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Memorable Motorcycles Norton Kneeler

Thursday, April 6, 2006
Back in early  50s Norton s attempt to improve their Grand Prix racer resulted in the 1953 Norton Kneeler. Frank got a chance to take the museum piece for a spin at the Montlhery track located on the outskirts or Paris.
Back in early '50s Norton's attempt to improve their Grand Prix racer resulted in the 1953 Norton Kneeler. Frank got a chance to take the museum piece for a spin at the Montlhery track located on the outskirts or Paris.
In many ways, we are living in a golden age of motorcycling: 200 mph - well, almost - super sportbikes with MotoGP quality handling and brakes, tourers which treat Alaska to Argentina as no more than a trip to the local mall, and dirtbikes which turn their riders into deities. Truly, we have never had it so good.

The problem is that unless you are a gifted mechanic, or have a couple of PhDs in engineering, the chances of improving your bike are slim. But it wasn't always so. Fifty-three years ago, engineering was a much more intuitive activity and radical changes could, and were, done on very limited resources. So, when cash strapped Norton wanted to improve their increasingly uncompetitive 350cc Grand Prix racer, turning the bike into the world's first serious kneeler racer was very much a "home improvement" effort. Lacking a Cray Supercomputer and a suite of CAD units, the Norton team got out their hacksaws and welding torches and started work.

Instead of computer simulations, the factory simply got one of their very bravest riders, squeezed him into the totally untested bike and launched him. Maybe he would be ecstatic with the mechanics' work - maybe he would be killed. Half a century ago, the world was a very different place.

The aerodynamic design of the Kneeler gave it a leg up on its contemporary racing rivals. Style wise the front of the Kneeler looks like a WWII fighter with intake openings resembling mounted machine guns.
The aerodynamic design of the Kneeler gave it a leg up on its contemporary racing rivals. Style wise the front of the Kneeler looks like a WWII fighter with intake openings resembling mounted machine guns.
Race tracks too were different. I rode this famous Norton at Montlhery on the outskirts of Paris, France. Imagine a narrow, incredibly rough, concrete version of Daytona. This is where European manufacturers went to break world endurance records. Montlhery is physically demanding and like a skating rink in the dry. When it rains, things become really dangerous. It was the perfect place for a trip back in time.

If you ride bikes for a living you tend to get hardened about ghosts and legends but as I tucked in behind the fairing of the fabulous 1953 Norton Kneeler I must confess to having a few prickles on my neck.

On a dull, overcast November day in 1953, Ray Amm, Norton's genial Rhodesian genius, covered 133.71 miles in a single hour on the same Montlhery concrete saucer I was riding now. That would be hugely impressive on a current race bike running on a modern, high grip speed bowl. In the damp and danger of Montlhery in early winter, and with only 36bhp - less than the power of many scooters - the achievement was incredible.

As the DOHC Norton motor beat harshly beneath my chest, and the bike bounced over the expansion joints in the concrete speed bowl, it was impossible not to feel that this was more than just another ride on another bike.
One advantage the Kneeler utilized on the track was a low center of gravity due to the position of the engine  a configuration similar to the ones found on modern sportbikes.
One advantage the Kneeler utilized on the track was a low center of gravity due to the position of the engine, a configuration similar to the ones found on modern sportbikes.

The Norton Kneeler was built to attack two problems simultaneously. First, the bike was the most aerodynamically efficient motorcycle of its day, being far lower than its contemporaries and much more slippery through the air.

Not only did the Kneeler prove to be faster than its contemporaries in terms of top speed but, despite its ungainly appearance, everyone who rode it had nothing but praise for its handling. And, it must be remembered, this was from team riders who were competing on the famed "featherbed" Nortons, at the time acknowledged to be the best handling bikes in racing.

The key to the Kneeler's success was its low center of gravity. The motor hung between the duplex top tubes in a manner extremely reminiscent of a modern Superbike, whilst the fuel and oil were actually below the line of cylinder head. This meant that the great mass of the bike's weight was concentrated low and along the center line of the bike.

