Alexander Pope’s proverb: hope springs eternal describes an abundance of optimism, which is a useful commodity when one owns a modern Norton 961. I preface with the word ‘modern’ only to distinguish the current crop of 961 cc parallel twins from the venerable Norton Commandos of the last century. Some 230 years before the Norton would roll off the production line, Pope asserted man must follow the laws of nature in order to be at peace with himself. The universe, according to Pope, functions in rational, predictable and constant manner. By challenging the known and established constants one is destined to fail, in order he may succeed. Metal is the perfect example.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century, and, if I may be permitted to mangle the words of another great poet, for Nortons I had a bad yen. Eric Burdon released his anthem for the counterculture in 1967, the same year the Norton Commando was introduced to the world. This was very much an experimental era of motorcycling. Engineers and long pushed their machines past the magic ton, 100 miles per hour, and were striving for 110 to 120 mph. They were theorising and establishing constants that would define the point at which most power could be developed and, by association, the breaking point. With this in mind, it is difficult to accept that in the twenty-first century manufactures will ignore the law of constants and rely on substandard materials. I wasn’t able to satisfy my yen for a Norton when I was young, but I made up for it three years ago in the form of my 2015 Norton Commando, Street Fighter. But, whilst hope springs eternal, it must be said the Norton clutch doesn’t.
In the two and a half years I’ve owned my 2015 Norton Commando I’ve amassed the grand total of 6,108 kilometres. Paltry, I know, but I do have half a dozen other machines vying for my attention and, whilst the Norton is the newest machine in my fleet, it is by no means the most reliable. Just getting the engine to run correctly proved to be a trial. With the nearest Norton dealer on the other side of the country, getting my Commando running correctly was down to me and, evidently, I had greatly overestimated my ability in this regard. There was lots of trial and error, necessitating repeated test rides, and it was during one of these rides that the lower triple clamp let go. Fortunately, I was in my driveway and not tilted over mid bend, otherwise the result could have been much worse. Instead of merely losing my temper I could have lost the bike down the road. After lots of cursing and swearing, as the red-mist began to lift from my consciousness, I went inside and started firing off emails to Norton headquarters in the UK, on the other side of the world.
A broken triple clamp with only a few hundred kilometres on the machine certainly dulled the joy, which was in short supply due to an engine that was proving difficult to tune.
I won’t go into the painful details here, but, after a couple of missteps on Norton’s behalf, they finally acquiesced and agreed to send me a new triple clamp. I was expected to remove the stem from the broken item and press it into the new one – of course after me having stripped the front end. In taking the stem out, it was apparent it had previously been pressed in with the seal skewed, which caused massive gouges in the alloy stem. Another volley of emails flew between Western Australia and Donington Hall, finishing up with a new stem and seal being forwarded to me. Norton asked if I would send the broken item to them for a post-mortem examination. With a trip to UK planned in the not too distant future, I said, “I will do better than that, I will hand deliver it.”
Soon after arriving at the Norton factory, or, more precisely, Donington Hall, I handed over the broken triple clamp along with my ECU with the instruction to ‘please sort this for me.’ My wife and I settled into a waiting room, accompanied by a machine-gun equipped Norton that had apparently been used in a James Bond movie. Stuart Garner sailed through the office a couple of times with no apparent portent of the fiscal troubles that were about 18 months away. Pretty soon, my ECU was returned and I collected two shiny new Motad shorty mufflers suitable for ‘off-road use only.’ These items were packed into my suitcase for the return trip home and, after a factory tour, we were on our way back to Australia.
The Norton had been reassembled with the new triple clamp before we left for the UK and, save for the missing ECU, was otherwise running – just not very well. In fact it was horrible. The new mufflers and re-mapped ECU transformed the bike. It went from a stifled, cantankerous, mis-firing lump of garbage to the barking-loud, snarling beast I’ve grown to love. It’s still cantankerous and mis-fires but this behaviour is generally below 4,000 RPM the retuned ECU proved to be the antidote I was seeking and that special bond between man and machine, known only by motorcyclists, began to flourish. When in fettle, the Commando is a brilliant bike. The sounds, feel and sheer presence this machine offers is, to my mind, unrivalled. But still not without its problems.
Changing the broken triple clamp out is no small task.
Oh, yes, sometimes the engine completely cuts out on me. It’s only momentary and is something I’ve yet to get to the bottom of. There have been other foibles but generally in the 5,000 odd kilometres I’ve covered since fitting the new mufflers and re-mapped ECU, the Norton has been an absolute joy. Except for the clutch uptake which steadily grew worse.
