1963 Norton Electra: The push-button Norton

Bike Profile

From our Old Bike Archives – Issue 68 – first published in 2017.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Sue Scaysbrook, Bob Toombs.

A short-lived Norton model and a dedicated Norton man make for an interesting afternoon in Adelaide.

Dean Hogarth is a committed Norton man – he has owned and restored more than 30 over the years. He is also a veteran motorcycle racer and more lately a gun speedway competitor. His motorcycle racing career came to an end following the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island in 1957, but prior to that he had enjoyed a successful career on solos and as a passenger to noted South Australian sidecar racers Gordon Benny and Laurie Wilson. Benny’s mount was a Vincent Black Lightning that he purchased from Singapore and Hogarth occasionally rode it in solo form. Dean lists the highlight of his motorcycling career as finishing third to World Champion Geoff Duke at Gawler Airfield in 1955. On that occasion he was aboard his self-tuned and highly modified Norton International.

Dean Hogarth with his ex-Clem Foster Manx Norton.

Switching to speedcars, Dean became a leading light at Adelaide’s fondly remembered Rowley Park, where he raced a variety of cars including his well known ‘Old Smokey’ and held lap and race records on several occasions. His speedway career came to an end when he was banned from holding a licence after a heated exchange with a somewhat zealous track official.

Today, at 86 years of age, Dean is scaling back his collection which now numbers around ten machines. However his shed, which is a favourite calling point for motorcycle groups passing through Murray Bridge, south of Adelaide, still contains some gems, including a beautiful pre-war Manx Norton raced very successfully by pre-war South Australian star Clem Foster, a Norton Big 4 with Dusting sidecar, a Model 7 Norton twin, and a really rare one, a 1963 Norton Electra.

Joe Moore Junior, from NSW Norton agents Hazell & Moore, goes for a helmetless spin in Sydney on an Electra in 1965.

“Electra”, I hear you ask? Yes indeed, a 400cc parallel twin that was produced from 1963 to 1966. The Electra had its origins in the 250cc Jubilee, introduced in 1958, so let’s start there. Norton felt that its 60th anniversary of motorcycle production was a milestone worth celebrating, and the Jubilee was the result; a design that had input from Bert Hopwood, Doug Hele and chief designer William Pitcher.

The new 250 differed markedly from any previous Norton twin, being of unit construction, but with a conventional one-piece nodular iron 360-degree crankshaft and a very oversquare bore and stroke of 60mm x 44mm. The crankcases were vertically split with separate barrels and heads. Originally, the Jubilee was to have a single die-casting for each head and barrel as a single unit, eliminating the always touchy head gasket. However in the final wash-up, this was decreed an unwarranted expense and the heads and barrels were cast separately.  With such a wide bore, the valves could sit at a fairly narrow angle of 42º, giving a modern combustion chamber design, with a single carburettor feeding the cylinders via a forked manifold.  The twin camshafts, located fore and aft of the cylinders were gear-driven by spur gears via an intermediate gear connecting with a pinion on the right hand end of the crankshaft.

1963 Norton Electra.

Compression ratio was a healthy 8.75:1 and the exhaust ports were splayed out, as on the bigger Dominator engines. Ignition was twin coils and battery, with twin contact breakers mounted on a backing plate under a cover on the timing chest. The familiar Norton oil pump operated in similar fashion to the bigger twins. A duplex primary chain connected the engine to the gearbox, running in a left-side casing that also contained the alternator which was fixed outside the engine sprocket with an adjustable block chain tensioner.

Chassis-wise, the navigator broke with established Norton practice by using a frame made up of several sections. The frame itself was based on a Francis Barnett design (Francis Barnett being by that stage part of the AMC group which also owned AJS, Matchless and James, as well as Norton. A pressed steel section formed the front down tube, with the steering head welded to it. A separate tubular steel cradle bolted to the steering head and ran over the top of the engine, down the rear and under the crankcases to connect to the bottom of the front down tube. In place of a conventional seat tube, a steel pressing provided attachment points for the rear engine mounts, with extra tubes to brace the pivot for the swinging arm. Most of this was invisible, being enclosed by a pressed metal shroud. Instead of the famed Roadholder forks, the front suspension was sourced from the James/Francis Barnett range, as were the 6-inch hubs which carried 18-inch rims.

