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'
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