NOR­TON MODEL 50

Pier­paolo Cavallo has been be­witched by Bri­tish bikes. To re­turn the favour, he in­tro­duces us to some of Italy’s finest rid­ing coun­try in the com­pany of Nor­ton’s 350 feath­erbed sin­gle…

Real Classic - - Contents - Pho­tos by Pier­paolo Cavallo

Pier­paolo Cavallo has been be­witched by Bri­tish bikes. To re­turn the favour, he in­tro­duces us to some of Italy’s finest rid­ing coun­try in the com­pany of Nor­ton’s 350 feath­erbed sin­gle…

I’m Ital­ian. No­body is per­fect, so I have ac­cepted this lim­i­ta­tion. Any­way, as a mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stance, I af­firm that I have al­ways loved mo­tor­bikes. One day when I was around 40 years old, I re­alised firstly that I was around 40 years old, and se­condly that the mo­tor­bikes I al­ways loved were the mo­tor­bikes of my youth, and thirdly that those bikes had be­come as old as I had. Thus I be­gan lov­ing OLD bikes. Af­ter some study, I dis­cov­ered that ‘old’ bikes are clas­si­fied in clas­sic, vin­tage and other groups which I quickly for­got.

My pas­sion turned from mo­tor­bikes to clas­sic mo­tor­bikes, and I have started col­lect­ing clas­sic mo­tor­bikes, be­gin­ning with Du­catis (no­body’s per­fect, re­mem­ber) of the 1980s and then go­ing on to other decades and na­tion­al­i­ties: Honda of the 1970s, Guzzi of the 1960s, and so on. But a curse had placed its spell on me. Even­tu­ally I be­came com­pletely mad about Bri­tish bikes of the 1950s.

Not ex­actly a spell, but rather a phys­i­o­log­i­cal, nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion­ary process: here’s how. The Pres­i­dent of the Clas­sic Cars & Bikes Club of which I am a mem­ber, told me one day (read it with an Al­bus Dum­ble­dore voice for the best ef­fect): ‘Pier­paolo, thou shall be­come mad about Bri­tish bikes.’ ( Thun­der and flashes in the back­ground would be of great help.) Dino ac­tu­ally told that ‘as your col­lec­tor’s pas­sion and ex­pe­ri­ence grow, you will prob­a­bly be­come more in­ter­ested in Bri­tish bikes. Soon you’ll find them in your garage, notwith­stand­ing your wife’s curses for your shoes be­ing com­pletely cov­ered in oil.’

The spell hit me a few years ago when I dis­cov­ered the story of the Vin­cent-HRD, and be­came a VOC mem­ber, or a Vin­cen­teer as some­one says. My very first Brit bike was a 1950 Vin­cent Comet, bought from a renowned mem­ber of my club from the Nether­lands (thanks Peter and Tiny Volk­ers!). But that’s an­other story.

Grad­u­ally I dis­cov­ered other Bri­tish clas­sics, lead­ing to the renowned brand known as Nor­ton. And that’s the be­gin­ning of the present story, be­cause a few months ago I found a 1958 Nor­ton Model 50, in a beau­ti­ful Bri­tish Green (Brit bikes are green; Ital­ians are red: even I know that), up for sale in the UK. As prob­a­bly all of you know bet­ter than me, the Model 50 had the same wide­line feath­erbed as Nor­ton’s other mod­els which came with more pow­er­ful en­gines than the 350 sin­gle. As a re­sult, many of these 350s be­came in­no­cent vic­tims, sac­ri­ficed to the god Tri­ton, be­ing used as donor bikes for their frames and forks. (In­ci­den­tally I am

look­ing for a Tri­ton as well if any­one has one to sell?)

I made my of­fer on the Model 50, it was ac­cepted, I made a bank trans­fer and Chas Mor­timer car­ried the bike to Italy in one of his vans, leav­ing it in Mi­lan at the Collezione

Mo­to­ci­clis­tica Mi­lanese of Gio­vanni Cabassi (who hap­pens to be an­other mem­ber of the VOC Italia sec­tion. I am the sec­re­tary be­cause I am able to write the min­utes in English once a year). For many rea­sons, I was not able to ride the Nor­ton for sev­eral months, and Giò kindly took it for a test ride of about half a mile. He dis­cov­ered that it had some brak­ing prob­lems – in fact he told me this in un­re­peat­able words, but that you get the pic­ture.

