“Here was an utterly beautiful engine, lithe, angular and a metallic onomatopoeia for power (Frank Melling, Motorcycle USA).”
Written 82 years ago, when onomatopoeia was a still a thing, Mr Frank Melling had just sampled Triumph’s 500 cc Speed Twin and was clearly impressed with his test ride. Frank was actually saying the Triumph engine sounds as good as it looks and who could argue? The Speed Twin was by any measure a huge success and introduced an engine to the world that would take the company into the eighties.
Such is the success of the modern Triumphs, one could be forgiven for thinking the Thunderbird is a relatively recent addition to the line-up. In truth, the Thunderbird was released in 1949 and gained instant notoriety as a genuine 90 mph superbike and the machine of choice for bad boys around the world, due in no small part to the character portrayed by Marlon Brando in the movie The Wild One. We’ve previously discussed the history of the Thunderbird on the Motor Shed and it can be revisited here. This piece is about the restoration work our Thunderbird has enjoyed since coming into our possession over 20 years ago.
During most of that 20 years I had been looking at my 1956 Triumph Thunderbird thinking, “I’m not happy with the grey frame.” The bike looked pristine when we acquired it but after many years of use and abuse the lustre began to wear off and she became in need of a spruce up, giving me the ideal excuse to pull the bike down and do some colour changing, amongst other things, more important things as it would turn out.
- The all-silver livery of our ’56 Triumph Thunderbird never really grabbed me. What I really wanted was a Blackbird, or so I thought.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Thunderbird engine actually needed to be completely pulled apart. With the greatest respect to the person who rebuilt the bike before we acquired it, there’s a critical piece deep within the engine that has a finite operational life and it needs to be replaced with some regularity but is often over-looked. The plan was to pull the engine out, paint, plate and polish every surface and return the Thunderbird to the road as a new machine.
I had a particular fondness for the rare, all black Thunderbird which was sent to America following the popularity generated by Brando’s gleaming black 1950 machine – in a black and white movie of all things! Long before Honda came out with their four cylinder, plastic-enclosed behemoth, the all black 650cc Thunderbird was dubbed the ‘Blackbird.’ And it’s a stunning machine. Rich, black paint contrasts well with polished alloy and, as is the case with classic machines, highlights the era perfectly. Yep, my ’56 was going black.
- Stunning in black and polished alloy this limited release Thunderbird was dubbed the Blackbird. Photograph provided by Thomas Duffy, the owner of this beautiful machine.
In the weeks and months leading up to me beginning the restoration, trawling through the internet of things I stumbled upon a rare colour combination of silver on black. The bike had been restored by Choppahead Kustom Cycles in Massachusetts and it is the perfect embodiment of the classic Triumph that has been with us since Edward Turner unleashed his famous Speed Twin on a world seeking beauty and performance in a motorcycle. I could no longer look at my all-over silver Triumph in the same way and even the hitherto lusted-over Blackbird became merely a crow. I had moved through the various mental stages of change (you know; procrastination, contemplation) and now it was time for action.
- This ’56 Thunderbird was restored by Choppahead Kustom Cycles of Freetown, Massachusetts. Once I laid my eyes on this bike thoughts of a Blackbird were lost to the ether of my mind. Special thanks to Choppahead for allowing me to use this photograph.
Twenty-something years of use had left its mark in the form of paint chips, faded chrome and rust starting to show through here and there. I was further able to justify the pull-down by claiming the oil leaks needed to be fixed (I’m serious), the magneto needed attention and the cleanliness, or otherwise, of the infamous sludge-trap, was an unknown. Now, I’m the first to agree the term ‘sludge-trap’ has a fictional tone but it is a real thing and ignoring it can destroy a classic Triumph engine, it is the critical piece I mentioned above. In the days before oil filters, some manufactures, in the interest of engine longevity, put a screen filter inside the crankshaft oil circuit. So, let’s have a little think about that – the oil filter is inside the crankshaft. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge around the construction of the internal combustion engine will recognise the inherent problem around this design.
When we first purchased the Thunderbird it looked brand new. Attention to detail was amazing and it ran really well but there was a couple of tell-tale signs of trouble brewing deep inside. Clearly the magneto hadn’t been touched. Once the bike heated up it was extremely difficult to start which is a sign the maggy is on its way out. In a world governed by constants, temperature coefficient of resistance left me having to give the warmed-up 650 an extra, extra hard kick to overcome the resistance of the hot maggy coils in the hope I could generate a spark strong enough to start the engine. Once started, the ancient twin would squirt oil everywhere, including all over my jeans and boots. Oil would shoot out of places hitherto unknown to contain oil or require lubrication. Seriously, oil would somehow hit the bottom of the fuel tank then run of the seams making it look like the tank had its own secret oil reservoir. A degrease and polish would have the bike looking a million bucks but that would only last as long as a decent ride.
