Who is Rob North?
You can’t become a legend overnight. It takes time for the myth to build up, during which time the facts often become confused with fiction. In the case of Rob North, the legend really began at Daytona in 1972, when a fleet of triples, some in BSA guise and some in Triumph form, descended on the speedway hell-bent on claiming the richest prize in motorcycling, the Daytona 200. They didn’t succeed that time, but twelve months later it was a different story. Those bikes used frames made by Rob North – a master craftsman but a terrible businessman. In motorcycling terms, Rob North’s story began in the ‘sixties in the north of England. As a teenager, Rob had befriended Doug Beasley, a legend in the specialist motorcycle frame building game who had built chassis for all sorts of bikes, including the 250cc Velocette raced to fifth place in the 1953 Isle of Man Lightweight TT by Australian Sid Willis. Eventually Beasley gave North a part time job, where he quickly picked up the nuances of the art. Rob was also mates with Triumph works tester and racer Percy Tate. By 1967, Tate was racing a 650 Triumph with a frame built by the equally legendary Ken Sprayson of Reynolds fame, but the more power that was extracted, the more unpredictable the handling became. Young Rob began tinkering with the Triumph, adding gusseting and other mods which Tait reckoned improved the handling considerably. For the 1968 British season, Tait had North build a complete frame, which is reputedly the chassis that Tait used to score a sensational second place to Giacomo Agostini’s MV Agusta in the 500cc Belgian Grand Prix.
Rob himself was also an aspiring sidecar pilot, building his own outfit with a leading link, and later hub-centre, front end. He also built a lightweight frame used by successful dragster Eamon Hurley to house a Manx Norton engine and gearbox. Rob’s sidecar endeavours had convinced him that the steering head area was, in the case of most conventional frames, under-engineered and subject to fore and aft flexing. Even the fabled Featherbed frame, he reckoned, was not entirely guiltless in this respect. When Percy Tait managed to coax a triple out of the BSA/Triumph concern with a view to racing it, he turned to Rob for a bespoke chassis. The standard set up was not only extremely heavy, but the geometry was far from ideal for racing, particularly on faster circuits. Tait even managed to convince Triumph to make a small contribution towards the cost of the frame, while he and Rob funded the balance. A jig was constructed from scrap angle iron, as this was always intended to be a one-off exercise. Rob avoided the Norton-style steering head arrangement whereby the top tubes of the cradle swept around the front down tubes and joined the head stem at the bottom, while the front tubes joined the top of the stem. Instead, his concept reversed the design, with the top frame tubes joining the top of the head stem and the down-tubes the bottom, and with a bracing strut between the two. The three-cylinder engine was moved forward by one and a half inches to put more weight on the front wheel, and ground clearance was increased by a similar amount. The head angle was set at a fairly steep 27º, but this was later increased to 28º with extra trail. From all accounts, this modified chassis, introduced for 1972, steered immeasurably better on the tighter English tracks. Harking back to 1970, BSA/Triumph, despite a chronic shortage of cash, caved into the demands of their US distributors and announced a major assault on the Daytona 200, enlisting the great Mike Hailwood, plus US stars Gary Nixon and Gene Romero in the squad of three BSAs and three Triumphs. They ordered eight complete frames from North and the bikes were assembled in the factory race shop. Ultimately, various problems beset the effort but Romero finished second behind Dick Mann’s CR750 Honda. One year later, and with Dick Mann in the saddle and the revised Rob North frames victory was theirs, not that it did much good for the company’s future. Nor, for that matter, Rob North. That year, the oil cooler was moved into the nose of the fairing, with a horizontal slot to feed air. The slot became a distinguishing feature of subsequent bikes. Hailwood’s 1971 BSA, redone in Triumph livery, won the 1972 Isle of Man Formula 750 TT, ridden by Ray Pickrell. John Cooper famously won the rich Race of the Year at Mallory Park on one of the Daytona BSAs, beating Agostini’s works MV-3, and Tait and Pickrell combined to win the Bol d’Or 24 Hour Race at Le Mans on another BSA. Of course, tyre technology of the day was the defining factor in road holding, and for racing, the Dunlop ‘Triangular’ was the universal choice. With so little grip from the rubber, the frame had a much easier time, and deficiencies were less graphically highlighted. At Daytona, Hailwood found his BSA such a handful around the ‘infield’ section that he requested, and received a shorter swinging arm. It can’t have worked as planned, as he fell off the bike first time out. However some modern versions of the North frame do indeed employ a swinging arm shorter than the original design in order to better utilise more advanced tyre technology. Rob North decided to have a look at his work in action by attending the Daytona 200 in 1973, and there was no return trans-Atlantic trip. He cites several reasons for his decision to give up life in Britain, among them the weather, and financial problems. He says his old sidecar racing rival, Chris Vincent, helped him out of money problems on more than one occasion. The ownership of North’s manufacturing business in England passed to Norman Miles, but there was on-going confusion as ‘Rob North replicas’ began to appear from several other sources. In total, North built only about 90 frames before his stateside departure. In California, North’s services were engaged by Kel Carruthers for a frame to be used on Kenny Roberts’ 250cc Yamaha. That bike went to Europe and scored many successes, leading to further orders – and more than one copy. Later work came from Don Vesco for racing and record attempts, and he has diversified into other tubular structures such as ultra-light aircraft.