Some time ago, actually, a long time ago, I wrote a piece about a race car intended to hit the red clay pan of Lake Perkolilli that was under construction by my friend Graeme. In the story I promised to revisit the car when it was finished. I didn’t. Let me finish it now and also introduce the next car under construction by Graeme.
Both of these cars are based upon the Ford Model T platform. Graeme loves the Model T with a passion. He is also a qualified mechanic and somewhat of an amateur engineer. Add a dash of artistic flair and you can begin to appreciate the skills this man possesses.
So, back to Graeme’s black T. Graeme’s racer was created in the format known as a “Gow Job,” which apparently comes from “gowed up” (Hiedrick, 2014). These home-built speedsters typically started with a Ford 4-cylinder, presumedly due to the ubiquity of the humble Model T. Hiedrick states these engines had a top speed of 55 to 60 miles per hour, which, as the owner of a veteran 4-cylinder Ford, I find rather ambitious. “To increase this top limit, a gow job mechanic would remove anything unnecessary – fenders, bumpers, windows – to improve the power to weight ratio” (ibid).
Last time we saw the black gow it was devoid of wheels and paint. To recap, the racer is powered by a 3-litre, 4 cylinder, mounted on an original Model T chassis that has been lowered some 10 inches. As is often the case with projects from the distant past, Graeme only had bits and pieces of a body. For the pieces he was missing Graeme used his unique CAD (cardboard aided design) templates to first fashion the required part and fit it against the body before creating the panel in metal. All the bright metal in the accompanying photographs has been fashion by Graeme, by hand.
Here’s one he prepared earlier. Another journalist referred to this car as a “Gow Job” which sent me searching for the meaning of such a term.
Beautiful from any angle.
Naturally, the black gow was finished and triumphed at the 2019 Perkolilli event. That event was covered by me in another publication (because they pay more than I do). It can be viewed here. The racer clocked a top speed of 126 km/h on the chopped up red dirt. Not bad for an engine built in 1925 with 20 horsepower. Graeme is going for broke now with an engine which he is hoping will yield a top speed of 160 km/h – which is the old ton, or 100 miles per hour. The ton was quite elusive in the nineteen twenties so racers had to be resourceful to break it, frequently breaking the engine and/or car in the process. In true racer endeavour, Graeme has built an engine which I suspect will give the ton a good nudge. More about that engine later, for now we shall look at where the 2019 Perk engine is going. Enter Green T.
The narrow Aston body fits the Model T chassis quite nicely, although the cockpit remains a little cramped at this point. Note Graeme’s cardboard aided design.
Green T started out, as the name suggests, as a Model T. Actually, a conglomeration of Model T parts Graeme has collected over the past few decades. A glace around his very well organised shed suggests he could build several more. As alluded to above, the race-proven engine will be mounted into one Graham’s expertly fabricated, lowered and modified race chassis. It will then be fitted with an Aston Martin body, more particularly a body from an Aston Martin. It is unlikely the body was actually made in the Aston Martin factory but it has seen service on a very special Aston Martin racing car that was brought to Australia for the 1928 Australian Grand Prix.
The Aston was a lithe, alloy-bodied, open wheeler GP car from 1922 or 23 (it’s not exactly clear). It was powered by supercharged 1486 cc side valve engine of Aston Martin’s own design. Incidentally, Lionel Martin’s partner in their fledgeling automotive manufacturing business was Robert Bamford. The name Aston Martin comes from a celebration of the success Lionel Martin enjoyed at the Aston Clinton Hill Climb in Buckinghamshire, England driving a car of his and Bamford’s creation.
The men went into production and began selling small numbers of their cars, possibly as few as 55, three of which are known to have been brought to Australia. One of the three cars was purchased by Mr John Goodall and evidently had a successful history of racing in Australia, including being driven by Mr Goodall on the first Australian Grand Prix, a 100-mile event at the Phillip Island circuit in Victoria in 1928. The car failed to finish in ’28 event but was entered again in 1929 and 1930, finishing third in the latter event, which by that time had grown to 200 miles.