I can’t remember exactly when, but some time ago, I began to despair at the way the clutch shuddered in moving off from a standstill. Elsewhere in my shed, my 1000cc HRD twin is fitted with a clutch designed by Neal Videan, an Aussie who makes and sells parts to Vincent enthusiasts the world over. Neal’s V3 clutch retails for around $680 AUD, a price I would gladly have paid last month to replace what I found in my primary drive when I mounted an exploration for the origins of a nasty noise coming from that area of the engine. How can an Aussie guy working out of a shed in suburban Melbourne turn out a clutch that is more effective and better quality than the combine forces of the British motorcycle empire? No need to answer, that’s a rhetorical question. Down here in the Antipodes we call it Aussie ingenuity.
A few weeks ago I started the bike to let it warm up whilst I readied myself for a ride. Pulling my jacket on I heard a cacophony coming out of the engine, around the area of the primary drive. Most Norton 961 owners would be thinking ‘that’s not unusual,’ but so bad was the noise being emitted from the primary case I quickly shut the engine off pushed the Norton back to the shed like a cowboy leading his lame horse out back to be shot. Later that day I got busy with google, searching Norton 961 clutch problems. The internet is full of Norton 961 owner-angst. The wounds of my earlier dalliance with Norton had barely healed and now I was confronting a new jar of worms. I know I’m mixing metaphors but it’s the best way of conveying the frustrations I was feeling. That said, google did turn up an answer, but first, I had to pull the clutch apart to actually get to the source of the problem, and what I saw wasn’t pretty.
Upon taking the primary drive cover off, the whole clutch basket was wobbly and loose. It could be moved to and fro about half an inch, as, evidently the rivets that held the clutch together had let go. The clutch was being held in place by the hub which was still securely fitted to the gearbox main-shaft so it wasn’t going to completely disintegrate but there was lots of metallic detritus floating about. After taking the clutch plates out, I could see rivets and spacers lying at the bottom of the clutch basket, like jetsam at the bottom of the ocean. Cue red mist. As it turns out, this problem is not entirely unknown by Norton riders – or by Norton. This time however, Norton confirmed I was on my own. With the bike well out of warranty, and the new owners divorced of responsibility, I was left to either purchase a new clutch or fix the problem myself, I opted for the latter.
With the clutch basket off, I was confronted with the sight of pieces of metal lying where they shouldn’t be!
This was never intended to be an instruction piece on how to rectify a wayward Norton 961 clutch, nevertheless, some explanation may be helpful. Sitting at the rear of the clutch basket is a flex plate that acts upon four springs which cushion the clutch uptake, hence it’s commonly referred to as a ‘cush-drive.’ The drive gear sits between the basket and the flex plate, which allows it to cushion against the springs. It’s all quite rudimentary and should have been sturdy enough to hold together. 80 horsepower isn’t all that high by modern-day standards so it’s disappointing to hear of failures similar in nature to mine from around the world., however, from adversity comes opportunity and some owners of the Norton 961 have had to become inventive in working around a fix for a failed clutch basket, which happens when the rivets that hold everything in place let go. This has happened far too many times and it’s disappointing to hear from Norton that they are not all that concerned, notwithstanding the current owners are not responsible for the design failure, it would be reassuring to learn they are attempting to engineer a better quality clutch. Dear Norton, the law of definite proportions determines if your rivets are failing, they are not up to the job. The universal laws of nature are sending you a message and you should really fix it before someone is killed. Rivets belong in a static location, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Titanic’s hull, they have no place getting involved in the highly stressed, environment of power transfer. As a community service I have resolved to return my broken rivets to allow Norton to conduct a post mortem examination.
The piece on top, with the spring indents, is what I’m referring to as a flex plate (most likely incorrectly). The rivets were once coming up from the basket through the spacers that live in the slots that can be seen here between the springs and are peened off on top of the flex plate.
Three of the four rivets that came adrift, along with two spacers. Rivets belong on bridges and ship’s hulls, not in the drive-line of high-performance motorcycles.
This picture shows the original rivet on the right, with my modified fastener in the middle. The bolt on the left is the one of the high-tensile donor bolts from which the modified fastener was cut. The spacers didn’t take to being drilled out to accommodate the larger fastener – the one in this picture can clearly be see to be broken, hence, four of these were also manufacture.
