IT’S A NORBSA!
Built by a teenage tearaway to tackle short circuit racetracks, this is no trailer-queen café racer. Odgie talks to the man who raced it and his cousin who rebuilt it, and then lets the beast off the leash…
Built by a teenage tearaway to tackle short circuit racetracks, this is no trailer-queen café racer. Odgie talks to the man who raced it and his cousin who rebuilt it, and then lets the beast off the leash…
Drop a gear to third to get the revs near to four grand. Grab a handful of throttle and wow, you’re riding a complete rocketship. The resulting acceleration hurtles you forward, riding the wave of torque that makes Brit twins so delightful and Jap fours so bland, no matter how fast they are. This A10-engined NorBSA has mid-range thrust that’s so addictive you find yourself looking for cars to go careering past as you scream out of roundabouts. Hooligan? I guess the old rocker in your soul never leaves you... And this featherbed-framed café racer is more than familiar with being ridden rapidly. First registered as a ‘Norton Special’ in 1968, it was tuned and raced by Neil back in the day, before being sympathetically restored by Steve in recent years. So we’ll hear their stories, before returning for a short sprint in the saddle…
THE BOY RACER
‘I met the man who built this bike, Dennis Livesey, when I was about 16
years old. I had a chopped BSA A10, but when I saw Dennis’s A10 engine in a slimline featherbed frame I was immediately turned into a boy racer. Two years later, after much saving and selling of valuables (one of which was an ex-works Aermacchi 250 Ala Doro that I wish I had now), I paid 450 quid for it.
‘Dennis bought the bike as a Golden Flash in a sidecar outfit. He took off the sidecar on the spot and rode the Flash home. It then progressed over the years, until he bought another frame from the weekly ads and it was registered as a Norton. Dennis and a local character by the name of Bill Woods rebuilt and tuned the engine. Bill had a little motorbike shop which become Bill Heads, where he performed small and large miracles with machinery. He used to tune the likes of Bultacos for the local lads who raced. One of his stories was that of putting a fly on the surface of one of his polished ports. If the fly didn’t slide all the way down it, it wasn’t smooth enough and he would polish it again!
‘One of his larger miracles was that of turning this standard A10 engine with a single carb, alloy head into one with twin GPs on it! He cut off the old manifold and then proceeded, using a gas torch, to rebuild the area around the ports with weld. Enough was rebuilt to machine a new manifold with almost straight inlet tracts, and a new spacer was made to absorb heat and maintain the correct tract length. The whole lot was bolted together before machining. Breathing took place through a pair of 1 5/32” GP2s from a Spitfire.
‘ The rockers were lightened and polished. By lightened, I mean they probably lost somewhere near the half of their weight! Polishing was difficult and was improved nearly every time I rebuilt the motor. The same rockers remain in the engine. Valves were standard but lightened. Pushrods stayed standard because the hollow construction made them very light to start with. The valve springs were replaced with American Aero W&S springs complete with alloy collets. The cam was an extreme profile known as Polodyne which was not kind to followers, which were replaced on a regular basis. The cam timing idler gear was drilled for lightening purposes.
‘When I bought the bike it had 10.5:1 pistons fitted; more about that later. Inside, the crankcases were polished and the camshaft oil spill was blocked off in an attempt to create more oil pressure to the rockers. I don’t know if that was effective or not. In those days we used Castrol R40 as engine oil. It was very messy but always spotless inside the motor, without doubt the best you could buy. To prove that point, it cost an arm and a leg!
‘An RRT2 box was fitted to the standard BSA clutch. Dennis had kept the kickstart but I did away with this, partly because when it was hot it didn’t like starting and partly I had learned from his mishap of a broken ankle! I also had other plans that involved more than racing around the public roads.
‘ The frame was the somewhat unpopular slimline version from, I think, an ES2, as it has a squashed top tube. The frame was fitted with standard shocks and short Roadholders, a Dominator back wheel and a Manx conical front, both with alloy rims. The front wheel had the most amazing bacon slicer you have ever seen. It also had entry and exit air scoops. Why, I do not know because it didn’t work beyond triggering a slight dip in the forks! The exhausts were swept back with Dunstall
Decibel ‘silencers’. It sounded awesome.
