Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are © David Ritchie and may not be used without my permission.
Icons and con artists. It’s disheartening to read that Norton motorcycles are gone, again. The brand that I lusted for in my youth, a lust that resulted in the ownership of two Nortons.
Once again a British motorcycle has fallen victim to corporate indifference, greed and in the latest version of the company, corruption. In the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, the Brits were under pressure from Japanese advances into the international motorcycle business. Their reaction was limp and self-serving. Essentially they ignored the charge led by Honda into their market.
The British reaction was, “No self-respecting motorcyclist would ride a small foreign bike.” How wrong they were. It was essentially a racist, superior attitude, and it resulted in their downfall.
Japanese motorcycles were oil-tight, reliable, inexpensive and very well built. British bikes had few of those traits, and yet we bought Brit bikes. Triumph, Norton, BSA, Matchless, Vincent and many more- all had a very long history. Plus they were cool. Brando rode a Triumph in The Wild Ones, Steve McQueen raced them. They were fast, light, and stylish, and sounded right, but were not without faults.
“Sir must accept that a motorcycle leaks a little motor oil and occasionally breaks down.” Well, sir didn’t accept that when offered an alternative. Soichiro Honda, a brilliant engineer and industrialist wisely led the charge into the Brit market by attacking their position of strength: road racing.
The Isle of Man TT was- and still is- hallowed ground, the place to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It had worked for decades. Norton had huge successes, the Norton Manx, named for the Isle where it dominated for many years, sold many Nortons on Monday.
Gradually the howl of multi-cylinder, technically superior engines replaced the growl and thump of British twins and singles on the starting grid and the podium. Champion racers Mike Hailwood and Phil Read jumped ship, signing contracts with Honda and Yamaha. Racers want to win, allegiance to a brand ends at the finish line where bonuses were earned.
The Brits, rather than spending money on R&D to compete, let the accountants run the show. If we’re selling fewer bikes, well, we’ll just make them more profitable. What became known as parts-bin bikes showed up on the market. Assembled from parts made for previous models, they were poorly built, unimaginative designs.
The one shining light was the Norton Commando, one of the most attractive British bikes ever. I owned two of them. They were powerful and had a new ‘Isolstic’ engine mount that cured the vibration problem of big, long stroke twin-cylinder engines. They looked and sounded like real motorcycles. But there were still underlying problems: oil leaks and constant maintenance was needed to keep them running. Norton was simply delaying the inevitable. Bankruptcy followed after seven years of production.
My 1972 Norton Commando after restoration.
The classic Norton engine and transmission.
Various concerns in the USA tried to revive the brand with an engine that looked like the handsome original but built with advanced technology- electronic ignition, overhead camshafts, oil seals that actually sealed, electric start and much more. The lessons of economics ended their efforts- it requires very large investments of capital to build and sell motorcycles. The new Commando had to sell for a far higher price than comparable bikes to allow for some profit. After several years, the Norton tent was folded up once again.
Several years later Stuart Garner, a Brit, decided to have a go at reviving the Norton brand. He hired talented designers and engineers to build a new Norton Commando. It was beautiful, with top-drawer suspension, frame and brakes, a leak-proof modern engine that was a clever imitation of the original. A modern cafe racer.
The motorcycle press favourably reviewed the bike, the major criticism being the cost. Unmentioned was the long waiting list to buy one, with the money demanded upfront. That should have rung alarm bells, but the cache of owning the rare and expensive beauty appealed to many who had the funds to afford one.
All the while Stuart Garner was in full weasel mode. He bilked untold millions from investors, kept the deposits on bikes with no intention of building them, and went so far as talking the employees into investing their own retirement pension funds they accrued before joining the company. He burned the Chinese engineering and development firms that he had used. Norton owes hundreds of thousands in unpaid taxes and multi-millions to investors. It’s all very sordid.
Stuart Garner: the Bernie Madoff of British motorcycle manufacturing. Not a legacy to be proud of. The list of people who would like to wrap their hands around his throat must be very long.
Norton is now in Administration which is similar to Chapter 11 in the US. It will likely end in bankruptcy.
Triumph motorcycles are the business model of how the Norton saga could have succeeded. John Bloor, the owner of Triumph Motorcycles, revived the marque from the same bankruptcy that Norton, BSA and all the other British motorcycles ended in.
Bloor invested his own fortune, gained from his previous construction industry career. He hired the best engineers and designers to build proper, reliable, successful bikes. Triumph has a large model lineup from the ultra-modern to a range of models based upon the classic Bonneville.
