Road Test: Norton military prototype

Norton military prototype motorcycle

Simple fact of life: motorcycle makers need to move bikes through production, out of the despatch department and on to customers who will pay for them. If they offer a wide range of bikes in various colours, the process becomes more complicated and the possible pitfalls are greater, so a production man’s dream is to have one model made in one colour, to make his life really simple. Ah, if only it was so easy.

The only time bike factories enjoy that sort of run is when the country is at war, and production is concentrated on a chosen model. All you have to do in that situation is get the military to pay a profitable price for the bikes, but production chappies generally aren’t occupied with the mere commerce of the company.

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Norton military prototype motorcycleIn peacetime life is more complicated, but the military still need to be mobile and their business is well worth having. That’s why Harley-Davidson bought out the Armstrong motorcycle division, the established supplier with specialised knowledge of the large North Atlantic Treaty Organisation market. I’m told there were politics behind that, but as I don’t know what they were, there’s no point guessing. It clearly suited Harley to move aside from their fancy pants normal output and invest in producing smaller, more nimble machines and, as Harley are firmly in the business of making money, it’s a profitable venture.

Many British makers produced specialised bikes during WWII and the years preceding it, when the British Army was tooling up in response to a certain Adolf Hitler’s nasty ambitions. From 1936 to 1944, the military bought 442,157 motorcycles, BSA heading the list with 127,851, followed by Norton (89,061) Matchless (80,916) Royal Enfield (49,255) Triumph (47,144) Ariel (39,667) James (6141) and Excelsior, with 2785 of their little 98cc Welbikes. They actually got an order for 5000 in 1939, but maybe the feedback from the paratroopers it was issued to wasn’t too enthusiastic, so the call-off rate fell short of expectations.

Norton military prototype motorcycleThat Norton figure is especially significant because, when they landed a contract in 1936 to supply the 16H side-valve single as the standard military machine, they began to cut back on the racing that had built their worldwide reputation and finally just lent bikes out to their old team riders for the 1939 season; they could see what was coming and were tooled up and ready.

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The factory had its first proper production line installed to smooth progress and output, which averaged close to 10,000-a-year over the period of building the 16H for the Allies. Compare that with the most profitable years of the same factory in the late-50s/early-60s, when they were turning out 7000 bikes a year, using the very same wooden production track designed and installed by Joe Bates, who had been recruited from the rival BSA works. There’s proof of the increased output you can get with one model to make; I’m discounting the military 600cc Big Four sidecar outfit, which was made only in small numbers.

Norton military prototype motorcycleTriumph, led by the wily Edward Turner, took the honours away from Norton when their TRW side-valve twin was selected as the standard machine for the newly-formed Nato in the early-50s. With its stylish headlamp nacelle and telescopic forks it made the old single look outdated, and the exhaust note was much more civilised. Not that irrelevances like these would sway the military mind, whose criteria included reports from their own riders on comfort and ease of handling and comparators such as the Range of Action at Average Maximum Speed, or how far a squaddy could travel across country if he was in a hurry.

Years later they tested the 197cc Villiers-powered Greeves against the Tiger Cub, Beesa’s B40 and the Matchless GL3; the B40 didn’t cover as many miles as the old G3L, but maybe the military men knew something about the long-term prospects of getting back-up from the ill-fated Associated Motor Cycles factory in downtown Plumstead. They opted for the B40.

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'Back in the 50s Gilbert Smith, Norton’s managing director, wasn’t too happy to see the Army business go down the A45 to Meriden, and in 1953 a rival to the TRW was drawn up'

Back in the 50s Gilbert Smith, Norton’s managing director, wasn’t too happy to see the Army business go down the A45 to Meriden, and in 1953 a rival to the TRW was drawn up. The power unit was based on the well-established 500cc Model 7 Dominator bottom end, but accommodated the military men’s distrust of those new-fangled overhead valves with a side-valve top end, the valves side-by-side across the front of the cylinder block. With the single carburettor in the conventional position behind the cylinder block and the inlet valve tucked away at the front, the inlet tract must have been an interesting shape.

Norton military prototype motorcycleBob Collier, who worked in the experimental department at Bracebridge Street in the 1950s, told Jeff Clew that Bill Pitcher was given the job of drawing up the top end, and he came up with cast iron barrels and an alloy cylinder head that leaned backwards at a jaunty angle to give a wedge-shaped combustion chamber. Surprisingly, the primary chaincase was cast in alloy, a complete departure from the company’s long-established habit of using a pressed steel cover, and on the end of the crank was one of those new-fangled alternators. This was the first Norton to be fitted with one.

