MY UNAPPROACHABLE NORTON –ERIC LANGTON
|It was in Adelaide, while there for the 1974 National Rally that I first saw the Norton. Quite a large|
contingent of members of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club of Western Australia had made the l,750 mile trip
across the Nullabor Desert to attend the event which was run as a Hub Rally, so we were all back in
Adelaide each night. It was late in the week that Doug Bennetts, the president of the local Vintage Motor
Cycle Club, invited all motor cycle entrants to his home for a barbecue evening.
There was lots of food and gallons of grog, but his shed and bikes were firmly under lock and key when we
got there. However, as the night wore on, and the hospitality was soaked up, Doug was prevailed upon to let
a few of us into his shed. There was a splendid array of beautifully restored Nortons up to about 1930, but
what caught my eye was a belt driver, obviously an early one, lacking an engine, but otherwise just about
restored. It had a straight top tube frame, separate lug where the lower tank rail joined the front down tube. I
had only ever seen one other Norton with a similar frame, a 1908 model that Reg. Hancock, of Adelaide, was
riding in the rally. It had a trailing rear brake shoe and the Norton name embossed in the tank— a Ia Rem
Fowler Norton—and lamp bracket Druids. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. When I did, there, hanging on the
wall behind the workbench, was another one just like it but unrestored. I just couldn’t believe my eyes, but
immediately resolved that I had to have it. When quizzed later about the hold up with the belt driver, Doug
said that he had two engines but only one crankcase, and that was useless. I straightaway said, “How about
I make you a crankcase and you give me the unrestored bike?” and he agreed just as promptly.
Back in Perth with what remained of the old crankcase, I got a quote for a set of patterns—$400 whew!
That’s £200 and just the beginning, so I decided to have a go myself. Way back in the mld-1920s, while
serving my apprenticeship as a toolmaker, I had done a two-year stint in the pattern shop and enjoyed every
minute of it. During my racing days I had kept my hand in making crank cases for my own J.A.Ps in better
alloys, and also narrow valve angle cylinder heads. More recently I have made C.I. pistons for most of my
veteran and vintage restorations. The patterns took about two weeks, the most time consuming bits were the
capital letters for the timing side name.
I fluked the pulley side ones, lead letters from some old patterns at the foundry seemed to be just the right
size, from what could be recognised of the name on the old, battered, corroded, and woefully thin original
case. I got two sets of castings by Christmas, about 10 weeks after making the rather rash offer, and then it
was how to set about machining them on my 51/2 inch centre lathe. For a start I made four detachable,
adjustable jaws to fit my 14 inch faceplate and turn it into a four-jaw chuck. That took care of the mating
faces and bearinq bores. The next move was to make a dummy timing case cover in C.I. about 5/8in. thick,
with drill and reamer bushes for the cam- wheel centres and locating from the main bearing bore. Having no
access to even a milling machine, the jig boring had to be done using the time honoured method of
toolmakers buttons, something I hadn’t done since apprenticeship days. The drill plate for the cylinder
holding down stud holes had to be done in the same way, locating from the cylinder spigot bore, which I did
on a Buma cylinder borer—a leftover from my speedway engine maintenance days. I had the finished job
bead blasted and, though I say it myself, “It looked like a bought one”.
I packed it up and railed it off to Adelaide and awaited developments. A couple of weeks went by without
even an acknowledgment of arrival, so I sent off a tentative enquiry and still nothing. A few weeks later I
wrote to a bloke whom I knew did some restoration work for Doug, and weeks later got a letter from Doug’s
wife, at least it had arrlved, but no mention of my Norton bits. By this time five months had gone by, and we
were due to leave for a trip to the U.K. to take part, among other things, in the International Rally based on
There being no motor cycle classes, we had to settle for the next best thing, a very nice 1927 20 h.p. R.R.
saloon, very kindly loaned by V.M.C.C. member and enthusiast from Leeds, Jim Noble. The Yorkshire
scenery was glorious and the catering quite something to be remembered, but for the rest—best forgotten.
Something else to be remembered though were the half dozen or so laps on the Ward Sprint Special at
Mallory’s Vintage Race of the Year Meeting. And then it was on to the unrnatchable atmosphere of the
Banbury Run, where riding Oliver’s 1903 London/ Edinburgh Rex, with a score of 142 years, I was awarded
the Percy Wheeler Trophy.
