The Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) is hallowed ground for the two-wheeled set. Since the first race in 1904, some 237 riders have given their lives on the narrow twisting public roads of the small island. The golden age of the Isle of Man TT was in the fifties and early sixties, when the legendary Norton Manx singles fought ferociously to keep the encroaching multi-cylinder bikes from the Continent, and eventually Japan, at bay. It was an epic but of ultimately a losing battle, symbolic of the demise of the British motorcycle industry. But for decades, the Norton Manx dominated the Isle, and came to be most closely associated with it.
The Norton Company was formed by James Lansdowne Norton (Pa Norton) in 1898. They specialized in the manufacture of fittings and parts for the two wheel trade. By 1902 they began to manufacture motorcycles with engines made by others. In 1908, they got around to making their own engines. In 1907 a Norton, powered by a Peugeot twin cylinder engine and ridden by Rem Fowler won the twin class at the Isle of Man TT race. Rem, the bike, and Pa on the right are shown above.
There were some things that made this race special. It was the very first Isle of Man TT race and the Isle of Man would become just about the most famous motorcycle race in the world over the next hundred years. Qualification heats for an Austrian race had been run there but not a TT (Tourist Trophy). 1907 was the first TT.
The one cylinder class winner (Charles Collier, riding a Matchless) was more than 1 mph faster than the Norton Twin. The Isle of Man and Norton became associated by name and performance for years. With the Isle of Man as its primary focus, one of the most successful race bikes ever was developed.
In 1927 a Norton engineer, Walter Moore, developed a one cylinder engine OHC engine that went on to win the Seniors Isle of Man TT. It was based closely on the OHV variant (above) that preceded it.
Moore was hired away by NSU in 1930. After his departure, Norton developed an entirely new engine based on his development that was the basis for all the SOHC and DOHC Norton Singles that followed. The 1933 model appears above. Between 1931, when the revised engine was introduced, and 1954, Norton won all but two of the Senior TT races and frequently filled the top three spots.
Norton did not race during WW2. They did produce military machines, however.
The Norton Military single (pictured above) and the Norton Big 4 (a 650) were the two models of Norton British military vehicles.
In 1950 two engineer brothers named McCandless developed a special frame. It was a double downtube with a swingarm. It was named the featherbed. The lead Norton Factory rider, when asked how it rode, responded that it was as comfortable as riding his featherbed. Research for the Harley Davidson article indicated they developed the K model with double downtubes and swingarm suspension to keep up with the competition from England and elsewhere. Based on the timing and design, I suspect it was the Norton featherbed frame that H-D was chasing.
Heavy flywheels and the featherbed frame gave the Norton Manx the low center of gravity and high speed stability needed for the most prestigious race in the world at the time: The Isle of Man TT. That stability was sorely needed as there have been over 230 deaths in the TT race, including practices, since 1907. The race was removed from the championship circuit because of them.
The Isle of Man race began because the British government made it impossible to close the roads to hold the race. The Isle of Man was more than ready to fill the vacuum. The rider that named the featherbed set the first average of over 90 mph. Harold Daniel set the record at 91 mph in 1938 and it remained unbroken for 12 years. It was finally bested by Geoff Duke in 1950, riding a Norton. These were very good speeds for the time. The fastest lap record that I can find is over 125 mph.
Considering that this race consists of time trials run on city streets and mountain roads and at these speeds, it is not surprising that there are so many deaths.
On the Manx the flywheels were made integral with the crank to increase rigidity and reduce vibration. The cambox contained five shafts with five gears which were ground to size. The engines were always run on a dyno before being stripped and rebuilt. The Manx engine was expected to complete a full season without being torn down and rebuilt. Reliability was a massive change.
Leo Kusmicki came to Britain as part of the Polish Free Air Force and stayed after the war. He was in a very low position in the Norton hierarchy when they discovered he had been one of Poland’s leading experts on internal combustion engines. He redesigned the 350 and 500 engines for higher rpm and more power. They were competitive with twins and multis.
Geoff Duke, known to fans and fellow riders as “the duke” became a name forever associated with Norton. He won 6 world championships. The first three were mounted on a Norton as below.
The last Manx was built in 1963. In the 500cc world championship that year, Mike Hailwood took the title for MV Agusta. Jack Ahern took second on his Norton. Nine of the top 20 riders were mounted on a Norton Manx.
When they stopped making the Manx, I was an ignorant young man who thought the BSA and Triumph bikes were the extent of British bikes. By the time I discovered Norton, this beauty was the best thing on two wheels. It was normally sold by another British beauty, as seen below. The Norton girls (google them yourself) were beautiful.
Norton went out of business and this article is not intended to get into those later years. A couple of our normal commentators have applauded the attempts to revive the names of some of these old companies. For them I have included this picture of the Norton 961. And Norton will be fielding a new V4 for this year’s Isle of Man Senior TT. Your guess as to the success of this attempt or the new company in general is just as good as mine.
But the glory of the Manx’ golden days, as this picture with the legendary Mike Hailwood so eloquently conveys, will never be recaptured.