In 1950 the Norton was gifted an improved frame construction on behalf of the McAndless brothers, which became the legendary ‘Featherbed’ framed ‘Manx.’
There are many fine tributes to the legendary Manx Norton Grand Prix machine currently on sale, but what makes the bike produced by Patrick Walker and business partner, Miles Robinson, different is that their Norton is the only one officially approved by the Norton factory. Now, I am going to ride the bike in the Belgian Classic TT – one of Europe’s great classic motorcycle racing events.
To understand the iconic status of the Manx Norton it is important to remember that, in the immediate post war years, the one race which dominated the motorcycling world was the Isle of Man TT. And at the very top of the TT tree was the 500cc class. Win the “Senior”, as the 500cc race was called, and the buying public would forgive you a lot in terms of truly awful road motorcycles.
By 1949, Norton’s flagship Grand Prix race bike – and therefore its single most important marketing tool – should have been consigned to the museum. Running against the Norton was a mass of advanced four- and two-cylinder bikes, as well as far more sophisticated Singles from Moto Guzzi. In short, Norton was dead in the water.
Works Racing took the Norton engine and ran computer modeling in order enhance its performance and rid it of imperfections.
Then, in January 1950, Norton was gifted the design which was to save them. The talented McAndless brothers produced an all welded, duplex frame with pivoted rear fork suspension. Norton’s existing overhead cam race engine slotted into the new chassis and, at a stroke, made every other motorcycle frame obsolete. This ground-breaking design was simply gifted to Norton and became the legendary “Featherbed”-framed “Manx.”
The reason for the focus on the “Manx” name was Norton’s obsession with the Isle of Man TT races. What the TT demanded, and the McAndless frame provided, was high-speed stability. So impressed was Norton’s team leader, Harold Daniels, with the new chassis that he described it as a “…featherbed ride” – a soubriquet which has remained to this day.
At the same time as the new frame came the young Geoff Duke and, with him, Norton’s second giant-sized slice of luck. The Manx Norton suited Duke to perfection. As a result, Norton’s single-cylinder engine was given a world championship-winning boost.
The Manx also became the tool of choice for professional racers the world over. If the revs were kept below 7500 then a Manx could be raced at top level week in and week out, earning a living for many on the Continental Circus: it was truly the Peterbilt truck of the racing world.
Despite modernizing the engine, the Works replica is an exact duplicate of the original Norton engine and is interchangeable with its original parts.
This brings us to the Works Racing Motorcycles’ Manx, which takes the Norton engine along a slightly different route. Ironically, for a 48-year-old design, the Norton 30M engine is currently almost in mass production with a number of manufacturers making some very fine Manx replicas.
What makes the Works Racing bike special is that it is the first engine produced entirely digitally. Although a hardcore classic bike fan, and personally an accomplished classic racer, Patrick Walker’s background is in modern engineering. He previously designed and manufactured both high performance motorcycle and snowmobile engines and, although he is respectful of the craft skills employed by the original Norton workers, he sees no place for them in a modern replica engine. Patrick explains: “If you look at an original 30M engine it’s always full of shims where the blokes assembling the motor were compensating for the inaccuracies in the machining.”
“Our engine has a maximum tolerance of 5 microns (5 thousandths of a millimeter) so everything fits: it’s as simple as that.”
Feeling more like a classic Honda than a Norton, the 30M Manx was capable of 120 mph at Gedinne and felt smooth.
“I also spent a year glued to a computer screen producing the engineering drawings so every part of the engine is made entirely to precise design tolerances. The 3D CAD model then allowed me to undertake a full, finite element analysis of every component.”
“Computer modeling also allows us to ‘run’ the engine on the computer in the same way as any other state-of-the-art automotive company.”
“However, our engine is an exact replica of the last 30M motor, even down to the use of Imperial thread forms. This means that all our parts are interchangeable with original engines.”
“Although our parts fit the old Norton engines, the materials we use are hugely different. Our crank is made from EN40B, aerospace steel, which is then nitrided. The crankcases are cast in AZ91 magnesium alloy, which offers an outstanding combination of strength, lightness and corrosion resistance.”
Patrick’s engine looks almost like the 500cc 86mm x 86mm dual overhead cam engine which gave Norton 10 TT wins in the Golden Age of motorcycle road racing. The key difference is that the original motors had exposed valves for cooling, and this meant that they were incredibly dirty things spraying oil everywhere. Patrick’s engine has the valve springs enclosed so it is as oil tight as a modern motor.
Although faithful to the original, the engine feels more Honda than classic Norton. Peak power – something over 50 horsepower at the back wheel – comes in at 7500 rpm, but the DOHC engine will rev on to 9000 rpm
The rest of the bike has been faithfully reproduced, and includes double sided seven-inch brakes that have improved stopping power.
without any problem. Even with a second-rate rider like me in the saddle, this equated to a genuine 120 mph at Gedinne. Throughout the whole rev range the motor feels ultra-smooth.
The Belgian TT is the perfect place to assess a classic racebike since the three miles of bumpy, barbed wire-lined country lanes are about as near to a 1960 GP circuit as it is possible to find today.
As well as the motor being a faithful replica of the original 30M, the rest of the bike is pure Norton and, as Patrick notes, does exactly what it says on the tin. The handling is taut and accurate, and the CNC machined replica double sided seven-inch brakes stop like the originals never did.
The same goes for the six-speed Quaife gearbox, which is a dream. In fact, Patrick’s Norton is, in every way, a thoroughly modern, civilized bike – but one which is absolutely true to the original 1962 bike.
Despite the bike’s pedigree, for me there were three huge problems. First, Patrick’s bike normally has Glen English in the saddle who is one the world’s top classic racers.
Next, road racing someone else’s very expensive bike is very different from testing in the controlled conditions of a modern circuit. Parking a $45,000 GP bike upside down in a tree is not likely to win any friends or influence people.
Finally, Gedinne is not a place to ride any motorcycle which is not completely trustworthy. Certainly, getting things wrong on the Belgian lanes could lead directly to the local hospital.
Overall the bike replicates the Norton well but handles closer to a modern machine. Expect to pay at least $45,000.
I need not have worried on any of the three counts. The Norton is much more precise than our family’s Matchless G.50 which I normally ride, and the road holding was superb even with the large, 19-inch wheels. Where the G.50 has a rather docile, anthropomorphic feel the Manx is much tauter and feels rather modern.
Over Gedinne’s bumps and off-cambered corners, the bike inspired confidence and encouraged me to make some attempt not to embarrass Patrick.
Thanks to the willing engine, and trustworthy handling, the bike managed third in class – and that was despite me riding it. With Glen in the saddle, I feel sure that the team would have been on the top step of the podium.
New Nortons, in the same specification as the bike I raced, are available from Works Racing Motorcycles Ltd., with prices beginning at around $45,000.