However, the most interesting aspect of this motorcycle is the fascinating window it opens on to the death throes of the British motorcycle industry.
By 1960, Norton had fallen from being one of the world’s great motorcycle manufacturers into a state of decay worthy of any Shakespearean tragedy. Here is a quote from, “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry” written by Norton’s Chief Designer, Bert Hopwood. In two crushing paragraphs, Hopwood describes his first day at Norton where he replaced the factory’s previous head of design, Jack Moore, who hadn’t even been told that he had been demoted.
“There was no office for me and Jack immediately offered to move out of his but I would have none of it and told him that it was obvious that we both needed the help of the other so we compromised by sharing his ‘space’. This office, if that it may be called, was eight feet square and we managed to get two drawing stands inside, with a pair of us sitting back to back, each one supporting the other, a strange set up but the only one possible.
“Not even during the war time blitzes did I have to work under such difficult conditions; the whole Norton building was such a slummy shambles sandwiched with machines and parts, and men and vermin, in a noisy and dirty conglomeration, that a space such as mine did not seem too bad. After all, it was reasonably quiet and did not let in too much rain.”
Hopwood’s first job was to design a multi-cylinder road bike for Norton in an attempt to keep up with the offerings from BSA, Triumph, Matchless and Ariel. Really, Hopwood did not have much choice in his decision because, thanks to the success of the Triumph Speed Twin, every major British manufacturer needed a vertical Twin in the same way that all the current Japanese marques automatically have four-cylinder offerings.
The Norton brand had fallen from one of the world’s great motorcycle manufacturers into a veritable state of decay by the early ’60s.
Hopwood was somewhat more adventurous than his contemporaries and proposed an overhead cam design with a one-piece crankshaft. This would have had the advantage of making a viable race bike too. Unfortunately, he hit two problems. The first was the internal factory politics which dictated that all Norton’s racing efforts would be concentrated around the single-cylinder Manx – and anyone who suggested an alternative would be cast into perdition.
The second difficulty was that Norton did not have modern or accurate, for the day, machine tools. In short, regardless of what left Hopwood’s drawing board Norton could only make crude, low tolerance motorcycles. So the Dominator had a three-piece, bolted-together crank with push rod operated valves rather than the state of the art engine Hopwood designed.
However, he did address two problems endemic in his rivals’ designs. First, he made the rocker boxes as part of the cylinder head. This addressed the oil leaks which came as standard with British designs of the day.
He also widely splayed the exhaust ports allowing a free flow of air. This simple fix was very effective and proved to be so even when Hopwood’s original 500cc design eventually became a monster 920cc racing engine.
A golden opportunity to have a unit construction motor, with the engine and gearbox in a single entity as is universal today, was missed for another archetypal reason at Norton: the factory could not afford to make a gearbox and had to buy one from Burman.
Despite all the difficulties, the new engine was a success but proving its efficacy was not easy.
The Norton Dominator De-Luxe 600 originally came with an
excellent AMC group gearbox separate from the engine.
Here is Hopwood describing the conditions for testing the new engine: “The biggest headache turned out to be the dynamometer which was used for testing purposes. This equipment, which is a means of running engines under all degrees of power output, was so antiquated and worn out that during extended runs of power testing, oil and water would leak out in such copious quantities that it formed a sizeable river across the shop floor and in Aston Street. (Editor’s note: This was in Birmingham city center). We had many complaints from passers-by and indeed the police were alerted but I posted a laborer outside the works at this point and he did what he could, on a continuous basis, with a large broom.”
And this from one of the world’s great motorcycle factories.
The first Dominator was shoe-horned into the factory’s existing chassis from the single-cylinder range. This was not as bad as it seems at face value because one of the great attractions of the small, light, Parallel Twin engines for the British motorcycle industry is that they could be squeezed into existing cycle parts with minimal new investment.
The new Dominator wasn’t a world beater but neither was it a mile off target. Triumph’s Speed Twin apart, it was, depending on one’s point of view, as good – or bad – as the rest of the British motorcycle industry’s offerings at the time.
However some motorcycling God, sat in the Mount Olympus garage, was about to give Norton a golden hand-out.
By 1947, rear suspension was essential for all motorcycles – before the Second World War the vast majority of motorcycles had rigid rear ends – and Norton’s “Garden Gate” frame was dire. In Northern Ireland, Rex and Cromie McCandless had developed an all new, full duplex frame to house Norton’s Manx engine. This became the legendary “Featherbed” frame which was to be such a life-line for the cash-strapped Norton factory.