In 1977 the car was purchased from the Goodall family by Mr Lance Dixon. It turned out much of the alloy components of the engine had been melted down for armaments during World War II. However, another engine, from one of the original three cars imported back in ’27, was located by Mr Dixon, powering, of all things – a boat. The engine was fitted to the remnants of the Goodall car and a body was remanufactured out of steel. The small race car remained with Mr Dixon up until 1982 when it was purchased by Mr Peter Briggs for display in the York Motor Museum and, later, the Fremantle Motor Museum.
Under Mr Briggs’ ownership the car under went a full restoration which included a new aluminium body. The builder of the body flew from Perth to the UK with the sole purpose to measure and record one of the original GP Astons to ensure authenticity of the reconstruction.
Peter Briggs’ Aston Martin after it had been returned the original style of the all aluminium body. Photograph by Mr Holger Lubotzki.
The steel body was stored first behind the York Motor Museum before being moved to the Veteran Car Club of Western Australia parts store in the Perth suburb of Wattle Grove. And that’s where Graeme found it. So, to take stock, we have enough parts to build another Perkolilli racing Model T, a body from a famous Australian racing Aston Martin and a very talented mechanic slash engineer. Some twelve months ago, Graeme began construction of Green T, the name paying homage to another famous racing Aston known as “Green Pea.”
With the same owner now since 1958, this well-known 1922 Aston Martin is affectionately known as Green Pea. It is of similar pedigree to the car imported by John Goodall in 1927.
The Aston body T has been cut, tucked and moulded into the what is clearly going to be a very special race car. To be honest, the body looked a bit odd on the Aston Martin chassis. It sat up high, was cramped and carried odd lines that departed somewhat from the racing stance of the original Aston Martin machines. Graeme has widened the car and remanufactured the cowl, both raising and lengthening it. The result is two humans can now comfortably sit in the car (including yours truly who is 6’ 4” in the old scale). These mods have added style and flair befitting a car of the era.
The Aston competes at the York Flying 50 C1982, prior to its aluminium upgrade. Note how high the body sits and the way the passenger is skewed to the right. Graeme has overcome both of these issues.
Again, the Aston still with the steel body fitted.
Early days of fitting the body to Green T.
Widened in the beam, Green T will now comfortably seat two full size human beings.
“Norton owners like nothing better than pulling their engines apart on Sunday afternoons (Donald Heather Man. Dir. AMC 1954-60).
With the greatest respect to Donald, some Norton owners actually prefer to be riding their machines, such as those who gathered in Donnybrook, Western Australia over the 13th and 14th of March, 2021. In excess of 40 Norton owners assembled for two days of riding, nattering about and admiring Norton motorcycles. Not just any Nortons mind you, this was a gathering of Norton motorcycles with only one cylinder. These folk think nothing better than riding their motorcycles on a Sunday afternoon however, given the last Norton single was manufactured in 1964, there’s plenty of afternoons spent pulling engines apart.
Donald Heather’s utterances were nothing more than motherhood statements designed to appease investors who, in 1960, were growing nervous with the lack of future direction the exhibited by the company. Rumours of unreliable and fallible machines were quelled by Heather as he fought to hang onto his lucrative position. The remedy proved to be a series of twin cylinder machines and, presumedly, the appointment of a more passionate and dedicated executive who would remain faithful to Norton’s heritage. However, by then, it was too little, too late. Norton twins were a fine machine but the company only managed to hang by its bootstraps. Gone was the racing heritage and successes that defined Norton’s early years.
1910 was Norton’s second year with his own engine. Only seven of these machines are known to exist in the world, here are two of the seven at the same event in Donnybrook, Western Australia.
