Being a "specialist" usually means a life dedicated to one and only topic.
I have always wondered how one becomes a "specialist".
You don't "become" a "specialist"...you are naturally born one.
Personnally, my natural curiosity brings me to switch from one topic to many others.
I finally realise that the more I learn about a topic the less I'm a "specialist" in it.
Our guest George Cohen aka "Dr Norton", her gracious Majesty's subject and a"soldier of fortune" as he describes himself, is a real specialist of pre war Nortons. He eventually wrote a wonderful book about it: "Flat Tank Norton" and, between two patients, restored dozens of Nortons to the point that when the Birmingham museum burnt, leaving nothing but charred scrap metal under the rubbles, it's him who took care of the restoration of a few models.
He's frequently seen on vintage machines for his loves to ride...
It's a particular pleasure to read the Freudian account of his favorite five.
Dear Vincent, my favourite dog is the one currently chewing my slipper, my favourite woman is the one I share a bed with and my favourite drink is the one in my glass. So four out of my five favourite motorcycles are all ones that I currently own.
Our good friend Paul D’Orleans has chosen 5 great motorcycles which he acknowledges that he will never own! It seems, to me, a little sad not to have or ‘own’ your favourites, to lust after another man’s possession. Freudians would argue about different ego strengths and some bizarre sexual hypothesis, to explain why Paul and I are coming from a different perspective, especially that I consider him to be a good friend and an intelligent man.
My favourites, in chronological order of manufacture are as follows. They are favourite because they relate to wonderful personal experiences …….
The 1907 TT winning ‘Rem Fowler’ Norton, V-twin Peugeot engine.
On the 28th May 2007, exactly one hundred years after Rem Fowler sat astride the V twin Norton, waiting to start the first ever TT race, I was doing the same. Many of the large crowd and the officials at St.John’s were dressed in Edwardian attire and the atmosphere was electric. Everyone was excited and I was just a little apprehensive. I had rebuilt the National Motorcycle Museum machine a few years previously and had practiced around the narrow and very bumpy lanes of Somerset over the previous six weeks. I knew the engine was strong and the brakes useless, the handling a tad wobbly and the throttle response unpredictable, but I was ready for the ‘Race’.
Next to me on the start line was Mr. Chris Read with his 1907 Vindec, the very machine which came second to Fowler in the original race and which was piloted by the American, Billy Wells; he was 30 minutes adrift in 1907! The Vindec used the same engine as the Norton; a 684cc Peugeot 45 degrees V-twin. Chris had fitted a later two-speed hub and a clutch mechanism, and this meant he was able to line up with a running motor. My direct drive mount was to be pushed into life by Dave Roper (the only American to have ever won a TT race). Behind us, were 98 other machines, spanning a period from 1908 to 1938; the last away was to be Manxman, Milky Quale, a multiple TT winner, aboard his George Fornby ‘Shuttleworth Snap’. Pairs were sent off at 30 second intervals. My only criticism of the whole event was that there were not more Edwardian machines in keeping with the period of the original TT course (the mountain circuit was first used in 1911).
Geoff Duke dropped the starting flag and we were away! The Vindec sped off in front of me and I followed well behind. As the engine chimed in and I adjusted the twin handlebar levers to give the carburettor its optimum setting, I slowly caught the Vindec by Ballacraine corner, a 90 degree left on this course. I was in front and round the sweeping bends of Laurel Bank and Glen Helen, the long wheel base of the Norton provided me with a surprisingly stable ride. I soon realised that the smooth road surface compared with my local Somerset lanes was extremely significant and my initial apprehension was replaced by a growing confidence. I approached the sweeping uphill left hander at the bottom of Creg Whilys Hill with the thought that many of the pioneer riders had to resort to ‘LPA’, Light Pedal Assistance or dismount here and run along side their machines to climb the steep gradient. Apparently Fowler had climbed the hill easily, but this motorcycle was 100 years old. I need not have worried, because I roared up past Sarah’s Cottage and onto the long Cronky Voddy straight , where I had time to play with the twin levers to give me maximum performance. Approaching the end of the straight, I looked over my shoulder to establish where the others were; not a soul in sight!