So there you have it, sludge-trap, magneto, oil leaks and beautification were my motivation. The Thunderbird was pushed onto the hoist, anaesthetic was administered and she went under for some major surgery. It’s not as if I had nothing to do. My Mustang rebuild was languishing away quietly in the corner of the shed, my Triton, like an insecure toddler, was in constant need of attention but, by crikey, that Thunderbird was coming apart.
The bike came apart reasonably easily. It was grubby behind all the surfaces that I couldn’t reach with my very thorough detailing but built up oil and grease does wonders for preserving the metal on which it cohabitates. When it came time to turn my attention to the engine, that too came apart really well. There are some specialist tools required and I purchased some and borrowed others. Eventually, I had the engine, in fact the whole bike, down to irreducible parts, in other words, every last nut and bolt had been removed.
The venerable Triumph parallel twin has been with us for over 80 years since it was introduced to the world as the 500 cc Speed Twin. In 1949 the engine grew to 650 cc in the Thunderbird. Note the SU carburettor. In the mid-fifties Triumph experimented with these carbs and they proved successful but were possibly too expensive to continue with.
- The 650 cc engine.
I was more than happy to learn the big-end bearings were marked as “std” which indicated the crank had never been ground. Bonus. The bearings were also stamped with 08JU90 so I could safely say the engine had been rebuilt sometime between 1990 and 1993. Recall from part I, we bought this bike after it had been restored, sold to an intermediary, sent to the UK where it sat in a container for two years before being returned to WA.
The pistons were .20 over which indicates in 62 years the bike had only undergone one rebore. I began to think ‘maybe new pistons, rings and bearing would be enough.’ And maybe not. Here I was contemplating ignoring one of the primary reasons I pulled the engine apart, mainly because I was out of my depth. The crank would need to be handed over to the experts to expunge the sludge, of which, there was plenty. Like the tailings from of some black gold mine, the substance had a hint of a sparkle from decades of engine grinds mixing with mud and other impurities. Just as well we looked.
- The sludge removed from deep within the crankshaft of my Thunderbird had a hint of a sparkle from decades of engine grinds mixing with mud and other impurities.
- The engine is out of the bike and about to be pulled apart. Note the ever-present camera which will record the proceedings with about 500 photographs, a practise that has proven invaluable over the years.
- Back in the nineties the Thunderbird was a bit of a farm-hack on our family property.
- 20 years later, same motorcycle, same kids.
With the Mustang body well on its way to being straight and true, it was time for me to turn my attention to the heart of the beast, a 289 cubic inch Windsor V8. The Windsor story is a fascinating one so grab a cup of tea and we’ll talk a tale of two cities.
In 1904, in what could be the first ever case of badge-engineering, Ford opened a manufacturing plant in Windsor, Canada – across the river from the US Detroit parent company. The idea was to assist the company to gain a foothold into Canada and elsewhere in the British Empire.
Evidently the experiment was successful. The plant later incorporated an engine casting facility and, in 1962, introduced the Windsor V8 engine to an automotive world hungry for power and speed. The modern, new Windsor engine was a marked departure from the previous design and it was an instant hit.
In this ‘everything old is new again’ world, the old Y block V8 is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance amongst hard-core enthusiasts but I’m sure, back in the day, they were quickly shoved aside in favour of the sportier new-comer.
Such was the success of the Windsor V8, production extended long after its replacement when the Cleveland was introduced. In fact, the Windsor was used for another 18 years beyond the short, 13 year span of the Cleveland that ceased production in 1982. The Cleveland engine, as the name suggests, was produced in Cleveland, Ohio. It was intended to be a more robust and versatile engine than its predecessor. The Cleveland lived up to expectations and proved very successful in racing, particularly in Australia where it was a game-changer in the Falcon GT. The Falcon GT was a dream-car to many a teenager growing up in Australia, including me. The advent of the Cleveland, for us kids, signalled the end of the Windsor. Everyone knew, if you wanted to be in the race a Cleveland was the only way to go, notwithstanding both engines came in 351 cubic inch displacement. Like the Y block before them, Windsors were shunted aside and ended up in cars driven by the slightly more wealthy members of my cohort.
But then a strange thing happened, the Windsor refused to leave the stage.
Having pinned their future muscle-car ambitions on the Cleveland, Ford planned to phase out the Windsor in the late seventies, but the perennial heart-beat from across the river had other ideas and Detroit were forced to keep sending it out into the world. It stayed on in 302 cubic inch format up until 1982 when it was re-badged the 5.0 (litre) and remained in production up until 2000 when the last of the fuel injected, roller cam engines were put out to pasture. It was one of those, the last incarnation of the Ford Windsor V8, that I had my eye on for the Mustang.
The tired, duty, oil-leaky 289 Windsor V8 had to go. Note the dedicated gas set-up the previous owner had installed (no doubt at great expense).
My car was from the sixties and it was produced with a Windsor V8 which meant this was the only option. A bonus here is the direct connection to the seventies when those afore-mentioned, financially capable friends of mine were running around garnering my envy in their Windsor-powered cars. Four decades later, I’m set to revisit those days, the days before the fuel injected, refined, perfectly timed and smooth V8s we’ve become accustom to.