Triumph has survived despite a drastic fire that destroyed the factory, the recession of 2018, and extremely competitive pressure from Europe, Japan, India (most motorcycles built and sold in the world), China, Taiwan and Indonesia. Triumph is a model for anyone considering reviving marques from the past.
The first rule is to bring lots of cash, and expect to need much more. Be patient and re-invest sales income. Hire the best talent and treat them right. Pay your suppliers and your taxes. Be honest.
Online motorcycle reviews often include videos, something I can do without considering the direction they’ve taken.
Too many reviewers carry on like they’re actors in a B movie. This most recent one I’ve seen is particularly aggravating. The pompous reviewer annoys me for many reasons- the $100 haircut and the introduction with his hands waving around as he speaks, like a cop directing traffic at an eight-lane intersection. Trying so hard to be a media personality.
He carries that annoying trait into the onboard ride review. How to we know this? Because he has a camera aimed backwards from the cockpit to capture him in his top-drawer helmet, gloves and jacket, all provided by the manufacturers. Over half the video is from that camera viewpoint, and it’s pointless- he’s wearing an iridium-type visor and his face is not visible, nor his designer hair. His head bobs around like a talking head in a tv studio- up and down, side to side.
Annoying as that is, what really grates is the constant hand gestures. Even when the camera view is the motorcycle instruments and the road ahead (really the only view we need to see), he’s waving his hand around.
That nonsense peaks at the 5:25 mark when the camera captures him with both hands off the controls simultaneously. Try that on your road test and it will guarantee failure.
That particular motorcycle is a bike that would appeal to new riders. Well, new riders with the sense not to buy a bike that’s bigger than their unformed riding skills. New, young riders are easily impressionable, so if they see some twit waving his hands around while riding a motorcycle in a video, then that must be acceptable behaviour.
A plea to bike review video producers: Please show the rider’s POV, the instruments, the mirrors and the road ahead, a few rear-view shots, plus a low mounted camera facing ahead- they look good with the suspension working the road irregularities and while braking. Views of the rider’s head and torso are totally unnecessary. Either before or after the ride show detailed views of the bike and the components. Point out special features and any perceived weak points too.
But no more views of puppet-boys auditioning for B movies.
Observed On a Ride
Saw the funniest damn thing on a ride yesterday. A large-barge Harley in the oncoming lane, a full frontal of the rider in the gynaecology position, boots in stirrups splayed out ready to fend off oncoming traffic (those guys are tough), in full pirate drag.
His ‘scoot’ was sporting a “bat-wing” (barn door) handlebar-mounted fairing. The old school design is a thumb of the nose at aerodynamics- but it does provide a platform for the 8-track /AM radio combo with room for speakers.
It gets even better. Stretched above the barn door ‘fairing’ and the oncoming boots, is a reach-for-the-shy set of ape hangers with attached hairy hands, in requisite fingerless gloves. The rider’s head just visible above the ‘dash’, framed by hairy armpits, face sports the appropriate bad boy grimace under a piss-pot helmet. Perfect.
I love motorcycling.
Fall motorcycle rides are precious. The fickle weather of autumn swings on a pendulum, warm and sunny now can be quickly replaced with cold and rain, so rides are taken when an opportunity presents itself.
Yesterday I enjoyed an excellent tour with two friends. We rode along some of our twisty roads circuits and then explored back roads, gravelled, bare dirt and some potholes too.
Roads are as unpredictable as life- no guarantees and make the most of what you have. It’s a calming ride with little traffic and more opportunity to look around. The trees were garbed in their most colourful wardrobes. If they were people, it could be said that the tarts were on parade. The scented air- smoke from leaf fires, manure feeding the fields for next year’s crops, and is that a skunk or a cannabis crop? The leaves and soil have a deep, earthy pong.
The air, scenery and mood demanded a slower pace. Notice the swirl of leaves in wake of the lead rider, squirrels cutting down walnuts, some of them fall onto the road- mind you don’t ride over them, they’re like ball bearings. Squirrel revenge for their road-killed mates?
Combines harvesting beans, some giant marvels of technology working massive acreage next to a smaller farm with older equipment gleaning at a slower pace. The aqua blue waters of Lake Erie wink through trees. Alongside a woodlot, the alternating sunlight and shadows like riding through a barcode.
Another scene is directly from Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, drying corn substituting for wheat, but the crows are eternal. I’m often reminded of landscape paintings when I ride.
After the ride, big grins and happy comments. I christened it the ‘gravel road and pig shit tour’, just to keep us grounded.