Now was the time to give the engine some oil; about 60 cc delivered by a petrol tank mounted ‘syringe’ which needed to be slowly pushed in by the right hand. Along the bumpy lanes of my practising in Somerset, I had either stopped or performed this operation with my foot. Taking a hand off the handlebar was certainly not an option because of the tendency for the machine to either violently wobble or ‘tank slap’. I tried removing my right hand away from the handlebar grip by an inch, then two and finally well away and enough to give the spectators a wave. I could ride this one handed! So there was plenty of time to plunge the plunger and give the engine its ‘life blood’. I also recollected the story of how James Lansdowne Norton, himself, had shown a board to Fowler at the end of the first lap with the word’ OIL’ scribbled on it. This is the first report of the ubiquitous ‘pit signal.
Through Handley’s Bend, the top of Barregow and down the fast hill to the bottom……. Would I make it with out throttling back and pulling on the valve lifter? My mind was in perfect harmony with Rem, the machine running like a thoroughbred and we sped through like a true racer. Tearing into Kirkmichael at well above the 30 mph speed limit, I throttled back and pulled in the valve lifter for the very sharp downhill left-hander. As I zoomed around the corner, I caught glimpses of the crowd waving as we sped out of the village. Along the next straight I was passed by a speeding Triumph Speed Twin; “who was that”, I thought. With the rich blue sea to my right and the grassy banks to my left, I tore along the narrow coast road towards the ‘Devils Elbow’, a sharp left-right-left bend, akin to the numerous chicanes on modern race circuits. With a reduced throttle, the left peddle in the ‘UP’ position, I negotiated the first left hander, forgetting to rotate the pedals by 180 degrees, meant that the right pedal grounded the tarmac as I made the right but I was sailing again for the next left! Phew!
The adrenaline was coming on strong now, my confidence in the machine and my riding technique growing, and the sheer thrill of what was happening was close to nirvana. Into Peel, I came down the hill to the acute left hander at the chip shop. The crowds were waving manically and I caught the moment with a period foot down and banked slide to round the corner in just the style they used to do it! Another right, then out of the village and back towards the end of the lap and as I rounded the next corner I could see a Marshal frantically waving a Red Flag. Fortunately I had ample time to close the throttle, lift the valve decompressor and slide to a halt with two large leather boots on the tarmac. Next to me was waiting, Guy Martin (later to lap in the proper races at a 129mph average speed!); I had no idea why we were being stopped.
With 100 riders leaving in pairs at 30 second intervals, this meant that it took 25 minutes to start the event and Guy and I were only a mile from the finish of the 16 mile course. For what seemed like an eternity, and with a couple of other riders arriving at the stoppage point, I was eventually allowed to proceed. With a slight uphill gradient, I demanded the assistance of a push from a bewildered Marshall and I was away at full pace.
I swept into St.John’s and with the huge crowd waving enthusiastically and the V-twin engine spinning like a turbine, I crossed the line. First away and first home, what a thrill, what a race…………… I was ready for the second lap, but to my horror another red flag! With 50 mph on the go, no brakes and this crazy Marshall waving his flag at me I gesticulated for them to get out of the way. I eventually stopped some yards past them to learn that our second circuit had been cancelled due to a technicality relating to the closed roads permit.
It was great fun and a privilege to be involved and I thank the late Roy Richards for lending me his very precious motorcycle.
P.S. Fowlers fastest lap in 1907 was 21 minutes; average speed of almost 43 mph. I was about the same. In 1907 the roads were terrible, loose stones, horse-shoe nails every where and even acid sprayed on them to curb the dust!
The 1926 Model 44 TT replica out fit. OHV 588cc and 4 speeds and big brakes.
About 22 years ago I saw a small advert in Motor Cycle News which read something like this: Norton Model 350, T&T good runner, £750. Flat tank Norton, offers. Ring 01 707 1234. So I gave him a ring, the conversation went like this:
“Hello mate, ‘ave yer still got the flat tank Norton?”