‘ The café racer look continued with John Tickle clip-ons, an aluminium five-gallon tank, fibreglass central oil tank, double plastic seat with very little to hold it on and a Cibie headlight which was little more than a candle with no battery to power it. There was just enough chrome to set off the stainless guards and all the polished aluminium.
‘ The bike was admired at all the local haunts around town. The run up to the Five Barred Gate was about a mile and everyone used to hammer down that hill to get a ton. One evening a local young hooligan careered up the main road into Preston at over 100mph, leaving police cars in his wake. He was caught when he stopped at the bus stop to pick up his girlfriend. Dennis got a hefty fine and a ban.
‘And then I got my hands on the NorBSA. It was impressive to ride, even though it didn’t stop, and it came with lots of problems. It was hard to start and I had inherited a twisted crank and odd crankcases. The starting problems never went away, so instead of continually risking a broken foot (or worse), I cured the problem by doing away with the kickstart altogether. I kept fit by bumping it!
‘ The crank was standard so was given a grind. It then had an 1/8” machined off either side of the flywheel and was sent for balancing. It was polished to a mirror finish, as were the rods. I rebuilt things and went out to play. Being a novice with this kind of machinery meant a lot of hours off the road, learning about what I had done wrong last time I built it. Several head gaskets, clutches, chains, etc, and another costly court case, helped to make up my mind. Let’s have a go at racing it.
‘In 1976 I applied for my very first racing licence. I entered a race late in that summer at the local circuit at Longridge. It was tiny and enclosed in the bottom of a quarry.
‘By this time the NorBSA had changed somewhat from the one I’d bought.
The rear hub had been replaced with a genuine Manx hub
built into what
I thought was an adequate WM2 rim. I got rid of the front Manx conical hub (£45), in favour of the much maligned CMA eight-leader (£75). The first time I went to use it I nearly went over the handlebars. You could literally stand the bike on end. First stoppie!
‘ The clutch was a nightmare and continually slipped, which made the bike difficult to start. Either the clutch would burn out or it was just so uncomfortable that the bike was unrideable. I soon learned how to change gear without the clutch. To solve this, I had to get an old-style unit mainshaft and fit it into the RRT2 box. With a bit of machining and special little bits, I was able to fit a Commando clutch on the end of it. Add some British Aerospace machining and riveting and a duplex chain… Hey presto: a clutch that doesn’t slip!
‘Because of its past abuse the A10 engine was always blowing head gaskets. This was solved by replacing the 10.5:1 pistons with 9.5:1 ones, although they were more like 10:1 as the head had been machined way beyond standard tolerances.
‘I went to work on lightening and stripping everything off the bike it didn’t need. There are still the scars of that work nowadays, bits of titanium and Allen screws with half the head missing.
‘Race day came around and everyone came to watch. I came last that day and I wasn’t happy. That would never happen
again. I was somewhat green, and the bike was way over-geared. I could barely get into second gear. It also didn’t appear to handle too well. Back to the drawing board and to lose more weight.
‘Aintree was the place to go, with fast corners and a big long straight. But when I got there, what a pig it was in the handling dept. In my opinion, if someone else can go that fast into a corner, then my featherbed should also. Try again. So we chucked the standard rear shocks away and got some gas shocks. What a difference: an inch and a half longer and some real damping. The bike was on rails. I couldn’t go too fast. It steered much more quickly and now all it needed was another 20 horses!
‘ This time I found out the limitations of an 8ls front stopper. After five laps of Aintree’s back straight and the need to stop at the end of it, the brake didn’t work very well. Every lap the straight got a bit shorter and I got no end of stick from the pit crew for putting the brakes on.
‘I started to learn to ride. Racing was a shock when I first went out on track. You think because you can blow off a 1000cc Suzuki on the road, that you will be able to do the same on a track. Not quite so. After the initial fright and then shock of being passed by my competitors, as if I was stood still, I realised I had a wee bit to learn. I could not believe how quickly you could make a bike go; how much it would bend, twist, slide and generally tie itself in knots before everything gave up.
