Road Test: Norton Old Miracle

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve

It’s built like a whippet, long, low and lean. The slim, silver tank has tiny little knee pads laced into place, just where my knees will rest on the move. It is arguably the best-known Norton racer of all and for sure it’s held more speed records than any bike that came from that Birmingham cradle of speed. It’s not a Manx, it’s an ancient sv single that’s as basic as you can get, and for a 93-year-old it looks in pretty good athletic shape.

The bike is Old Miracle, born before WWI and used as a factory development model, according to John Griffith’s Historic Racing Motorcycles. He quotes Motor Cycling for 7 October 1913 reporting: ‘The Norton machine ridden by DR O’Donovan (at Brooklands) has an interesting history. The machine succeeded in capturing the Two Hours and 100 Miles records last year and was then thrown on the scrap heap. O’Donovan found the parts, dismantled and reassembled them himself, tuned the machine and proceeded to make new records.’

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Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleA legendary tuner and racer, O’Donovan used to get Norton’s best production engines tested and certified that they were fast, and he needed a slave chassis into which he could fit them for testing. He had a base at Brooklands, the old speed bowl near Weybridge in Surrey, and was contracted to prove the engines destined for Norton’s sporting BS and BRS models. They were sold with a guarantee that they had reached a speed of 75 and 70mph respectively. Just the engines had done it; they were shipped down to Brooklands by train, fitted into this very chassis and given a good thrashing around the huge track with the official watches recording times and speeds. The quickest ones – 75mph or more – went into the BS models back in Brum and the slower 70mph units into the BRS. Dr Joseph Bayley suggests in his Vintage Years at Brooklands that O’Donovan was doing 25 tests every month, and presumably pocketing a decent retainer for his troubles.

The business of tuning and record breaking could be lucrative in those pioneer years, when accessory companies would happily pay a bonus for every national or world record a contracted rider could break. The secret was not to go too fast and give yourself something in hand for future successes, so if the flying start 500cc mile record was 70mph, a canny rider would put another 1mph on that and collect his bonuses. The he’d wait a few weeks and repeat the operation, to earn another friendly wage packet. Anyone who went out and put 5mph on a record was either an amateur, a fool or a manufacturer with a new model to prove – the professionalss, who were at the track every day, were canny old chaps who spread the earnings.

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleOld Miracle served O’Donovan well, and the records at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu suggest that the old warrior has held over 200 National and World records in his lifetime. But you must look at that impressive number in the light of the rider’s need to keep his earnings going, as described above. In June 1915, he covered the flying-start kilometre at an average of 82.85mph, which was a phenomenal speed for any land machine 90 years ago. Bear in mind that the bike has a rigid rear frame, Druid girder forks with very little movement – two inches at most – and its skinny tyres would be run at high pressure to keep them on the rims. Then there was the matter of the banked track, concrete surfaced in sections with the inevitable settlement and separation at the joints. The bumps, according to some who raced there, were many and noticeable.

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The picture of O’Donovan in Dr Bayley’s book shows the bike with very wide and low handlebars, essential for rider control in the high speed wrestling matches that were his everyday occupation. A hard racing man, he quit racing when he became a father, a responsible move, and entered a succession of riders on his Nortons until he left and moved north to join Raleigh in Nottingham.

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve classic motorcycle racerWhere the bike went from there is not clear but, as it was Norton’s property, we might fairly assume it was returned to Birmingham as O’Donovan tidied up before his departure. More recent history suggests that it was in the basement there until another man of vision recognised it and decided it was worth saving. That was Graham Walker – Murray’s old chap, as we’ve said once or twice before – who was editor of the weekly Motor Cycling and far-sighted enough to publish a letter from a squaddy in France, name of Allen, CE. Or Titch to his friends and better known today as founder of the 15,000 strong Vintage MCC.

Titch suggested those who’d enjoyed the reminiscences about old racing days that filled the pages of Motor Cycling through the war – there is a limit to the number of road tests of military bikes you can publish in six years – should get together when this nasty war business was over. From that idea grew what is today the biggest old bike club in the world, which has a debt of gratitude to Mr Walker for his help. So it’s no surprise that Graham recognised the old bike tucked away in the depths of the Bracebridge Street works, where he was known as a racer who’d served the company well back in the 20s. It became part of his collection, and when he quit the pressures of journalism to become motorcycle curator at the newly-opened National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, it was natural that the bike was put on show there and eventually became part of the Montagu Collection.

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There are many motorcycle museums in the country today, but in the early 50s anyone with an interest in history could find old racing bikes either at Beaulieu or tucked under benches in factories where they had more urgent business to attend to than playing with old bikes. In 1963 I went to a motorcycle show in Ramsey at TT time, and Velocette’s unique Roarer supercharged twin and an extremely rare AJS 500cc Porcupine racing twin were on display, lent by the factories. Both were very shabby non-runners.