Out with the old.
To be fair, there’s no shortage of roller-cam V8 engines looking for cars to inhabit with a lot of people being put off by all the fuel injection hardware that sits atop the engine, they are a natural turn-off. Fuel injecting a Windsor is the automotive equivalent breast augmentation, it looks great but it comes with high maintenance and takes skills far beyond my fumbling fingers to master so losing the fuel injection unit was a must. When I lift the bonnet on my 66 Mustang I want to see a bright blue Ford Windsor V8 at home in there with a 4-barrel Holley breathing through a classic Ford air-filter.
I had read on the internet it was quite a simple task to throw out the fuel injection and return the engine to the less socially acceptable form of fuel delivery from the last century – the carburettor. To achieve this I would mainly need two things, an engine and a carburettor. As it turned out, I would need many things but these two items seemed like a good start (the 289 engine I removed from the car had been gas-powered so there was no carburettor with that).
The 5.0 roller cam Windsor I settled on was a used American imported item falsely described as ‘refurbished.’ I would later learn refurbished is semantics for paint and gaskets, which probably explains why the engine was so cheap, however, there was a bonus: I could take my pick from a nearby pile of carbies. In a nod to the environment, I selected a 480 cfm unit. Sure, it’s got four barrels but it’s in the smaller range of the 4-barrel Holley family and at the end of the day, my car is intended to be a cruiser anyway.
The last hurrah for the Windsor V8 engine. This fuel injected engine was reportedly ‘refurbished.’ In truth, it had a few gaskets replaced. Note all the fuel injection hardware at the top of the engine that had to be removed.
Feeling pretty chuffed with myself, I took the engine and went off to get a Windsor expert to run his eye over it and help return the unit to carburettor fed. Having been with us since 1962, these things are quite rudimentary but, as it turns out, there was a fair bit more required to return a carburettor to the Windsor than I had anticipated. The list included a new inlet manifold, camshaft, distributor, coil, water pump and fuel pump. I wanted someone I could trust to turn me out a good engine at a reasonable price and, to that end, I chose Paul Poller of SpanaWorx Mechanical Services. Paul’s easy-going nature and sensible approach to engine builds was ideally suiting to adapting the 302 for service in my ’66 Mustang.
My bargain engine basically needed a full rebuild. Here, Paul is treating it to a new oil pump – adding to my peace of mind.
There was a prosperous time about 10 years ago when the Australian dollar was on parity with the US greenback and we enjoyed the bountiful US performance market with relatively little trauma to the hip-pocket. Importing used engines from the US was a thing and some of the more creative exporters turned, shall we say Dickensian, in using elaborate terms to sell scrap metal. I accept I jumped into the unknown but I wasn’t expecting someone to have drained the pool.
In she goes. Well almost. The sump got hung up on the cross member and the engine would not seat properly. A simple fix was to swap it with the sump from the 289.
By the time I took delivery of my sparkling blue Windsor V8 it had new rings, bearings, camshaft, alloy heads and host of external parts to add beauty and practicality. The old 289 was no slouch but I’m expecting my new, improved heads and lumpy camshaft will add a few horsepower to the already spritely 302.
Getting close now and relying on Google for some last minute tune-up tips.
My carby was sent off to Xtreme Fuel Systems in NSW where it was transformed to better than new. This is the third carby Xtreme have reconditioned for me and I highly recommend them. I took the carb out of the box and simply bolted it onto the engine. The carb is yet to be dialled in, but the engine burst into life after a few short bursts on the starter motor with a deep rumble that has been absent from my life for too long. It is immensely satisfying to hear that car running again.
Hear it here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rrb51yf_2W0
The rebuilt Holley carb is a thing of beauty. Xtreme Carburettor Rebuilding in Cambelltown, NSW are highly recommended.
When I lift the bonnet on my 66 Ford Mustang I want to see a clean and tidy Windsor V8 engine breathing through a classic Ford air-cleaner – in this case a Shelby replica.
Rebuilding the Ariel Part II
This is the second instalment from “Rebuilding the Ariel,” available on this site in eBook format.
Given this is only our second excerpt from Rebuilding the Ariel it is perhaps timely to have a brief discussion around the origins of the name Ariel. It’s no secret I love all things with two wheels, including bicycles, in fact, I have a particular fondness for the original bicycle: the penny farthing. There you go, it’s out there. I feel better having got that off my chest.
James Starley, the so-called ‘farther of the cycle industry,’ conceived the penny farthing and named it “Ariel,” after the character Ariel, the ‘spirit of the air,’ who was immortalised in Shakespeare’s sonnet “The Tempest.” In the Tempest, Ariel is a sprite who possess magical powers which, essentially, he uses for good. Ariel is powerful, agile and a loyal servant. It is easy to see how one may be inclined to name a motorcycle after such a character yet Starley chose this name some thirty years before the motorcycle came into existence.
