to the streets of Southend to relive his youth.
“I’ll definitely ride it again, before I get too old – I just wish I was younger,” he laughs. “Out of all the bikes I’ve ridden, that’s the most fun to ride, and I’m sure if I rode that now I’d get a lot of reaction.
“Hopefully, one day, Jack and Tom will take it on. They both ride now, and I’m quite happy with that – another generation with the bike.”