‘I never fell off that bike, on road or track, apart from one incident outside a hotel on the Isle of Man. After rebuilding the clutch, we bumped it along the pavement with a mate pushing me. Unbeknown to me, I had a boot lace undone which parked itself under the back wheel as I came to a standstill and tried to put my foot down. There was a line of hundreds of bikes on sidestands on my right, and I had no right foot. Slowly but surely I teetered to the right… My mate tried to stop me by grabbing the seat, which obviously came off in his hands! Down I went. I missed the line of bikes by inches. I still have nightmares of those bikes all toppling over themselves, like dominoes…
‘ The next meeting at Aintree was the last time I raced the NorBSA. Flat out down the railway straight I had the distinct feeling the bike was trying to pull itself to pieces. The vibration
was terrible, like nothing I had experienced before. Clutch in and I freewheeled to the pits. On investigation we found the barrels had separated from the crankcases. The only thing holding it together was the head steady, and the frame must have been flexing up and down. It was time to abandon the project and buy a two-stroke!
‘I put the NorBSA back into roadgoing condition, but eventually racing took over and it was stripped and put away into boxes at my brother’s house while I worked overseas.
‘Before it was put into storage, I’d begun organising the NorBSA for a full rebuild. The plan had been to build a show bike which would also work on track, with a spare engine for that purpose. I had started to accumulate the necessary spares and had a new cam made for it. In its new incarnation, the NorBSA would have a roller timing side main bearing and a new head. I had some Dural plate for new yokes, a new oil tank and planned 18” rims to fit proper rubber. I reckoned I could get it revving more quickly by putting on a belt drive, thus lightening the drive train. It was going to breathe through a correct length exhaust system without obstructions.
‘Rods, pistons and crank were balanced to suit each other. The brake was relined ready for all the patient time required to correctly set it up. I even had thoughts of an electronic ignition. One of its benefits would be a rev counter that works, instead of having to wait for the rev counter to catch up or the valves bouncing before stabbing the gear lever!
‘In 2009 my brother decided to move home and the bike with all of its spares and tools all had to go. What to do? I wanted the NorBSA to stay in the family. It was worth far more than money to me – so I just gave it away. It just wanted to see it in one piece, and to be able to ride it occasionally and give it a right good pasting. Just like my old mechanic used to say – he put a little note on the bike tank before practice on the IoM – ‘Down the hill, turn right and WRING ITS NECK!’
‘About 15 years ago, the doorbell chimed. This wasn’t particularly unusual, it had done it before. What was unusual was that my cousin Neil was on the doorstep, and about 25 years had elapsed since he had last traversed that hallowed entry. “I’ve been talking to your kid,” Preston dialect for “brother”, “and he said you might be able to help me…”
‘As youngsters, all us cousins had been seriously bike mad. With droves of mates we rode field Bantams, anything Villiers 8E, C11s, etc. We turned 16 and graduated to 250 road bikes and then moved onto serious stuff like A10s and Thunderbirds. A Triumph T150V (BTE 713L anyone?) was my swansong in the early 1970s. We got married to nice girls who didn’t really like bikes, got cars, had mortgages and kids, lost touch and couldn’t afford bikes. Neil however combined all the aforesaid with road racing and a scuba diving business! And now he had a proposition for me. “You remember that black BSA I used to race a bit?”
I didn’t. “If you want to keep it here you can use it.”
‘I didn’t. Really; I had 12 bikes of my own. ‘ “It’s in boxes at our kid’s and he’s sick of it.” ‘I’d have to build it as well!
‘ “Your kid said you’ve got loads of sheds.” ‘I had, still have, too many for any sane person. So I said no, gently, too gently, because he insisted. I softened. I said that I could store it but not build it, or I would buy it. Neil needed a van, so we did a deal in which nominally I would own the bike but spiritually it would still be his. I collected the boxes and promptly ignored them for the next five years.
‘Eventually I had some spare time, rare enough, but even more rarely this arrived at the same time as a bit of spare cash. I got the boxes down and was pleasantly surprised to find that the ‘BSA’ was in fact a NorBSA. I rummaged, increasingly impressed, through the boxes to find a slimline frame, Manx rear wheel, a 12” double-side 8ls CLS front hub, short Roadholders, long range alloy tank, central oil tank and a twin-carb A10 motor (!), a pair of GP carbs and an RRT2 box – and loads of period spares, new and secondhand.
