NORTON MODEL 18
…and chickens and bricks. Expect the unexpected when Odgie tracks down a tale of a vintage Norton single
Cobwebs and coalsheds and chickens and bricks. Expect the unexpected when Odgie tracks down a tale of a vintage Norton single
‘If memory serves me right, says my mate Brian, ‘it was around February or March in 1956 when I first learned of a motorcycle tucked away in a shed about half a mile from my home in Aughton. Armed with this info, me and my pal Cyril decided to try and track it down and set off under cover of darkness. When we arrived at the place we were confronted with about 12 or 14 chicken sheds in a small paddock away behind the house.
‘We crept past and entered the first one – no torch as we didn’t want to be discovered. After much stumbling around in the darkness what we found were endless heavy cobwebs, lots of dust, and angry cockerels defending their harems. We searched every shed and all to no avail apart from getting filthy.
‘The next time I saw our milkman (it was him that had told me about the supposed bike), I said “You’ve been having us on, we searched all those sheds and there was no blinking bike.” He laughed his head off. “It’s not in the hen sheds, it’s in the coal shed.”
‘The next night me and Cyril returned to check out the coal shed, only to find it full of coke for the greenhouse boiler. We weren’t going to be put off, so over the next three to four weeks we kept going back to check on the reduction of the coke as it was used up. At last, on what must have been about our tenth visit, I could see a handlebar and throttle sticking up above the coal. With Cyril keeping ‘nicks’ in case the owner came out to refuel the boiler, I climbed in and scratted some of the coke away to reveal an ohv Norton Model 18 flat-tanker.
‘I waited a couple more weeks for more of the Norton to emerge, and then l plucked up my courage and went and knocked on the door of the house. The old man opened it.
“I’ve heard you’ve got a Norton, it wouldn’t be for sale would it by any chance please?” I asked.
“There’s no Norton here,” he said and slammed the door shut.
‘I went away, but now I didn’t know what to do. I knew it was there, I’d seen it, but I couldn’t say so, and it’s a funny thing to go back when you’ve been turned away once already. But you know what it’s like when you’re young and the adrenaline is flowing. I thought I’ve just got to have it, and if I don’t get it someone else will. After a few days of pondering on this I plucked up my courage again, brought about by the sheer desperation to own the bike. I put on my best bib and tucker and went back and knocked on the door again. This time I was in luck, the daughter answered it.
“I hear you’ve got a Norton in your coal shed. Do you think it would be possible for me to buy it please?”
“It belongs to my brother,” she said. “He’s down in London, but I’m writing to him this weekend, I’ll ask him for you.” This was music to my ears but also news to me, as the story locally was that the brother had been killed while playing silly buggers in an aeroplane in Egypt. It turned out he was alive and well and had stayed down south after the war and become a civilian airline pilot.
‘Anyway, I had to wait for her to get a reply, so it was a very nervous time, but when I went back I was told, yes, I could buy the bike. I crossed her palm with the required silver and me and Cyril dug it out from under the last of the coke and started pushing it home. The cottage we’d bought it from was on top of a steep hill, so I dropped the bike into gear and it turned over freely with good compression. Even the mag worked, the HT lead rubber had perished and you could see it sparking against the barrel. Eeh, I thought, it’s a good ’un is this.
‘Over the next couple of weeks I took the engine out and stripped it down for ready for rebuilding on my return from National Service. But my friend Frank Farrington (RADCO) had heard I had the bike, and he’d ended up with the same “must have it” feelings about it as myself. He gave me no peace of mind pestering and pestering me for it, and what with having my call-up papers and everything, in the end I gave in and sold it to him. I’ve always regretted it, although he did give it a good home. Frank rebuilt the Norton and fitted a TT Hughes sidecar and took it to the Golden Jubilee TT the following year in 1957. The last I heard of it was it was going back to the Centenary TT in 2007.’
So far it’s a cracking tale by Brian, but the bike in question isn’t the bike here, as you may have gathered. But this one does come with its own tale, so bear with us please and read on...
‘I’d known about this Model 18 for some 50 years. It belonged to Joby Grimshaw who farmed the land alongside Burscough Airfield, an old disused WW2 air base. I’d seen it out and about around there when I was teaching my wife Cheryl to drive in my Standard Vanguard. Back then Burscough was a great place to do that, lots of wide open tarmac, and plenty of guys used to take their race bikes down there to try them out as well.
‘Presumably Joby got sick of all the noise and hassle, as one day we went down and he had the tractor set on tickover and just trundling along by itself, with a big four wheeled trailer behind full of bricks and rubble. They were in the trailer throwing these bricks and half bricks all over the place, scattering them the length of the runways. That put paid to anyone else using it for anything.
‘Anyway, the bike was well known, I’d never tried to buy it as I’d heard it was never for sale so I just left it well alone. Then I got a call from a mate of mine, Bill Baybutt. He’d been speaking to Joby who’d mentioned he had an old Norton, so Bill’s ears pricked up and he asked if it was for sale. “Well, it could be…” Joby said.
‘Bill knew all about the coal shed bike from all those years ago, so he rang me. “Do you want to buy an old Model 18?” he said. I knew which one it had to be around here, so I jumped at it. Bill bought it for me and I bought it off him. OK, it’s not the exact same bike and there’s a year or two’s difference between this one and coal-shed one, but after all this time it’s close enough for me. My plan is to strip this one and check it over. Then I’m looking forward to winding the clock back 60 years and finally getting to ride my Model 18!’