Norton Motorcycles was established in 1898 by James Lansdowne Norton. Norton was a gifted engineer but a poor businessman and the company fell into receivership early in its life. This would signal the future for a manufacturer who was more concerned with performance and reliability than returning dividends for shareholders. Competing with the liquidity of Norton Motorcycles, was James Norton’s health. He fell ill as a young man and was left with a malady of premature aging, earning the young engineer the nick-name “Pa.”
Pa Norton was only 55 years of age when he passed away and sadly did not live long enough to witness the legacy of his creation – namely the most successful single cylinder motorcycle of all time. I can hear Ducati riders spitting their Chianti back into glasses everywhere. Whether, or not, Norton is the greatest motorcycle of all time is an argument best left for campfires, dining room tables and Christmas day punch-ups with the brother-in-law. What can’t be disputed is single cylinder Nortons are achingly beautiful motorcycles with performance to match. It’s no accident Norton dominated racing across the UK and Europe for the first half of the twentieth century. Ten Senior TT wins between 1920 and 1939 and 78 out of 92 Grand Prix races are impressive statistics in anyone’s language (including Italian).
In 1924 Pa Norton, suffering advanced cancer, was wheeled up to the main straight of the Isle of Man TT circuit to witness his motorcycles take out two TT trophies that year. Pa received the great chequered flag of life on 21 April 1925 and has been venerated ever since. By many people, including me. My trials and tribulations are well documented on this site and elsewhere, but, still I remain a faithful follower of the brand.
Muz and Rocket, two Norton enthusiasts the author is honoured to call friends.
This brings us neatly to the inaugural Norton Singles Run, hosted by the Indian Harley Club of Bunbury, Western Australia. The run, hatched by Norton enthusiasts Murray, Peter and Kelvin, was scheduled to take place in February was postponed when WA went into a Covid-enforced lock-down, throwing plans into disarray. Had it not been for the Covid factor one would expect many more motorcycles, however, by any measure, the inaugural event was a huge success. The line-up of machines on display was breathtaking. ‘Line-up’ is probably the wrong word, getting this mod to form anything resembling an orderly assembly simply for a photograph was not on the agenda. These blokes wanted to ride Nortons, talk Nortons and look at Nortons. Consider, there are seven 1910 Norton motorcycles know to currently exist in world. Two of them were present at the Norton Singles Run. 1910 was Pa’s second year of production with his own engines. Up until this time he had been using proprietary units from Swiz and French manufacturers. It was a Peugeot V-twin engine that powered Norton to victory in the first ever Isle of Man TT races in 1907. That was the last time Pa Norton would dabble in twins, as far as he was concerned future victories lie in the simplicity of singles. The rest is, as they say, history.
Another profile of the pair of 1910 Nortons. This one by Alan Wells.
One of the lovely ES2 Nortons that were in attendance at the inaugural Norton Singles Run in Donnybrook, Western Australia. Photograph by Alan Wells.
Another ES 2, this one from 1935. Pic by Alan Wells.
A line up of achingly beautiful Norton motorcycles. These ones are from 1924 to 1926.
Event organiser, Kelvin, wasn’t letting crutches prevent him participating in the ride.
Greg on his stunning ES2.
The 500cc 1910 Norton was getting along at a fair clip. Here she has just climbed a hill that would have a modern motorcycle looking for a lower gear – which is not an option for Andrew, he only has one.
The South West of Western Australia provided the ideal location to get about on vintage and veteran Norton motorcycles.
Manx silver, as far as the eye can see.
Saturday lunch stop was the Wild Bull Brewery in Ferguson Valley, Western Australia. A highly recommended venue.
Event organizer Murray on his 1929 CSI Norton 500, photograph by Des Lewis of Mondo Photography.
Norton Singles Run by Des Lewis of Mondo Photography
Norton Singles Run by Des Lewis of Mondo Photography
Norton Singles Run by Des Lewis of Mondo Photography
Forgive me readers of the ‘Shed for I have been a bit slack of late. It has been some months since I last put my pen to paper, so to speak. In my defence, I have been a wee bit busy writing a 100,000-word thesis which is now with examiners in the UK. So obscure was my topic, we couldn’t find people qualified enough in Australia to pass judgement on my doctoral scratchings. Anyway, back to the shed.