The story of the “Featherbed” is a fascinating one, riddled with factory politics and racial affiliations but, suffice to say within the context of this article, the frame had to be so tall and wide as to accommodate Norton’s Manx engine and this meant that many other powerplants slotted into it easily too.
There are fierce debates regarding the qualities of the “Featherbed” but for absolute certain it was vastly better than the “Garden Gate” chassis it replaced. The first advantage was that it required no more than backyard engineering to get the new frame to accept the Dominator engine. Added to this was the marketing spin-off from Norton’s successful racing program which used the same frame.
A simple twin leading shoe conversion to the front brake gives excellent braking in modern road conditions.
So the Dominator continued to sell, albeit only in small numbers because this is all that Norton could produce, until the late 1950s and post-war “Modernism” was sweeping the world.
Led by America, a veritable avalanche of social change was under way. Washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and teenagers were no longer the exclusive domain of the rich but, for better or worse, were to become part of everyone’s life.
And all the motorcycle manufacturers thought that riders wanted sleek, “modern” Buck Rogers’ fantasy machines where exciting, unknowable, things happened hidden beneath sleek steel skins. The truth was that they didn’t, but this simple fact was not acceptable to the marketing men in their nylon suits.
The problem was that Norton couldn’t make anything new, or interesting, happen unless it could be done for almost nothing. One answer was to add some rider comfort by slightly reducing the width of the “Featherbed” frame to make a “Slimline” version – something which should have been done 10 years earlier.
To “modernize” the bike, pressed steel side panels were added and a siamesed, two-into-one exhaust replaced the much loved twin pipes.
The bike was branded as the Dominator De-Luxe and came in two versions – the original 66mm x 72.6mm, 497cc motor and a bigger, 596cc variant with a 68mm bore and 82mm stroke. The separate engine and gearbox still remained as did the four-speed gearbox and oil leaking primary chain case. Slight cosmetics apart, the De Luxe remained true to Hopwood’s original stop-gap design from 1947 conceived to get Norton through the immediate post-war years at minimal investment cost.
This brings us to the subject of this report – the 1960, Dominator De-Luxe 600. I must digress at this point to say that when I got my first motorcycle licence as a 16 year-old this bike was still very much on the radar. It had become cheap enough to trickle down to low-born kids like me and we had a poor opinion of it. Featherbed frame or not, the “Dommie” looked and felt old fashioned and even at the very end of the motorcycling food chain, we wanted newer, fresher and, frankly, sexier bikes than the dull, sensible Norton. So, the first thing that we did was to junk the side panels and siamesed exhausts in an attempt to make the bike look sportier and keep up with the offerings from BSA, Triumph and even the quirky little Hondas which were starting to appear. Side panels and sensible exhausts were for old men who smoked pipes and, when you are 16 years old, you will never, ever, be old.
But we have become old and this explains the delight of the Dominator De Luxe today – especially one subtly modernized. The first bridge to cross is finding a “De Luxe” with its side-panels still intact. Remember the rebellious 16 year olds junking the tin ware to give their bikes a racier look? If you can, they now look rather sleek.
The leaking primary chain case is easily solved by fitting an oil free belt drive and the Dommie’s brakes can be upgraded simply and cheaply.
What still remains is rock steady handling and Hopwood’s very sweet engine producing a shade over 30 horsepower. The original siamesed exhaust, which we derided as not being sufficiently sporty, provides a lovely exhaust note, and a mild increase in mid-range power, making the 30 hp feel a little more.
By 1960, Norton was part of the AMC group and used its excellent gearbox and clutch which is one of the best in the classic world.
Norton’s “Roadholder” forks are again industry standard and a simple twin leading shoe conversion to the front brake – which Norton should have done at the time – gives excellent braking for modern road conditions.
In fact, it is difficult to a find a more pleasant classic motorcycle for ambling along at 60 mph with a further 10 mph available for a brisk overtake. Theoretically, the Dommie will crack the “ton” (100 mph) but to do so with a standard, original engine would be truly tempting fate.
The Dommie’s saddle is wide and comfortable so you can ride all day and take a pillion passenger without facing a revolt.
The good news is that by current standards neither the 500cc nor 600cc Dommies are expensive – which is not to say that they are cheap either! $10,000 will buy a really nice, fully restored Dommie and, unless those lovely chaps in North Korea decide to start the next world war, the bike will never lose its value.
Our thanks for the loan of the Norton Dominator in this article to Barry Beddoes.