Our favorite Brit Frank Melling got to throw a leg over the 1907 Norton that won the first Isle of Man TT and experience first-hand Rem Fowler’s exuberance from winning the inaugural race aboard the motorcycle.
Sometimes, the sense of privilege at writing for MotorcycleUSA strikes home hard. In front of me is the Norton which won the first ever Isle of Man TT on the 28th of May 1907. I am going to ride a piece of motorcycling history which will take me back to an era as strange as medieval Europe or the civilizations of Mayan South America. This motorcycle dates from a period only 42 years after the abolition of slavery in America – a time when personal safety, and life, was cheap and getting killed in accidents simply a fact of normal, everyday life.
Riding the Norton will be one of biggest challenges of my motorcycling career.
I aimed the Norton downhill, pedaled furiously and dropped the decompressor lever. The riveted leather belt slipped momentarily and then the rear wheel began to turn over the 672cc V-Twin engine. The first sounds were a dull, asthmatic wheezing, then a hesitant stutter followed by a glorious, hard-edged crackle as the 100-year-old engine burst into life. A touch more fuel and time’s opaque curtains were torn to shreds as the Norton accelerated aggressively through the damp evening mist – and I was transported back almost a century to Rem Fowler’s and Norton’s win in the first ever TT.
Arguments rage over what was the first ever motorcycle, so it’s easier to say that ten years before the Norton, the sporting young man would have certainly been on a horse: motorcycles were virtually unknown and racing non-existent. It is in this context that the TT-winning Norton needs viewing.
James Lansdowne Norton was a keen competitor from the moment he began building his very first motorcycles in the back streets of Birmingham and ardently believed in racing as a sales tool. The 1907 concept of racing was not quite as we understand it today. The central ideas which drove the early competitors, and manufacturers, were reliability, fuel consumption and the ability to ascend hills – with or without pedal assistance.
Riding a historically-rich bike that costs a king’s ransom can be both frightening and exhilarating.
Because late 19th-century England was the most heavily industrialized nation in the world, the authorities had extensive knowledge of powered vehicles in the form of traction engines and they didn’t like them. In 1896, the final version of the Locomotive Act was introduced and racing on closed public British roads was effectively banned forever.
This didn’t stop the infant motorcycle industry from wanting to go racing. Rather, it meant that the show had to be moved off shore.
The Isle of Man was the perfect venue. At one end was England’s biggest port with all the infrastructure needed to handle cargo. Eighty miles away was a sparsely populated island, complete with a mountain, where the authorities welcomed tourists of any kind and were more than happy to close roads for any kind of motorsport – and still are for that matter.
The first motor-cycle race was held May 28, 1907, and ran 10 laps over the Short Course of 15 miles, 1470 yards, beginning in the village of St. John’s in the west of the island. It was for road-legal, touring motorcycles with exhaust silencers, saddles, pedals and mudguards. Twenty-five riders started in pairs racing on largely unsurfaced roads. In the damp and mist of that May morning, “Pa” Norton and his top rider brought the Norton to the start line.
Though the Norton’s V-Twin was advanced for its time, the frame, fork, and braking technology on the motorcycle were still straight off of a bicycle.
The bike is a strange mixture of contradictions. It is clearly a full-sized motorcycle and, with a 60″ wheelbase, an impressive one even by today’s standards. Equally, it looks to be dangerously, almost maniacally, flimsy. The frame and front forks are pure, unadulterated bicycle – no if’s and but’s. This is an old, brazed lug construction cycle into which someone has shoehorned a neat, 45-degree, V-Twin engine.
By 1907 standards, the Norton was cutting edge technology and featured several state of the art features. Most notable of these was the Bosch magneto, which reliably produced a spark to ignite the fuel. The magneto is driven by an open chain which whizzes round just in front of the rider’s right boot. Truly, this is a machine with which the rider feels intimately involved!
The Brown and Barlow carburetor was also a brand-new concept. Air and fuel still have to be manually adjusted by the rider but can be done so accurately, allowing unprecedented performance – for 1907!
The Peugeot V-Twin engine has a mechanically operated exhaust valve and atmospherically lifted inlet valve. This means that the exhaust is opened by cam, in the conventional manner, but suction from the piston driving down the cylinder opens the inlet valve. The received wisdom of the time felt that this was the route to efficient engine performance.
However, there were skeptics even at the turn of the century. Norton works rider Rem Fowler doubled the strength of the valve springs on the inlet valve from 4 lb-ft to 8 lb-ft. This cost him low down performance but enabled the V-Twin to rev reliably to over 4000 rpm.