Norton did offer me a new clutch basket assembly which was going to cost me about $1,600AUD landed in Australia. The problem is, the replacement is simply a reproduction of the failed unit and is only guaranteed for 12 months. This struck me as a lot of money for something destined to fail again in the future. Instead, I went to a local fastener supply company and purchased four high-tensile bolts for about 12 dollars. Aside from being a higher grade steel, the bolts are slightly larger than the factory rivets. A friend who is good with a lathe turned the bolts down to the counter-sunk screws shown in the picture. Bernie also made new spacers out of high-tensile steel as I broke the existing items trying to drill them out to accommodate the larger fasteners.
This picture shows the new fasteners in place. Note, they must be counter-skunk to sit low enough for the clutch hub to me fitted over top.
The fasteners are in, and the clutch basket is ready to be reinstalled. Nylock nuts and a good dollop of locktite will hopefully keep everything holding together.
The clutch was re-assembled and I’m happy to report it is working fine. I have no idea how long it will last but until Neal Videan designs a better clutch for my Norton I’ll stick with my 12 dollar repair. In the meantime, I will resume enjoying this incredible, if slightly trying motorcycle.
Note the balancer gear. This is a two-piece, spring operated unit that must remain loaded whilst throughout the operation otherwise another can of worms would have been opened up.
We’re good to go! At least for perhaps another 5,000 kms. Had I known my clutch was about to explode when this pic was taken, I perhaps wouldn’t have been grinning quite so hard. Photo credit to Graham Hay.
This week I was lucky enough to experience my first ride on an Ariel Square 4. These unique machines are quirky, relatively powerful and highly collectable. It was a joy to ride. The motorcycle that I rode was part of a deceased estate which consisted of some 12 operational motorcycles and tonnes of parts, certainly enough to build another 12 machines. As soon as I walked into the shed and saw the bikes and spares laid out, I said, “this must be Ernie Serles’ collection.” As I said those words, it stuck me, with this being a deceased estate, Ernie had passed away. Until that moment I was unaware of Ernie’s passing.
Ernie had been a great help to me when I first built my Ariel and sidecar, most notably when I had major gearbox failure. The following excerpt from Rebuilding the Ariel describes the ecstasy and agony of vintage motorcycle ownership. The excerpt takes up soon after my 1951 Ariel Red Hunter and Dusting sidecar hit the roads for the first time.
This is how we rolled in the mid to late nineties. Evidently, by the time this picture was taken, Emily had graduated to a proper helmet, whereas Molly was still young enough to get away with her bicycle stack hat.
The outfit was finished off and licensed just in time for the annual Biker’s Limited, Perth Toy Run. This would be our maiden voyage. The toy run consisted of a ride of about 20 kilometres from the Southern Perth suburb of Applecross down the Kwinana Freeway into the city. Back then the toy run attracted upwards of 10,000 people.
I had often participated in the Toy Run on my road bikes, way back to the early days of the toy run, when I had my first Harley. On this day I put the kids in the sidecar and off we went. They looked so cute rocking around in the aptly named ‘boat.’ Emily and Molly were both under six years of age and therefore were excluded from wearing full crash helmets. They were allowed to get by with their lightweight bicycle stack hats.
As expected, thousands of bikes turned out for the Toy Run however, many more thousands of spectators lined the route to watch the procession. Sidecars were few, add the two kids in a vintage machine and all of a sudden the whole world seemed to be hooting, waving and hollering at my kids. The ride to the start of the Toy Run was mechanically uneventful, which was a relief as this predated mobile telephones and if, for some reason, the bike stopped, contingencies were few.
M is for Motart. Soon after my Ariel Red Hunter restoration was finished it was featured in the highly exclusive Motart Journal operated by Mr Frank Charriaut. https://themotart.blogspot.com/
Soon after the start of the ride, we had not travelled too far before a police car hailed us to a stop. I was both curious and apprehensive, what did these guys want? Even though I was a detective I still had a fair knowledge of the Road Traffic Code and I felt sure my kids did not need full crash helmets as the heavy appendage could do more harm than good on frail young necks? Aside from that slightly grey area, I didn’t believe I was transgressing any laws.
The Traffic Cop came running up to me clutching a piece of my bike, ‘she’s falling apart on you mate,’ he said as he handed back goodness knows what. I took the wayward piece of hardware with relief. I probably out-ranked the traffic cop but a brush with the law is still a brush with the law! That sounds a little odd but, back in those days, detectives and traffic cops had quite a begrudging respect for each other’s role. Anyway, the piece of motorcycle was dumped into the boat with the kids and we went on with the business of delivering toys to the needy.