There has been a bit on, the most significant being we have a new inclusion to the ‘Shed. On Christmas Eve, we picked up a 1938 Chevrolet half-ton truck. In trucks terms, it’s very small, more like a flat-bed ute. It is licensed and running, but needs some serious work. The little truck was built in Australia from an engine/chassis imported from Chevrolet USA and built up according to Australian demands, which, at the time were many. Clearly, however, power wasn’t one of them. Driving the little truck 60 kilometres to home was laborious. She was flat out doing 40 miles per hour and for a time, I became more of a nuisance than the mortal enemy of motoring enthusiasts everywhere – the caravan.
The Chevy has been purchased by Catherine for her honey business and will become both a practical and promotional vehicle for Wedderburn Honey. Affectionately known as “Honeycomb,” the first order of business is restoring the bodywork, followed by giving her longer legs (the truck, not my wife). Both of these undertakings are easier said than done.
In terms of the first undertaking, as I write, all the tin-wear is off the chassis and is with the painter. The guards have been finished and the running boards are almost done. The cab is a bit trickier but for a truck of some 82 years of age, it’s in remarkably good condition. I trust the photographs accompanying this story will add credence to my assertion. Some folk will look at the photos and quickly start bleating about patina and leaving it as it is, and so on. Let me stop you right there. My wife and I are of the opinion ‘patina’ is a euphemism for being too lazy to go to the trouble of panel and painting. Aside from this, the so-called patina in the photographs is not original. Unearthing body panels revealed the original colour, an olive gold, and it is to this we hail. Giving the car some beans is equally fraught with complexity.
At a time where every man and his hound are putting V-eights into classic Chevs, we are breaking with tradition and sticking with the straight six, or “Stovebolt” as they are affectionately known. The original, 1929 Chevy sixes were held together with bolts that apparently looked like they had been lifted from wood-burning stoves, hence the name. Stove bolts have long since been dispensed with, but the name has stuck with the venerable donk and now there is a renaissance of the humble Stovebolt taking place across the USA which, one would expect, will arrive here in due course. And we’re ahead of the play because we’ll be running a stonking big Stovie. A 292 in fact. The 292 cubic inch engine will be coupled with a Muncie four speed truck box – Catherine insisted on a truckie’s manual gearbox and it is her truck. Behind the gearbox will be an Aussie Holden, one-tonner diff with a 3:1 ratio.
Whilst we’re on Holden. Our truck originally arrived in this country in February 1938 as a knocked down, Chevy engine and chassis. In the decades preceding the Great Depression, the craftsmen and women of Holden body works had earlier busied themselves with making saddles before progressing on to motorcycle sidecars. In true ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ Holden turned to automobile bodies during World War One and emerged with a workforce skilled in auto body construction. The rest is, as they say, ‘history.’ We possess a little piece of that history and here it is.
Be sure to check in on our Facebook page, Honeycomb the Truck, for more frequent updates on the progress of our restoration https://www.facebook.com/Honeycomb38Chev
The interior of our ’38 truck. Basic, bare and beautiful.
The venerable Chevy Stovebolt six. This one will be replaced with an engine that will propel us down the highway at the same speed as the rest of the traffic.
Body by Holden.
Unmistakably Chevy. The ’38 still bears the plates of its former home, Kulin, in the Western Australia Wheatbelt.
We would like to think the timber that makes up the buckboard rear of Honeycomb is original. We plan on re-using as much of it as we can.
Disassembly of the little Chevy truck commenced within weeks of her arriving at our home. Note the shades of the original olive gold beginning to emerge, having been hidden since the last re-paint.
Catherine finds a nice place to hide.
Word from our body and pain man filtered back home “Keep Dan away from that gas-axe.” Evidently I was burning away more than just rusty old bolts.