‘I did a loose assembly. The potential was enormous. It needed pipes and silencers, a seat, guards, cables, a wiring loom and lamps to get it to road spec. These were bought in one go at Unity Equipe, who happened to have a set of unplated sweptbacks and Goldies which were perfect for the look I wanted.
‘ The build was quite straightforward. The result was, to my eyes, a transport back to 1968 and the Chequered Flag coffee bar in Leyland which was THE place to go for bikes and rocker culture. That place was probably as close as you got to a northern Ace Café. I was a regular even before I was sixteen. Most nights of the week the place was mobbed. There would be a hundred or more bikes lined up, all coming and going, noise and oil, leather and white silk, sea boot socks over long boot tops. We must have made life hell for the residents. Embarrasses me even now.
‘ Three brothers came to the café who built and rode NorBSAs with long tanks, short seats and clip-ons. These bikes were so beautiful, so perfect, that they drew attention from even the most seasoned riders. The impression they made on me (I was sixteen at the time and riding an Arrowised Leader) has never faded. They epitomised the essence of a 1960s café racer, a look and an aura many attempt to replicate. You had to be there – and I was!
‘I decided to leave the bike honest, to go for an assembly which would preserve the pre-dismantle condition. It had been in quite good cosmetic order anyway, with scratches, bumps and bruises indicative of enthusiastic use. Mechanically all was well. Neil had put away the parts in ready-to-use condition, in well segregated order, and they had survived well. I had the crank journals polished, fitted a new timing side main bush (none of your expensive and unnecessary conversions here), assembled the rest and put it all together. In a nod to the aforementioned bush I fitted a spin-on oil filter, as I do to every bike that passes through my hands.
‘Nothing was repainted. I made a seat subframe, added the new parts which had been suitably ‘aged’, had Brightspark recondition the mag, replaced the GP carbs (sold on eBay for an absolutely exorbitant sum) with Concentrics, fitted new cables and there it was, done!
‘ The NorBSA started easily enough and after a bit of fettling ran really well, despite me having fitted the wrong cam (one of Neil’s experiments). But it became obvious that something was amiss with the big front brake. It dragged so badly that I could barely
push the bike around, yet when I squeezed the lever it came back to the bar and I could still – just – push the bike.
‘A chat with Neil revealed that he’d had the brake fully rebuilt at CLS and since then it had been unused. Before that, when racing the brake had been ‘on or off’, needed a lot of warming up and was barely working by the end of a race. I tried several attempts at improving things and Neil made some useful mods to the pull and stops arrangements but all to no avail.
‘I couldn’t risk the brake on the road, so I made an unpopular (Neil was aghast) decision. The CLS eight-leader is a very rare thing, quite beautiful, ideal nowadays for a show bike, but in its day it was quickly superseded by lighter, simpler, less expensive and lower maintenance disc brakes. I decided to sell it. I found a ten year-old ad online, posted by an American collector. He specifically wanted exactly what I had. Amazingly he still wanted one! He paid me to ship it and the cash paid for a 230mm 4ls double-side Robinson replica from Disco Volante. I put it into a new alloy rim and still had half the money left.
‘ That brake made the bike useable. It still looked good but perhaps not quite as impressive as the CLS. The bike is very quick and now stops impressively – I highly recommend this brake. The gearing is too low, which means that first gear is relatively easy to get away in. This helps somewhat with the long slip problems usually encountered with an RRT2 box. That gearbox, coupled to the Commando bronze clutch on an early A10 short mainshaft and a belt drive, gives a very positive and quick close ratio gearchange. It’s an easy bike to ride if you can stand the riding position: I can’t, I’m too tall and too old! 20 miles each way is enough. So it’s fast and it’s a looker. But does it handle?
‘ The raison d’être of featherbed specials is the pursuit of handling and looks. Speed was always available with a Norton lump. A 600/650 Dommi was for all practical purposes as quick and as tuneable as a BSA or Triumph twin, and an Atlas was stunningly quick in its day, although none of them were perhaps as impressive cc for cc as a good Venom. No, we special builders really were after something we could call our own, something with an outstanding ability to handle exquisitely under fast treatment. So does the NorBSA meet expectations?
‘ These days I mostly use my 1969 Commando for spirited work. It’s a good one and handles as well as can be expected for a Commando. I’ve had it 20 years, I love it, but...