Our six-month holiday being over we returned to Perth, and after sleeping off the jet lag, I couldn’t wait to
get at the packing case which had arrived unheralded in our absence. There it was, all that I had expected
though the belt rim looked too small and the good looking tank had later looking filler caps, and a bonus of a
1910 Bosh mag., but no carburettor.
It didn’t take long to replace the broken front down tube and lower tank rail. I resisted the temptation to
leave off the magneto platform support rod lug—the ‘08 and‘09 had a clip—but put it back just where Mr.
Norton had put it, i.e. where the rod had to be bent to meet it, so that meant 1910 or later. The slotted rear
fork ends, a carry-over from 1909 when pedalling chain adjustment was needed, had originally no provision
for a stand—neither ‘08 or ‘09 had a stand—but a very professional job had been done of brazing matching
slotted plates inside the fork ends carrying a boss below for the stand to pivot on, not the double lug type into
which the stand fitted, that came later. The front forks were in a sad state; the lower spindle had almost worn
its way through the lug in the girders, and one fork end lug had been changed for a later one, i,e. one with a
separate boss and tapped hole for the mudguard stay mounting. As I had by me an almost identical pair of
girders in good shape, I put the older ones on one side for later renovation.
And then on to the engine, the 82mm. bore cylinder was in excellent shape needing only re-boring and new
guides, and one fin had to be built up. I had already made a pattern and corebox for an 82 mm. piston for my
1907 82 mm. x 86 mm. Triumph—still not completed as the cylinder is very sick—and had had several
castings made, so I machined up one of these. The con-rod was a problem, the small end bush had worked
its way out and forced the rod against the drive-side flywheel and the rod was worn away almost to the
centre web. I decided to try to recover it by welding and enlisted the aid of the local Entectic demonstrator.
Using a low temperature process quite new to me he built up the rod by pre-heating locally to a just visible
red, blowing the steel powder on and then heating the powder to melting point. The finished job was fantastic
and required little or no fettling at all, and if it had been my wife piping a cake with icing sugar she couldn’t
have done a neater job. The demonstrator, a Londoner from Wembley before emigrating here, had been a
fan of mine when I had made my periodic appearances for Belle Vue at the Empire Stadium. Now I’m a fan
I thought the mainshafts at 1inch dia. were woefully weak and as they had to be replaced. I opted for lighter
series ballraces which would take 1 in. dia. shafts. Unfortunately in shrinking in the new driveside shaft the
flywheel showed a crack between the crankpin and mainshaft holes. I made a pattern and had one cast in
grey iron and machined it up to match the T/side one. Making a pair of flywheels is one thing but making a
new one to match an old one is something quite different, and I had to very carefully measure the stroke. So
don’t try to tell me that Mr. Norton didn’t make an 82 mm. x 94 mm. engine! I know Nortons themselves had
no record of it when they were approached around 1956, but Mr. Norton had put his name on my flywheels
in inch high capitals. The original cam-wheels were like the front forks, almost worn away, and had been built
up by welding more than once. Luckily, the cam-wheel centres and pinion dimensions of this engine carried
over into the 79 mm. x 100 mm. engine, so with very little modification to the cam levers—the later cams
themselves were smaller—I was able to use 16H cams.
The magneto chain case cover with those pot bellied “Os” in the Norton name, quite unlike those pressed
into the tank, is well illustrated on the Norton version of the Rem Fowler Peugeot T.T. twin, but that wasn’t
quite enough to go on. So, Reg Hancock in Adelaide, whom I believe has the only single cylinder Norton with
an original detachable mag. chain case, was prevailed upon to remove it from his bike and loan it to me. I
was astonished to find that both halves were pressings in 80 aluminium.
I hand-formed a pair of cases for patterns in 8G aluminium and had four pairs cast, one pair for the bloke I
got the bike from, one pair for a 1910 82 mm. x 120 mm. Big 4 here in Perth under restoration, and two pairs
for myself. For the name I made a die from a rubbing of Reg’s cover, into which I pressed 220 annealed
aluminium with a rubber pad in the vice and achieved an excellent result after half a dozen or so goes. With
these trimmed to fit the recess and bonded in place with “Plastibond”, the covers would pass muster under
the closest scrutiny. Don’t tell anybody, nobody else knows that they are not really pressings or even that
they should be.
