A Fistful of Gnarly Nortons
Why the Sun Still Never Sets on the English Empire
Call this an homage to Nortons I have known (or even owned in some cases) and loved. If you've never "Snorted" then you haven't really lived, at least not motorcycle-wise.
Call me biased to the breed and forget the Prince of Darkness jokes since, at last count, I've owned and ridden seven Nortons including several 750cc and 850cc Commandos including two Fastbacks as well an Atlas café racer and the semi-vaunted John Player Replica (with a George Gjonovich 810 kit no less). As to when it was, that the single and vertical twins were first referred to as "Snortin' Nortons," that date is long lost in the mists of Brit Bike History. However, even the non-Britophile responds to the sound of these magic Norton words: Manx, Commando and Dominator. Beyond the stock machines, themselves legends, lies the land of custom "café racer" Nortons. Bikes that are fitted with aftermarket and sometimes even homegrown parts that make their own statement yet are punctuated with a common heritage of excellent handling, stout performance and the looks to match.
If you've never "Snorted" then you haven't really lived, at least not motorcycle-wise.
Norton: A Historical Perspective
Don't worry, there won't be a final exam. We'll just hit the high points on the long and curvy road Norton has traversed since James Lansdowne Norton founded the Norton Mfg. Co. in Birmingham, England circa 1898. He made parts for other people's motorcycles but wanted one with his own stamp on it so to speak. By 1902, he was plugging French engines onto bicycles, the first official Norton appearing in 1902. "Pa" Norton as he was called was a man of intense honesty, religious conviction and high standards. Other members of the fledgling industry would gather at his small facility and brainstorm, and later he would be called Father of the industry. Possessed of intuitive engineering talent and trained in intricate jewelry toolworking, J.L. produced quality single cylinder machines including their famous sidevalve engines. Many years down the racing road, Norton's most famous singles would be their 350cc and 500cc Manx, the bike that brought so much racing success and glory to the Norton marque.
After Norton passed away in 1925, the company changed ownership and continued making singles, and then in 1948 debuted their new vertical twin, the 500cc Model 7 aka the Dominator. In 1952 the Model 88 appeared sporting the now famous "Featherbed" frame noted for its handling. By 1962, the engine had increased in displacement to 650cc and appeared in the famous Norton Atlas in 1963. In 1968 the first "Superbike" appeared in the form of the now legendary Norton Commando 750 featuring innovative "Isolastic" engine mounting that effectively canceled out the vibration plaguing vertical twins. Above 2000 rpm the bike was sheer pleasure to ride. The first Commando actually appeared in "Fastback" trim referring to the model's advanced fluid lines that was apparently too advanced for some tastes. Nevertheless the bike mags raved about the Commando's handling, speed, and comfort, and in fact England's Motor Cycle News awarded it Best Bike five years running. Various variations evolved including the S Type or scrambler model with its dual high pipes and the "chopperish" Hi-Rider complete with apehanger bars and sissy bar as well as the Production Racer replica and John Player Replica, street versions of Norton's factory racers. There were also police and Interpol versions and a touring model, the Interstate with larger gas tank the latter featuring the new 850cc engine and in its last iteration, the Mark III of 1974-75, featuring electric start.
The bike mags raved about the Commando's handling, speed, and comfort, and in fact England's Motor Cycle News awarded it Best Bike five years running.
The Japanese invasion and British financial problems eventually stemmed the flow of Nortons although during the 1980s- early 1990s considerable effort went into the development of a Wankel rotary powered machine variously called the Commander, F 1, Nemesis and T.T. The Wankels seemed promising but eventually floundered. There were also efforts to utilize the advanced Cosworth engine for racing but that fell victim to the likes of the TZ750 and RG500.
However, the Norton marque may yet surface again, several parties making efforts in that direction. In any case quite a few Norton Commandos were sold and through a strong enthusiast foundation these bikes continue to "dominate" the classic scene while the venerable Manx single also continued to garner victories many years after it went out of production, a testimony to the standards set worth by "Pa" Norton nearly a century ago.
Rising from the Ashes: The Fastback that Came Back
Once upon a time, this writer/rider spent most of his time in the garage resurrecting unwanted, unloved motorcycles tottering on the lip of the pit of oblivion. Try saying that five times fast. In any case, there are chick magnets and then are basket case magnets.