Starley’s ungainly cycle, with its huge front wheel is neither powerful nor agile, however, one is indeed perched quite some way up in the air so perhaps that is what he had in mind. Starley’s hypothesis is as brilliant as it is simple. He found that by increasing the size of the driven wheel one could travel further with each turn of the legs. Naturally this simple form of mechanics was later made redundant through the advent of chain-driven gear system, another brilliant idea out of the Starley family, this time with the help of William Hillman, the founding father of the automobile that bears his name.
The new chain driven cycles were appropriately named the ‘safety bicycle’ as it put an end to riders toppling over the handlebars on out-of-control penny farthings, which were retrospectively named ‘ordinary bicycles,’ as opposed to the ‘unsafe,’ ‘dangerous,’ or ‘you must be crazy to ride this,’ bicycle.
Starley’s hypothesis is as brilliant as it is simple. He found that by increasing the size of the driven wheel one could travel further with each turn of the legs. Eventually, the wheel would grow too big for one to turn it. This is my old 55 inch wheel. I have now gone to a 58 inch Bolwell bicycle, which is a big wheel.
Starley passed away in 1881 leaving his sons to carry on the legacy of the Ariel although it was his nephew, John Kemp Starley, who also a member of the cycle production team that is credited with using Hillman’s idea to invent the chain-driven safety bicycle which was named the Rover, giving rise to the famous British motor vehicle company of the same name. Eventually the organisation became known as the Ariel Motorcycle Company with Ariel producing its first piston-powered machine in 1902, sadly after the death of Kemp Starley whose vision was firmly set on the motorcycle industry.
Shakespeare’s Ariel was said to be able to work up a storm, a tempest, sufficient enough to shipwreck the King of Naples and his crew. After providing loyal service to the magician Prospero, and having been freed from 12 years imprisonment at the behest of the witch Sycorax, Ariel is set free, hence, we have a loyal, powerful and free spirit giving its name to a motorcycle, presumedly with the same qualities. Now, back to our Ariel. We left off previously with me parking the bike up without having crashed it during my maiden voyage.
On reflection, I realise that Ariel was like nothing I had ridden ever before. Even before you start riding, the bike lets you know it’s different. The broad saddle, ‘tear-drop’ fuel tank with big rubber pads for the knees to prop against, bulbous front guard, an odd-looking instrument panel in the centre of the fuel tank are just some of the antiquities associated the motorcycle. Bakerlite switch-gear and an abundance of chrome-plating also let me know this machine was different from the modern machines I was familiar with.
When introduced to the Ariel I was still at the age where performance and looks counted for a lot in a motorcycle and, to me, the Ariel had neither. As I write this piece, almost three decades since that first trepid ride, and with lots of equally hair-raising and fun times spent on the Ariel, I now tend to think it is perhaps one of the most handsome machines ever made. Red paint upon chrome, gold pin-stripe and a black frame, add up to a visually stunning motorcycle. Take a look at the photographs and tell me you disagree (comments are welcome in the box below).
Back then, I loved dirt-bike racing and road-riding with equal measure, I still do, but in recent times I’ve returned to the more pure form of cycling – that which is without an engine. I trust these pages will attest to my twin passions of motorcycling and bicycling, for me, it matters not how much power is contained within my machine, if it’s on two-wheels I’m all for it.
Around the time I took my first excursion on the Red Hunter, I was quite heavily involved in bicycle racing and triathlon. I still love my cycle racing and can think of nothing better than to flog myself for six hours on a bicycle and, to do any good, we must train, which means I often spend more time riding bicycles than I do motorcycles.
Yep, we race bicycles – including these.
We race motorcycles too. If it’s got two wheels we’ll give it a go.
As I write this (wrote this), with the Ariel undergoing restoration (now finished), I wonder if it will see any more use than the half a dozen rides per year that the two other operational machines in my garage get to see. My friends jokingly comment I need a new battery every time I want to ride my modern Triumph. The older Triumph has a kick starter so a flat battery doesn’t prevent me from riding it. It makes little difference to me whether I ride my motorcycles or not, the important thing is they are there, ready to go, should the urge take me. I also like my bikes to be in top condition, even if they are dormant, and the Ariel has been in a rather poor condition for some time now. Postscript; there is now seven motorcycles in the shed and they still battle against my bicycles for time in the saddle.
Dad purchased the Ariel sight unseen out of Tasmania. As stated earlier, he bought it because he had one when he was a young fellow. The Red Hunter was one of the more desirable motorcycles of his era and about the time Dad turned 17 years of age he managed to secure a very nice example out of Bays’ Motorcycles in Perth. Evidently Dad’s father paid for his first Red Hunter so it’s fitting that I have managed to purloin this example from his grasp (more on that later).