Wheels came from the Dominator range: three-stud 7-inch rear and single leading shoe 8-inch front.

The new Navigator was hurridly completed in time to make its public bow at the 1958 Earl’s Court Show, where it graced the Norton stand along side its big road burning brothers. The reaction to the new model, with its prissy two-toned colour scheme, was rather subdued to say the least. Soon after the show, the first road test reports began to flow in, and testers were similarly unimpressed with many aspects of the ‘little twin’. For a start, it tipped the scales at 330 pounds (150 kg) which was hardly svelte. Most reckoned the extra weight taxed the frame, which had thus forth only had to cope with small (and lighter) two stroke powerplants. The engine was also a bit on the asthmatic side, needing a decent handful of revs to coax it into its comfort zone. However the all-important fuel economy received a universal thumbs up, with a figure of 85 miles per gallon being quoted.

The Jubilee plodded along with slight changes until the end of 1960, when it was joined by a 350cc version called the Navigator. This used a completely revised bore and stroke of 63mm x 56mm (349cc) but was otherwise identical to the 250. Significantly, the 350 had a revised frame with a beefier front down tube, and up front sat the signature Roadholder forks which carried a 19 inch front wheel. Road tests of the navigator acknowledged the increase in top speed (89mph as opposed to 75 mph for the 250). Both models soldiered on through 1961 and 1962, and as Britain struggled through the winter of 1962/63, reports began to filter out of yet another variation of the ‘little twins’.

Left side of the engine is dominated by the case for starter motor chain.
The Electra engine grew from the 250cc Jubilee and the 350cc Navigator.

And so, at the end of January 1963, the Electra was born at the AMC plant at Woolwich in London and not at the Norton factory in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham, from whence had come the Jubilee and Navigator. What soon became known was that the new model, of 397cc, would be for the American market only, which had so far failed to embrace either the 250 or the 350. Initially, the Electra was listed as having a bore and stroke of 66mm x 58mm (397cc), but by the time production began, the stroke had been revised to 56mm, the same as the 350, giving a capacity of 383cc. The impetus for the Electra had come, not surprisingly, from US importer Joe Berliner, who had witnessed first hand the remarkable sales of Honda’s 305cc CB77 which had quickly hit the top of the charts. When the Electra did hit the US market, the price was $789.00.

The family resemblance was there, but the Electra was in fact quite a different animal to the Jubilee and Navigator. The bigger bore size required modifications to the crankcase to take the larger spigots, and heavier pistons meant rebalancing the crankshaft. The transmission was also beefed up, in combination with a new drum-type selector mechanism. The chassis was similar to the Navigator but used the 8-inch front brake and 7-inch rear brake sourced from the Dominator models, with the Roadholder front fork, and chrome plated mudguards. The Electra also dispensed with the midriff panels used on the small bikes and looked far more part of the Dominator family with its single-tone décor in a very Norton-like Silver/grey.

Just so you know what gear you’re in!

The area that received the most attention on the Electra was the electrical system, with a high-output alternator on the end of the crankshaft and twin six-volt batteries (the extra one sited under the seat and wired in series with the other in the left-side toolbox) providing 12 volts for the system.  And there was an electric, push-button starter, something that was still a novelty on British products of the era, and the first Norton to feature such a refinement. This was a Lucas M3 unit (developed for the triumph Tigress scooter and later used on the Commandos and BSA/Triumph triples), flange-mounted to the rear of the primary chaincase sitting between the top of the gearbox and the carburettor. A solenoid controlled the current supply, activated by a rubber-encased button on the left side of the handlebars. Also rather novel was the Hella turn indicators, which were set into the ends of the handlebars and operated by a switch on the right side.