Chalk me up to the latter. I was susceptible to all makes, models and years. Nothing was turned away from my doorstep much to my wife's chagrin. That would be my ex-wife's chagrin. A woman chagrined is a woman........ well, you get the picture.
In any case, sometimes people would just drop off basket case bikes on my front lawn, because they knew I had a soft spot in my head for lost causes. Such was my rep for taking home the most distraught motorcycles that on one occasion when buying a bike, the owner made me take home a blown-up hulk of a Zundapp KS 601. Naturally I threw myself between the hammer and the bike and asked what he was doing. He replied that he was getting ready to squash the bike so it would fit into the dumpster.
The chances of making anything out of it besides an artificial reef were nil, but since I already had an Allstate at least I could say I had experienced bikes from A-Z. You can see the depth of my illness, and so it would come as no surprise that one day I ambled into a small bike shop that I frequented and lo and behold the owner was standing over what looked like a pile of green slimed motorcycle parts. He was also holding a large sledge hammer. Naturally I threw myself between the hammer and the bike and asked what he was doing. He replied that he was getting ready to squash the bike so it would fit into the dumpster.
I took one look at the rusty, corroded, crusty thing... and knew it still retained the spark of life. Beneath the sedimentary layers of grime and slime, I recognized a Norton Commando. Apparently some owner had spray painted it algae green or an alien life form had engulfed it. I made an offer the bike shop couldn't refuse, and dragged the lifeless clump home. My wife at the time coincidentally left town for ten days. It gave her the opportunity to be free of me and for me to have the opportunity to immerse myself in one of my marathon bike projects, in this case 16 hours a day for ten straight days. I was in heaven.
I had the garage door open, the music playing, and set to work cleaning. My forte is cleaning. In fact I'm not really much of a mechanic. But I do have what some call intuitive knowledge. I know intuitively, when I look at a bike, no matter how bad its apparent condition, whether or not it can be revived and put back on the road. I grokked that this Norton would again snort and snort proudly. So I brought out my array of cleaning materials... compounds, ointments, unguents, abrasives, creams, wire brushes, dental picks, and my trusty Dremel tool...and the makeover began. It involved hours and hours of rubbing, scraping, grinding, compounding, polishing, excavating and often exasperating hand labor. But the great motivational force was poverty. I had no money for anyone else to do anything... no chroming or pro polishing or engine rebuilding. Fortunately I knew that I had a diamond in the rough. How... call it ESP. I had faith in this decrepit and terminally abused Norton.
I took one look at the rusty, corroded, crusty thing... and knew it still retained the spark of life.
I dismantled the bike as much as feasible and tossed the body work because I had in my possession all the beautiful components for a Fastback, the svelte gas tank and low profile seat that blend into it as well as the correct side panels, rear fenders, large license plate frame and various assorted parts. Now back when the Fastback first appeared, people went ugh! and tossed the bodywork in favor of the standard Commando pieces. Now they're as rare as dragon's teeth. I had squirreled them together waiting for the right moment... like the foundling now in my garage, years of abuse falling away as I rubbed and Dremeled into the early morning hours.
I cleared the clutch a couple times, turned on the ignition and gave the kickstarter a hardy kick. Nothing. A second kick...
An analysis of the patient indicated it was a 1970 750cc Commando. The stock Amals had been replaced with dual Mikunis while the drum brakes had been "upgraded" several decades earlier with a pair of Performance Machine "café" disc brakes. In fact, stuck to the paperwork was a 1970s vintage PM catalog listing the Hurst-Airheart calipers and reservoirs I think were used on go-carts at the time. Would they work? We would see. The Nort also sported pair of original Dunstall mufflers, classics in themselves. And after several hours the rust and corrosion literally melted away and their chromed magnificence shone clear again. But would they bark and burble their long silent tunes?
After "clarifying" the wiring, cleaning out the carbs, replacing all fluids, fitting fresh spark plugs, strapping in a new battery and adding gasoline to the tank, the moment of truth arrived. I cleared the clutch a couple times, turned on the ignition and gave the kickstarter a hardy kick. Nothing. A second kick. A hiccup followed by a burble followed by a bark! It lived!!!! It ran. It even idled. And I had not touched the engine. Now that is faith rewarded. The music coming out of those gleaming Dunstalls set me to dancing around the bike. A few blips of the throttle to warn the neighborhood I was about to launch... a careful release of the clutch... and off I went.
