Who is Rob North?

Old Bike Australasia - - ROB NORTH BSA ROCKET 3 -

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.

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