“Yup” He said.
“ can you describe it to me?”
“ it’s a 500 model 18 and its all there, bla, bla bla”
“ So how much do you want for it?”
“How about ten quid?”, I asked.
“Na, I want more” he quickly replied.
“Well how about ten thousand”
“ Na, I don’t want that much”
So I said, “ Sounds like it s got to be a grand then”
And he said, ‘That’ll do”
And finally I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow.
So the next day, I got a £1,000 from under the bed, jumped into my shagged out old Austin A60 van and drove 150 miles to this geezers place. It wasn’t a Model 18, but a Model 44 (588 cc and four speeds and solid frame and forks). A bargain, especially since I sold the number plate for £1,750! Still the side car cost me £1,500.
I have lost count of the numerous adventures I have had with this outfit.
The pictures show me and my wife, Sarah (who is doing a great job at keeping the sidecar wheel on the tarmac) at the entry to Braddan Bridge on the 1994 Manx Grand Prix ‘closed roads parade’. My interpretation of a ‘parade’, at that time as fully fledged hooligan, was a’race’. So we went for it, over took practically everybody and got to Ballacraine so quickly, that before the marshalls acknowledged our arrival, I hanged a fast left down a small lane and took the back roads to near the start. Another sharp left and we were back at the circuit somewhere near Union Mills.
Another marshall held up his hand and said: “Yer can’t go through ‘ere lad, the parade is on”.
So I replied, “ yup I know we’re in it!”
He then recognised me and Sarah, as we had been supping ale with them the night before at the Railway Tavern.
The roads closed rope was lifted immediately and with a few enthusiastic waves we were off on the track again! We did that parade twice and no one ever sussed us out! What fun and that is why this out fit is one of my favourites.
The other picture shows me giving a lift to my friend and 9000 times world champion, Phil Read.
1926/7 Model 18 TT replica. 500cc, 3 speed, big petrol tank, big oil tank and very big brakes.
While practising as a Junior Doctor in Worcester in 1983, my pride and joy was a 1960 Norton ES2 in superb condition on which I rode regularly to work and to various motorcycle meetings. One Sunday I decided to go on a VMCC ‘run’ somewhere around Herefordshire and the Wye valley. I arrived at the meeting place which was a pub car park some 30 miles south of where I lived at about 9am and just hanged around with all the other sleepy heads and their varied collection old motorcycles and grubby Belstaff jackets.
Suddenly my attention, and everyone else present, was fixed upon the rising sound of a very healthy single pot four-stroke engine absolutely flat out. Bap, bap, bap, bap …., our heads turned down the road to see a Flat Tank Norton with a chap on board wearing a ‘puddin’ basin’ helmet (possibly a Cromwell Mk1) with a Bobble hat complete with ‘pomp-pomp’ on the top! He flew past the pub car park, which was situated, on a curved bend (imagine watching from the inside of the track at Craner curves, Donnington Park or any swooping fast bens in your neighbourhood). He was obviously showing off, but what a show! This daredevil turned out to be my first real experience of the ‘Flat Tank Norton drug’. I was immediately addicted by the vision, sound and smell of the aromatic ‘Castrol R’ and the day turned out to be one of my most memorable motorcycling days.
This latter day Stanley Woods duly turned around a mile up the road and returned to the car park and casually pulled his machine, a Model 18 in TT ‘replica’ trim with an upswept nickel plated Brooklands ‘can’, onto its liberally drilled rear stand (actually a Velocette item!) and I wandered over and just gawped. It was quite simply the best motorcycle I had ever seen and with my best manners I introduced myself to this bearded bloke who looked like James Lansdowne Norton himself. He was from Yorkshire and quite a character, I liked his motorcycling taste and immediately we ‘hit it off’. Any way, we all went off on this VMCC run, a good turn out of about 30 motorcycles. The pace was a tad sedate and arriving at the ‘lunch stop’ I found myself parked next to the flat tanker; some how I had not seen him on the run of about 35 miles. He came over to me and said; “ Look this is a bit boring, they are going too slow. I live about twenty miles from here and my wife has a roast beef in the oven, come for lunch”. How could I refuse? Stay with these pedestrians or ‘race’ this old boy back to his place. An old flat tanker against my ‘Featherbed’, 1926 against 1960, development must surely ensure a victory. I was as keen as mustard on the offer. We set off along the fast and winding roads around the Forest of Dean and I could not get anywhere near him. That old ‘Flat Tank’ Norton was a flyer and I almost crashed on numerous occasions trying to keep up. I enjoyed a cracking Sunday lunch with this new friend and his wife.
