Over the past twelve to eighteen months a great number of people have discovered the motorcycle and it has become quite the “in” thing, as long as the sun is shining. Almost every motoring magazine has featured motorcycles in some form or other in recent months, some of them light-heartedly, others quite seriously, and it would appear that the motorcycle has now become “respectable”. Very old readers of MOTOR SPORT will remember that in the nineteen-twenties we featured almost as many motorcycles as we did cars, probably because Arnold Radclyffe, then proprietor, was a keen motorcyclist. When T. G. Moore and W. S. Braidwood took over the ownership, motorcycles began to disappear in favour of Frazer Nash and Lagonda cars, their particular favourites, and when the present proprietors took possession and W.B. became editor at the end of the nineteen-thirties, motorcycles disappeared and the “old car” interest began. When D.S.J. came on the scene in 1945 he brought a motorcycle note back to the magazine on occasions, and has kept this interest and approval of motorcycles in the pages of MOTOR SPORT ever since. So you can see that we have not just discovered the motorcycle, it has always been a good word with us, even when it was a really bad word in the eyes of the public and anathema to Editors of motor magazines a few years ago.
Consequently we view this sudden discovery of the motorcycle by the motoring press with a wry smile on our face, but, ‘nevertheless, pleased about it, feeling that it is “better late than never”. As long as the popular media do not take hold of the subject “motorcycle” and flog it to death, as they have done with so many things, all will be well and dyed-in-the-wool motorcyclists, many of whom read MOTOR SPORT, can enjoy the patronising respectability which the motorcycle and the motorcyclist is being greeted with today. In Great Britain a wet, foggy November night or ice and snow in February, will soon put a stop to the motorcycle becoming over-popular and suffering from too much enthusiasm spoiling it.
A lot of this present wave of enthusiasm began when the BMW Concessionaires decided to launch an attack on the motor car market with BMW motorcycles, which they did with a lot of success, even if it caused the 750-c.c. flat-twin to take on a price-ticket more suited to a car, and beyond even the dreams of the average motorcyclist. The era of the Superbike was born by the publicity boys and they wrote starry-eyed prose about all the various 750-c.c. motorcycles, proclaiming the engine capacity as something enormous, and the performance as shattering. It was all good stuff and for those of us who have always liked high-performance motorcycles it was nice that the new image was being projected along our lines, and not in the direction of devices like travelling bedrooms. Those members of the Vincent-HRD Owners’ Club who still ride their I ,000-c.c. V-twin bikes regularly, even though they (the bikes) are 20 years old or more, smiled at all this Superbike talk as they romped along knowing that their old machines could still see off most of these new wonders; and whoever thought of 750 c.c. as being a big engine?
The basic conception of the motorcycle has not changed since the day someone first hung an engine on to a pedal cycle, whereas the motor car has gone through complete revolutions. In the racing world the pure racing motorcycle is not really very far removed from its road-going counterpart, whereas the Grand Prix car bears little or no resemblance to a production car, apart from having four wheels, the front ones controlled by a steering wheel. As a reader pointed out to me in the recent discussion on the interest in Grand Prix racing, a great change took place in the period when Grand Prix cars could no longer be driven on public roads. That is not to say raced on public roads, but merely be driven from the garage to the circuit, as for example from Stavelot to Francorchamps, or Zandvoort out to the Dunes circuit. This change came about for a number of reasons, some connected with racing-car design and others with changing circumstances such as traffic congestion and insurance. These things were coupled to the increase in performance encouraged by the 3-litre engine capacity Formula and the development of 450-b.h.p. in cars weighing 11 cwt. In the motorcycle world there has not been this great change and the racing motorcycle can still be ridden on the road, retaining a great affinity to a production motorcycle. In a similar way the racing motor cycle has kept its name and character as the product of a known manufacturer, whereas in Grand Prix racing, apart from Lotus and Ferrari, the cars are specialist constructions having little or no connection with reality. It is possibly for this reason that interest in Grand Prix motor racing has tended to surround the driver rather than the car, whereas in motorcycle racing the make of machine is still predominant, and this is because each machine is the complete product of an individual manufacturer. In the Grand Prix car world only Ferrari and BRM are complete manufacturers, the rest being “assemblers of special components”.