By the time Dad acquired his first Ariel, the Red Hunter had been in production for about 20 years, having made a stunning debut at the Earls Court Motorcycle Show in 1931. The Red Hunter came in both 350 and 500cc variants and was known right from the start as a sports machine. That Ariel remained in production through two world wars, the Great Depression and some major company restructuring speaks volumes for the durability of the machinery produced by the company. In a further demonstration of durability, the official production run for the Red Hunter was 27 years, from 1932 to 1959.
Despite the Ariel being both a capable and desirable motorcycle, what Dad truly longed for was a Triumph Thunderbird. With its larger 650 cc twin cylinder engine, the Thunderbird was known as a true superbike of the era, capable of 100 miles per hour. As it turned out, he would have to wait another 40 odd years before the Thunderbird dream was to be realised.
In 2019, I’m happy to attest both the Ariel and the Thunderbird remain with me.
To be continued, or you can buy the book, in eBook or hardcopy format.
Recently we tracked down a stunning example of an Egli Vincent and, for your author, there was a special treat in store.
In Part I of the Egli Trident project, we touched upon the exclusivity of the original Egli Vincent motorcycles and the growing market for replicas and tributes to the brand. Similar to the prevalence of reproduced Norton Featherbed frames, as used on the Motor Shed Triton, Egli frames are being produced by specialist, and some not so special, frame manufactures around the world, such as Colin Taylor who fits firmly into the former group and is building the frame for my Trident. This is just as well because Mr Fritz Egli is no longer producing Vincent-powered motorcycles. Egli has chased the horsepower and has found the Yamaha 1300 engine ideal for his current creations.
Until recently, I had never laid my eyes on an actual Egli Vincent motorcycle, or any Egli machine for that matter so I reached out to John Lagdon, an acquaintance who I knew only through mutual friends. We set up a meeting to allow me to view John’s Egli and spend some time learning more about the Egli setup. In the back of my mind I was secretly hoping John would permit me to sit on the motorcycle to make sure my 6’ 3” body wasn’t too tall for such a bike. My Triton is a bit of a stretch so I’ve been hoping the Egli might be a little more forgiving, although it’s probably moot as by this stage my frame has been paid for, manufactured and electroplated.
Arriving at John’s house, I was met by a tall, lanky man of about the same height and build as me. Instant relief. We walked through the house out to the garage and there it was: the Egli was sitting at the edge of the garage, gleaming in the mottled sun, the big engine hanging bellow a polished aluminium fuel tank, it is indeed a thing of beauty, but it hasn’t always been like this.
John Lagdn’s Egli Vincent is indeed a thing of beauty. Photograph by John Lagdon.
John found his Vincent in a motorcycle dealership in Cincinnati, Ohio, in around 1985. It was part of a collection of racing machines Domiracer Motorcycles obtained from former racer Ed LaBelle. LaBelle was a three time Canadian road race champion and an accomplished drag racer and it was from the drag racing stock that John secured the beginnings of his project. Evidently the bike was a survivor from the heady days of US/Canadian 1960s drag racing. The engine cases still bear the scars of a drop too much methanol, which I feel add to the history and mystique of the bike, although one can share the heartache of the thrown primary drive chain as it smashed its way out of its enclosure all those years ago.
John discovered the ex Ed LaBelle Vincent drag bike at Domiracer Motorcycles in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photograph by John Lagdon.
It would take a move from the UK to Australia and some 19 years before John got to license his Egli Vincent. There is insufficient space here to go into the trials and tribulations John went through in getting his bike from a project to a functional motorcycle. A lot of the grief suffered by John started even before his frame arrived in Australia. It took an extraordinary long time to complete the frame culminating in John having to, let’s say, get persuasive with the builder. When the frame eventually arrived it was out of true and the nickel plating well below par. A defining feature of an Egli build is a nickel plated frame so I can appreciate his frustrations at something less than perfect. Nevertheless, through determination and perseverance John’s creation was born and the La Belle engine was given a new lease of life on the roads of Perth, Western Australia. Aside from the engine, very little of La Belle’s bike was used in the build, but that’s the thing – there is very little to an Egli Vincent. It’s all engine, a big, stonking, lump of alloy and power that takes that takes centre stage. In a classic case of ‘less is more’ the Egli boasts simplicity and function.
A rare photograph of Ed LaBelle astride his Vincent racer. Photograph supplied by John Lagdon.
Egli motorcycles have a large diameter steel tube that runs from the head-stock to the seat base. The engine hangs from that tube, secured at the top of each head and at the point where the swing-arm pivots, the combine effect being the engine adds to the rigidity of the design in what is termed a ‘stressed member.’ It is simple, functional and highly effective. In another tilt to functionality, the main tube doubles as an oil tank.
The engine on the Trident will sit slightly in front of the swing-arm pivot, secured in place by plates that bolt to both frame and engine. Colin explains, “the Egli-Tri swing-arm is different because of the way it picks-up on plates where, as you rightly say, with the Vincent, it mimics the standard Irving designed location plate which sits between the G1 kicker cover and the drive exit of the engine on the right-hand side of the engine and the boss on the back of the Vinnie’s crankcase. Another one of the significant differences being that the triple’s swing-arm is fabricated from round tubes, where the Eg-Vin ones are made from round pivot tube (mimicking the standard Vin’s design) with flat-sided oval tube legs.” Lesson over, back to John’s bike.