We continued on into the city and slowed to the inevitable crawl for the last couple of kilometres. By now, the oil in my engine had thinned to the consistency of water and was seeping through every gasket in the engine. The hot oil running over the barrel gave the impression to anyone nearby that the bike was on fire as smoke rose all about me. Sure there were oil leaks but what couldn’t be fixed or plugged could be passed off as another British motorcycle idiosyncrasy. I wasn’t too concerned, or at least I attempted to portray a nonchalance that made it appear I wasn’t concerned. We rumbled into the city and my children deposited their toys for the kids who were too poor to be visited by Santa – a tough subject that one.
After the Toy Run I dropped the little ones at my mother’s house in nearby Victoria Park and continued on home with an empty chair. All in all, I felt pretty chuffed with myself. It had been a good run and the bike performed well but, most of all, my plan to share the joys of motorcycling with my children had come to fruition. The kids had a ball and I was pleased everything went so well. Now that my girls have grown up, it is times like these that one reflects upon as highlights along the road to raising children. Simple pleasures.
Well, maybe not so simple. It had taken lots of time and money, commodities that were both in short supply around the Talbot household back then, to get to this stage. Lots of trial and error, lots of skinned knuckles, lost temper and cursing as I bumbled my way through tasks hitherto unknown to me. But, in the end, I had turned out a quite remarkable piece of motoring history, I was very pleased with myself. Then, all of a sudden, the bike ground to a stop and the big cheesy grin fell from my face. I was only two kilometres from home, a situation for which I should have been extremely grateful because, as it turned out, I would be walking the rest of the way.
I couldn’t tell what was wrong with the bike but knew for sure it wasn’t good. I couldn’t move the gear lever and the only way I could get the bike to move was with the clutch drawn in. What followed was a two-kilometre push home. It was hard work and, as I was trying to avoid using the road, I stumbled forward keeping as far left as I could. This led to disaster number two.
About halfway home I banged the sidecar mudguard fair into a lamp-post, kinking the metalwork that had been lovingly hand-painted by me using lots of rubbing back and building up with several layers of spray-pack paint. It sounds odd, but with lots of work I actually turned the guard into a splendid addition to the outfit. Now it was scratched, bent and buckled and I was cranky. I was really starting to think ‘are vintage bikes really worth the trouble?’
Despite arriving home mid-afternoon, dehydrated, sunburnt and exhausted, I immediately set about removing the seized gearbox. As tired as I was, ripping the gearbox out sitting on the garage floor, from memory, went quite well. It was the first time I had done such a thing so I was kind of pleased to finally lift the gearbox out of the frame just as it was getting dark. What a day it had been.
The Ariel gearbox is ordinarily a sturdy piece of equipment but I managed to seize it.
Following the seizure, with the gearbox out, I took it off to a fellow from the Vintage Motorcycle Club who lives and breathes Ariels. At that time, Earn had a large shed at the back of his Bentley house. It was chock full of Ariels and Ariel parts. Being December, it was also unbelievably hot inside Ernie’s shed. As soon as I handed the gearbox over he was off down to the workbench, whereupon he secured it in the vice and got to work. I stood silently alongside Ernie as he beavered away on my gearbox, for as long as I could bear the heat, then blurted out, ‘umm, Ern, I’m actually on my lunch break and really need to get back off to the office.’
Ernie waved me off without lifting his head, I made my way back outside and found it was almost a relief to be outside in the hot December sun. Ernie rang me a few hours later to advise he had located the problem. It was an offending brass bush that had a distinctive home-made quality about it (in fact, as it turned out, a lot of things on the Ariel had a shoddy, home-made quality). Evidently, the bush did not have sufficient journal for oil to flow and, with the added load of a sidecar, the bush got hot, expanded and locked the shaft. A $5.00 replacement was all that was needed.
When I went to pick the gearbox up, Ernie had left instruction with his wife that he wanted $5.00 for his work, and $5.00 for the bush. Naturally I left much more than that, amidst protestations that is was far too much. 25 years later and the gearbox still works as good as new.
Ernie’s ’54 Ariel Red Hunter sits alongside his ’56 Square 4. Two highly desirable and collectible motorcycles.
The late Ernie Serle’s 1956 Ariel Square 4. The old bike is in tip-top condition, starts first or second kick and runs like a swiss watch. A truly remarkable machine.