Not so long ago I went to a motorcycle race meeting on my own bike, a Norton Commando, and the 750-c.c. event had me rooting for Peter Williams on his works Norton. He didn’t win, but that did not matter too much to me as I rode home. The important thing was that the works Norton had been in there battling strongly against Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Triumph and the rest and giving as good as it got. That I was on a production road machine of direct parentage to that works Norton gave me immense satisfaction as I rode home. In addition I could sweep round the open bends pretending to be Peter Williams (giving way to the Walter Mitty which lurks in us all) and occasionally clambering off the seat in a “knees-out” Paul Smart stance, just for the fun of it. On that particular journey I had touches of nostalgia and sat back and tucked myself in “doing a Geoff Duke”, or took a bend in a determined and forceful fashion imagining myself to be Bob McIntyre or Mike Hailwood, but all the time I was on my Norton, which to me means motorcycle racing. In consequence of all this I enjoyed my day at the races to the full; in fact, all the way home, and jumped off the Commando and patted its rump, saying “a super day”. This is what I call spectator participation, which I think is an important factor in spectating at any activity.
With Grand Prix car racing this is much more difficult to achieve, unless you own a Lotus Europa or a Dino Ferrari, but even then a two-seater coupé cannot possibly feel like a single-seater Grand Prix car, and they certainly do not look alike. If a Tyrrell or a Brabham wins the race there is not much to identify with as you drive home and whatever road car you are in it is difficult to emulate Stewart or Fittipaldi, so you just drive home thinking “that wasn’t a bad motor race” and leave it at that. If you are a Lotus owner you can get some satisfaction in knowing that your car and the Grand Prix car were derived from the same brains and enthusiasm that is Colin Chapman and his team, except that you are unlikely to have a Cosworth V8 in your car, or a Hewland gearbox.While Grand Prix motorcycle racing has been suffering a bit from a lack of factory support, the Formula 750 category has been increasing in popularity, with backing from numerous manufacturers. The basic rules insist that the racing 750-c.c. bike must retain a close family resemblance to the production machine and this is done by restricting any changes to the production castings for engine and gearbox. Last winter the Norton factory team received strong backing from the John Player cigarette people, the same who back Lotus Grand Prix cars, but whereas with the Grand Prix car they overdid their enthusiasm and called the Lotus 72 the John Player Special, in their support of 750-c.c. motorcycle racing the machines were called John Player Norton. While the cars were painted black and gold like one brand of Player cigarettes, the Nortons were painted white with red and blue stripes like another of their brands. At a press gathering to display the 1973 racing Nortons there was the satisfying sight of three bikes lined up showing a remarkable similarity. These were a production 750-c.c. road-going Norton, a racing version of the same thing, on sale for production bike racing, and the very latest works racing motorcycle, the design and development thinking being clear to see along the line. Now here was only one thing wrong and that was that, on the face of it, the line was the wrong way round for the one-off experimental works bike should have come first, followed by the on-sale-to-the-public racing version, and then the production racing version. This used to b the pattern of things, until the works experimental bikes got too far away from the production machines, like the Porcupine AJS, the Moto-Guzzi V8 or the Gilera 4. The present state of affairs is not a bad one at all, and a keen racing and development programme such as the John Player Norton team are carrying out at their race headquarters at Thruxton aerodrome can have far-reaching effects on the production machines. When the 1973 works Norton was introduced it broke new ground in having a monocoque frame constructed from welded stainless-steel sheet and it was running on cast magnesium wheels. The monocoque frame, evolved by Peter Williams and the Thruxton staff, achieved a number of interesting improvements. It saved weight, it increased stiffness, it provided pannier fuel tanks, it allowed better ducted cooling for the air-cooled vertical twin engine, it allowed the ducting of cold air to the carburetters, it reduced the overall height and in consequence the frontal area, and altogether it allowed a notable lowering of the centre-of gravity. At the time, a small specialist racing firm produced a monocoque framed racing bike that managed to achieve only increased stiffness and lighter weight, missing out completely on all the other aspects.
