“How would you like to test a few Manx Nortons while you’re at Pukekohe?” This was Kevin Grant speaking – one of the main movers behind the enormously successful annual meeting in New Zealand. “How many’s a few”, I ventured? “Oh, five or six”, was the off-handed reply, “We’ll see what we can line up.”
And so it came to pass, one sunny Friday at the delightfully dilapidated circuit one hour south of Auckland, I arrived to find five separate 500cc OHC Nortons awaiting my pleasure. Strictly speaking, not all were Manxes, because the oldest was the CS1, designed by Walter Moore before he packed his toolbox and headed to Neckarsulm to join NSU. The CS1 made its debut in 1927 at the TT. It is a little known fact that West Australian Len Stewart was the first man to actually race an OHC Norton on the Isle of Man, although Stanley Woods had given the CS1 its competition debut weeks before in the German GP at Solitude. In practice for the Senior TT, Stewart, aboard his OHV Norton, so impressed the factory (despite five separate crashes) that they supplied him with a works CS1 for the race. As he started at number 2, Stewart was away ahead of the other Norton works riders and was thus the man to give the cammy its racing debut. Unfortunately he hit a kerb at Governors Bridge on the opening lap, buckling the rear wheel and causing his retirement. Alec Bennett took his works CS1 to victory in the Senior TT.
Kevin Grant’s CS1 is a 1929 model that had worked long and hard as road transport in Christchurch. It served its master well for over 30 years until it was finally decommissioned in the mid 1960s, whereafter it began the process of slow disintegration. Rescued as an unrecognisable pile of junk (although some restoration had been started by a family member), Kevin and Ken McIntosh undertook a comprehensive restoration, which took several years to complete.
The CS1 has a three-speed, non positive-stop Sturmey-Archer gearbox, with a lever throw long enough for you to actually change by hand as well as by foot, should you so desire. A big round wooden knob is fitted to the lever for just this purpose. The CS1 commences into life very easily, and after adjusting the ignition advance, I tootled out of the pits an onto Pukekohe’s lumpy, bumpy straight. With just three speeds, the engine needs to be flexible, and it is, pulling from very low revs (no tacho remember) until it’s time to change up. The gearing seemed pretty good for Pukekohe’s very long, bent back straight, and the scenery was rushing by at a fair lick by the end of it. For such a puny looking affair, the original 8” Enfield front brake does a good job of arresting progress for the hairpin. It is through the Esses that lead back onto the main straight that the CS1 really demands your attention, and I soon learned to get the weight off the sprung saddle, which dances around all over the place, and onto the footrests. It’s an acquired knack, and a bit of motocross experience is helpful.
Next up in chronological order was the 1937 model, owned by Ken McIntosh – a bike with a very interesting history and the only alcohol-fuelled machine in the bunch. This machine came to Australia in late1937 with the English speedway rider Bill Kitchen, who was officially in the country for the hugely-popular England versus Australia speedway test matches. Bill had thoughtfully packed a brace of sohc “Manx” Nortons (Ken uses the term Manx because the despatch book lists the machine as “to full Manx specification” although the catalogues do not use the term until after WW2) in his kit, hoping to pick up some spare cash away from the speedway during his stay. On January 3rd, 1938, he fronted at the six-kilometre gravel road circuit at Hartley Vale, near Lithgow on the western side of the Blue Mountains, for the NSW Grand Prix, and won the Senior after a ding-dong battle in the dust with Harry Hinton’s BSA. Thereafter, the 500 Norton was sold to Sydney rider Bat Byrnes, who also combined speedway with road racing, and he took it to a trio of Senior TT wins at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, in 1939, 1940 and 1949. Late in 1949 Kitchen’s 350 found its way to New Zealand with Aussie emigrant Syd Kirwin, who used it regularly for beach racing and the rugged road circuits of the time and later on, classic racing. Syd was a close friend and mentor of Ken McIntosh, and when he passed away 15 years ago, his family offered Ken the Norton. The famous machine was fully restored in the McIntosh workshops and has been back to Australia four times for vintage races. Syd de-stroked the 350 motor to 250cc in the 1950’s and won many beach races including the NZ Championship, but also used a 500 motor quite often as well.