Just push the rubber button and the engine fires up.

There was quite a clamour for the Electra to be released on the home market, and this happened in mid-1963 (as the ES400), with a price of £291/5/-although both the indicators and the chrome plated mudguards were listed as optional extras in Britain. This made the Electra more expensive than the 500cc Triumph twin – a major impost for the privilege of having an electric starter. Within months, the UK price was slashed by £40 – and the ‘extras’ became standard fitment at the new price.

Lucas starter motor sits above the gearbox.

Despite the extra capacity, top speed for the Electra was found to be virtually identical to the Navigator, and the electric starter was also seen to struggle when the engine was cold and the oil thick. One aspect that received universal praise was the handling, which was marginal on the smaller models. To cope with the extra power and weight of the Electra, the frame was strengthened by adding two lengths of mild steel plate above and below the steering head, clamped inside the top frame rails and running back to the centre section. This truly was a chassis that had evolved in fits and starts, and with each modification it became more difficult to remove or refit the engine unit to the chassis.

Headlamp and speedo are standard Norton fare.

By 1965, the range of ’little twins’ had been trimmed to just one model of each capacity (previously offered in standard and de lux versions of each). The two-tone decor on the 250 and 350 also vanished in favour of single colours, but by mid-1965 the 350 disappeared completely. Then in 1966 came the news that the Electra was also to be scrapped, leaving just the Jubilee, as it had been eight years previously.

By the stage the British motorcycle industry, and Associated Motor Cycles in particularly, was in a state of serious ill health, and in July 1966, with AMC in its death throes, production of the Jubilee ceased as well.

All of which makes the Electra an extremely rare piece of kit, with a production span of just 32 months. That’s why, when the existence of Dean Hogarth’s Electra in Adelaide became known, I just had to hot foot it over there and see it for myself. I even got to ride it, albeit briefly, but this was enough to ascertain that Norton’s legendary road holding did not translate directly to the Electra. This is a fairly compact little bike, and it feels more like a beefed up 250 (surprise) than a direct descendent of the featherbed line. To be fair, the Electra was never going to challenge the CB77 (or the later CB350) for several reasons, including the price. It’s heavy, and at low speeds it feels it. It does have quite a distinctive exhaust note, although this is somewhat drowned out by the gnashing and rattling emitting from the engine itself – all the ‘little twins’ were notorious for valve gear noise, but it’s nothing to worry about.  Owners’ reports in the ‘sixties complained of oil leaks, rapid camshaft follower wear, electrical problems and lengthy waits for replacement parts from dealers, but these days, with careful attention during rebuilds, most of the inherent problems can be cured.

“I even got to ride it, albeit briefly, but this was enough to ascertain that Norton’s legendary road holding did not translate directly to the Electra.”

Dean’s Electra was purchased in 1976 while he was on one of his frequent trips to USA. “It was in a shocking state,” he recalls. “It had weeds growing out of the seat and the tank badges were badly corroded. I used the original badges as patterns and cast new ones in pewter. I completely rebuilt the engine including grinding the crank, with 40 thou oversize pistons from USA.”

The Hella handlebar turn indicators have gone missing from Dean’s bike, although these should be procurable as they were identical to those used on some BMWs and NSUs.

Now, with Dean’s decision to dispose of the remaining bikes in his collection, the Electra is for sale. So if you fancy something different – a machine that will really stand out from the Commandos and Dominators at any Norton gathering – this could be the bike for you.

Specifications: 1963 Norton Electra

Engine: Parallel twin overhead valve.
Bore x stroke: 66mm x 56mm
Capacity: 383cc
Compression ratio: 7.5:1
Carburettor: Amal Monoblock
Power: 25hp at 6,800 rpm.
Electrical: Wipac alternator
Weight (wet): 350 pounds (159kg)
Wheelbase: 1350mm
Transmission: 4-speed gearbox, duplex chain primary drive, chain final drive.

OBA Issue 68
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 68 and is still available to purchase as a back issue. Click the cover to find out more.