Notwith­stand­ing this prob­lem, which I had no time to fix any­way, I de­cided to ride the bike at the sev­enth NBB; an Ital­ian rally de­voted to clas­sic Bri­tish bikes: Noth­ing But Bri­tish. It’s run by Al­berto Bonzi who is a renowned Ital­ian col­lec­tor equally famed for his pa­tience and friend­ship to ev­ery­body (even some­one who would not de­serve it, like me). For 2016 about 100 Bri­tish bikes and their rid­ers would meet in the Langhe area on the last weekend of June. The Langhe are the part of Pied­mont that lies more or less be­tween Turin and Genoa, and are full of hills, vines, wine, roads, wine, food, nice towns and high spir­its, which all give their con­tri­bu­tion to keep the rid­ers in high spir­its. Usu­ally we all meet up at the end of the day and can af­firm that ev­ery­one drinks re­spon­si­bly (or even have a good set of al­co­hol en­zymes in their liv­ers! As a med­i­cal doc­tor, I have good knowl­edge of en­zymes, es­pe­cially the al­co­hol-spe­cific ones).

So I ar­rived at NBB with my bike in Gio­vanni’s van (thanks Giò). We un­loaded his mag­nif­i­cent 1955 Rapide D, tuned by John Ren­wick (a mas­ter­piece re­stored by a mae­stro), and my bad-brak­ing but full of good­will 1958 Nor­ton Model 50. I fi­nally could take it for a test ride. And in fact Gio­vanni was com­plete cor­rect: the Nor­ton had re­ally poor brak­ing, es­pe­cially at the front where the lever be­haved more like a clutch. On the other side, the clutch it­self en­gaged in the last thou­sandth of inch of the lever – be­hav­ing more like a front brake. None of them had a screw reg­is­ter, so I had very lit­tle to work with at the han­dle­bars.

But my Fifty from the Fifties rode re­ally well. It doesn’t have much power but does pro­vide re­ally nice road­hold­ing. That’s what I look for in a bike be­cause I live in Salerno, more or less the in­step of Italy if you re­mem­ber the map. We are at the be­gin­ning of the Costiera Amal­fi­tana, and I am used to reg­u­larly rid­ing the nearly

1000 bends which lie in the 40km be­tween Salerno and Posi­tano (af­ter which be­gins the Costiera Sor­rentina and that re­gion is NOT beau­ti­ful as ours – you are ad­vised!). So I fired up the bike, which started at the third kick, and went for a ride through the Langhe hills. I needed some fuel: there is only one fuel tap and it’s the type with two po­si­tions only, so no re­serve. But my ride lasted less than a quar­ter of mile (luck­ily). Leav­ing the ho­tel car park­ing it sud­denly died with an un­promis­ing CLUNK from the en­gine.

So I pushed the bike back (God bless, it was just a quar­ter of mile, even if up­hill), called for help (God bless mo­bile phones, when they work) and in a few min­utes my bike was looked af­ter by Giò, Al­berto and Tony (God bless them all). Tony – whose of­fi­cial name is An­to­nio Ven­tura, nick­name Tony Day­tona – is a close friend of Al­berto and helps him to man­age the NBB event. I am green with envy about these guys not sim­ply be­cause Al­berto and Tony and other chaps from Turin can meet and go rid­ing their old bikes, Bri­tish and not, nearly ev­ery weekend. They also have the Langhe hills, nice coun­try roads, a lot of moun­tain passes nearby, can eas­ily reach Suisse, France or Aus­tria and I am green with envy of them be­cause I live ‘just’ 560 miles to the south of them…

Tony re­moved the tim­ing cover and found that the lower mag­dyno sprocket’s bolt had jumped off, prob­a­bly be­cause it had been as­sem­bled with­out a washer and the vi­bra­tion un­screwed it. Tony promptly added a washer and a gen­er­ous dose of thread lock, re­assem­bled the bike, and it fired first kick, be­cause it was still warm. In the mean­while din­ner time had ar­rived so we all went to eat, drink, make clever con­ver­sa­tion, glance at the Brough Su­pe­rior SS100 be­long­ing to Al­berto which was on ‘gate guardian’ duty at the ho­tel en­trance, and smoke a Toscano cigar (me only: it’s my pro­fes­sional duty. I have to warn my pa­tients and show them the bad ex­am­ple of what NOT to do. This is true for food also).