The 250 motor has survived, but Ken has built a 500 motor “borrowing” the magnesium cambox and bevel drive of the original motor. It was famously crashed by Alan Cathcart at Pukekohe some years ago, when a brave move onto the front straight went wrong, resulting in a broken leg for the rider and a lightly damaged Manx.
This machine is very well sorted, and the dope certainly gives the engine a bit of extra grunt. The handling too is considerably better than one would perhaps expect from a seventy year old bike. Later in the weekend, I watched Sammy Miller whistling through the esses on the Norton and it looked as steady as a rock. To me, this was a machine designed for the old days of long, long straights, like at the Ulster GP’s Clady Circuit, where one could stretch back onto the bum pad over the rear mudguard, tuck right in with your chin on the tank, and let that glorious motor do its stuff. The engine is the second major refinement to the Arthur Carroll-designed job that started life as a single overhead camshaft in 1929 and became a dohc design for Joe Craig’s works bikes by 1937. Interestingly, the bike has a rigid frame, whereas the works races sported plunger rear suspension from 1936 onwards. The “pepper-pot” plungers were a “Manx” option in 1937 but the original purchaser opted for a rigid. It is still a source of absolute amazement to me that Harold Daniel hustled a similar machine around the Isle of Man at 90 mph in 1938. I know they do 130 today but 90 mph, seventy years ago was a superhuman feat.
So now we fast-forward to 1948, and an altogether more modern-looking Manx. In fact, the Manx only officially became referred to in the sales catalogues as a Manx about this time; previously the 30 M (500) and 40M (350) models were ‘International to Racing Specification’ but were generally known around the race shop as Manxes to distinguish them from the road bikes. New for 1948 was the all-welded steel tank replacing the distinctive saw-tooth seam along the bottom of the fuel tank that characterised the pre-war models. The chassis is now fully sprung, with plunger suspension at the rear and the famous Norton Roadholder telescopic forks at the front, which have their origins in the pre-war BMW racers. Originally, the 1948 models had the same forks as the road bikes, with no damping, only hydraulic lock-stops. This resulted in a very spongy ride, for which the rear suspension was often wrongly blamed. Inside this model, owned by Kevin Grant, the later piston-style dampers have been fitted, which vastly improves the front end.
This bike too, has an interesting local history, having won the prestigious Hamilton 100 in 1950, ridden by Paul Clarkson. Thereafter, the frame and engine became separated and remained so until around 1970 when Len Perry took the original engine as a trade in on a Speedway JAP motor. Len only accepted the deal as he had an old Manx chassis laying in the rear of the shop, but he was amazed to find that when he checked the engine and chassis numbers, they belonged to each other! Nearly 30 years later, Kevin Grant prised the bike away from Len and with Ken McIntosh’s help, restored the old warrior to pristine original condition. To me, there was little to pick in performance from the pre-war machine, which admittedly was on alcohol instead of petrol, and I found the combination of the sprung saddle, un-damped plunger rear end and the primitive front suspension to be a little too much to cope with all at once, or at least just in the course of four laps. But again, one must remember that these machines were designed for the wide open spaces, and would have been the bee’s knees compared to other tackle of the time. The ’48 model had been very well put together, and clutch, gearbox, brakes and everything else seemed to operate in perfect harmony.
Enter the quantum leap – the McCandless, or if you prefer, Featherbed frame that was first united with a Manx engine in 1949 in a secret test session on the Isle of Man where a section of the course was closed to allow Geoff Duke and Artie Bell to compare the works 1949 plunger-framed 500 with the twin-loop, swinging arm cradle frame designed by the Irish brothers Rex and Cromie McCandless. The difference was chalk and cheese, or if you like, comparing a featherbed mattress with an old garden gate. Both names stuck. On April 30, 1950, the prototype Featherbed appeared at Blandford Army Camp, and Duke annihilated the opposition. In combination with the new chassis came a heavily redesigned engine, with an entirely new cylinder head that had the bevel housing cast integrally, at least on the works machines.