The original mudguards which came with the machine were battered but substantially sound, and I was able
to recover them using a wheeling machine that I had made years ago in order to make a set of mudguards
for my 1914 Swift Cyclecar. “D” section 26 in. x 2 in. x 21 in. rims are obtainable from Japan, and I get mine
undrilled and re-rolled then to drop-centre pattern so they were no problem. The belt rims, however, are
unobtainable here, and when in England for my brother’s funeral, I talked to two people who offered them for
sale without learning very much from either. I was completely in the dark when I started to have a go. I
decided to try the method I had used to make the mudguards, i.e., welding a flat strip into a hoop and then
proceeding to roll in the form. I had a pair of rollers that I had made to iron out the belt groove in a crushed
Model H belt rim for my 1915 T.T. Triumph. With the female roller mounted on the lathe spindle and the male
one on the toolpost, I surprisingly quickly had a V groove deep enough to take a “C” section belt. The trouble
was the rim was miles out of round and had a bit of a wiggle in it at the weld, as this had tended to let go at
the narrow edge. I should have stopped and re welded but it was going so well that I just had to press on. I
thought I could have got it a bit nearer round by putting all my weight on it but even though this first one was
only 22G my 11 stone didn’t even flex it. The third problem was that it had grown about l in. in diameter. I
added another roller, two male and one female for the next attempt, and that did the trick with a stop halfway
through to touch up the weld.
The next move was to try 20g and that proved to be as much as I could handle. When trimmed and flanged
for the short mounting spokes—yes the ‘08 and ‘09 adverts show short spokes—and the addition of the
usual lightening (?) holes, I had a serviceable belt rim. Some previous owner had explored the internals of
the oil compartment by cutting out the side and then soldering a rough patch over the hole. A good thing I
removed it as the sand and oil had set in a mastic-like mass that couldn’t have been removed otherwise. I
made up a carburettor from various contemporary B & B bits that I had, rebored the mixing chamber and
built up the slides. The B & B control levers had an unusual spring loaded plunger and serration stiction
system like Triumphs introduced for their twist grips just before the World War (was it 1937?).
So with most of the problems ironed out it was just a matter of getting it all together which I managed with a
week to spare before our 360-mile Two-Day Trial. The Club examiner came over to vet the bike for
concessional licencing, the Traffic Branch accepts our word for roadworthiness. He gave me a push and
away she went. He did a couple of laps round the block too, sans number plates and licence disc, well he
had to test it, hadn’t he?
I put the finishing touches to the bike during the week, but of course at 73 couldn’t push start it alone from
cold. On the Saturday morning I got a push from a neighbour for the one mile run to the start of the Two-Day
and that’s all the running it did before setting off for the 360 mile event. There was a slight whine from the
timing gears for the first few miles, and as the engine freed off the mixture seemed a bit on the weak side. I
had made the jet the same size as a Model H Triumph, and that’s for 550 c.c., but with the petrol level so far
below the choke tube, carburation can only be anything but automatic.
Well on the way back with about 300 miles up, I gave the motor a bit of a burst only to be disappointed with
the seemingly sluggish response. I soon forgot about that as with about 30 miles still to go the threatening.
rain came down, and the belt slipped and slipped. The bike had run perfectly throughout and with its 56 in.
wheelbase—surely one of Mr. Norton’s “Ferrets”—had given me a good, comfortable ride, and with its
approximate 63° head angle steered extra well in a straight line. However, I had been concerned that it
seemed to be consuming far more oil than the half pump I was giving it every 15 minutes, but all was
explained when I drained the oil next day and almost a quart came out of it, no wonder it was sluggish. The
spring-loaded ball valve under the hand pump was being opened by the crankcase depression, the breather
had worked too well, and the engine was helping itself to oil. Simple cure, stronger spring.
And now what about dating it. Well, I have definite proof that it isn’t a 1909, that had pedals, an external
hand oil pump at the front of the tank and a clip on the front down tube for the magneto platform support rod.
Now “Old Miracle” has a 79 x 100 engine, an internal hand oil pump at the front of the tank and a head lug
which extends below the lower tank rail. Its engine number is 50100 and that is presumed to be 1912. So
mine with its 82 x 94 engine numbered 347 and frame number 976 must be earlier, i.e. 1910 or ‘11. Reg
Hancock’s engine number is 327 and that must be an ‘08 or ‘09 as it conforms almost exactly to the adverts
in “Motor Cycle” of ‘08 and ‘09. Dick Platt tells me that there is no photograph in the Club’s Photographic
Records of a 1910 model other than the Big 4 with “Nortorac” hub and there is such a model here in Perth
and its frame number is 995. Until more definite information is available I feel I am justified in dating mine as
As for the title of this epistle, they are not my words but those of the immortal James L., who as far as I can
find, first used them to describe his “mechanically and scientifically correct” two model range 5 h.p. Twin, 50
guineas and 3 h.p. single, 43 guineas in “Motor Cycle” dated December 16th, 1908.
ERIC LANGTON, Western Australia.
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