John was happy for me to try the bike out for size and, must have been satisfied I knew my way around a motorcycle because he said “Do you want to take it for a ride?” This is the kind of invitation that rarely comes around and despite not having any protective gear it was not one I was going to decline. As cool as a cucumber I said, “Yeah, sure.” Deep inside I was feeling equal parts happy dance and a gut-churning anxiety. My anxiousness was made worse when John said, “Please don’t drop it.” I hadn’t even thought about that! Crikey, this bloke hardly knows me and he’s letting me loose on his Egli Vincent.
John’s Egli Vincent under construction in Perth, Western Australia. Photograph by John Lagdon.
My Egli Trident under construction in Norway. Note the signature 12 cm tube that acts as a backbone on both machines. Fristz Egli’s frame was introduced in 1967 and is still being produced to this day. Photograph by Colin Taylor.
The beast was fired up. Not one for mufflers, John clearly loves the sound of his Vincent. The straight through pipes resemble mufflers, but, don’t be fooled, they don’t muffle a thing. The bark bounced of all the walls in the laneway of what must be a very tolerant neighbourhood.
With a reasonably complicated start-up procedure, the last thing I wanted to do was stall the engine or otherwise let it stop so I idled down the lane blipping the throttle. Enjoying the bark and finding my way around the bike. Once I was satisfied everything was there, brakes, gears, throttle – that sort of thing – I ventured onto the road, and travelled straight across it, oops that turning circle is a bit wide. I paddled the bike backwards and then had another go at riding off.
The heart of the beast, the Vincent 50 degree V-Twin engine was the fastest thing money could buy when introduced in 1946. Photograph by John Lagdon.
This time I sort of got going. The gear change, although still on the right side, was directly opposite in movement from my Triumphs so I muffed the first few changes and forward progress was stilted for the first couple intersections until I got the hang of things. Interestingly, Vincents have a gear indicator on the side of the gearbox but I wasn’t about to look down to see what gear I was in, my eyes were planted firmly on the road ahead.
Some say Vincent engines only fire at every second lamp-post but this thing hammered. In the few brief opportunities I had to let the Vincent off the leash I got it, I understood the magic. It pulled hard and gave me a glimpse into the world of the Vincent. I would have loved to explore the upper limits of the engine but not as long as it belongs to someone else, additionally suburbia intervened and I was frequently calling on the massive front, 8 leading shoe arrangement to slow the beast. The rear brake had been lifted from a BSA and was the same as the one on my Triton so I was aware that was pretty useless. But, I’m happy to report, didn’t crash or drop the bike.
Idling back into John’s laneway I felt relief at having successfully navigated a few suburban streets on the most valuable motorcycle I had ever ridden. The bike was comfortable enough and nimble beyond the bulky appearance, sufficient to let me know I had made a good choice in opting for an Egli setup for the Trident. It was also sufficient to let me know I must one day build an Egli Vincent.
The author about to experience a special treat – my first ride on an Egli Vincent.
Taking up from where we put the torch down, the Mustang had panel after panel peeled off until it has hardly recognisable. The floor was the first to go with the new single piece, front and rear, going in.
A ‘new’ floor is exactly that. Pressed from a single sheet of metal in Thailand, Mexico or Canada, most of the panels that went into the Mustang were manufactured by Dynacorn. It is actually possible to purchase a whole body from Dynacorn. Sadly, that won’t work in Australia as, apart from needing a fat cheque-book, any car built using a new body would have to pass as a current model with all the emission restrictions and safety requirements that would bring before it could be registered, unless, of course, you had a sacrificial chassis number with import approval etc. I’m sure that happens, but not in my case, my car is a piece of Aussie motoring history and I needed to retain as much of it as possible.
To remove the floor large portions of metal had to be cut out and tossed on the scrap heap. With the large portions removed the spot-welds can be accessed and burnt off without destroying (too much of) the metal beneath: that is, the portion we want to keep. Spot welds can be drilled out but on something as large as the floor there are dozens of the bloody things so drilling would have been labour intensive, nope, better just to blow it away.
That’s a major portion of the car missing right there. Note the bracing. Without this the car would probably have collapsed.
With the metal all cleaned up, it was time to fit the new floor. Recall the body is securely braced so she won’t suffer any structural movement between the old floor being cut off and the new one going in. Further to this, we had thoroughly measured the whole body, back to front, up and down, inside and out, and recorded the measurements in both a book and on the metal.
With the floor roughly in place, it was time to pummel it with tek-screws. Joe kept belting them through my precious-metal like there was no tomorrow, the underside of the car looked like a bloody porcupine! I would later come to love the simplicity of holding everything in place with the humble tek-screw, a marvellous invention.
