The Classic UK Bikes
Learn how from 1902 to the 1970s, James Norton's motorcycles dominated the British bike industry.
View the ride with MagRack, and now, Motorcycle Freedom.
Male: James Lansdowne Norton began making motorcycles in Birmingham, England, the turn of the century. And though small, the company was quick to make a name for its self.
Don Emde: Well, Norton first started in England and his very own company. I don’t know exactly but I think it was like 1902, 1903. They were on of the early pioneers and one of the early makers of motorcycles in Britain, and had some of the even very earliest success with Isle of Man victories and racing. And I think racing had been synonymous with the Norton name right from the start.
Male: Early belt-driven single speed machines were mainly powered by Peugeot engines. But the famous Big 4, actually a 660 cc side valve single, went on sale on 1910 and was to be a Norton mainstay for many years.
In 1911, a new 490 cc single was announced. With the 79 by 100 mm cylinder dimensions, it were to remain part of the Norton range for the next 50 years. This engine was used in the 16H, a model that was to form a central part of the line from its debut in 1916 until 1954.
Bob Atkins: It’s a 1925 model 16H, the engine is 79 by 100 mm, so it’s got a 4 inch stroke, 500 cc flathead, the valves are exposed on the side, the top – and makes it kind of fun to watch it run.
Male: This early model 16H still runs well but requires a death touch.
Bob Atkins: The chassis, it’s a rigid frame in the rear has a web-girded fork in the front with friction damp around the steering, so you got to watch out for big woop-you-dos’ on the road or—can throw you over the handle bars there without – in very end. But it has nice feel to it, you feel everything in the road.
One thing this thing – bike, it has the very old look with the flat tank yet it has a 3 speed countershift gearbox, and it has chaindrive throughout, and fairly good drumbreaks front rear so you can ride at modern day trip. You got to watch that shifter, with that handshift down on the side, I think one of the first things I learned is not to let the clutch out like you naturally do if you shift because it will throw you right over when you’ve only got 1 hand on the handle bar—fun to ride, lot of fun.
Male: Numerous win at the Isle of Man TT races, including by Stanley Woods in 1926, was an effective if expensive way of keeping the Norton name visible, and as marketing tool for production bikes.
In 1927, the CS1, a roadgoing replica of the TT1 in design, debuted and was well received.
In 1933, Norton introduced a 4 speed gearbox, and it’s ranged of models was gradually updated through the 1930’s. The war years proved profitable, as Norton made 100 thousand of their 1937 16H models for British Army. And the abundance of parts and components helped keep vintage Norton’s on the road today.
It was also during the war years that Norton made history in the US.
Don Emde: At Daytona, Norton was the first foreign machine to win. If you had basically Indians of Harley’s winning, and then Billy Matthews the Canadian one in 1941 on a Norton, and that was the first non-Harley or Indian group on Daytona. So they kind of set that mark going to the war years. Really one of the early brands that came over here and kind of started to break into the Indian-Harley battles.
Male: Race wins, as well as a reputation for building strong, rugged bikes, helps sustain Norton sales in the post-war years when bikes were essentially the same as before the war.
Brian Slark: Post-war, Norton’s up to that 1950-51 were basically 1930’s machines. The slight modifications—that was an antique design changed really, they have grown appearance and engineering with other machines – 30’s, which most of them – start to 30’s design. The suspensions were almost non-existent, lot of ridged --. A sort amount of – that --, and to store the maintenance on its self, they weren’t complicated, they’re strong, pretty simple, pretty fast, just good value for money.
Male: Perhaps the most famous of Norton’s bikes debuted in 1946, and it was to dominate racing for many years.
Norm Nelson: The basic motorcycles called the Norton Manx, the Manx was a special motorcycle that was used mainly on the Isle of Man. On the Isle of Man, they talk about the people as Manxman, hence the name, Manx. The motorcycle has a large gas tank, it’s a 500 cc single and what’s unique from the technology standpoint, is that it’s a 1950 model motorcycle and it has double overhead cams geardriven, and that’s a very modern design, and this particular motorcycle was built as a racer.
This thing has magnesium engine cases, magnesium hubs, that’s pretty hi-tech for back then and obviously, the lightweight was the idea. To has the steering damper on the front, basically, you can compress and then makes it harder to steer so that it keeps the wobbles down a little bit. I think that the overhead cam design allowed them to get a lot of horsepower out of the engine, and so that’s one of the reason they were so competitive. And then of course, the rigid frames are really good, the garden gate frames were decent. Norton then came out with what’s called the featherbed frame, and even on modern bikes, you’ll see the roots of the featherbed frame. It doesn’t look the same but you have really thick frame numbers that come back as far as the come down. So the featherbed frame, the magnesium parts, the double overhead cam engines, the frame geometry—all added up to many many wins for Norton.
Male: Dick Klamfoth rode the Manx to victory at Daytona, and a winning combination was born.
Dick Klamfoth: And when I’m 49, 51 or 52, but I got second in 50 behind the Matthews. And I got three first in 3 seconds on the Manx Norton’s and where they blow the Norton up but all I see it’s somebody.
Norton build a model 18 model and I fitted the Manx Norton engine into this frame and—that was the Dirt Tracker that I rode the rest of my career.
Male: With its competition oriented policy, Norton’s range of road singles were becoming outdated. To keep up with the competition, Norton launched its first twin, the Dominator, 1949. Eventually bored out to 750 cc’s, the engine was used in a new more powerful bike designed for the US market.
John Basham: The bike called Atlas begins in 1959 was the first year for Atlas got – and it was the biggest of the Dominator line. The Atlas is unique for that engine being mounted on the featherbed frame which is a twin-loop frame, very rigid— the handling is remarkable.
Michael Frick: To 1967 Norton Atlas with the featherbed frame, this bike is my daily rider, its handles, excellent, it’s a very light feeling, very flickable from left to the right, and really really holds the road hence the name Road Holders for the front end.
Male: However, American buyers dislike the big vibration of the Atlas 750 Twin, so in 1967, as a stop gap measure, Norton introduced the Commando with the new isolastic mounting arrangement.
Brian Slark: They had and engine, they had a 760 Norton engine which make good horsepower, and they work on the engine a little bit and they got horsepower up. – horsepower, and they designed a new frame where the engine was mounted all over which is totally unheard of on the sporting machine. And it is very successful, success from the world --. The machine wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t meant to be, it’s meant to be a stop gap. Just make it for 2 years while we design a new engine.
Well, the thing lasted to 1975, it is successful. It was a machine that went available for 3 years running. And that really saved the year and stuff—it was very successful.
Male: However, despite the success of the Commando, which went off to sell 50 thousand units in its 9 year run, the demise of the British Motorcycle Manufacturing Industry, and Norton’s own financial rose, finally could insurmountable, and in 1977, its day to day production came to an end.
This legendary mark, with its envy as race winning record, was now a thing of the past.
But thanks to Norton enthusiasts and original writers like Dick Klamfoth, these vintage bikes have lived on.
The Classic UK Bikes
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