I took this photograph of a Square 4 outfit at the annual Indian Harley Club 2 Day Rally in 2018. Note this is the earlier, Mk 1, machine. The exhaust exits the front of the head, unlike the Mk 2 (above) which has four pipes (two each side) which was said to aid cooling.
When we left off with the last instalment, the little Norton was parted out here, there and everywhere. Readers and interested parties will be happy to know most of those parts have been renewed and, if not back together, they’re at least back in the shed. One such ‘part’ is the engine.
For a 350 cc machine, the engine in the little Norton is a substantial lump of iron and alloy. This is understandable as essentially the engine started out as a 500, only the internals are different. In fact, the whole bike is basically a 500 ES2, albeit with 350cc. This actually makes it quite rare. By the mid nineteen-fifties young men in the UK were craving larger capacity machines and would overlook the M50 in favour of its big brother. Many of the 350 cc bikes that were purchased had the single cylinder engine taken out in favour of a larger twin, such as that found in the Motor Shed Triton.
The 350 cc Norton single.
You’ll recall the story of the Triton, a parts bin special created by throwing a Triumph twin engine in a Norton frame? The featherbed frame, which is discussed at length in the Triton story, was a huge success for Norton. The twin down-tube, cradle style frame was to become the signature to the Norton motorcycle racing effort. They had long proven they had the best engines, the featherbed frames simply helped the company assert their racing credibilities and maintain their dominance in the two-wheeled, racing world (I’m sure that’s poke a hornet’s nest so hit me with your best shot :).
Elsewhere in the range, the single down-tube frames were left for commuters, tourers and those wishing to fit sidecars – which were a big thing in Britain as the country recovered post-war. The Buz Norton is of the second group, not a risk of losing it’s engine older, single down-tube, ‘pre-featherbed’ frame. I say this in parenthesis because they were never actually referred to as pre-featherbed,’ this is a retonym used by various people and groups, such as parts suppliers – some of whom I’ve become intimately acquainted with.
The fuel tank, single down-tube frame and engine before restoration. Note the sidecar lugs on the frame (visible near each end of the fuel tank).
Andover Norton has been the preferred parts supplier. They are very fast in getting gear out to Australia but as far as the singles go, parts are limited. I’ve also found the catalogue is not too accurate, which has resulted in me receiving an axle that doesn’t fit. “And where’s the original axle?” I hear out there on the ether. Being a basket case, which by definition is a jumble of bits and pieces, some things have inevitable gone missing. The rear axle being one such item.
One of the hazards of international purchases, they don’t always fit.
Speaking of axles, we have two freshly build wheels waiting to be fixed to the machine. They are brand-new, stainless rims and spokes laced to freshly vapour-blasted hubs. They look fabulous. Shiny, but not too so. The modern rims and spokes, together with the original, sturdy hubs have resulted in some tidy rolling stock. It will be a long time before these wheels wear out.
The new front wheel. It will be a long time before this one ever wears out.
Elsewhere on the bike, having done the math, it was economically and mechanically sound to dispense with all the broken and rusty clutch parts in favour of the beautifully crafted Bob Newby belt drive. These things are a work of art that would ordinarily over-capitalise such a machine as the M50 but there was simple nothing that could be salvaged from the original clutch so picking up a Newby belt drive and clutch set up has saved money, added reliability to the bike and lessens the likelihood of oil escaping the primary, because there’s simply none in there.
The Newby belt drive. A work of art that, sadly, won’t be seen.
The engine is snugged up, back in its rightful place. With vapour blasting shining all the alloy pieces and a lick of pain or plating on the metal components, the engine is looking as good, if not better than new. Plating consist of chrome or cadmium, the former costs a king’s ransom, the latter is not so bad. Like other forms of metallurgy, chrome plating, when done right, is of much higher quality than in the days when the Norton first travelled along the production line, which is what we’re aiming for with the whole bike.
Metalwork prior to cadmium plating.
Metalwork after cad plating.
Engine top end – before.
Engine top end – after.
The rear guard is back from the painters and is so shiny you could do your hair in the reflection.
I was recently having a chat on messenger with Mr Fritz Egli himself about Nortons, specifically the modern incarnation of the 961 Commando, such as that which lives in my shed. Suffice to say Fritz is not a fan of the new Norton however I enjoyed tapping into his knowledge base, even if he did insist on telling me how bad he thought the Norton was. Anyway, after I figured we had developed a comfortable rapport, I clumsily steered the conversation towards my “Egli” build. Without another word Fritz left the conversation.
