Nor­ton Dom­i­na­tor 650SS

'This par­tic­u­lar SS, a very stan­dard 1962-model ma­chine, was in mostly good con­di­tion al­though its en­gine was a lit­tle tired. It fired up en­thu­si­as­ti­cally enough, and ran very well at low revs, idling hap­pily and feel­ing pleas­antly smooth and re­spon­sive'

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The 1962 Nor­ton twin that, back in the day, gave Tri­umph a run for their money

“EX­TREMELY HIGH MAX­I­MUM SPEED. Abun­dant stamina. Pleas­ant man­ners. Tra­di­tional Nor­ton han­dling. Real

com­fort.” When the English magazine, Mo­tor Cy­cling, be­gan its test of the new Dom­i­na­tor 650SS with that list of at­tributes in Fe­bru­ary 1962, it was clear at once that Nor­ton's fastest ever pro­duc­tion model had made a big im­pres­sion.

Decades later, it can be easy to un­der­stand why the 650SS earned so many ad­mir­ers in its hey­day. Right now the road ahead is clear of traf­fic, and the pre­vi­ously dull sky has bright­ened. When I wind back the throt­tle on the exit of a bend, the Nor­ton pulls for­ward with a thrillingly strong surge of par­al­lel-twin torque. It's a mag­i­cal mo­ment as, with its Featherbed-framed chas­sis keep­ing ev­ery­thing sta­ble, the 650SS shows off the blend of ac­cel­er­a­tion and han­dling abil­ity that helped make it ar­guably the world's best sports bike of the early 1960s.

At other times this sil­ver Nor­ton is less im­pres­sive, partly be­cause it vi­brates more than I'd ex­pected even of a solidly-mounted par­al­lel twin, de­spite the fact that I'm keep­ing the revs down and not ap­proach­ing the 193-km/h top speed that was cel­e­brated back when the 650SS was launched. There's a per­sis­tent oil leak, too, that the Nor­ton's owner is plan­ning to cure with a top-end re­build be­fore sell­ing the bike.

The 650SS is sure to com­mand a high price, be­cause it is one of the most fa­mous and de­sir­able mod­els from Nor­ton's long his­tory. With its blend of 646-cc twin-car­bu­ret­tor en­gine and fa­mil­iar Featherbed frame, the SS was ar­guably the first twin-cylin­der model from Nor­ton's fac­tory at Brace­bridge Street, Birm­ing­ham, to com­bine com­pet­i­tive straight-line per­for­mance with the marque's tra­di­tional fine han­dling. To those ba­sic as­sets the SS added good looks and rea­son­able re­li­a­bil­ity, plus soon the added at­trac­tion of suc­cess in high-level pro­duc­tion rac­ing. No won­der it was such a hit.

The 650SS was the lat­est in a line of Dom­i­na­tor twins that had be­gun back in 1949 with the Model 7, de­signed by Bert Hop­wood. The en­gine had been en­larged to 597 cc to power the Dom­i­na­tor 99 in 1956, and, in 1961, Nor­ton had in­tro­duced an ex­port-only model, called the Manx­man 650, its 646-cc en­gine cre­ated with a new, longer-stroke crankshaft rather than by en­larg­ing the bore. By this time Nor­ton's range also in­cluded Su­per Sports, or SS, ver­sions of its 500- and 600-cc mod­els, fea­tur­ing twin carbs and higher com­pres­sion ra­tio.

Com­bin­ing the Sports Spe­cial spec­i­fi­ca­tion with the larger ca­pac­ity gave an im­pres­sive new pow­er­plant, which also in­cor­po­rated mod­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing larger big-end bear­ings and a heav­ier fly­wheel. The 650SS was also fit­ted with a new down­draft cylin­der-head, de­vel­oped from en­gi­neer Doug Hele's Domiracer pro­duc­tion race twin that had com­peted in the pre­vi­ous year's Isle of Man TT. Peak out­put was 49 PS, with ac­cel­er­a­tion aided by the use of twin ex­haust pipes rather than the siamesed lay­out as fit­ted to the other SS mod­els.

The new en­gine was held in a fa­mil­iar chas­sis com­bin­ing Nor­ton's Featherbed twin-cra­dle frame and Road­holder front forks. At 182 kg dry the 650SS weighed barely more than the smaller mod­els, and had a racy look en­hanced by paint­work in Nor­ton's tra­di­tional sil­ver. Op­tions in­cluded chromed mud­guards, 18-inch (in­stead of 19inch wheels) and the ad­di­tion of a rev-counter in ad­di­tion to the Smith's speedome­ter.

That speedo was put to good use, be­cause the 650SS was ca­pa­ble of roughly 190 km/h. The bike was also flex­i­ble and eco­nom­i­cal (though the down­draft car­bu­ret­tor ar­range­ment caused a few flood­ing prob­lems), as well as smooth by par­al­lel twin stan­dards. Given Nor­ton's rep­u­ta­tion for han­dling, it was no sur­prise that the 650SS ex­celled in the bends. This was a real sports ma­chine, with a firm ride and a thin seat. Its steer­ing and sta­bil­ity were out­stand­ing, as was the ef­fi­ciency of its drum brakes.

Pre­dictably, the model was given en­thu­si­as­tic re­views. Mo­tor Cy­cling praised the “sport­ing top end with­out the bad man­ners as­so­ci­ated with such urge at low speeds”. Ri­val magazine, The Mo­tor Cy­cle, speedtested the 650SS at 190 km/h and ap­plauded a bike whose “quiet­ness, smooth­ness and lack of fuss make speed de­cep­tive; a ma­chine with such superb han­dling and brak­ing as to make nearly two miles a minute as safe as a stroll in the gar­den”.