We’re jumping ahead here but those two stubby chassis rails would later be connected to the rear pair, with two pieces of metal pressed for the purpose, adding immensely to the torsional rigidity of the body. Something Ford should have done when they built the car.
The brand new floor waiting to go in.
The new floor went in quite easily, tricking me into thinking all the new panels would similarly go together.
The new floor is held in place by tek-screws ahead of welding.
Conveniently, there was another, recently painted 1965 Mustang in Joe’s workshop waiting to be refitted. It was in a separate shed and many was the time I traipsed across to the other shed, tape measure and notebook in hand, to measure and record the dimensions of the ‘65 couple, which is essentially the same body as my ‘66.
I used to look at the finished ’65 and marvel at the lush silver paintwork dreaming of the day mine would look that good again. In time it would, but we had a lot of work ahead of us.
Always have access to another car for reference purposes.
What we’ve learnt
- Said before and repeated here, brace the car!
- Measure, remeasure and measure again.
- One cannot make too many recordings of the body dimensions.
- Tek-screws are your friend.
- Finally, have another, intact, car nearby for reference purposes.
The Norton Commando emerges from the shed, liberated at last.
As a motorcycle journeyman I have, for most of my, life been chasing maximum power from my machines, I still vividly remember the first time I cracked 100 horsepower. It was the year 2000 and my new Triumph Sprint, which was in fact a 1999 model, produced 107 horses. It was unbelievably powerful and, had I not been so responsible (LOL), I could have wound up in all sorts of trouble on that bike with its top speed of 220 km/h. Some time later, in 2010, my Triumph 1050 Sprint produced a whopping 120 horsepower, and on it goes. So, it came as a surprise to me, and the great mirth to my motorcycle riding buddies, when I purchased my 2015 Norton Commando, and in the process, dropping back to 79 horsepower.
A stunning looking machine but not great out of the box.
So how can losing all that power be even remotely exciting I hear you ask. I must say, I asked myself the same question many times as I contemplated purchasing the Norton. At the end of the day sheer good looks and nostalgia won out but, as I sit here typing this, still feeling the buzz of 250 spirited kilometres on my Norton I can honestly say the way that bike delivers the goods is thoroughly exhilarating. Mind you, it hasn’t always been that good. In the 12 months I’ve owned by Norton, I’ve taken it from a choke-up, lack-lustre performance void to something akin to naked aggression, let me explain.
One of the most famous names in all motorcycledom.
When I finally hit the road on my Norton the engine had less than 100 kilometres on. It had, for about two years, been used for display purposes only. Firstly, in the dealership then in the first owner’s lounge-room and, as far as I can tell, was only ever started for amusement purposes. The first few rides I had left me with a kind of sinking dread. The bike surged and misfired at anything under 3,000 rpm and wasn’t so good above that range either. Put simply, it was horrible.
With no distributor on the West Coast, or, at that time, anywhere in Australia, I had to rely entirely upon my own skills to tune and fettle the engine. I turned to the only place one can in times like these – the internet. By modern-day standards the Norton is a fairly basic, push-rod, parallel twin cylinder engine. The major complication is fuel injection and the associated computer hardware and software. Even as I write this piece, with the bike running beautifully, I can’t help but pine for good-old carburettors.
The more I researched running problems associated with the new Norton twins the deeper the quagmire of responses grew. I managed to slough the fiction from the fact and quickly learned who knew what they were talking about, and who didn’t, in my favoured forums and sites for technical assistance. What I found early was the scourge of the European Emission Standards. Essentially, the Norton engine pretty much resembles that which rolled out of Birmingham in the form of the 500cc Norton Dominator in 1949, albeit with modern-day construction and materials. The Domi engine grew through various stages of 650, 750 and, finally, 850 cubic centimetres before the Commando was retired in 1977. Of course Norton and the famous Commando name has been revitalised in the modern machine I now own. How we got to this machine being re-released is a long story and one we shall revisit soon, but, for now, it is the modern incarnation we’re concerned with.
Even the name sounds cool to this long time devotee.
To get the bike through the Euro emissions Norton fit fuel injection and keep the smog to acceptable levels. Acceptable levels these days is generally where the air coming out of the exhaust is cleaner that that which goes into the engine! Remember this has a seventy-year heritage, it is like handing grandpa an iPhone. The get the grand old design to perform I replaced the coils, spark plug leads, spark plugs, cam position sensor and cleaned the fuel circuit of the detritus that was once petrol. I may have broken a few Euro standards but, heck, we’re not in Europe!
With each change the bike made incremental improvements, but nothing startling and nothing to help ease the knot in the pit of my stomach that was screaming out ‘what have you done?’
It became obvious I would eventually have to hand over my bike to someone versed in the twin arts of fuel system management and computer science. To me fuel circuit mapping is the proclivity of NASA boffins but unfortunately, it’s something we live with every time we start an engine that has been manufactured this century. We don’t have NASA in Australia, cripes, at that time we didn’t even have Norton in Australia. The only solution was for me to travel to Norton with my ECU in one hand credit card in the other. That’s Norton in the UK, a heck of a long way from Western Australia.