OVER 18s ONLY
The Model 18 is perhaps Norton’s longest serving designation, spanning over 30 years. It represented Norton’s first OHV model, a design overseen by JL ‘Pa’ Norton himself in 1922 and introduced into the range in 1923. Pa Norton only lived to be 56, dying in 1925, but not before he’d seen his Model 18s win the Senior and Sidecar TTs in 1924. Model 18s also had a very strong reputation for both speed and reliability, and won the prestigious Maudes Trophy for several years. It must have taken both great endurance and a certain fearlessness (foolhardiness?) to ride Lands End to John O’Groats (and back!) on a spindly framed and barely sprung motorcycle over the rough roads of the era.
Although the Model 18 had a long career, it was overshadowed quite quickly in the performance stakes by the new OHC engines which appeared in the racers in 1927 and in the road bikes the following year.
Over the years the Model 18 grew many improvements, the engine received enclosed valve gear and pushrods and an inboard magneto, and the engine also spawned the larger Model 19 and was used in the higher specification ES2. The cycle parts evolved to include telescopic forks and plunger rear suspension post-war, and the well-loved and thought of Model 18 was only finally dropped from the Norton range in 1954.
TAKEN FOR A RIDE
Ever wondered what it might be like at the sharp end of a flat-tanker like this big single? Who better to take you for a test ride than one of the founding fathers of the vintage motorcycle movement, Titch Allen himself. Allen shared his experiences on a 1928 Model 18 in the first Vintage Roadtest Journal, and here are the highlights…
‘Lean and hungry looking, almost gaunt but with an arrogant air. That’s the flat-tank Model 18 Norton. Alongside the plump, well-fed looking saddle-tank bikes of 1928 this 490 looked a trifle old-fashioned, was old-fashioned, but it carried its years well. The flat-tank 18 was no more really than an overhead version of Pa Norton’s immortal sidevalve, and his final dream come true. At the end of 1927, Bert Denley made history on one by covering over 100 miles in the hour.
‘Yet there could not be an engine more simple and straightforward than the pushrod Norton. The secret must have been in the very honesty of the design, the generous dimensions of the ports, the substantial build of cylinder and head, the bold finning. The roadgoing Norton was a sports-tourer of moderate performance and exception economy… in standard trim it will easily top 100mpg. Speedwise the Norton’s performance was in line with other 500 ohv models of the day, the output being strictly limited by the low-grade fuels of the time. With standard petrol, 75mph was the normal maximum. Those 100mph Nortons were running on alcohol.
‘Starting is easy, merely a matter of getting big flywheels spinning. A long steady stroke
on the kickstart with the exhaust valve lifted to get up speed, drop the valve any old where and the engine starts. The moment it fires you get the feeling of a mechanism turning over like oiled silk. In silence, too. The exhaust is a mere low-toned thump-thump. All one can hear mechanically is a soft click-click from the valve gear. The pushrods are like stair rods and because of their weight have separate return springs.
‘ Though the engine does not vibrate in the ordinary way, it pulses. Every firing thrust comes through to the rider. As soon as the throttle is opened and the mixture starts to flow, you feel the firing impulses. I think it is the result of placing a powerful engine in a rather light and simple frame. There’s not enough frame to absorb the piston response. It’s not unpleasant, just a peculiarity, and it helps to emphasise the feeling of power.
‘ The gearbox is Sturmey-Archer, with the lever set low for foot operation. Although it only has a click-click action, there being no positive stop, I soon acquired the correct touch of the toe to snick into the right slot. Travel is so short the lever can be worked entirely by foot.
‘ The brakes are very good, the front being superb. The Webb fork, with its long travel and soft springing checked by friction dampers, transformed many vintage machines when it replaced more unyielding forks. This is true of the Norton. You had to be brave to cope with the earlier forks on pushrod Nortons but with Webb one can relax while the suspension gently rises and falls. Very comfortable. Not exceptional handling – not unusually positive, heavy or light – just rather neutral steering which leaves only memories of safety.
‘I’ve ridden many ohv Nortons, some more potent because someone is sure to have tuned them. But as standard it is as soft and gentle as a sidevalve, but with the ohv’s extra feeling that it will go higher up the scale.’
The sweeping exhaust pipe situated on the offside of the engine was a key feature of Norton’s ohv flat-tankers from this time
Simply delightful! The 3-speed gearbox carries its shift mechanism externally to the box itself, with a long lever handling the changes. S-A were keen to explain where the oil went in…
Few vintage Nortons survive with their original exhaust pipes which could have been fitted with an unusual, doublebarrel spiral-tube silencer
Opinions vary regarding the effectiveness of the front brake, However, it does work, although whether the startling scoop improves things is a matter for another debate
Webb’s TT forks were considered a huge improvement over the more basic devices they replaced, with the big central spring absorbing at least some of the sting from bumps in the road
Sparks are provided by a magneto parked daringly between the engine and the front wheel, which must be fun in heavy rain. At least the points cover is easy to reach
Norton’s famous ‘pie-crust’ fuel tank is of course a thing of wonder. Rather less famous but maybe equally handsome is this oil tank; handsome indeed
Absolutely typically for a bike of its time, Norton’s 18 carries absolutely nothing unnecessary
The primary drive is protected by this impressive alloy chaincase. Access to the clutch takes priority over lubrication, plainly