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleSo we owe the Montagu family in Beaulieu a debt of gratitude for giving old bikes space, and then reviving them to be used. Old Miracle was a regular runner in the London-to-Brighton Pioneer Run, in the days before the southern half of the country was wall-to-wall traffic jams, and a long list of personalities rode the bike. Barry Briggs, Sammy Miller, Frank Perris and Phil Read come to mind, all brave enough to ride the clutchless, almost brakeless old Norton down to the coast. The museum staff talk in hushed tones of the day Phil Read was stopped by the constabulary and warned about his speed, apparently down the dual carriageway A23, which suggests something more than 70mph. The mind boggles.

It has been one of the privileges in my privileged life to ride Old Miracle, always around the grounds of the Beaulieu Estate, and occasionally during the parade laps at the annual Motor Cycle World gathering. I remember it as a friendly enough bike if you used it sensibly and with respect for its age and very specialised limits of use, so you have to keep it moving along at a reasonable rate of knots and don’t expect to stop and restart if there’s a hold-up. You stop and wait to be rescued, because restarting with no clutch and a single gear with a 65mph-plus maximum require both mechanical skill and physical agility beyond my command. But get it wound up a little and the ancient side-valve single shows its spirited nature, even if it only has what I’d estimate at between 12 and 15bhp to drive it along. But being a veteran of Brooklands’ vast speed bowl and with more record-breaking runs than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands (of her own, that is) this old Norton carries no surplus weight at all. Except mine. So it does move along quite well.

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Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleFrank Levy, the persuasive force behind both the super successful Motor Cycle World and Beaulieu’s growing acceptance as a biker-friendly venue, suggested that I might like to ride a couple of the museum’s bikes. And when I heard that Old Miracle was back in action after an engine rebuild, I needed no second bidding. Please don’t think I’m boasting when I say that riding this slightly cantankerous ancient is a privilege – I look upon an invitation as a compliment and just love the idea of sitting where great men have sat and operating the same controls, no matter how ham-fisted I may be. It makes me glow more than a summer holiday at Windscale.

The bike was sitting in the workshops waiting to go, with foreman Stan there to act as instructor and fitter Mike as pusher and moral support. Mike’s a cheerful chappie, always with a ready smile and willing to talk bikes. If I tell you that, in recent years, he bought a Triumph T120 Bonneville for £200 you’ll understand that he has good reason to be cheerful. Must get him to fill in a Lottery entry for me. They pushed the Norton up to the Tarmac arena as I togged up, trying to remember which handlebar control did what, because this old scrapper came into the world decades before manufacturers agreed to a common layout that would make it easy to move from one machine to another without confusion. I suspect that a manufacturer in that era would prefer to make his product totally different from the rest, to discourage established customers being tempted away to another marque.

“I had a ride on the new Rudge Multi last week, Walter. Couldn’t get on with that damned silly new-fangled idea of a twist-grip in control of the throttle.”

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleBefore being let loose on this, surely the oldest active racing motorcycle in the world, I asked Stan to run through the controls again. He’s done it before, but a long time ago and the operation of all those levers is so different from modern – and late vintage – bikes that I wanted to be absolutely sure which did what.

On the left is the valve-lifter, which simply lifts the exhaust valve off its seat and reduces compression when bump starting; it can also be used to coast around tight corners without the engine driving, but that’s an extreme use for hairpin bends and the like. Also on the left is the ignition advance and retard lever, so that the rider can back off the spark advance if he wants to ride slowly and smoothly. On the right side, two levers share a fulcrum, the upper one controlling the choke and the other the throttle. There’s a front brake lever as well, but it’s a modest little thing, which reflects the effectiveness of a bicycle-type stirrup front brake put there as a sop to legality; I know from past experience that it doesn’t do much when you pull it, except disappoint any optimist.

No mention of a clutch lever, you may have noticed. Because Old Miracle doesn’t have such a luxury and didn’t need one when it was spending its working day thumping around Brooklands a few miles an hour short of national record speeds. It has a pulley on the crankshaft and a belt that drives a much bigger pulley on the rear wheel and nothing to interfere with the business of getting along at speed. How anyone rode this from Epsom to Brighton in relatively recent times is quite beyond my understanding, and I do know that Sammy Miller has done it. Because these lovely trusting people asked me to ride it in the Pioneer Run a few years back and I had a chat with Sam before saying a polite no thank you. Sam reckoned there were 17 sets of traffic lights between the outskirts of Brighton and the finish on Marine Parade, and he had to stop at every one. That would mean stalling the old bike and restarting with the valve-lifter, then hopping on as the motor fired up and got on with its natural business of driving forward. Sounds like great fun in Sunday traffic, you must admit. No wonder Mr Miller is so slim.

