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
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