Early the next morn­ing, Tony called me to go out to­gether for a short fu­elling ride. Ev­ery­thing went well, we rode just four or five miles and the Fifty be­haved well. No strange noises from the en­gine, brak­ing ac­cept­able, good road­hold­ing, not so much power in ac­cel­er­a­tion, but good torque to ride bends and slopes, and it would al­ways fire up af­ter one or two kicks. So that meant we were good to join ev­ery­one else later that morn­ing. The group of about a hun­dred Bri­tish clas­sic bikes set off: Tri­umph, Nor­ton, Ariel, Vin­cent, AJS, Matchless, Moto Guzzi… Hey! Who are you! An in­fil­tra­tor?

‘No, I’m the guy who pro­vides all the al­co­holic bev­er­ages.’ ‘Oh. Wel­come on board!’ The route was re­ally beau­ti­ful, but af­ter five or six miles of the planned fifty mile ride, on an up­hill slope, I ex­pe­ri­enced a pro­gres­sive loss of power. There was a change in the tone

of the en­gine, as if the bike was very near to seizure. I im­me­di­ately stopped and de­cided not to risk go­ing any fur­ther, and I called Mimmo, who was driv­ing the sweeper van right be­hind the group. Mimmo, of­fi­cially Domenico Bucci, is sim­ply a fan­tas­tic guy. He is one of Al­berto’s friends, and owns a pre­ci­sion me­chan­ics work­shop where they make a lot of steel stuff, in­clud­ing cus­tom bits for the re­search lab­o­ra­to­ries of the school of me­chan­ics en­gi­neer­ing at Turin Polytech­nic. Mimmo ar­rived ten min­utes later – he had stopped to load an­other bike – and we quickly stowed the Nor­ton and its rider in the van. So I swapped from the role of be­ing the ‘rider-in-the-group-fol­low­ing-some­one-who­knows-the-course’ to the role of ‘hu­man-GPSinto-Mimmo’s-van’, with a map on my knees (no girls named Su­san­nah around, and I can’t play a banjo).

Need­less to say, dur­ing the jour­ney we started talk­ing and we be­came good friends. Bet­ter yet I was able to ac­tu­ally SEE the nice roads, hills, vines, farms, woods and brooks which I would not have been able to see if I’d been rid­ing my mo­tor­bike. Be­ing Mimmo’s hu­man GPS, I had to study the map on my knees (a banjo would have been use­less), lo­cate the ref­er­ence points on the map and give Mimmo the in­for­ma­tion about the road to fol­low. So I needed to look the land­scape around me, and not just at the back of the rider in front!

De­spite the Nor­ton’s break­down it was still a fine ride. I made a new friend, ad­mired the beau­ti­ful land­scape on the Langhe hills, had a de­li­cious lunch with an ex­ces­sive quan­tity of food and wine (as usu­ally hap­pens), and passed a very beau­ti­ful day. More­over, that evening we en­joyed a spe­cial show just for us. One of the most renowned dancers in Italy, Lu­ciana Sav­i­g­nano, for­mer etoile (it should be ‘prin­ci­pal dancer’ in English) at the Scala Theatre in Mi­lan pre­sented her new dance show, named Tango di Luna (Moon Tango). As the name sug­gests, it was not an aus­tere clas­sic dance show but some­thing more fit for a group of old hooli­gans (thanks to Frank West­worth for coin­ing this term).

And what about the Nor­ton? Giò took it back in Mi­lan and, af­ter care­ful dis­cus­sion, en­trusted it to the ca­pa­ble hands of Domenico Pet­ti­nari, who owns prob­a­bly the best and old­est Bri­tish bike work­shop in Italy. A cou­ple of weeks later I had a call from Giò who gave me good news. The ig­ni­tion had sim­ply gone out of phase, prob­a­bly for the sim­i­lar rea­sons to the ear­lier prob­lem; some nut un­screwed from vi­bra­tion. A sim­ple check with the ad­di­tion of wash­ers and thread-lock had fixed it all.