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A brief aside here, if you please: 10 years later Bill Pitcher drew up the unit construction 650 that was built at Associated Motor Cycles in Plumstead, after Norton’s Birmingham works had been closed and production moved south. That’s the engine that Classic Bike Guide reported seeing at the Calne Bike Weekend. Small world, isn’t it?

Pitcher’s side-valve twin was fitted into a 16H rigid back end frame, modified by Bob Collier to give a shorter wheelbase and a ground clearance that would not have embarrassed a trials bike at eight inches (or 20cm as the market for the bike might include those foreign johnnies in Nato).  A pair of Roadholder forks and a 7in front brake went on the front. For initial testing purposes it wore a dual seat that looked remarkably like a Feridax item (could be – Bob Collier had worked for them before Joe Craig wrote and asked him to come for an iNorton military prototype motorcyclenterview), which didn’t give too much comfort for testers like Collier and the young Chris Vincent. But testers didn’t get an easy life at Norton, where Stan Dibben once asked Gilbert Smith for better payment as passenger to world sidecar champion Eric Oliver and Smith told him passengers weren’t valued enough to pay more. Stanley Dibben was never one to bite his tongue and suggested that, while he might get hurt, he’d never seen a director injured by falling out of his ******* chair. It’s no surprise that he and Norton parted company soon afterward.

So, no sprung saddle for the factory testers’ comfort but, when the bike was presented to the Army for assessment at its ground in Chertsey, there was a saddle bolted on. Standard military issue, you see.

Company Sgt Major Jack Hird represented the Forces at the test. “In true business fashion, Gilbert Smith got hold of the man in charge and wined and dined him,” Bob Collier recalled when we talked in the 1980s. The bike was liked, but whatever their riders reported, another machine on the Army’s inventory meant retraining workshop personnel, not to mention another range of spares to stock. In Bob’s words: “On the basis of economics, we hadn’t got a chance.”

But CSM Hird obviously did a thorough job on Mr Smith and, when he quit the Forces, he got a job with the company – “with an office and secretary, doing my paperwork,” as Bob Collier put it. “Unofficially I ran the Experimental Shop, but there was nothing formal, it just happened. Joe Craig was officially in charge of all experimental work in the factory, but he simply didn’t want to know about road bikes.” The distinct impression from our conversations was that Collier and Hird didn’t get along.

Norton military prototype motorcycleIts single campaign lost, the military twin was instantly obsolete, its purpose in life gone, so it was put to one side and forgotten about, until Associated Motor Cycles dictated a closure of the traditional Birmingham home of Norton when production was moved south to their Plumstead works in 1963. What couldn’t be used in the production of a slimmed-down range in London was sold off (the Race Shop, lorry loads of it, went to Reg Dearden of Chorlton-cum-Hardy for £8000) or sent to Francis Fletcher’s scrap yard in Aston Road. Bob Collier still fumed at the short-sighted waste 20 years later: “Some of the stuff they were scrapping was ridiculous, pairs of crankcases and things like that.”

But Collier was nobody’s fool, a wily competition rider who knew his way around the factory and those who wanted to spoil so much of its history. His old ambulance and trailer carried all sorts of bikes and bits to Fletcher’s yard, where the boss told Bob to sort out what he wanted for himself and sold him the lot after five weeks of hard labour. Among the pieces Bob kept for his own interest was the side-valve twin.

It may have been some satisfaction to such a loyal Brummie that he got a phone call from London at this time, asking him why the multi-spindle drill that put the holes in the twin cylinder crankcases wasn’t working properly – they were spoiling loads of them. Bob went to the old operator’s home and asked what the problem could be, and the man’s answer sums up the old British motorcycle industry in a simple nutshell: “Didn’t they take the plank?” he asked.

Norton military prototype motorcycleIt seems that the drill was so badly worn that he had steadied the centre spindle with a plank of wood before drilling the cases, but without that vital piece of wood the bits chattered around and spoiled another set of expensive cases.

The unique side-valve stayed in Bob’s legendary back garden for years. I called on him once and he was complaining bitterly that the local vehicle office was refusing to let him leave the bikes in his garden unregistered; they wanted them all logged and the matter regularised, but he didn’t have time to document them all, let alone get them MoT’d. Why not? I asked naively, looking around at a large area of bikes under assorted tarpaulins, some of them with the front wheel spokes rotted through and the hubs fallen on the damp ground. How many bikes have you got out there?

“There’s 258, I reckon,” said Bob. “I’m gonna restore them when I retire.”

Bless the man, he didn’t get to restore them, but was cute enough to offer some of the prize pieces to an old trials riding mate who was developing a museum down in the south. Enter Sammy Miller.