I stood there a while inhaling the sweet smell of success, actually the scent of polish and wax percolating up in the air as the bike warmed up. If I was intoxicated, so be it. Now to ride the beast. Jacket, helmet, gloves and a leg over. Off the center stand. A few blips of the throttle to warn the neighborhood I was about to launch... a careful release of the clutch... and off I went. It snickered through the gears as smooth as silk, the throttle responded seamlessly and it felt quicker than any stock Commando I had ridden, the engine obviously breathed upon... but then there was the stop sign. Would it stop? I downshifted and squeezed the brake lever, pressing the footpedal gingerly. The Norton began to decelerate, not with any sense of urgency, but it did slow and eventually stop. So braking wasn't its strongest point, but it was safe enough for judicious riding.
All in all, it was ten days well spent with many more to follow on a Fastback that came back.
Blast from the Past: George Kerker's Snortin' Norton Racer Rediscovered
Along with the machines went the men that rode Nortons to numerous victories, including luminaries such as Englishman Mike "The Bike" Hailwood. A less known racer, the American George Kerker also campaigned a Norton in the U.S., albeit very briefly. The Kerker name is forever associated with after market exhaust systems... the mellow bellow of a Kerker "pipe" fitted to all kinds of motorcycles over the years.
Some years ago I chanced up Brian Abure, the owner of this restored Kerker Norton. Now Brian had an appreciation for what he had since he had an early introduction to racing as his father was an avid competitor in South America, and later in the U.S. took part in the Laverda SFC racing effort with Lance Weil. But Brian's his first sight of a Norton took place when, in 1976, childhood friend Leland Powells received a brand new John Player Norton for his 16th birthday. "I just had to have a Norton," said Brian. "My first one was a chopped up, opened-header mishmash I bought from some hippie in Venice (Calif.) He used to ride the thing out to Mexico with a Colt .45 strapped to the forks. I told myself, a bit optimistically... I can bring it back. A couple thousand dollars later and a major crash ended that effort, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted. Then I bought a '75 Commando Electric Start which I rode every day, rain or shine, for 80,000 miles until it blew up."
"Besides adding the 'Black Cat' tail light, all I did after that was have Tony Marcus give it one of his masterful paint jobs, then I rode it. It's been very reliable."
Several years ago the Kerker Norton came into the picture when Brian first heard of the bike from a fellow from whom he bought several boxes of rare NOS Norton racing parts including the shortened Roadholder forks for Manx racers, about everything you needed to campaign a Norton. "He made a mistake of showing me a picture of this bike that had been for sale with the parts. I put two and two together. The Norton had been mislabeled in an ad as a 500cc twin. I tracked it to down to Pasadena and the guy who had originally bought it from an estate auction."
Bit by bit, over the intervening years, Brian learned that the late George Kerker had indeed raced it, and that there was a twin to the bike out there somewhere. "This is one fun, super-light bike that absolutely dominates the canyons. It has all the necessary attributes to kick butt."Kerker put both bikes together, and he raced both for the '72-73 season and, as the story goes, came to hate Nortons as a result of that experience. At some point, it somehow got registered for street legal use as seen here.
Upon acquiring the Kerker Norton and seeing it afflicted with inadequate vintage Hurst-Airheart brakes, Brian added Performance Machine brakes retaining the original rotors; according to him, it stops on a dime. "Besides adding the 'Black Cat' tail light, all I did after that was have Tony Marcus give it one of his masterful paint jobs, then I rode it. It's been very reliable."
The bike features a 1963 "slimline featherbed" frame which is nickel plated and matched to a set of Ceriani roadrace forks. The engine is based on an early release 750cc Combat engine that Kerker massaged, fed by a pair of 33mm Amal carburetors. "The tach redlines at 7,000RPM, but it will go happily to 8,000," says Brian. "Geared with a 20-tooth sprocket, top speed is around 115 mph. It's not a high-speed bike and gets a bit twitchy over 120 mph. It's more suited to a Sears Point-style track or running in the canyons."