I remember the sound, the smell and the feel of every bike I’ve owned. Each one is attached to a particular era from the fifty+ years I’ve been riding. The ring-ding of Yamahas’ two-stroke exhaust, with their oily exhaust scent, and the ting of cooling fins at the end of the ride. The bark of a Norton twin at full chat, the howl of four-cylinder litre bikes under urgent acceleration. The thump of a Matchless big single, the smell of oil on a hot exhaust pipe after an oil change. The metronome tick of engines cooling. The song of a gas tank at the end of a hot ride as the air pressure in the tank equalizes through the gas cap. The rush of acceleration, the satisfaction of a perfectly executed series of curves, feeling at one with the machine, as though it is an extension of the body and mind.
It’s funny how memory works. Remember your first whatever and the circumstances from that time can seem crystal clear.
I particularly remember Dick Wilson’s Shakespeare Cycle, an old-time Norton/ Bultaco bike shop near Stratford. Dimly lit, an oil-soaked wood floor in the front, parts everywhere on shelves, in cases and hanging from the ceiling, the beat, worn old counter, an ashtray filled with butts. The smell that motorcycle shops once had, a smell that only comes with age like a fine patina on old furniture.
Dick raced a short-stroke Norton on the flat track circuit. He was a legend. The many fractured ribs, a broken wrist, arm, and leg testified to his fearless, aggressive racing style.
Drop by his shop with a six-pack and Dick would entertain with amusing stories. If you needed to pee after the beer, the “washroom” was in a back corner of the workshop: a funnel attached to a hose that ran out through the wall to drain outdoors. Priceless memories.
I always meant to take my camera and photograph him in the shop. I swore that next time I would do so. Sadly, Dick was killed riding his Norton to the 1993 Paris Vintage Motorcycle Rally, hit by a car driver who ran a stop sign. The next time never came for either of us.
Dick Wilson was honoured the following year at the Woodstock flat track races. I have a laminated copy of this hanging in my garage, a garage very much like his shop: the old, wood walls richly dark with age, and a cracked floor. It smells like motorcycles. Drop by with a six-pack, listen to the ticking of your bike as the engine cools. we’ll kick tires and do some bench racing.
The washroom is outside, behind the garage.
Norton engine on my workbench. Polaroid transfer to watercolour paper.
Blame Johnny Sombrero
I have ridden motorcycles since I turned 16. Motorcycle riding is a passion for me, an obsession. When I was younger I would ride all year if the roads were clear of snow.
Motorcycle fever first started when I was a very young boy, riding in the back of my aunt and uncle’s car on the way to the cottage in Muskoka. From behind the car, a loud rumble announced the presence of the Black Diamond Riders M.C. Looking out the back window in excitement I yelled: “it’s Johnny Sombrero!” I recognized him from photos in the newspaper.
That was a time of motorcycle ‘gang’ media hysteria, fueled in part by the movie The Wild One, which produced some great lines:
“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
“What ya got?” Classic Brando.
My frightened aunt says to me “Don’t look at him!” She likely had visions of us being savagely beaten (or worse) by heathen, vicious bikers.
Naturally, I continued to look out the back window. I waved and was rewarded with a nod and a smile from Johnny Sombrero. At that very moment, I knew someday I would have a motorcycle. Thanks, Johnny.
Roll Out the Resto
It was the moment of truth, the test of my mechanical abilities. All systems checked, the finicky Lucas electrics were refreshed (new electronic ignition, new wiring harness, modern connections installed) and the fuel tank filled with fresh gas.
Prime the gas in the new carburettors, choke on, transmission in neutral, ignition on. Prod the kickstarter to top of the compression stroke. Rise up on the kicker, right knee bent and then all weight transferred down through the kicker in a smooth motion. Nothing. Repeat the procedure and hear the first stumble of ignition.
The third kick and music to my ears- the roar of a fresh Norton Commando engine. I burst into a happy victory yell, a mixture of satisfaction and relief. My grin felt like it would split my face in two.
I was obsessed with motorcycles at a very young age (see “Blame Johnny Sombrero”). I have owned a motorcycle since I turned sixteen and the variety has been interesting. In my day new riders followed a natural progression of engine size and power. I shudder when I hear of a new rider starting with a hundred horsepower motorcycle today and I’m saddened, but not shocked when I told the rider has crashed.
My first bike was a Yamaha YG1 80cc. My father co-signed a loan and I rode that bike every day of my sixteenth summer to a Putnam tobacco farm where I earned the money to pay the loan off. I did some crazy things with that first bike. I rode to Mississauga on the 401 in December. It was so cold returning that I tucked in behind a transport to escape the wind. When that failed to keep me warm, I bought a newspaper to wear on my chest under my jacket at a truck stop. Almost burned out the hot air hand dryer in the men’s room trying to restore the feeling in my fingers.