As we whittled away various body parts, the value of a life spent in the wheatbelt become apparent. Rust was minimal of an 82 year old lady.
By 1938 brass was so last year. The world was turning onto chrome plating and beautiful brass was being hidden. Not any longer. We have revealed quite a few brass pieces that have been covered by pain or chrome. They will be polished and displayed in all their original glory. This hubcap is an example.
A sneak preview of things to come. Some pieces have already begun to filter home.
Still in the Stovebolt family this larger engine will give the little Chevy the long legs she needs.
The Albany Vintage and Classic Motorcycle Club have staged another fabulous event.
When my wife began looking for a classic motorcycle to replace her SR 500 Yamaha she had a couple of criteria. It had to be eligible for classic hill climb competition and, importantly, it had to have an electric start. The SR was fine in the former category but with no electric leg it proved to be difficult for her to start so we ended up moving it on and purchasing her a 1987 GB 500 Honda. This machine uses the XR engine so it’s virtually indestructible and it starts at the press of a button. Catherine was all set, except the first event was destined to rain on her parade, both literally and metaphorically.
The little GB 500 is a tidy machine and starts at the press of a button, but, sadly, too new to compete in the Albany Hill Climb.
When it came time to fill in the entry form for the Albany Vintage Motorcycle Hill Climb, it became apparent the cut-off was 1980. Anything made after that year was out. Being made in ’79 the little SR would have been allowed, indeed, we had entered it in 2019, but the Honda was definitely excluded. With the SR off enjoying life with a new owner, I suggested Catherine compete on the Thunderbird. It was not entirely alien to her, she had ridden the bike and was, by all accounts, competent on the strikingly beautiful motorcycle. She wasn’t happy but agreed I should fill in the application with her on the ‘Bird.
Catherine happy at last to be on our strikingly beautiful Triumph Thunderbird.
2019 had not been a good year for us at the Albany Hillclimb. We couldn’t get the SR to run properly so it was loaded onto the trailer without firing a shot in anger. I on the other hand, did get a run at the hill. I was on my Triumph Triton which has a one down/three up gear-change patter. The Vincent, on which I had been spending most of my time lading up to the event, is one up/three down. On the first go up the hill on the Triton, instead of changing up (like a Triumph should), I changed down – like a Vincent does. The result was a destroyed gearbox.
The gearbox in the Triton required a full rebuild thanks to some errant shifting on my behalf in the 2019 event.
Back to this year. By the time the hill climb weekend came around, Catherine hadn’t even sat on the Thunderbird and it had been perhaps two years since she had ridden it. She had barely ridden her ‘new’ Honda but she assured me she would get some practise on the hill at Albany the day before the event. We drove the 400 kilometres to Albany in beautiful, warm weather and arrived in the seaside town on the Western Australia South coast in the late afternoon. We unloaded the Thunderbird and the Vincent and started them briefly before making them secure for the night (I do this with a few reassuring words).
We were staying at Middleton Beach, near the base of hill climb circuit, so on Saturday morning I opted to take Catherine up the hill on the way to the show and shine event in the Albany CBD. I took off up the hill like a scalded cat and pulled in at the top to wait for the wife. And waited … and waited. Eventually she came puttering up the hill at a snail pace. The Thunderbird was clearly a bit crook but we made it into town. Getting off the Triumph Catherine said, ‘this thing handles like a bag of spuds.’ Make of that what you will but, sure, it’s not as svelte and tight as the little GB which it gave 30-something years away to, but at least by that time the engine was running a bit better. It may have been stale fuel or a blockage but after I topped the tank up with some clean, new petrol the ‘Bird ran sweet. The Thunderbird really has a lovely engine. Everything else in the shed seems angry by comparison.
After a couple of hours Catherine was completely at ease with competing on the Thunderbird. Here she gets some reassuring words of wisdom from WA and UK speedway Ace Rod Chessell. Photo by John McKinnon.