Mr Egli is quoted in Philippe Guyony’s 2016 publication Vincent Motorcycles, The Untold Story since 1946, on the popularity of unauthorized copies of his famous motorcycle frame design, “The were more than six workshops manufacturing and selling unauthorized copies of my frames all over Europe as the genuine ‘Egli-Vincent.’ of course, at first I was upset, but soon I regarded it as a compliment to my design and then I moved on (2016, p.6).”
I’m prompted to rename my project, I’ve been thinking of the Triple T (Taylor, Talbot, Triumph). Comments and suggestions for a name are welcome at the bottom of the page.
In the interests of revision, and for those that are new to this project, Colin Taylor, who has built over 90 Egli-style frames, was tasked with building a frame for me to plonk a T150 Triumph 750 triple engine into. It is my intention to build a mid-seventies, part hot-rod, part superbike, special. An almost unique machine that will go as good as it looks. I say ‘almost unique’ because, as best as I can tell, there is only a handful other Triumph triples living in Egli-style frames that I know of. Indeed, Egli himself is rumoured to have built two frames for Slater Brothers in England to fit triple engines to and authorized the construction of another 12 by specialist frame builders in the UK at Slater’s direction. This was something I was about to discuss with Fritz when he terminated our conversation.
Tapping into online resources I’ve identified at least three Egli-style T150 motorcycles in France, one in Norway and the below pictured machine owned, crashed and burned by Marc Maslin in the UK. Marc’s motorcycle was one of the original Egli authorized copies and therefore comes with the blessing of Fritz himself. Sadly Marc’s bike underwent a Viking funeral (as Marc puts it) and is now resting peacefully in Valhalla.
Marc Maslin’s original Egli Trident T150v. The 850cc Triumph engine was fitted with a lightened and balanced crank, breathed through 30 mm carbs, had a gas-flowed and ported head, lightened and balanced pistons. Upgraded oil pump and enlarged oilways.
At the time of contracting Colin for the build I didn’t actually have a T150 engine but they are certainly easier to come across than the Vincent engine synonymous with the original design. I expected it would be a short time before I located a suitable engine, but, instead, I’ve been locating whole bikes, albeit barn-finds and basket cases. I now have a ‘71 BSA Rocket 3 and a ’74 Triumph T150, neither of which I’m willing to sacrifice to the build we are discussing here. Incidently, the causal relationship between the BSA and Triumph triple engine is a fascinating topic that can be read here.
I also have an assortment of T150 engine cases, crankshafts, heads and other engine parts that I have brokered and bartered for over the past couple of years. To the casual observer it might look like I have enough bits to build three engines but most of it is quite poor quality and certainly won’t withstand the rigors of what I’m intending on building, however it does serve a purpose which will become apparent below.
Over the past few months I’ve been able to amass a few Triumph T150 engine cases and parts.
In August this year my wife and I returned to the UK and our favourite place in the world – the Isle of Man. In travelling to the Isle, we flew into Manchester and boarded a train for the one-hour ride to Liverpool. Sitting at the top of platform 5 in Liverpool, Lime Street Station, was Colin Taylor with my brand-new, nickel-plated, motorcycle frame. After many emails and me sending a not inconsiderable sum of money to Colin in the preceding months, we finally met face to face. I’ve read a lot about Colin and his creations and have seen his photograph numerous times in the motorcycle press so it was quite special meeting the man and being regaled by his jokes and general banter.
The author finally meets the specialist frame builder Colin Taylor – and takes delivery of the newly finished frame for our Triple T special.
I would love to say I was giving Colin my undivided attention but, in truth, I had one eye fixed upon my frame sitting on the floor of a very busy English Liverpool pub, dividing my time between that and chatting to Colin about all things motorcycling. We broke bread and drank Guinness and had a pretty good afternoon before Catherine and I made our way down to the ferry terminal and Colin headed off back to Nottingham (although he is an Englishman, Colin lives and builds his famous frames in Italy. I’ll leave Colin to add his contact details to the bottom of the page for anyone wanting to build a special).
I slung the frame over my shoulder and we set off on foot for the two-kilometre walk to the docks to board our ferry to the Isle. Along the way, a few curious onlookers, recognising a motorcycle frame, asked what machine it was intended for. If the frame sparks this much interest, imagine what the finished bike is going to do.
The frame is packed and ready for the long journey to Australia.
A week later, after an exhausting, 24 hour, non-stop journey from the Isle of Man to Busselton, Western Australia, we finally arrived home. I went straight out into the shed and tried my frame against one of the T150 bottom ends I have stashed there and, guess what, she fits.