‘...the NorBSA is completely different. The balance is radically different and it’s lighter, and the ergonomics are – well – uncompromising. Where I would have to manage the Commando around a fast difficult bend, get really involved in keeping it on a line, the NorBSA needs very little input. Just a lean of the head and a shift in the seat (knees tucked in, feet back, wrists low and arse in the air, of course) sends it where you want it. It’s incredibly taut and intuitive, steers very quickly and drops down / stands up effortlessly. It’s a tribute to Neil’s long patient hours developing it on the short tracks England and to the inspired work of the McCandless / Norton development partnership.’
TAKEN FOR A RIDE
Thankfully Steve had already started the motor. That’s a hefty looking kickstart and a hefty looking engine and I’m at my usual ten stone of flat-track racing weight. Throw a leg over the bike – ah, clip-ons, I remember them. It’s many, many a long year since I stretched over a
tank. My usual riding is up front and high and wide, off-road style. A couple of quick blips of the throttle confirmed the engine’s free-revving, instant response. That suggests not only excellent carburation, but it gains revs so quickly there’s definitely a lightened flywheel in there…
Footrests. Where the hell are the footrests? No, they can’t possibly be that high. Three feet off the ground? It defies human biology that my legs will bend that much. Check the feel from the brake levers, then snick into first (up, despite the reversed gear lever, as the camplate inside the box is reversed as well). Feed the clutch – RRT2 gearbox, it will be close-ratio but a high first – and keep the motor running to head out on the highway.
This bike is fast. You’d expect that, given its racing heritage, but its current state of tune isn’t particularly high. Compression ratio is standard but the art is in the cam choice and the very careful and extensive cylinder head work. It’s a clever combination. Go gentle on the throttle and the bike is very tractable, so it’s easy-going in traffic. If you ask it to work hard below 3500rpm you can induce a tad of megaphonitis, but why would you? Despite the somewhat brutal appearance of the gear lever, its positioning is perfect, and selection up or down is just an intention away.
I’m not a great fan of lightened flywheels on off-road bikes where traction is more important, but on a race / fast road bike, with enough weight to keep the rear wheel planted, they certainly free up a bunch of revs very quickly. Snick into fourth, and the motor takes it in its stride, it doesn’t even feel the load of a higher gear. Five grand sees you hitting around 85mph. In an old, open-face helmet that was fast enough for me, thank you.
Handling is as good as a well set-up BSA duplex frame can be. I always find them a brilliant road frame, neutral, forgiving and planted all at the same time. I find the featherbed requires just that little bit of extra rider input. You’ve got to actively lay it into the turns hard to get the best of it, whereas the BSA always seems that bit more willing to interpret your desires all on its own.
That impressive front brake lives up to its appearance. It makes you wonder why discs were ever invented, that delicate feel and feedback you never get with callipers. I realise hard racing use would still fade any drum brake but, for a bike like this, the double-sider is both period correct and operationally perfect.
Downsides? The rear edges of the tank are angled sharp enough to dig into your thighs, especially under heaving braking, and after a twenty minute blast your wrists, back and neck all know about it. But that’s a café racer for you, and I’d happily have ridden it for another hour. You only feel the agony when you slow down – keep it pinned and the adrenaline rush takes care of the pain and then some.
And pinned is really where it’s at, playing with the gearbox, rolling the throttle on and off, carving up the traffic. This is a really well set-up and thought about motorcycle. This is power and tautness and handling and coherence and everything working in harmony and just plain Fun. This is highspeed British biking at its finest.
A somewhat special special, and a refreshing change from more usual Triumph powered devices
What it says on the tank, then
Did we mention that there’s a tap in the oil line?
How the works works. Foldaway kickstart, rather epic gear lever, central oil tank, a BSA gearbox and a big tap on the oil line
Heavy breathing here
Ta cho driveistaken from the magneto’sdrivepinion. Didwemention the oil tap?
A rapidly spinning clutch can do bad things to a boot. So…
Neat balance bar for the twin brakes
The eagle-eyed will instantly spot that the primary drive is not entirely stock. Observe the bright red drive belt and the Commando diaphragm spring clutch
Short Roadholder forks hold the front end up, while braking is handled by a truly remarkable anchor, a 230mm 4ls double-side Robinson replica from Disco Volante
The loud end…