The early bikes had two problems. The first was fuel supply and Norton engineer Ernie Walsh hit on the idea of driving a fuel pump from the left-hand side of the inlet camshaft to a header tank which fed the Amal G.P. carburetor. Excess fuel then returned to pannier tanks. In practice, the system worked beautifully.

Less successful was the streamlining which initially was too efficient and starved the motor of cool air, causing over-heating problems.

One advantage the Kneeler utilized on the track was a low center of gravity due to the position of the engine  a configuration similar to the ones found on modern sportbikes.
One advantage the Kneeler utilized on the track was a low center of gravity due to the position of the engine, a configuration similar to the ones found on modern sportbikes.
The bike's first outing was at the North-West 200 where Amm set a 350cc class record before over-heating caused a retirement. Amm took the Kneeler to the 1953 TT but race officials went into shock when they saw the unconventional looking machine and it was allowed to do only one practice session. However, the Kneeler was to achieve its two days of glory in the November of that year when it established 22 world speed records at Montlhery, including one lap at an astonishing 145.41 mph - only 2 mph slower than the absolute track record set by Raymond Sommer in his 3-liter super-charged Alfa Romeo. Now, I was to ride the bike.

The Kneeler is one of the center pieces of the Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum and Sammy gave me some cheerful advice. "The Kneeler's insured for half a million pounds - but I like it more than that. Drop it and don't even consider coming back!" Well, that was a real confidence booster.

After a paddock fitting session, Sammy's mechanic, Graham Head, was more sympathetic - if only slightly. "As far as we can tell, Ray Amm was about 5' 4". You're 7" taller. Come off and they'll have to cut you out - if you don't die in the fire first."

Measuring over a half-foot taller than Ray Amm  the original rider of the Kneeler at Montlhery in 1953  our man Melling had to contend with a very sardine-like fit on the vintage Norton racer.
Measuring over a half-foot taller than Ray Amm, the original rider of the Kneeler at Montlhery in 1953, our man Melling had to contend with a very sardine-like fit on the vintage Norton racer.
Graham's judgment was absolutely right. In order to get me on - or more accurately in - the bike, Sammy and Graham had to hold it whilst I literally squeezed my body into a space never designed to take it. Once in, I couldn't move front, back or sideways.

Managing a wan smile, I nodded to Sammy and off we went. Sammy and Graham pushed enthusiastically, I dropped the clutch and fortunately, the Norton wheezed once and then the motor caught. I dipped the clutch and instantly fed in the power before it fell over and crushed me. Above ten miles an hour, the whole plot became very stable and incredibly, it was easy to forget that I was lying down over the engine with my knees supported in two aluminum trays.

In fact, forgetting that the bike was a kneeler was the secret. With a shallow steering head angle, the self-centering effect was marked - the Norton held its line effortlessly. Cornering was merely a matter of peeling into a bend with the slightest shifts in body weight - truly elegant and effortless motorcycling.

Changing gear was more of a problem simply because my foot was jammed so tight in the rear fairing. Even so, with patience the four-speed Manx gearbox was as sweet as a conventional gearbox - although slower.
While he did not match Amm s 133 mph  Melling was able to nibble up toward the triple-digit mark on the Norton. All the while with Miller s admonition firmly lodged in the back of his mind. Do not crash  do not crash...
While he did not match Amm's 133 mph, Melling was able to nibble up toward the triple-digit mark on the Norton. All the while with Miller's admonition firmly lodged in the back of his mind. Do not crash, do not crash...

There's no denying that weighing heavily on my mind was the penalty for making a mistake, so I rode the Kneeler very circumspectly indeed, but nudging up towards 100 mph on Montlhery's precipitously steep banking the Norton held its line wonderfully and raised the question as to what the bike could have done if internal factory politics had not killed it off.

Jammed tight in behind the fairing as the off-white tarmac went by in a blur just ten inches from my knee, I was also filled with admiration for Ray Amm, the man who covered 133 miles in one hour on a damp, cold November on the same bike - a true sporting hero.

Our thanks to the Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum, New Milton, Hants for the loan of the Norton. The Kneeler is on permanent display there. The museum is open every day of the year from 9.30am to 4.30pm.

Visit www.sammymiller.co.uk for more information.


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