So now I have my frame and my T150 donor bike, there’s one small problem. I can’t possibly separate the engine from this bike. This is a matching number, time-capsule from 1974, parting it out is not an option. Phil Irving, the Australian engineer responsible for designing the Vincent V-twin engine, in his 1992 Autobiography wrote, “there were those (including myself) who considered that every new Egli meant one less Vincent (1992, p.514).” I have no doubt many fans of the Triumph T150 would feel the same way. Sure I’ll take the odd part from the T150 but, when this project is done and dusted, that T150 will be the next machine to undergo a full restoration, to be brought back to its former glory. In the meantime: does anyone have a spare T150 engine they don’t need?
Up until now, this bike has been referred to as a ‘donor,’ insofar as the engine was intended as a base for the project. Having now secured the bike and moved it to our shed, this matching number survivor machine is too good to part out for a special and will eventually be returned to the road in original trim.
Despite the rust and dust, this motorcycle has had very little use. It was last registered in Ohio in 1981 and represents a true ‘barn-find.’
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that throughout my life I’ve had a strong yearning to own a Vincent motorcycle. I’ve come spectacularly close to owning a Vincent about two and a half times but life had other ideas for me (and that’s fine). Vincents have, by and large, remained a figment of desire, the unicorn that was never going show up in my shed. Until now.
A Vincent motorcycle is the classical embodiment of speed and sophistication, a triumph of technical expertise from the golden era of the British motorcycle industry. For decades I have been immersing myself in the literature, both technical and folklore, around these motorcycles. Often I found the dream very nearly outgrew the reality, but dreams often do.
It has long been held Vincent motorcycles were advanced beyond their nineteen forties design but they were created by man, made of metal and alloy and they’re not exactly rare, just very expensive, so, fiscal resources aside, my dream was destined to one day become a reality – I just didn’t expect it would take me forty years! Of course, having been created by man so too can they be improved by man. One man particularly versed in improving the Vincent is Terry Prince.
At the heart of the Vincent, indeed the great majority of the bike, is the stonking, huge v-twin engine. One of the most iconic images in in all of motorcycledom.
Throughout the life of the Vincent motorcycle a few names come to the fore, Howard Raymond Davies (HRD), Phillip Vincent, Phillip Irving and Terry Prince. There’s a great many others but those four gentlemen feature prominently in Vincent discourse that I’ve been drawn to over a lifetime of consuming information on the marque. With Terry Prince being the only who is still alive, and therefore still active in Vincent engineering, he is keeper of the Vincent flame. Terry is known around the world as one who will manufacture a complete, Vincent engine, and even the whole motorcycle, using modern engineering and materials.
Terry Prince (far left), has a life-long association with the Vincent marque and is recognized today as one of the most knowledgeable people in the world as an expert of these unique machines. Terry is photographed here at Bonneville Speedway where his 60 year-old motorcycle set a world land speed record in 2010 – with Terry at the controls! Photograph courtesy Terry Prince.
When a 1948 Vincent Rapide popped up on the market laying claim to having been restored by Terry Prince consisting 85% of new parts it well and truly pinged my motorcycle radar. Here was a Vincent that promised a balance between original, precious metal and a road-going, reliable link to the iconic motorcycle. The advertising blurb read, amongst other things, “Prince’s hand is evident all around the bike, starting with the front brake hubs, which contain four-leading-shoe internals. Suspension has been upgraded with modern dampers front and rear. An accessory tread-Down centre-stand eases parking chores. The Shadow 5in. ‘clock’ perched atop the forks is a nice touch. Of course the engine – just overhauled by Prince and breathing though modern carbs.”
The Black Shadow, 150 miles per hour, speedo is a nice touch to my Rapide. Indeed, many Rapides are upgraded with the massive 5 inch instrument.
The 5 inch clock is a massive speedo that has been lifted from Vincent’s own hot-rod, the Black Shadow. Rumour has it people have been booked for speeding by police who have been able the read the speedo from a position slightly astern of an errant Vincent rider. There were some other Shadow touches that added to the desirability of the machine, although, it should be said, a Vincent Rapide in stock trim is a highly desirable machine on its own.
I resolved to call Terry Prince.
Having made the decision to call Terry, I found I was a bit nervous. What if I wasn’t deemed competent to own a Vincent? I had let opportunities of ownership slip through my fingers in the past, maybe the motorcycle gods had already decided I wasn’t eligible to join the ranks of Vincent owners. Or, perhaps it could be fatalism with all the other machines being pushed aside until this one came along. With all the nervousness of a job interview I made the call.