Donington Hall, hallowed ground nestled between Donington Castle and Donington race circuit.
We’ll see about that!
It was my intention to collect two sports mufflers from Norton and have the ECU mapped to suit, I wasn’t to be disappointed. Pretty soon after walking into Norton headquarters my bubble-wrapped mufflers were handed to me, ready to be stowed in my suitcase ahead of our flight home. The combine weight of the two sparkling new, stainless mufflers was less than 5 kg (which enable me to also pack a new barrel and pistons for one of my other bikes). My ECU was remapped whilst my wife and I sat in the waiting room with a Norton used in a recent James Bond movie as company.
Nortons are no longer assembled in dank, drafty sheds in Birmingham. The new facility is something akin to Downton Abby. Outside Donington Hall looks like a manor house, inside it is a modern, slick operation that reassures me the future of Norton is in good hands. Donington Hall is wedged on a parcel of land between Donington Racing Circuit and Castle Donington, a small town of about 6,000 inhabitants in Leicestershire, England. So plush is the facility, Norton CEO Stuart Garner actually lives there. Stuart’s Aston Martin, bearing the numberplate NOR7ON (sic), sits immediately outside his apartment. Until recently, Aussie Road Racing star Davo Johnson also lived there.
After collection my mufflers and newly flashed ECU, my wife and I went on a tour of the factory, whilst it was in full swing. Workers were pouring over partially assembled 961 twins – of which there were just three on the production line. The machines were exactly the same as mine yet I still felt a pang of envy of the new owners, such is the allure of the Norton.
In keeping with the original style of the Commando, the designers have reached a pleasing symmetry between engine and frame. The frame is slim and the engine tall which, essentially makes the bike feel large. At 6’ 3” the bike fits me perfectly and my feet are easily planted on the ground but shorter people might not feel so comfortable, however, any thoughts of comfort would likely be lost when the big twin is spun into life.
Talking of spinning, 270 degrees is the new black in engine layout. Triumph have been doing it for a while, the new Royal Enfield 650 will have it and Yamaha have known it for decades in their 850 parallel twins. Manufactures have come to understand the value in firing a twin at 270 and 450 degrees, emulating the characteristics of a Ducati L twin, namely a much smoother and more useful spread of power than the previous 360-degree firing order the British twins are known for, it just needs to be freed up, electronically in the ECU and physically in the exhaust. Fuel in, waste out, simple. Well eventually.
Back home and the stubby Norton sports mufflers are on. They take some getting used to but the sound is oh so sweet.
When I got home, I plugged my ECU back in, fitted the new mufflers and hit the starter. Bang, she’s alive, rorty and responsive. The ride was a revelation, a great improvement over previous sorties. The great lump of almost 1000 cc in a parallel twin is usable, sounds awesome and doesn’t shake me to pieces, not quite. The Norton has a balance shaft but it still vibrates and vibrations might not be everyone’s cup of Early Grey. If you love a silky-smooth, multi cylinder bike you’ll probably not enjoy the Norton. I like to know there’s a big engine propelling me forward and the Norton delivers that feeling in spades. I love it.
One thing I’m not so fond of is the five-speed gearbox. The box feels solid and changes with all the precision of a rifle bolt, but, out on the road in top gear, I find I’m frequently looking for another cog. It’s early days for me and the Norton but I do wonder, in this day and age where six speeds are the norm, why Norton has stuck with a five-speed transmission.
The new mufflers have been a very good investment. Combined with the re-mapped ECU, the engine now runs smooth and clean. The jerkiness of the overly lean ECU is gone, as is the strangled sound previously emitted from the large pea-shooter style, stock mufflers, although, if I have one criticism, I’m not sure why the pea-shooter could not be replicated in the sports muffler, instead of the stubby tubes the factory produces. That aside, the sound coming from those stubby tubes is sublime. On over-run the pipes emit a deep baritone burble and it sounds amazing, it’s enough to have me pegging the bike just to hear the bellow and growls the big twin makes, I know, I sound like a teenager.
All in all, I’m well pleased with the bike as it is now. It’s taken a bit to get it to this stage and one might well ask if it’s worth it when I could have purchased a new 1200 Bonneville and saved bucket loads of money. With each new ride the value of the machine is making itself felt. Recently I was out riding with some friends and I found I was pushing the Norton up into revs and speeds that I had previously stayed away from, as much for some perceived fragility as anything else, but the harder the bike is pushed the more she shines. After two days of spirited riding I tucked the Norton back in the shed with a self-satisfied grin that has been a long time in the making.
Yep, she may have little more than 80 horsepower but I reckon they must be Clydesdales!
With the Norton at last running fast and free I’m well pleased with the performance, albeit with a scant 80 horsepower. Check out that grin!