Now the Nor­ton has fi­nally ar­rived in my barn – I don’t call it a ‘garage’ any­more, too Ital­ian (or French) for my taste. The Fifty fires in two or three kicks and rides well for a ‘lit­tle’ 350cc bike. I have done a few rides in Costiera Amal­fi­tana, lots of bends as I men­tioned ear­lier, but also on the Ci­lento roads, the other side. If you look at a map of Salerno and its sur­round­ings, you will see that Ci­lento is a vast area south of Salerno be­tween the moun­tains and the Tyrrhe­nian sea, with a larger choice of roads to ride which are much less crooked then Costiera.

Rid­ing the Model 50 is a plea­sure: the po­si­tion is com­fort­able, and I have no prob­lem with the width of the wide­line Feath­erbed frame even if it may be a bit short for me in terms of dis­tance from the sad­dle to the footrests. All the con­trols are in the right place, the ac­cel­er­a­tion is good (pro­vided you don’t ex­pect the im­pos­si­ble), and the gear change lever has no false neu­trals or im­pre­ci­sion. The clutch re­mains ‘long’ but once you get used to it ev­ery­thing goes well.

Power de­liv­ery is nice. I have no idea of revs as there is no tachome­ter, but the torque is very good. You can man­age it with the throt­tle and the gears. Com­ing out from hair­pins, the sec­ond or third (de­pend­ing on the steep­ness of the road) gear al­most be­comes an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion. In summary, the Model 50 is nice to ride in Costiera Amal­fi­tana, but ab­so­lutely amaz­ing into Ci­lento!

Road­hold­ing is at the best level: you have only to think of en­ter­ing a bend, pro­vided you’re in the right gear, and the Fifty gen­tly turns. It’s most sat­is­fy­ing on gen­tle bends, while on switch­back, twisty roads it could cer­tainly ben­e­fit from a bit more horse­power, es­pe­cially when car­ry­ing a (ahem…) heavy rider. The cruis­ing speed on straight roads is about 50mph, ab­so­lutely ac­cept­able for a bike that is still run­ning-in but it’s still best to avoid mo­tor­ways.

When you stop there is no side­stand, but pulling the bike onto the cen­trest and is not dif­fi­cult. The petrol tank has a more than ac­cept­able ca­pac­ity, and the only thing you have to do is to vis­ually check the level from time to time. The only prob­lem back in the barn is the pres­ence of oil on the ground un­der the bike but, all in all, which preda­tor doesn’t want to mark its ter­ri­tory?

One last note: the bike still brakes poorly so maybe I will fix this prob­lem my­self. Or maybe not. All in all, I’m Ital­ian.

Tak­ing a break from the high-speed ex­cite­ment

Va­ri­ety is the very spice, so they say

Rather fine Brough Su­pe­rior SS100 guarded the gate­way to the gath­er­ing

Pier­paolo’s Nor­ton suf­fers from a weak front brake. It looks OK from here, and Nor­ton’s 8-inch stop­per should be among the best in its class

Very few miles showed up on the Model 50’s odo be­fore the run. Time to add some more!

Tremen­dous va­ri­ety. It’s plainly true what they say: the sun brings them out

Route plan­ning. If in doubt, fol­low a Vin­cent

Top: Af­ter the gath­er­ing, the set­ting out. A truly fine se­lec­tion of mo­tor­cy­cles

Later Nor­ton sin­gles – like this hand­some ma­chine – lost the orig­i­nal mag­dyno, re­plac­ing it with an al­ter­na­tor in­side the pri­mary chain­case and a neat points hous­ing where the mag­dyno used to live

Above: Mod­esty, Nor­ton Model 50 style. Look care­fully and Pier­paolo’s hand­some green ma­chine is al­most vis­i­ble

Nor­ton’s sport­ing Model 50. In green. Fa­mous un­ap­proach­able rac­ing her­itage is plain in this shot

Al­though all Nor­tons are ob­vi­ously fault­less in ev­ery way, some mi­nor ad­just­ment is oc­ca­sion­ally called for. Even on a Com­mando

All fixed now. The fault? Slipped ig­ni­tion tim­ing, caused by a pre­vi­ous owner leav­ing out some wash­ers…

How can we put this? Pier­paolo’s Model 50 needed to a take a short rest to re­cover from all the ex­cite­ment. A siesta, maybe

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