By the end of Saturday morning, having received so many compliments for her choice of machine, Catherine was beginning to feel quite chuffed about being on the Triumph. Granted, I had to kick it every time she needed to get the engine running and, granted, the brakes are merely suggestions for washing off speed, but Catherine soon reacquainted herself with the bike and even managed to get it up the hill in a reasonable time. After the practise runs, and satisfied she knew what she was doing, Catherine and I retired to a bar from which I could drink beer and feast my eyes on two of the most handsome machines in all of motorcycledom. All in all, our Saturday was most enjoyable. The Vincent, the Triumph, the wife and I were in Albany – and we meant business. That night it rained.
Our first couple of runs on the hill were on a wet track, however, by mid-morning the roads were dry and our speeds lifted – which doesn’t help where you’re running for consistency.
I woke at 4.00 am with the rain tumbling down and lay there listening to it as night gave way to a murky, grey loom. This is not surprising. In the local, Nyungar, dialect, Albany means ‘Place of Rain.’ Tourist brouchures promote the area as the “Rainbow Coast” and with an average of 177 rainy days per year we didn’t stand a chance. We trundled off down wet streets spraying my hitherto gleaming alloy engines with a fine mist of pure rain-water and road grime. I was feeling pretty glum as I was sure the event would be cancelled, but no, we would ride: rain, hail or shine. Gentlemen, start your engines. And, in my case, start your wife’s engine too.
We had two runs up the hill to set what would be our nominated time. The aim of the event was then to do three runs up the hill all at the same speed as the elected time, with points lost for going over or under the nominated time. Catherine picked 76 seconds and I picked 48 seconds. Our two dial-in runs were made on wet roads but by the time we lined up for our timed runs, the rain had stopped and the roads were drying out.
The Albany Vintage Motorcycle Club go to great lengths to host their signature hillclimb event. Injuries, crashing and irresponsible behaviour would jeopardise the future running of the event so it came as some relief as the weather turned for the best. It also meant I could give my 1000 cc v-twin a bit more of a handful going up the hill.
To say the Vinnie is loud would be an understatement. Being lined up together was both comforting and burdensome for my wife. She knew she had nothing to prove but she wanted to get away cleanly. The only way should could do this was to allow a second or for me to get away and so she could hear the tone of the Triumph and set about getting it off the line, which she did quite nicely on all three runs, pegging the little 650 to the stop in the first couple of gears she managed to come within .6 of a second on all three runs, however, they were all three seconds below her nominated time. My spread was over 2.5 seconds and two below my nominated time, so I was well out of the running. That said, I had a blast taking the big twin by the hill at full tilt. Best of all, no motorcycles were harmed in the making of these times.
This young man was obviously taken with the stunning beauty of the Vincent Black Shadow.
They don’t call him “Rocket Rod” for nothing. Rod Chessell powers from the line on the JAP special alongside his former speedway adversary Bob O’Leary. Two legends of the sport. Photo by John McKinnon.
Bob Wittingstall’s stunning 1913 Sears on display at the Show and Shine, being guarded by his friend Kelvin.
Not quite the Battle of the Little Bighorn but Indians were prominent at Saturday’s Show and Shine and in the hill climb on Sunday.
Brian Cartwright on his ’53 Vincent sidecar.
Murray with his 1950 pre-unit Triumph outfit. Photo by John McKinnon.
Bob Rees was back in the saddle after suffering a motorcycle crash in Africa last year that left him with critical injuries. Photo by John McKinnon.
Will Turnbull on his 1960 Triumph Bonneville lines up against Tom Constant, AKA the Toad, riding the ’71 Moto Morini 125.
Bob Wittingstall with his Brough Superior SS80.
Readers of the Motorshed Cafe will know of our attraction to Ariel motorcycles.
Michael Busby sits astride his late father’s 1956 M50 Norton 350 restored by us here at the Motorshed (see the story elsewhere on this site). It was Chris’ dream to take the Norton to Albany but sadly he did not get the opportunity. His family honoured that dream.
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.