Bad Ideas in a Berkeley Roadster

Posted October 10, 2019

By Dean Larson

Photos: Seller, Craigslist

This Berkeley SE328 looks like a total relic, but I have to admit, it has totally changed the way I think about this obscure import marque. I knew a few things about these cars, predominantly that they were powered by two-cylinder motorcycle engines, and the original 18 hp, 328 cc Excelsior engine in this car is in a poor state.

That got my mind racing, thinking about the possibilities. Imagine this featherweight roadster with something a little more exotic under the hood. As an avid snowmobiler, I immediately pictured a high-strung, water-cooled two-stroke triple engine, like the many I’ve enjoyed on snow over the years. Think about it, 100-plus horsepower, 8,000 rpm and that spine-tingling two-stroke triple sound, but the CVT clutch used on these engines would require modifications to the Berkeley’s front-wheel-drive system. The main issue here is that the Berkeley still uses a chain drive system, which would require modifying the snowmobile engine and/or the Berkeley transmission, which is fine and all, but still comes with a certain cringe factor in a classic car.

The logical progression of things pointed to a more sporty motorcycle engine, as it would be fairly easy to adapt a different engine into that same space and system. Forget the four-cylinder sportbike engines though, as that would tarnish the character of this little car I’d imagine, and also it’s apparently already been done.

But what about something closer to character, but with a little more power — say a Yamaha 350 cc air-cooled two-stroke? To pick a random donor, the ’73 to ’75 Yamaha RD350 made about 40 hp at 7,500 rpm, which sounds reasonable enough. But the more I thought about it, the more childish these ideas felt. Sure, my proposed 350 ci Berkeley sounds like a hoot, but I came to the conclusion that would still be tarnishing the 328, a pretty little car with some competition history to boot.

Designed to attract frugal motoring enthusiasts and racers alike, the original Berkeleys were built to be competitive in 750 cc racing classes. Pat Moss, sister of Sterling Moss and an accomplished driver in her own right, drove a Berkeley in the 1958 Liège-Brescia-Liège rally. And while this quote is hard to validate, it’s just too good to leave out. On the Berkeley, Pat once commented:

“They were so cute, really cute, but used to seize regularly. You got out and had a cigarette and got back in and it would go again.”

That’s likely the fate that befell Pat’s Berkeley at the Liège-Brescia-Liège rally, and despite a strong start by the six-car works team, none of the cars finished the event.

So maybe the 328’s competition history is more nostalgic from a grassroots perspective, as a considerable number of the 1,259 cars produced from 1957 to ’58 were weekend warriors. Take a look at this ex-racer that was featured on BringaTrailer back in 2015. I see this Berkeley looking something like that car, and from the comments, we can see that it was hammered away on eBay for $3,827. Compare that to Hagerty’s price for a number 4 (fair) condition 328 of $5,900, and I’d peg this car on the high end of a fair deal at $4,500. Also, if you want to aim high, RM Sothebys sold a nice SE328 back in 2013 for $23,000, so there might even be some profit potential here.

All I know, is that it’s a beautiful fall day out there, and I’d rather be barreling down my favorite back road in this little Berkeley roadster. What’s that saying, it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than vise-versa? Well here's your poster child.

See the car here on Pittsburgh Craigslist.

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