Earl Bowlby took the hillclimb world by storm on an unlikely 1967 BSA 650
October 6, 2021
By Keaton Maisano
Among the two-wheeled relics at the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum is a 1967 BSA 650 — a bike AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Earl Bowlby resurrected to relevance with his dominance in the hillclimbing discipline.
Bowlby climbed the ladder of the greatest hillclimbers in the sport’s history on an unlikely machine. Although BSA had defuncted in 1972, Bowlby modified his BSAs and dominated to the tune of a record 10 AMA National Hillclimb titles — several of which were won on the bike displayed in the museum.
In pursuit of climbing faster than anyone before him, Bowlby waited until 1976 to turn the 1967 BSA 650 into a capable hillclimber. A stroker crank and cylinder boring resulted in a 782cc of displacement, with specially made Venolia pistons filling the voids. Bowlby left the original frame untouched, but fabricated the extended rear subframe and rigid swingarm.
The improvements and hard work paid off when he set a record at the 1976 Nationals in Muskegon, Mich.
Although a BSA bike served him well in the heart of his career, the advent of his career was marked by an inability to effectively compete. Bowlby began his career drag racing on a BSA Golden Flash, which he said did not have the giddyap for him to be successful at the strip.
However, Bowlby’s BSA connection strengthened when he was approved to start a dealership in Logan, Ohio, in 1960 — opening the door for him to become more involved in racing.
His interest in hillclimbing sparked when he attended a few local events in Ohio. In amateur hillclimbing, Bowlby rode a BSA 250 before moving on to the BSA Gold Star and, eventually, the BSA 650 twin — which he used to build momentum at the amateur level in 1965.
Going pro in 1966, Bowlby announced himself by taking second in his first pro event despite his bike running on regular gasoline and lacking chained or paddled tires to increase traction.
The height of his professional career came in 1984 when Bowlby laid claim to three separate titles: the National Invitational at Muskegon, the AMA National Championship, and the Canadian National Hillclimb title. The trio of victories was the triple crown of hillclimb at the time.
Bowlby set a record of 7.87 seconds on the hill at Muskegon in 1968, and just 16 years later in 1984 he obliterated that pace by posting a time of 4.71 seconds.
Retiring after the 1990 season with more than 80 AMA National Hillclimb wins, Bowlby still regularly attended events on the hillclimb circuit.
The latest professional hillclimb circuit event brought an end to the season Oct. 10. The Devil’s Staircase AMA Pro Hillclimb underwent its 72nd rendition — making it one of the longest running motorcycle events in the country.
The century-old sport — which hit peak popularity in the 1920s — has been working its way back to relevance and increased exposure in recent years. Residing in Oregonia, Ohio, and hosted by the Dayton Motorcycle Club, the Devil’s Staircase event has helped lead a resurgence.
The annual event marks the conclusion of the AMA Pro Hillclimb series each year, setting it up to determine the sport’s champions most years.
This story was updated Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, at 8:46 a.m. to reflect the conclusion of the Devil’s Staircase AMA Pro Hillclimb.