Classic Bike Guide

Sweeping Changes: A Little History Lesson


■ Norton’s 350cc ohv Model 50 goes back as far as 1933 and was a popular commuter single that enjoyed a loyal following before the Second World War.

■ The popular 350 was reintroduc­ed in 1955 and came with Norton telescopic forks and swinging arm suspension with WM2 rims, front and rear. The model remained relatively unchanged but some subtle changes (see below) were made in line with its bigger sibling – the more powerful ES2 500.

■ However, financial hardship soon forced Norton into merger discussion­s with the AMC group. In a shrewd move to balance the books, Norton was forced to shut its Bracebridg­e factory and move production to the AMC factory in Plumstead, London. It was the right move for Norton, despite complaints from diehards that new models from the merger were ‘not REAL Nortons’.

■ By the late 1950s, Norton’s well establishe­d ES2 500cc and similar Model 19 600cc single(s) began to lose sales to the new Dominator twins. The Model 50 plodded on, albeit not in the same league as the new Dominator, or indeed it’s bigger ES2 sibling. Neverthele­ss, the 350 was admired as an everyday commuter motorcycle at a time when the British single had long passed its zenith.

■ The 350 only benefited from Norton’s race-proven featherbed frame late in 1959, when sweeping changes – including alternator and coil ignition – were introduced throughout the range. The slimline version and narrow petrol tank arrived in 1961, two years before the Model 50 was discontinu­ed.

■ Puffing out a paltry 20bhp and chugging to a top wheeze of about 60mph (if you had a fair wind at your back), it was questionab­le whether the 350 really needed the featherbed frame. Many ‘Norton experts’ argued that the addition of a racing frame was missing the point of ‘a gentle, good handling, comfortabl­e and highly regarded single’. And many have since lost their frames to specials’ builders.

■ This late 1950s Model 50 is a very handsome machine. AMC refinement­s – such as the petrol tank’s bolt-on chrome side panels, new alloy cylinder head with partly cast-in pushrod tunnels, Dominator-style finned side panels and the robust AMC/Norton gearbox – are all attractive modificati­ons that enhance the whole package rather than detract, as some traditiona­lists claimed.

■ You can expect frugal returns from the humble Model 50 of about 90mpg+, depending, of course, on how you use the throttle – and whether you’re negotiatin­g the Fife Alps as I was, or the gentler Midlands flats. The period 3.5-gallon petrol tank should equate to 250-mile plus trips. The seat height, coming in at 31 inches, is fine for Mr Average Height, and a dry weight of 382lb (173kg) means she’s not too difficult to hoist onto the centre stand or push around the garage.

■ Prices start from about £3000 for a ‘plug’, hovering to about £5000 for a smart and well-sorted model like Mike’s. Expect to shell out more for the rare and ‘collectabl­e’ featherbed model... that is, if you can find one.

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