When the Norton monocoque was introduced some pressmen asked Dennis Poore, Norton-Villiers Managing Director, whether he thought such a construction had a future for road-going machines; likewise the cast magnesium wheels. They missed the whole point of an experimental racing machine, for it need not produce direct results but it can provide direct data that can be transferred to production. Racing the John Player Norton monocoque bikes has provided the Norton racing development team with a lot of knowledge about road-holding, handling, steering and braking stability, and this knowledge must eventually pass through to the production design department. With the 1973 racing Norton has come a new era of motorcycle chassis design for the frame rigidity and the wheel rigidity has allowed suspension units back and front to become, much more selective and effective. Peter Williams and his team have been discovering new parameters in the field of spring-rates, damping, stiffness, deflections, torsional rigidity and so on, all things that are well known in the car-racing world, and all important things that contribute to the object of chassis design, which is to keep the tyres in contact with the road at all times and under all conditions.
Although motor-racing commitments did not allow me to follow the progress of the monocoque Nortons at first hand, I kept abreast of their activities in the “weekly comics” and the whole conception of this “modern” racing motorcycle fascinated me. The monocoque sheet steel frame, as such, is not a new idea, having been used on production bikes by Ariel, New Imperial, Francis Barnett and others in the past, but to my knowledge it had not been used on a powerful high-performance racing bike before. But frame construction apart, the Norton was also full of other interesting developments closely allied to improved road-holding. At the end of the season the friendly John Player PRO asked me if I’d like to ride one of the works Nortons and it did not take long to contact Frank Perris, the team manager, and Peter Williams, the rider/designer, and they thought it a splendid idea. Now this is where the advantage of a racing motorcycle still having a close affinity to a road-going motorcycle came in, for you can get straight off the one on to the other without any re-orientation as regards controls and general layout. You cock a leg over the saddle, put your feet up on the footrests, take hold of the bars, with clutch lever on the left and brake lever and twist-grip on the right, and you are still on a motorcycle. The gear-lever you operate with one foot, the rear brake with the other, and the engine is roaring away between your knees and under your chest. No matter what road-going motorcycle you arrive on, the basics are the same. If you take a test-drive in a modern racing car you are in a very different situation from anything previously experienced. Even if you arrive for the test in an open sports car, you will be sitting fairly upright with a lot of space around you and merely an expanse of metal or fibre-glass in front of you, and most likely the engine will be under it. You step into the narrow confines of a racing car and slide down into a tube with your feet uncommonly close together, the tiny steering wheel a long way in front of you, your position is nearly horizontal and you are in a different world. Ahead of you and at eye level are the front wheels, you see every movement of the front suspension and the steering, directional movements are made by tiny wrist movements, gear-changing is done with a minute lever up near the steering wheel, and all the noise and confusion is just behind your head. Unless you spend your life in single-seater racing cars, and not many of us do, it is not only a different world when you get into one, but a strange world that takes some getting used to. The transformation from a road-bike to a racing bike, as regards the riding position and controls, is nothing like so extreme and the things to get used to are details such as close gear ratios, powerful brakes, narrow rev-bands, tachometer readings that seem impossibly high, and the noise of open exhausts.
