Tend­ing an English gar­den of speed

Motorcyclist - - Contents - —Seth Richards

the british spirit of re­fine­ment, born of thrift, is ex­em­pli­fied by one of the great­est rac­ing mo­tor­cy­cles of all time: the Nor­ton Manx.

By 1949 and the start of the FIM Grand Prix World Cham­pi­onship, the sin­gle-cylin­der rac­ing mo­tor­cy­cle al­ready seemed an­ti­quated. But in the strug­gling econ­omy of post-war Eng­land, it was im­pos­si­ble to in­vest in the mod­ern tool­ing nec­es­sary to bol­ster a wealth of new ideas. There’s a rea­son you never hear about Ve­lo­cette’s 54 x 54mm four or Nor­ton’s DOHC, liq­uid-cooled four—they never got off the ground. In­no­va­tive plans couldn’t con­tend with empty cof­fers.

Pluck and prag­ma­tism would have to be enough.

By lim­it­ing the scope of their de­vel­op­ment to one ex­ist­ing cylin­der, en­gi­neers be­came ex­perts in the minu­tiae in or­der to find speed wher­ever they could.

As Kevin Cameron points out, years of re­fine­ment would turn the Manx into “a very de­tailed elab­o­ra­tion of a sim­ple con­cept.” Much like a for­mal English gar­den, he adds.

Rex Mccand­less’ famed “featherbed” frame and hy­draulic dampers chal­lenged con­ven­tional wis­dom of chas­sis de­sign and were im­ple­mented for the 1950 Isle of Man TT. After Nor­ton mo­tor­cy­cles fin­ished first, sec­ond, and third in both the Ju­nior and Se­nior races, the world built its ma­chines in the im­age of the Manx, and the Manx it­self was given a new lease on life. The next year, Ge­off Duke won the 500cc World Cham­pi­onship on a Works ma­chine.

Nor­ton con­tin­ued to in­vest in Mccand­less’ no­tions of weight dis­tri­bu­tion and aero­dy­nam­ics for the next-gen racer (known as the F-type). It would fea­ture a hor­i­zon­tal cylin­der, a fivespeed gear­box, a low­ered frame, and a stream­lined fair­ing. How­ever, for 1955, un­der the own­er­ship of As­so­ci­ated Mo­tor Cy­cles Ltd. (AMC), Nor­ton fac­tory rac­ing shut­tered its doors, and the F-type was never pro­duced. It was the end of the Nor­ton Works rac­ing era, but not the end of the Manx.

Nor­ton con­tin­ued to pro­duce 30M and 40M Manx bikes for pri­va­teers, and the boffins found ways to keep them peren­nial con­tenders. Larger brakes here, de­creased stroke di­men­sions there—evo­lu­tions that all added up to be enough to keep them win­ning.

When Hail­wood won the 1961 Se­nior TT on a Manx with a Jaguar plain-bear­ing con rod and one-piece crank, it was the last time a sin­gle would win the blue riband race on the is­land. With typ­i­cal British wit, Mo­tor Cy­cling’s sin­cere and bit­ing head­line ran: “Pri­vate Nor­ton Beats ‘Pri­vat’ MV.”

Richard Drift aboard the four-valve Mol­nar Manx Evo. The Evo pro­duces 70 bhp at the rear wheel at an im­pres­sive 9,500 rpm and weighs only 275 pounds wet. Talk about an evo­lu­tion.

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