Nor­ton Dominator 88

‘The Dominator fired up with a sin­gle gen­tle prod of the kick­starter, just as its owner had said it al­ways did. The 497-cc en­gine was ea­ger and re­spon­sive im­me­di­ately, tick­ing over hap­pily, snick­ing into gear ef­fort­lessly and feel­ing gen­er­ally sweet. And

Bike India - - CONTENTS - WORDS: ROLAND BROWN | PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: PHIL MASTERS

Strik­ing the right bal­ance

THE DOMINATOR 88 WASN’T the bike that caught my eye in the line-up of bikes at the clas­sic deal­er­ship; not by a long way. The lit­tle Nor­ton sat there sur­rounded and rather over­shad­owed by sev­eral BSAs and Ve­lo­cettes, a cou­ple of elderly Du­catis and half a dozen gor­geous re­stored 1960s Tri­umph twins that made this re­cently ex-Bon­neville owner go weak in the knees, if not quite the wal­let.

But if ever there was a bike that de­served a sec­ond glance, it was this one. The Dominator fired up with a sin­gle gen­tle prod of the kick­starter, just as its owner had said it al­ways did. The 497-cc en­gine was ea­ger and re­spon­sive im­me­di­ately, tick­ing over hap­pily, snick­ing into gear ef­fort­lessly and feel­ing gen­er­ally sweet. And from the mo­ment I pulled away, the Nor­ton just got better and better.

A few min­utes later I was cruis­ing along with a big grin on my face de­spite the cold, im­pressed by the par­al­lel twin mo­tor’s smooth­ness and even more so by the bike’s ef­fort­less han­dling. In cor­ners the Nor­ton felt light, re­spon­sive and man­age­able. And on the straights it com­bined un­shake­able sta­bil­ity with an abil­ity to glide over bumps as though they weren’t there.

Hav­ing re­cently rid­den down this road on an­other bike that had made the same tar­mac feel a lot more bumpy, it was easy to un­der­stand how the Nor­ton’s frame had earned its nick­name years ear­lier. For the Dominator 88’s claim to fame is that this was the first model to be fit­ted with Nor­ton’s leg­endary Featherbed frame.

The Dominator name was first used in 1949, when Nor­ton in­tro­duced a 500-cc par­al­lel twin to com­pete with Tri­umph’s Speed Twin, which

had been such a suc­cess since its in­tro­duc­tion in 1938. The 29 PS mo­tor of that orig­i­nal Dominator Model 7 was de­signed by Bert Hopwood, who had worked at both Ariel and Tri­umph with Ed­ward Turner and had been re­spon­si­ble for putting many of the great man’s ideas into prac­tice.

Hopwood had left Nor­ton by the time the Model 7 reached pro­duc­tion. But his par­al­lel twin en­gine de­sign, with a sin­gle camshaft po­si­tioned in front of the cylin­ders, would serve the com­pany for well over two decades, in ca­pac­i­ties up to 850 cc. The Model 7 had a plunger frame sim­i­lar to that of Nor­ton’s sin­gle-cylin­der ES2. Although it han­dled rea­son­ably well, the bike was over­shad­owed a few years later by the Featherbed-framed Dominator 88, which was launched on the ex­port mar­ket in 1952 and in Bri­tain in ’53.

The Featherbed had be­come fa­mous through its use on the sin­gle­cylin­der rac­ing Manx pi­loted by works stars in­clud­ing Harold Daniell and Ge­off Duke. But the broth­ers Rex and Cromie McCand­less, the frame’s creators, had al­ways in­tended it to be ca­pa­ble of hous­ing var­i­ous types of Nor­ton en­gine and gear­box, and the dis­tinc­tive twin­loop de­sign proved ide­ally suited to the twin-cylin­der pow­er­plant. The Dominator 88’s im­proved han­dling, cou­pled with the fact that it was con­sid­er­ably lighter than the Model 7, made it a big suc­cess.

Nor­ton up­rated both the en­gine and chas­sis through the 1950s. In 1955 the 88 en­gine gained an al­loy cylin­der-head, higher com­pres­sion and Amal Monobloc carb, while the rear sub­frame was welded on, rather than bolted, and held a re­vised dual-seat plus var­i­ous cos­metic mods. A year later came the Dominator 99, with its en­gine bored and stroked to in­crease ca­pac­ity to 600 cc. Like the 88, it was fit­ted with a race-de­vel­oped Day­tona camshaft that helped lift top speed just over 160 km/h or “the ton”.

But it was in 1960 that ar­guably the big­gest im­prove­ment was made, when both mod­els were fit­ted with the new slim­line Featherbed frame, along with a new rear sub­frame and nar­rower fuel tank. Some rid­ers

over the years have ar­gued that the wide­line frame is more rigid and gives better han­dling un­der rac­ing con­di­tions. But for road­go­ing use there’s no dif­fer­ence, and the slim­line Dominator is no­tably more man­age­able for rid­ers with short legs.