I think I was hypothermic when I left the 401- I stopped on the shoulder of a road and not feeling my legs or feet, I fell over with the bike. A few minutes of “jumping jacks” restored feeling enough that I did get home eventually. I must have shivered in the hot shower for a half-hour, then into bed.
An 80cc motorcycle was not the ideal machine for highway riding. I had the throttle wide open the entire time and it might have gone 65 mph with a tailwind, downhill. I sold that Yamaha and bought another- a 250 YDS3 with a delightful intake howl and some real power and acceleration. I rode that bike for a number of years, from Thunder Bay (Port Arthur/ Fort Williams at that time) through Minnesota (Hwy 61), Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
That led to further purchases- a Honda CB 450, a Matchless G80 CS in road trim (worth big $$$ today) – but the bike I lusted for was a Norton Commando, the most beautiful British bike ever. In black with gold trim, the colour god made motorcycles.
I eventually did get a five-year-old Commando, the 1972 Combat model. Very fast and great handling, but still the typical keep- wrenching- to- keep- riding, oil- leaking British motorcycle (they are much more reliable today, with both Triumph and Norton still in business).
After around six years of riding the Norton, I had a very bad crash. The bike was ruined and it took several operations to repair my personal damage.
The ruined bike gathered rust and dust in a barn and then a garage. My guilt mounted as I procrastinated on a rebuild for many years. Life got in the way- family, business etc. I never lost the urge to ride and borrowed bikes whenever I could.
Finally, life stabilized enough that I could afford the needed time and money to consider bringing the Norton back to life.
Penance proved to be very expensive- I couldn’t be satisfied with a stock rebuild.
It took two years. I bought the factory workshop manual and a parts book then stripped it down to the last nut and bolt. The end result was a bike better than the original. All the available stainless steel bolts, alloy wheels with stainless spokes, new exhaust mufflers, controls, headlight, gas tank, seat, tires and much more. The frame was powder- coated, I polished the aluminum alloy parts, a lightweight fibreglass cafe-style front fender installed- the entire works. The engine and clutch were refreshed. I took the transmission apart, replaced a few bearings and a gear that was known to fail. That was the most complicated mechanical task. Taking things apart is easy- proper assembly can be a challenge.
The most difficult work for me was the new electrical harnesses (main and headlight), getting the connections right. I learned a lot about electricity, a subject that has always mystified me. My previous knowledge about the evil Lucas electrics consisted of “don’t let the smoke out of the wires”. There is a very good reason that Joseph Lucas was known as the “Prince of Darkness”.
The end result was a successful rebuild. I took a great amount of pride in my work.
Real Road Racing
In the spring my mind turns to motorcycle riding. Not spring yet but there was a definite hint in the air this past weekend. I turn to YouTube for a motorcycle racing video fix.
Can you imagine road racing on the roads in North America? I’m not talking about the occasional Formula One events that happen in Toronto and Montreal- those over-hyped, outrageously expensive, fenced-off events, with spectators kept well away from the action.
You’ve heard of the annual Isle of Man TT motorcycle races? Actually, the TT is a time trial (although it stands for Tourist Trophy) with riders starting at ten-second intervals. Possibly the most beautiful of all racing venues, the TT is a week-long festival. With the exception of the paddock and grandstand, it is free for spectators. Motorcycles race past at speeds that can surpass 200 mph, mere feet away with no barriers. Close enough to reach out and touch- if you want to lose an arm. Fearless riders brave curbs, bridges, jumps, and brick walls that line the roads.
Here’s a good video to illustrate– well worth the watch. If it doesn’t make the hair on your arms stand up…
In Ireland, the races are even more radical. Mass starts, narrow country roads, rain or shine. Every weekend, every weekend, of summer. These riders bash fairings, elbows and other bits. They are remarkably composed, expert riders.
All of the racers are privateers, no factory teams. Manufacturers do not want to be associated with races that often result in death. Not that MotoGP (equivalent to Formula One) is without danger, but there are fewer deaths.
A video of Irish racing I watched had a funny exchange between a racer and his mom:
“Son, when are you going to buy a house? You can’t sleep in your motorcycle.”
“I can’t race a house, mom.”
Here in North America, the authorities try to wrap us in a mantle of supposed-safety. The sports that carry an extreme risk of immediate death like free-climbing mountains are generally out of the public eye, although the internet and tiny, wearable cameras are changing that.
Notice that I wrote the risk of immediate death. Gladiators of ice and gridiron are paid to pound each other in front of ecstatic fans. Most deaths occur after many years of concussions, well out of the public eye. Just don’t race motorcycles on the streets.