This par­tic­u­lar SS, a very stan­dard 1962-model ma­chine, was in mostly good con­di­tion al­though its en­gine was a lit­tle tired. It fired up en­thu­si­as­ti­cally enough, and ran very well at low revs, idling hap­pily and feel­ing pleas­antly smooth and re­spon­sive. The trans­mis­sion was

good, too, my only prob­lem with the gen­er­ally smooth-shift­ing four­speed gear­box com­ing be­cause the gear-lever was slightly too close to the right foot-rest for my large boot to op­er­ate it easily.

There was also an oc­ca­sional slight rat­tle that seemed to be com­ing from the drive chain rub­bing on its guard, but the clutch ac­tion was pleas­antly light, and the Nor­ton was very docile and easy to ride at town speeds. As the sil­ver bike throbbed lazily through light traf­fic, it hardly seemed pos­si­ble that in 1962 this was Nor­ton's hot sports ma­chine, a ri­val at last for Tri­umph's three-year-old and al­ready suc­cess­ful Bon­neville 650.

The 650SS cer­tainly was highly com­pet­i­tive in its day, es­sen­tially be­cause here, for the first time, was a Nor­ton twin that could live with its Tri­umph ri­val on straight-line speed as well as han­dling. This 650SS gave hints of that per­for­mance, too, when I wound back its throt­tle. It leapt for­ward ea­gerly from about 80 km/h, es­pe­cially in third gear, its twin Amal Monoblocs breath­ing hard through a “cheese-grater” style air-fil­ter that was a typ­i­cal Nor­ton fit­ment, though not on the SS which nor­mally ran its carbs un­fil­tered.

This bike's match­ing pair of black-faced Smiths in­stru­ments was as fit­ted to later SS mod­els rather than the 1962 ver­sion, too, as the orig­i­nal 650 had its speedo in the headlight top, with the op­tional tacho be­ing bolted like an af­ter­thought to one side. Sadly, I didn't feel that I could risk try­ing to get the speedo read­ing the “ton” (100 mph, or 160 km/h), be­cause the old Nor­ton vi­brated a fair bit and sounded too me­chan­i­cally noisy to en­cour­age me to rev it close to the 6,800 rpm at which its peak out­put was de­liv­ered.

It still sat at 110 km/h feel­ing mus­cu­lar and ready to go, though, and han­dled as well as could be ex­pected of any early-'60s bike that had not re­cently been re­stored. Sta­bil­ity in a straight line and in fast curves was im­pec­ca­ble, thanks to the rigid­ity of the “slim­line” Featherbed frame (which had re­placed Nor­ton's less com­fort­able orig­i­nal “wide­line” Featherbed in 1960), plus the last­ing firm­ness and good damp­ing con­trol of the Road­holder forks and near-ver­ti­cal Gir­ling shocks.

There was a slightly vague feel when I cor­nered fairly hard through some tighter and bumpier bends, though noth­ing more was to be ex­pected of a bike of such vin­tage. Sim­i­larly, the sin­gle­lead­ing-shoe front drum brake wasn't hugely pow­er­ful, but did a

rea­son­able job if helped by the con­trol­lable rear. Un­der­stand­ably, this bike didn't fea­ture the su­per-grippy Avon Grand Prix rac­ing tyre that was much praised in early 650SS road tests, but its 19-inch blend of Dun­lop TT100 front and Avon Road­run­ner rear com­bined two of the most pop­u­lar names for Bri­tish bike fit­ment, so no com­plaints there.

Back in 1962, Nor­ton helped em­pha­sise the 650SS' all-round high per­for­mance with a string of suc­cesses in pro­duc­tion en­durance races. Within a few months of its launch, Phil Read and Brian Setchell won two of the most pres­ti­gious races, the Thrux­ton 500 mile (805 km) and Sil­ver­stone 1,000 mile (1,609 km) events. A 650SS also won the Thrux­ton event in the fol­low­ing two sea­sons, and gained fur­ther recog­ni­tion when it was voted Mo­tor Cy­cle News ma­chine of the year in both 1962 and '63.

That helped keep the 650SS in pro­duc­tion for more than six years with few changes, sur­viv­ing Nor­ton's 1963 ac­qui­si­tion by As­so­ci­ated Mo­tor Cy­cles and the fac­tory's move south from Birm­ing­ham in the Mid­lands to Wool­wich in south Lon­don. Even­tu­ally, in 1968, the SS was dropped to make way for the Com­mando, with its big­ger 750-cc en­gine rub­ber-mounted in a new frame. A new and il­lus­tri­ous suc­ces­sor had ar­rived. But for many Nor­ton en­thu­si­asts, the Dom­i­na­tor 650SS' blend of tra­di­tional style, twin-carb 646-cc en­gine and Featherbed frame makes it the finest Nor­ton twin of them all.

The 650SS cer­tainly was highly com­pet­i­tive in its day, es­sen­tially be­cause here, for the first time, was a Nor­ton twin that could live with its Tri­umph ri­val on straight-line speed as well as han­dling

Twin shock-ab­sorbers were of­fered with ad­justable preload

646-cc twin-car­bu­ret­tor en­gine worked won­ders with Nor­ton’s Featherbed frame

Sin­gle 203-mm sin­gle­lead­ing-shoe drum takes care of brak­ing Black-faced Smiths in­stru­ments seen on post-1962 SS mod­els

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