He gets by with a little help from his friends! Melling needed a push to get the 100-year-old mill to crank.
Lubrication is by a hand pump, which forces oil into the engine where it finds its own way round the motor. The incredible lubricity of the heavy castor-based oil allows the engine to function very happily – blowing out the surplus at random all over the road and verges.
George Cohen, who is the world’s leading expert on early Nortons and the restorer of this bike, estimates that the Fowler machine gives around 12 hp, a figure which would make it a real MotoGP bike of its day.
The transmission is simplicity in itself: there isn’t any! A large, riveted 4-ply leather belt goes from the front engine pulley and drives the rear wheel. Disconcertingly, this heavy, thick and extremely breakage-prone device whizzes past the rider’s left calf. Health and Safety legislators would love it!
There is no clutch either, so the drive is permanently engaged. This needs stressing. Once the motor is running forward momentum is maintained unless the engine is stopped via the decompressor. Riding this bike is not for the faint hearted.
Two tiny, bicycle brakes make a symbolic gesture at stopping the bike – but nothing more. In practice they have no effect and the best way to slow down is by pitching the bike sideways, pulling in the decompressor and putting down a boot.
Despite six spark plug changes, two stops to shorten the drive belt and a puncture repair, Rem Fowler piloted the 1907 Norton over the acid-sprayed dirt roads of the Isle to claim a piece of moto-racing history.
To understand the Norton, it is important to see the bike in historical context. In 1907, half of all babies born into working class families died at birth and 10-year-olds could still be legally employed in British factories. In this context, the lack of brakes and permanently engaged drive are not so much lethally dangerous – which they are – but part of a society where extreme personal injuries were the norm rather than aberrant exceptions.
This makes Rem Fowler’s achievement all the more exceptional. Despite a catalogue of problems, including six spark plug changes, twice stopping to shorten the drive belt and a puncture repair, he set the fastest lap at 42.91 mph – and this was on dirt roads sprayed with acid to reduce the dust. In doing so, Rem displayed the sort of premeditated, stoic courage which exemplified the Victorian age.
For weeks before writing this article, I had looked at the picture of Rem’s hard, racer’s face surrounded by his cocky, cigarette smoking mechanics and tried to imagine what it must have been like to line up at the first TT, 100 years ago. Even though I race classic motorcycles today, the task was beyond me. My bikes turn and stop and accelerate like slow versions of modern racing machines. They are as safe as the rider wants to make them.
As if concentrating on the road isn’t enough, drivers of the 1907 Norton had to manually adjust the air and fuel mixture and lube the engine by means of a hand pump.
Rem’s bike was inherently, overtly dangerous then – and now. My nervousness was compounded by the bike’s financial value. It is owned by the National Motorcycle Museum and the museum’s owner, Roy Richards, had given special dispensation for me to ride it. Crashing, or even damaging, the bike was beyond contemplation. How do you replace a bike which is beyond value?
Cohen pushed, I pedaled and the ancient Norton burst into life. Immediately, there is a lot to do. The Somerset lanes on which I rode it were a good replica of the early TT course and the first thing that is worrying, terrifying even, is the acceleration. Weighing only 182 lbs, the Norton picks up its skirts and accelerates in a manner which is galaxies away from the normal dumpty-dumpty-dumpty of a plodding Pioneer bike. This is a real racing bike with all the edgy eagerness of a thoroughbred.
The bike skitters and slides all over the place and so the technique is simply to aim it. This is fine until a corner arrives and then things become really challenging. There are no brakes, the motor runs on and the 26-inch tires don’t grip on the shale and stones. And all this is at pedestrian speeds. Imagining what it must have been like at the 60 mph Rem rode at is just too much for me.
With over 40 years experience riding and racing bikes, Melling still was awed and honored to ride such a historically significant motorcycle.
All too soon, Cohen was frantically waving me back. Our photographer said that she had never seen anyone more nervous on a test before and his sense of relief at the bike’s return was palpable. For my part, I would have loved to have the Norton on a race track but I returned the bike deeply grateful for one of the most memorable experiences in 40 years of riding race bikes – and not a little relieved that the National Motorcycle Museum was not going to send me a $500,000 repair bill.
Our thanks to Roy Richards of the National Motorcycle Museum – www.nationalmotorcyclemuseum.co.uk and to George Cohen who tells the full tale of the Rem Fowler Norton in his superb book Flat Tank Norton available from www.norton.uk.com
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