The Kerker Norton wears a fiberglass Manx replica gas tank and 1/2 fairing. The gearbox is a 4-speed with an updated 850 Norton clutch (and an 850 Commando style in-line oil filter). The stock Girling shocks still work fine, while 18 and 19-inch custom magnesium wheels add to the bike's low weight and nimbleness. A Joe Hunt magneto provides the spark. Of course, the Snortin' Norton roars through a custom Kerker exhaust system. The dual purpose, street and track exhaust features a simple baffle design that is easily removed which in turn allows the air filter to be removed for racing. It's then automatically tuned to run with the different flow which provides more power and a lot more noise. Weighing in at only 400 lbs. wet, Brian says, "This is one fun, super-light bike that absolutely dominates the canyons. It has all the necessary attributes to kick butt."
The ex-Kerker racing Norton is perhaps one of the most sensual looking cafe racers unleashed upon the streets, a true epitome of raw power and refined aesthetics.
One question remains...who out there in Motorcycle.Com land has possession of its twin?
Norton Snapshots: The Nortons I have Lusted After
Paul Dunstall Norton
Dunstall and Norton seem synonymous especially to café bike fans. The name is most associated with custom and racing Nortons, going as far back as 1958 when Paul started racing a tricked out Dominator 99. By age 21 he was focusing on the family motorcycle business and in on the ground floor of the café bike phenomena. His now famous Dunstall pipes were one of his first hits, then he added clip-ons, rearsets, tanks, brackets and go-fast engine parts, his first catalog setting the precedent in 1961.
Soon enough, the leather boys were parking their Dunstall equipped roadracers in front of the Ace Café and the rest as they say is Norton-inspired history. Dunstall began producing fully modified Dominators, taking on the status as manufacturers in their own right. By 1965 business was booming (along with their pipes) and the press heralded the company's racing successes as well as their products including their twin leading-shoe front brake and later their double disc setups. Dunstall sold street versions of their 650cc Domiracers and one of the first buyers was Steve McQueen. By 1970 Dunstall was moving into the Japanese market, but their catalog still carried the créme of custom Norton accessories.
Gus Kuhn Café Norton
Along with the likes of Paul Dunstall, one of the best known purveyors of Norton aftermarket performance and bodywork products was Gus Kuhn. In the late 1960s, Gus Kuhn Motors of Clapham, England was racing a team Nortons and was one of the first to offer custom radical stuff for Nortons. Parts offered included distinctive seat units, large tanks, fairing, oil tanks, alloy rims, rearsets as well as hypo engine parts plus the Lyster front disc brake setup. They were well made, beautiful pieces that complemented the Norton on all levels. Ojai, California collector Mike Taggart showed up one day at a bike show with his Gus Kuhn special and I immediately began calculating how many pints of blood I would have to sell to own the British Racing Green beauty and yes, it sounded ferocious through its Dunstall pipes.
Drouin Supercharged Norton
If you go on the web and check into various Norton sites, you'll usually find someone hankering to buy a Drouin Supercharger for their Norton Commando. Designed many years ago, this is a belt driven centrifugal supercharger which takes its power off of the crankshaft. The housing splits into two parts into which the impeller is sandwiched wherein one of the halves contains the intake and exit ports. The air is drawn in through the center port and flung outward where it exits the exhaust port. The "huffer" adds significantly to the vertical twin's power output and the bike owner's bragging rights. This bike was spotted at the 1992 Del Mar Concours d'Elegance and so the young miss, the daughter of its owner whose name escapes me, is now a young lady.
Postscript: I'm still a Norton nut. Even though paying rent, eating and paying my ex has temporarily left me Norton-less, the precious body parts for a Commando Fastback are still nestled in my closet waiting for the frame and powertrain to complete. (Donations accepted... if the motor, tranny and frame are a-okay. Ugly is okay. I can fix that.)
Related Reading and Norton Info: Joining one of the local, national or international organizations will get you all the information you need, to start Snortin' for yourself. Beware; once you start, you can't stop. That's a good thing, so log-on to the following links:
For Northern California readers go to: http://www.nortonclub.com/.
For a cool photo of a red Fastback and a hot lady go to Australia's Norton Club at: http://www.nocnsw.org.au/contact.html.
For Windy City area readers, checkout Chicago's Norton club at: http://www.cnoc.org/.
The French have a great site (in English) with lots of bike photos at: http://www.norton-club-fr.org/pages/anglais/welcome.html.
To get a panoramic Norton view log on to the International Norton Owners Group at: http://www.inoanorton.com/.
For a link to a long list of Norton clubs go to: http://www.oldbritts.com/club_n1.html.