There is no need to repeat the Sammy Miller Museum’s reputation for finding and rebuilding rarities, and the one-off military twin fitted perfectly into that category. The bike had clearly been through more than one colour scheme; the original factory shot has it in standard Norton silver and black, while another of the Norton party at the Army trials suggests it was black, but Bob Collier told Jeff Clew it was finished in khaki for that rather important presentation. You can’t easily tell military khaki from dusty black in a black and white photo, so let’s accept Bob Collier’s version. To avoid confusion, Sam chose to restore it in civilian colours, choosing the crystal grey that was once the standard colour on Norton’s twins. It was restored 20 years ago by Sammy and the amazingly capable Bob Stanley, and has been a star exhibit in the museum ever since.

'It speaks volumes for the museum’s standards of restoration that the bike was wheeled out, already fuelled and checked over, and started first kick after a brief tickling of the Amal carb, closing the air lever and turning the key in the forktop instrument panel'

It speaks volumes for the museum’s standards of restoration that the bike was wheeled out, already fuelled and checked over, and started first kick after a brief tickling of the Amal carb, closing the air lever and turning the key in the forktop instrument panel. The exhaust note through the genuine Burgess silencer was quite unlike most woffly old side-valves that didn’t want to go anywhere in too much of a hurry. Look, I used to own a 16H, once the standard issue British military machine, and I know how unhurried side-valves can be. This one has a purposeful purr.

Norton military prototype motorcycleIt has a rear frame that is intended to carry official panniers (documents, important, for the carriage of) and perhaps a radio if the bike had ever been used for escort duty. Where the 16H wears a magneto, the twin has a distributor, and the two-into-one exhaust system is bent around the front down tube to the right, instead of the left-handed arrangement in the factory picture, and the whole bike looks much smarter than you’d expect a military model to be. Her Majesty’s Forces don’t go in for too much chrome plating on their bikes, but this one shines and, if a despatch rider polished the alloy primary chaincase as brightly as this one, he’d be expected to finish his boots to match.

My ride was limited to the grounds of the museum, as the bike is not licensed for road use, but that would be enough to give an impression of the engine’s flexibility and acceleration, which are much more important for military use than simple maximum speed. It’s a slim machine, wearing a fuel tank clearly modelled on the 500T trials model from the same factory, and the sprung saddle is set high enough to make the position of the flat steel footrests seem natural, despite the high ground clearance.

The gearbox is the laid-down Norton type of the early-50s, and selected first quietly before the light clutch fed in and the bike pulled smoothly away at low revs. The gear change was predictably slow, a reminder of the great leap forward that came with the AMC-Norton box in the late-50s. Perhaps I should call it great advance, as a great leap forward suggests some fault in the transmission?

It was surprisingly lively for a side-valve, which popular prejudice still says is the mechanical layout of the dawdling old timer, even though Harley’s 750 flat head engines won countless races on both dirt and Tarmac over in America. Given a sensible handful – remember that this is a one-off, and not to be thrashed thoughtlessly – the twin went well up to about 45mph, at which point the approaching fence suggested I tested the brakes.

Nothing dramatic in that department, just the response you’d expect from 50-year-old drums in a decent mechanical state.

Norton military prototype motorcycleRemember that the main use of this bike would be across country on both rough and smooth, with escort duty and delivery of urgent documents to distant unit commanders. So it had to be flexible, able to plonk along through mud, ride over mountains, get along a road at a decent rate and accelerate quicker than the other vehicles on the British Army’s strength at the time. Put this bike up against a contemporary tank, Austin or Bedford lorry, Jeep or Humber staff car, and it would come out well ahead up to its maximum speed… which we had no chance to establish, but I’d put somewhere between 60 and 70mph on the gearing it was wearing when I rode it. It would accelerate gently from 20mph in top gear, so it’s clearly flexible.

Handling? Didn’t even notice it on the smooth surface available, but it’s a reasonable assumption that a man of Bob Collier’s experience and knowledge would have the basic layout right. It went well, it stopped acceptably and it went around every corner I found with total ease. It is a Norton, after all.

This is another if-only bike, and there are plenty of them left over from the British motorcycle industry’s heyday. Fortunately some of them have fallen into caring hands and are kept in running order and on display for enthusiasts to look at in curiosity and wonder what would have happened if…if only.

It was a quantum leap forward from the faithful old 16H single. Its use of an alternator showed how well that new-fangled idea worked, and the Dominators were fitted with them soon afterwards. But those bright boys at Triumph stole a march on Norton and got in first to claim a very valuable customer’s business.

All is fair in love and war. And in peacetime, it seems. bike

Thanks to: Sammy Miller’s Museum, Bashley Manor, New Milton, Hampshire BH25 5SZ. Tel. 01425 616446

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