Monday, 8 March 2010

ROAD TEST- A Tale of Two Norton Inter's

The Norton International was the pre-war flagship bike for Norton from its inception in 1932. Used for racing both by the Norton factory Works racers, clubman racers and for fast roadwork, the International was produced in 350 and 500 versions (with a few 600cc bikes for sidecar racers). The first bikes were produced with girder forks at the front and rigid rear ends , with plunger rear suspension appearing at first on the Works bikes and later on the customers models. The very last pre-war racing Inters were very quick specialist machines and were christened "Manx" by virtue of the marques immense racing record in the Isle of Man TT and Manx GP races.

Post war, the Inter acquired telescopic front forks as well as plunger rear suspension from 1947 until 1952, when the Inters had a final makeover with the adoption of a version of the acclaimed Featherbed frame, which took it up to its final demise in 1958

Keen to ride both the post war plunger and featherbed bikes on modern day public roads in Somerset, I spent a fabulous day in the brisk March sunshine comparing road manners whilst scaring a few horse riders in the process!

1949 Norton International 350 Clubmans

First up the 1949 350cc 'Plunger' Inter. Having spent many years in a leaking shed in Northumberland and once raced by Bill Camier in the 1949 Isle of Man TT, this Clubmans spec machine has been fully restored by Mike Pemberton and George Cohen.

Now demonstrating a distinctly road bias set-up, this machine has a comfortable but sporty riding position demonstrated by the turned up bars and lack of 'bum-perch' seat. The elegant but rorty Brooklands exhaust can, rear set footrests and lack of lights turn the balance back towards road racer. Considering the engine, recently rebuilt by George Cohen, has covered less than 50 miles since the rebuild, this road test was an exploration of handling rather than outright speed. We'll save that for another day at Wroughton Airfield.

Starting easily on the first kick, the 350 makes a fabulous noise. No doubt thanks to the Brooklands can, I scare a pair of juvenile ponies and their riders, trotting up the neaby bridleway. Cutting the engine immediately I make my apologies. Horse-hair-raiser over I restart the 350, again first kick.

Once underway, the free revving, all alloy single ohc motor begins to warm up and I am rewarded with a charmingly smooth power delivery. Positive gear changes are very straight forward and within a mile I am begginning to swing the Inter into corners with confidence. Approaching a bumpy kink in the road, I am keen to discover the cornering abilities of the plunger frame. Entering the bend at 55mph I learn a shift in body position to the rear of the bike helps the dampers smother road imperfections also emphasising the need for a bum seat.
On reaching a long straight I find even in run-in state this 350 Inter can still reach illegal speeds with ease as I instinctly overtake a Sunday-driver-driven Nissan Micra. Back in the fifities, the driver of an unsuspecting Ford Anglia would have received quite a fright. A practical, sporty machine with a wealth of charm and character, the '49 Inter is a real gem.

1954 Norton International 500 Clubmans

Next up, the 1954 Featherbed 500 Inter Clubmans, another machine with a fascinating history. Raced by G W Shekell in the 1954 Clubmans TT, finishing 12th at an average speed of 80.25 mph (the second Norton to finish) and restored by Bernie Allen in 2009, I rode this bike at last years Norton Owners Golden Jubilee event at Donington Park.
Restored to Clubmans specification, including an all alloy engine, no lights, rear set footrests, Manx front numberplate and seat, this Inter has a very purposeful appearance. Second kick brings the 500cc motor to life, producing a deeper but no less fantastic sound. The riding position of a racing featherbed is much heavier on the wrists than the earlier Inters, even with flat bars fitted, resembling that of a more modern sports bike.

Fitted with race cams, the featherbed Inter is happiest on an open throttle which makes for swift, rewarding progress especially blatting along country A-roads. The long Manx seat permits plenty of movement in the saddle, the drum brakes are soft by modern standards but provide ample stopping power.
With more grip than outright power, the 500 Inter is a very confidence inspiring machine and a bike that cries out to be ridden. The combination of low weight and a rev hungry engine make for a smile inducing road experience, the bike responding to delicate inputs and with none of the plunger's evident pre-war feel. With only 50 bikes built to Clubmans specification, this is a very rare machine as many were turned into Triton cafe racers. Following on his Honda VFR 750 my Dad commented, "You looked like you were having fun!", and indeed I was.

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