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleOn top of the fuel tank is the oil pump, which requires operating every two or three miles on the road. Quite a difficult discipline to observe in the pioneer days, when very few roads were better than rolled dirt and Tarmac was pure luxury; guessing that you’d covered enough miles and then taking your hand off the handlebar to deal with engine lubrication required both strength and bravery. Stan pumped away before I was let loose, leaving me with one less matter to deal with.

Starting is a matter of fuel on, tickle the Amal carburettor (yes pedants, I know Amal didn’t exist in 1912, but that’s what it wears) retard the ignition and close the air lever halfway before lifting the valve lifter as two willing pushers apply their weight to the task of getting Old Miracle back into action. At brisk walking pace the valve-lifter lever is dropped and the ancient single begins to chuffer-chuff on a closed throttle as I move the lever a shade and it fires. When it catches, it seems to fire every third lamp post or the equivalent at this start-up speed and feels on the edge of stalling. But the big flywheels do their job and with a little ignition advance and gentle throttle lever it drives forward. Oops, must remember to open up the air lever, and the motor pulls harder.

The available space in the motor museum grounds is pretty limited, but includes the big expanse of Tarmac where special displays happen during the annual Motor Cycle World weekend, and you can still see tyre marks left by stunt men on four, two and one wheel. Two or three laps to get accustomed to the controls and for the engine to warm up, and Old Miracle is ready to follow most of the parade track used by stars like Haslam and Walker once a year. When they are here entertaining thousands of people the track is firmly shut off from the public, with experienced marshals watching over security and safety. But when some fool’s out trying to ride one of the museum’s bikes, he mixes with day-to-day estate traffic, including tradesmen making deliveries who cannot be expected to understand that a spidery old motorbike can’t stop at that looming junction. Caution is the requirement for a ride on such a priceless piece of motorcycle history.

Norton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycleThis bike is actually quite a gentleman. Old it may be, but its fine breeding and good manners accommodate a new rider if he’s prepared to understand that a true thoroughbred needs sympathetic handling. Point it around the tight little circuit available on the day of our ride and it will handle everything with ease, just as long as you fit in with its simple needs. So you don’t expect tyre-shredding acceleration or braking and you don’t arrive at a tight bend without a clear idea of the line you’re going to take and the speed you’re going to travel at. Get there in a panic, expecting Old Miracle to suddenly develop sharp braking to cope with your lack of anticipation, and it won’t help you. It can’t, it expects its rider to behave sensibly.

Ride it smoothly and it’s an absolute joy, this old soldier whose record is so long and successful; if they’d handed out medals for every record broken when this bike was at its peak, it would come with a travelling trunk full of them. The lack of clutch simply means that you don’t plan to stop, you think, diverting or riding around any obstacle that looms.

It holds the road better that you’d expect of a 93-year-old rigid frame, never moving off line on bends and riding over the bumpy entrance to the arena area with nothing more than an occasional shake of the head.

Once you get used to the idea of a throttle lever, you realise that it can be operated with the thumb or forefinger, because it’s mounted close to the handlebar grip and you don’t have to move your hand to get a lot of response. Whether that response is asking for more power or shutting off for an approaching corner, it’s a smooth operation once you understand how the controls work.

It wasn’t quite likeNorton Old Miracle sidevalve racing motorcycle this at Brooklands, where contemporary photos show riders in the pre-twist-grip era with the throttle lever high on the bars and snuggling up to the steering head, while the handlebars are long and often very low. One man with much knowledge of that time told me that the throttle was deliberately put beyond the rider’s easy reach so that he couldn’t shut off quickly if the bike shook its head at speed high on the banking. “Sort it out, m’lad. Hang on and don’t you dare shut off, or we’ll miss that record.” They did get into wobbles and they did fall off; the legendary Freddie Dixon apparently did a roly-poly down the banking when a tyre burst on his Harley-Davidson and he rode it back to the pits on the rim, to replace the rubber and carry on. Mad, I tell you, quite simply barking.

I finally stopped to hand the bike back, with great reluctance. If you have an interest in motorcycle history – and that subject has fascinated me since my schooldays – then riding such an historic machine is to ride in the footsteps of the gods. I missed Motor Cycle World this year, but plan to be back there in 2006, when I might get another ride on this old bike. I still get a tingle up my spine at the very idea, even if trying to keep away from both faster and slower bikes is a demanding experience.

The fact that such precious old bikes are kept in running order and handed out to selected riders is a huge credit of the Beaulieu museum. God bless them. bike

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