Dave “Bones” McLauchlan racing Terry Prince’s Vincent solo bike. The engine in this machine is producing more than three times the power of its original output! Photograph courtesy Terry Prince.
Within moments of calling Terry Prince I was relaxed and we were chatting like old friends. The more we talked the more I wanted that motorcycle. I learned the bike had been reassembled by Terry from a basket case presented to him along with a Vincent Black Shadow. At the time of building the machine it was Terry’s intention keep it as his personal everyday rider, which reinforced the notion of no expense spared when it came to building the machine with upgraded brakes, suspension, modern carbs and electronic ignition.
At the time of calling Terry two other people had expressed an interest in the bike and one was particularly serious, so serious in fact the bike had been shipped from the US to Melbourne as the prospective purchaser lived in Victoria. How the bike came to be in the US is a long story, but, at the time of my call, it was still sitting in California.
Before the bike was due to leave the US a Black Shadow came up for auction in Australia and purchaser number one was keen to bid on it and Terry was prepared to hold the Rapide pending the outcome of the auction. Evidently he won the auction, with a bid of $AUD160,000, as two days later when I phoned Terry he hadn’t heard from either gentleman and the way was cleared for me to send my deposit to secure the motorcycle. I hurriedly sent off a great chunk of the funds I had set aside for my daughter’s forthcoming wedding (sorry Love).
“Not for aircraft use,” probably not for Vincent use either in my book. Mikuni carburettors work well on Vincents, and in my Triton, but having desired a Vincent for over 40 years and pouring over countless machines, photographs and references of these fascinating motorcycles, everytime I look at my Vincent, my eye falls to the Japanese carbs. They will probably be replaced with original Amal items in the very near future.
Sometime later the Vincent was loaded on a ship destined for Melbourne. I waited a few short weeks and as soon as the boat berthed in Melbourne I booked my flights, first to Melbourne to check out the bike and secondly to Sydney to meet the man himself and hand a cheque over.
10 weeks after striking our deal I was standing in front of my Vincent (I still get a pang of excitement when I say ‘my Vincent). She’s a beauty. After two years in the US she’d lost a bit of lustre but I know within a few hours of the bike arriving in my shed she will be looking as good as new. I spent a couple of hours running my eyes and hands over the bike and heard her running. Satisfied with my purchase I set off for Sydney.
A 40-year dream of owning a Vincent motorcycle is a reality.
Arriving at Terry’s forest hideaway I’m met first by Ursala and then Terry comes out to greet me. Again, I’m immediately at ease with this couple who have invited me into their house for the night. After coffee and a chat I was treated to a visit to the workshop. There was four Vincent motorcycles and an at least one complete engine in the workshop. I was particularly intrigued by the engine because it is a new one, made from all new parts. Sadly, the parts don’t simply just bolt together and, out of frustration, it has been sent to Terry to rectify and make usable, causing him a host of frustrations. Had he been on the job from the get-go it would be fine but now Terry is having to go back to bring someone else’s work up to spec. It’s a difficult and costly task which, at the end of the day, will result in someone having spent a lot of money for a replica Vincent engine.
Standing in the workshop, I’m juxtaposed between the old and the new, where items from this century and last are found in the same engine. Terry’s original engine, one he’s owned for close to 65 years, sits in a modern chassis and is reportedly pumping out over three times its original 45 horsepower. That same engine has also seen regular service in Terry’s Land Speed Sidecar – which still holds world records at Bonneville Speedway. This creation is not unlike Bert Munro’s famous Indian, except Terry started with better stock in the Vincent than a clunky, old vintage Indian.
The stock of new parts, heads, barrels, pistons and just about everything that has a thread is tantalising. One of my close calls to Vincent ownership includes me recently bidding on a pair of Vincent crankcases. Two lumps of alloy that were sold for close to $AUD5,000. At the close of the auction I was slightly relieved not to have been the winning bidder, a relief that was even more palpable when I saw the look on Terry’s face as I recounted the story. Suffice to say I would have been up for a lot of money to bring those crankcases up to anything resembling a functional engine.
Anyway, I needn’t worry about that now as I have the genuine article complemented by some modern parts that maintain the authenticity of a 1948 motorcycle in a package that will outlive me, even if I ride it every day for the rest of my life – which is exactly what I plan on doing.