Before setting off on the works Norton monocoque I did a few laps on my own Norton Commando, enjoying its handling and performance to the full, and then had a go on Peter Williams’ new 850-c.c. road-going bike, enjoying the extra torque of the beefed-up engine, and the general feel of being on a much bigger bike altogether. Then I got onto the works racer and with a quick push in 1st gear I was away, the revs zooming up to 6,000 before I was really seated properly. With its special 5-speed gearbox a self imposed limit of 6-6,500 r.p.m. was easy to maintain, but the engine was not the point of this ride, it was the handling and general behaviour I was more interested in. Since the introduction of the Norton Commando it has featured a unique form of rear end called Isolastic, in which the, engine, gearbox and rear swinging-arm are mounted on a subframe which is rubber-mounted to the main frame. This same system is used on the works racing Nortons, its principal function being to absorb the vibration from the parallel-twin engine. It did not require many laps to realise I was in a different sphere, one where the tyres were being kept in contact with the road in a manner I have not experienced before, and where the suspension units back and front were working with the tyres and not merely trying to keep up with their movements over the road surface. Because there was so much unity you got very little feel of what the tyres were doing, and because of the overall rigidity of the bike there was no feed back of what was going on below the wind screen and the fairings. As I got more used to the bike and leant over more and more on the fast corners (though never as far as Williams or Croxford lean these racing Nortons), I felt I was treading into the unknown as regards tyre adhesion, in just the same way as in a racing car. You know the tyres are holding on, but you have no feel of how close to the limit they are getting because the suspension is absorbing most of that feel. My impression of the Norton was that you could go on laying it over until adhesion was lost and you were sliding along on the side of the fairing, and that was something I was not prepared to try, especially with a valuable factory machine. On the back part of the Thruxton circuit is a pair of long fast bends with a very undulating surface, and through these the Norton was incredibly stable and though you could not feel the suspension Working you could sense it by the fact that the bike kept on a perfect line and the plastic screen went opaque from the hammering front the bumps, it not being an integral and rigid part of the chassis.
After a few laps I stopped to absorb mentally just what was happening, remarking to Frank Perris that I had been out in a different world, and then had another go. On the roadgoing Nortons a few laps were enough, for they were both slightly out of their element, leaping and twisting a bit over the undulations and feeling heavy through the sharp corners. On the racer it was different, I could have gone on all day, for the sheer satisfaction I was getting from the feel of a bike being really in its element, and the fascinating thing was that, apart from law-breaking, I could have ridden out of the gate and gone home on it. In deference to local objectors the monocoque John Player Norton had been fitted with standard Commando silencers, so that I really could have ridden it home without attracting any attention, apart from its speed round the swerves on the Andover by-pass. Had I been going round Thruxton in a Grand Prix Lotus I could not have contemplated leaving the circuit and driving it home, which is somewhere about where this article all began!
When people are kind enough to lend me valuable machinery I put a lower limit on things than they suggest and always bear in mind that I might want to borrow it again, so try very hard not to make a nonsense. Having reached the point where I felt I wanted to go round and round the circuit for the rest of the day I muffed a gear-change and arrived at a pair of sharp corners all crossed up, going too fast and on the wrong line. Scrabbling round the first right-hander using all the road, I was then hopelessly lined up for the second one, so there was only one thing to do and that was to go straight on and stop as quickly as possible This I managed but even at low speed the bike did not feel as if it wanted to be flicked back onto line again, the return to normal having to be made gently and not forcefully. As I got going again on the nice normal smooth line I felt that here was a bike that needed to be ridden properly and it did not suffer fools gladly. I also felt it was time I stopped, so after one more neat and tidy lap I reluctantly took the John Player Norton monocoque back to the racing department.
The bike I rode was one which Dave Croxford has been racing this season, but on a sister machine, with a full racing engine, Peter Williams lapped the Isle of Man TT course at 107.27 m.p.h., the third fastest lap ever made, to win the Formula 750 event, and road-holding, handling, steering and braking are things which really count in the Isle of Man.
This discourse on motorcycles started off with some generalisations and drifted on to the particular, but it was a particular highlight in many years of riding fast motorcycles and I look forward to riding the “new Norton” again when it has a “new engine” for mention has been made that Keith Duckworth and Cosworth Engineering are to design a new power unit for the racing Nortons. The word motorcycle has always been a good word in MOTOR SPORT and I think the word NORTON is a good motorcycle. I must do, or I would not have spent my own money on one!—D.S.J.