Kevin’s ”Long-Stroke” 1952 model retains the original bolt-up rear sub frame, in which the section holding the seat and rear mudguard is bolted to the rear frame loop. It’s a miracle that any of these chassis survived in original condition, because the rear section was chronically prone to cracking and was usually modified by welding or, more commonly, scrapping the rear portion of the mudguard altogether. This machine, like many in New Zealand, has a IoM TT and GP history, in the hands of Dene Hollier , but is currently fitted with Ken Mudfords 1952 TT engine, later used in 1952 by Rod Coleman in NZ . The original engine however, has been unearthed at the wonderful Thompson Motorcycle Museum at Palmerson North and Kevin plants to reunite the original components soon. The engine is a redesign of the Long-Stroke 1948 Manx, still 79.6mm x 100 stroke, but with DOHC and the deep crankcase used on Featherbed models. The gearbox is the more familiar ‘laydown’ Norton unit based on the Dominator twin type. The box formed the basis for the later AMC unit, perhaps the most widely used gearbox ever, when you consider the enormous variety of machines it has graced over the years. After careful setting up, the box works perfectly, silky smooth and deliciously precise in action, and that makes an enormous difference on a racing motorcycle.
Naturally this Manx, my fourth for the day, was a vastly more modern-feeling piece of gear and for someone like myself who is not particularly experienced with the veteran stuff, a far more comfortable and predictable ride. The Esses could now be taken ‘flat’, and the long tightening right hander at the end of the straight was no longer a series of wallowing, pitching arcs but a steady curve that could be taken with a good handful of throttle. And aligned with the refined chassis, the brakes and general grip were much more confidence-inspiring. As well as being an extremely functional package, it really is a beautiful looking machine, just as we all remember them as we pawed over the pictures of Duke, Bell and Lockett in the pages of the Brit magazines in the early fifties.
And so just one machine remained to be sampled – the luscious 1963 model 500 owned and ridden regularly at Pukekohe by American Paul Adams. This really is a significant machine, being genuinely the last 500 “Short-Stroke” Manx to leave the Norton factory. 30M-102818, and its 350cc sibling, 40M 102819, were the last of the line, delivered in early 1963, and both went to the USA. Paul actually owned the 350, but when the chance came to purchase its big brother the temptation was irresistible. For a time, he owned both the 350 and the 500, but sold the smaller machine to buy a Velocette Mk8 KTT. The 500 was raced extensively in USA but sometime prior to 1968 the engine was dismantled but left with a complete collection of new genuine Norton parts and is still totally Norton inside and out. Fortunately, this historic machine has been retained in completely original specification, including the four-speed gearbox with chain primary drive, 19-inch wheels and the double-sided seven inch front brake that originally graced only the 1962-63 production.
Out on the circuit, the last Manx’s manners were impeccable – rock-solid over the bumps and whoops, smooth and powerful up to the self-imposed 7,200 maximum in top gear, and perfectly behaved under brakes. What a machine. What a joy to ride. As this was my final ride for the day I stayed out until the very end of the session, and even then made the most of the slowing down lap. I have ridden many late model Manxes and owned a few, but this is one of the greats because it has not been recreated or mucked about-with in any way. It is simply as it came out of the mould, and I am sure Paul intends it to stay that way.
So concluded a most interesting day, with machines spanning 36 years of development, yet all intrinsically linked to old Pa Norton and his philosophy to build ‘The World’s Best Roadholders’. Quite naturally, every one is an improvement on the previous, but in its own way, every one was the best of its era, top of the class. And indeed, would there even be road racing as we know it today had it not been for the Manx Norton? Thanks to Kevin Grant, Ken McIntosh and Paul Adams for allowing me to sample their rare and expensive machines. It was all a little bewildering, jumping from one to another and attempting to discern small (and large) differences, and to translate those experiences into words. In the end, no mere words can do the experience justice, but the pictures help, and for those I am indebted to Phil Purdue of Highside Photography.
Story Jim Scaysbrook • Photography by Phil Purdue, Highside Photography. (www.highside.co.nz)