I visited him and his Norton many times over the next couple of years, always reminding him that if he ever wanted to sell the motorcycle to get in touch with me. Some time in 1985 while browsing through the ‘small ads’ in MCN (Motorcycle News) my eye was drawn to: ‘Flat Tank Norton for sale, offers’. No telephone number, just an address in the Forest of Dean. Immediately I donned my riding gear and sped down to the man’s house on my ‘Easy Two’, with the anticipation that I would soon own this fantastic machine. Alas when I arrived he told me he had sold it but would not tell me who he had sold it to! Drat and double drat, my dreams in shatters.
About a year later I managed to trace where the machine was and after a protracted deal I finally got to own my first and always my favourite Flat Tank Norton. Twenty six years on I am still regularly giving it a good thrashing; playing at being O’Donovan, Denly, Driscoll or any one of those heroes of a bygone age. My favourite ‘favourite’.
‘Cam Cam’; c1939 350 International.
‘Cam-Cam’ is a pre-war 350 “Cammy’ International named after my second daughter, Camilla and built for her. Like her three siblings she first rode a mini-bike as a five year old and now at the age of 21 she has just passed her bike test last week. Fortunately she can only ride up to 125 cc until the second part, hence it’s the BSA D1 Bantam for the next few months. Next spring she will be out and about on this little bike, that I have been riding around the lanes of Somerset for the past two years. The colour scheme may not be original, nor the belt drive or electronic ignition, but who cares?
I have built about 100 Nortons in the past thirty years to as close to original factory specification (and for Norton that was very subjective ) and I am now bored with all that tyre kicking bullshit from idiots who think they know something. Consequently, I enjoy building ‘Specials’ or ‘Bobbers’ and since I built a ‘Chopper’ when I was at school as a 16 year old, I might even go down that route again. I might even change from ‘Nortongeorge’ to ‘Somerset County Choppers’, who knows?
The bike performs very well in all departments, smooth engine, positive gear change and nice handling and brakes. It also pisses out oil like good Cammy Nortons should! Finally, I think it is the prettiest motorcycle I have built.
1952 Daytona winning, Manx Norton. 500 cc DOHC, Francis Beart prepared, magnesium bits every where.
Another series of fortuitous events led me to this fantastic machine. While browsing the inter-web one evening, I spotted an advert for the 1949 Klamfoth winning Daytona Norton on a club web site. I contacted the guy from Florida and to cut a long story short I brokered a deal with the late Roy Richards and that machines is now in the National Motorcycle museum. About a year later I just happened to be in Florida and I took the opportunity to visit this guy, just South of the famous Daytona Beach. His shed was full of great stuff, Bugatti, Miller, Indy race cars and a bunch of Garden gate Manx Nortons. I bought four, a 1939,1948, 1949 and 1952, all with Daytona sand stuck to them.
The 1952 machine I have raced at Goodwood, Donnington Park, Dijon and Castle Coombe in the past two years. It is fast and for a Garden Gate frame it goes round corners very well indeed. Most of the time it stays in one piece, but at the last Goodwood Revival it blew a hole in the piston on the 11th lap of practice. I didn’t get to race, but as a consolation we drank a lot of VC bubbly!
Freudians could say that I was fixated at an anal stage of my development in that all my favourites are from the same stable, but f..k the quacks. If the question had been worded differently, say : “What can you have, money, time no object…”; then a different list might have appeared.
George Cohen www.norton.uk.com