This bike was built in 1960, mak­ing it one of the first slim­line 88s. The sil­ver Nor­ton was orig­i­nal apart from its later-style head­lamp, chromed pri­mary chain-case and the rev-counter that was of­fered as an op­tion, along with rear-set footrests, a year later. The un­re­stored bike was in pretty good condition ex­ter­nally. And its in­sides were con­sid­er­ably better, be­cause the bike had only a few thou­sand kilo­me­tres on its bores since a full en­gine re­build.

The Nor­ton ex­pert who’d re­built the mo­tor had done a good job, and the low-com­pres­sion en­gine burst into sweet-sound­ing life with a sin­gle gen­tle swing of the kick-starter be­fore idling as re­li­ably as any modern bike. The cen­tre-stand needed a kick to make it re­tract prop­erly, but the com­pact, fairly light (184 kg ready to ride) Dominator felt very ma­noeu­vrable as I pulled away, stretch­ing for­ward slightly to the near-straight han­dle­bars and with feet fairly high.

How you feel about the Dominator’s en­gine per­for­mance de­pends largely on what you’re look­ing for. The softly-tuned 500-cc twin was no tar­mac wrin­kler even in its hey­day, its peak out­put of 30 PS at 7,000 rpm be­ing enough to give rea­son­ably brisk ac­cel­er­a­tion and a top speed of just over 150 km/h. Rid­ers who wanted straight-line thrills were better off else­where, even back in 1960.

But I was in no great hurry, and in such sit­u­a­tions the Dominator’s docile na­ture makes it a great bike to ride. The smaller mo­tor was re­spon­sive at low revs and no­tably smoother than most par­al­lel twins, mak­ing for very pleas­ant cruis­ing at 100 km/h. This bike’s re­cently re­built four-speed gear­box was ex­cel­lent, too, re­quir­ing only a light flick of my right boot and not missing one change through­out.

Ad­mit­tedly, the re­sponse when I wound open the throt­tle to over­take was gen­er­ally pretty un­der­whelm­ing. Vi­bra­tion be­came in­creas­ingly

no­tice­able by about 110 km/h in top gear, too, so the Nor­ton didn’t ex­actly en­cour­age me to explore the up­per reaches of the black-faced Smiths tacho or the speedome­ter along­side. But de­spite that, the lit­tle Nor­ton’s abil­ity to cruise smoothly and re­li­ably meant it could main­tain re­spectable av­er­age speeds.

And if the 88’s en­gine didn’t pro­vide much ex­cite­ment, its chas­sis made up for that. The Nor­ton showed its breed­ing even on a straight main road, shortly after I’d set off. Over the nor­mal ur­ban pot­holes and drain cov­ers I in­stinc­tively stood up slightly on the pegs to avoid the smash in the kid­neys de­liv­ered by the crude sus­pen­sion of most old bikes. But I soon re­alised there was no need — be­cause the Nor­ton’s Road­holder forks and Gir­ling shocks were do­ing the job very ef­fi­ciently.

Sud­denly, it was easy to un­der­stand why fac­tory Nor­ton star Harold Daniell had in­ad­ver­tently coined the frame’s name when he’d said, “It’s like rid­ing on a feather bed”, all those years ago. And although on a show­ery day the roads stayed too damp to let me explore the lim­its of the Nor­ton’s ground clear­ance, par­tic­u­larly given the hard­com­pound Avon Speed­mas­ter on the 19-inch front wheel, the Dominator felt out­stand­ingly taut and well-bal­anced. No won­der this light, ag­ile and neu­tral-steer­ing bike helped earn Nor­ton a last­ing rep­u­ta­tion for fine han­dling.

Even the brakes were pretty good. The 203-mm SLS front drum was an orig­i­nal item that had been re-fit­ted, in place of the TLS Com­mando drum that had been grafted on by a pre­vi­ous owner. That com­mon re­place­ment had doubt­less given a bit more stop­ping power, but the stan­dard brake worked pretty well, in con­junc­tion with a smaller 178 mm drum at the rear.

Rum­bling gen­tly along on the Nor­ton, I couldn’t help con­clud­ing that a large part of the rea­son that the bike was so en­joy­able to ride was the fact that its han­dling and brakes were a fair match for its per­for­mance — even on to­day’s much busier roads. Most clas­sic bikes’ chas­sis have aged much less well than their en­gines. The fact that the Dominator 88’s chas­sis orig­i­nally far out­per­formed its mo­tor means that all these years later the bal­ance is just about right.

Softly-tuned 500-cc twin was more in­clined to cruis­ing

Nor­ton’s Road­holder forks made ef­fi­cient work of pot­holes

Ex­tremes of the black-faced Smiths clus­ter re­mained un­ex­plored

The lit­tle Nor­ton com­bined un­shake­able sta­bil­ity with an abil­ity to glide over bumps as though they weren’t there

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