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.
In the few months since we started the Motor Shed site, our Model T has remained quietly undercover, out of sight and out of mind. With the Red Dust Revival looming at Lake Perkolilli in September it’s almost time to pull the cover off and begin to prepare the old girl. It’s also way past time we introduced you to our Tin Lizzie*.
When one thinks of a roadster, thoughts invariably turn to grace and speed, an open-air, two-seater often with some degree of racing pedigree. What most people do not realise is, long before the automobile was invented, the term roadster was originally used to describe a horse that was deemed suitable to ride on a road (yes there were roads before the automobile, you can thank the Romans). It is unclear when the first roadster motor car came into being but, in 1909, just as the automobile industry was gathering momentum, Ford introduced its version of the early sports convertible. Barely five years later, our Lizzie rolled off the production line at Highland Park, Detroit, Michigan.
Long before the ute, the basic Ford Model T chassis was profoundly utilitarian, finding application in anything from tourers, trucks, coupes, fire-trucks, ambulances and even busses. The Model T roadster is a stripped-back, bare-bones sports car, although ‘sports’ is a bit of a stretch as the performance didn’t quite pin the ears back.
The 4 cylinder, 22 h/p, 2.9 litre, 4-cycle engine used across the Model T range had a maximum speed of 80 kp/h (@1900 rpm). The engine was started by hand-cranking, fired by trembler coil ignition, cooled by thermosiphon and lubricated by ‘splash and gravity.’ Final drive is via a 2-speed, planetary transmission actuated by bands rather than a conventional clutch. At the rear, bevel cut gears run in an enclosed differential at a ratio of 3.64/1. Primitive by modern-day standards, the set-up has proven to be remarkably reliable over the years. Indeed, if we had more time, it would be feasible to drive the old car the 800 kilometres to Kalgoorlie for the Red Dust event but touring is not our Lizzie’s forte.
The 4 cylinder, 22 h/p, 2.9 litre, 4-cycle engine is started by hand-cranking, fired by trembler coil ignition, cooled by thermosiphon and lubricated by ‘splash and gravity.’
Our Roadster comfortably seats two adults, three at a squeeze. It only has one door which opens on the passenger’s side to allow occupants to step from the car onto a sidewalk rather than into the street (thus avoiding stepping into the waist product of that other roadster – the horse). It had a removable soft-top, minimal luggage compartment and a top speed of 45 to 50 miles per hour. As a vehicle for the masses, the roadster was, at best, impractical, but that may be where the success of the roadster lies. Roadsters make a statement, they say, “This is a driver’s car, its sole intention is to deliver the thrill of driving for one or two people, with little regard for protection from the elements.”
T FOR 2 – not always! Photograph by Donnalea Wilyman
Our Roadster was imported by my father shortly before he fell ill and became unable to drive. Dad’s illness grew worse and, about four months after he licensed the Model T, Dad passed away. He got to drive the car for one weekend before it was parked whilst Dad went in for an operation from which he never properly recovered. The car sat in the shed for about 18 months before my step-mother elected to sell it. Whenever I walked into the shed the T would be sitting there. From what I could tell, it was a sturdy example of an original Model T Ford. In the back of my mind I started to picture myself behind the wheel, so too had my wife. She was already one step ahead of me and decreed the car would not be leaving the family. It wasn’t as if we needed another project, I had the Mustang sucking time and money and here we were trotting off to the bank asking for a decent-sized wedge to purchase a car I never, in my wildest dreams, anticipated owning. Of course that all changed when I began to drive the car and immersed myself in the veteran car culture.
2014 was our Tin Lizzie’s 100 year birthday. Here she is photographed in Kalgoorlie at the National Veteran Car Rally.
Our roadster is a joy to drive. It’s hard to start and complicated to get moving but once we’re chugging along things are really quite pleasant. In fact, once you’re in second, aka top gear, all there is to do is sit there and steer. In the first ever form of cruise-control, acceleration is controlled by a hand throttle lever which ratchets along a quadrant fixed to the steering column. One is required to advance and retard ignition timing by hand and fuel mixture can be adjusted from the driver’s seat but apart from that there is very little to do as the veteran engine chugs along at about 1500 rpm.
Photograph by Graham Hay.
Our car has spent the majority of its 105 years in the New England region of the USA. Even by the 1950s the vehicle was considered a vintage car and it was driven to numerous veteran and vintage car rallies across the United States. The car was maintained by well-known Massachusetts Ford mechanic Ed Stein and nurtured by the owner Mr Carl Englund Snr of Ossipee, New Hampshire. Upon Mr Englund’s passing in 1997, ownership was transferred to his son, Carl Englund Jnr, and the car was taken to New York where it remained for another 10 years before being purchased by a collector in Texas. In an email sent to me shortly after we purchased the car, Carl explained that he had to let the car go after it backfired whilst he was trying to start it. The crank swung around, hitting Carls hand and breaking several bones therein.
The roadster was imported into Australia by Dad in 2012. It was licensed soon after Dad took delivery and the car remains largely unchanged from the days when Mr Englund charged through the New England countryside in his driver’s car. Indeed, it remains largely unchanged from the day it rolled off the production line at Highland Park, Detroit, Michigan on 18 March 1914 which, incidentally, was a Wednesday.
Our Tin Lizzie sits out the front of the Broad Arrow Tavern during the 1914 National Veteran Car Rally in Kalgoorlie. Photographed by Donnalea Wilyman.
*The origins of name Tin Lizzie; In 1922 a championship race was held in Pikes Peak, Colorado. Entered as one of the contestants was Noel Bullock and his Model T, named “Old Liz.” Since Old Liz looked the worse for wear, as it was unpainted and lacked a hood, many spectators compared Old Liz to a tin can. By the start of the race, the car had the new nickname of “Tin Lizzie.” But to everyone’s surprise, Tin Lizzie won the race. Having beaten even the most expensive other cars available at the time, Tin Lizzie proved both the durability and speed of the Model T. Tin Lizzie’s surprise win was reported in newspapers across the country, leading to the use of the nickname “Tin Lizzie” for all Model T cars. The car also had a couple of other nicknames—”Leaping Lena” and “flivver”—but it was the Tin Lizzie moniker that stuck (ref https://www.thoughtco.com/nickname-tin-lizzie-3976121).
This is the third instalment from “Rebuilding the Ariel,” available on this site in eBook format.
When Dad told me he had purchased an Ariel I was unaware he had owned one as a teenager. To be honest, I wasn’t all that familiar with the brand and had to do some research to learn more about the Red Hunter. There was no google back in those days, I had to learn the old fashioned may, with books and tuition. The tuition came via friends and acquaintances and it was from one of these latter sources I learned Dad used to own a Red Hunter when he first hit the streets – legally that is. I also learned the bike was considered a spirited performer and, by all accounts, a handsome machine. Sadly, Dad’s purchase wasn’t such a great example in terms of presentation but she ran okay and performed admirably for a vintage motorcycle.
The 40 year old machine had at some stage undergone a restoration but it was in need of a lot of work to bring it back to pristine condition. For example, just casting an eye over the bike revealed the ‘Ariel’ tank badges held in place by epoxy-resin glue, the engine wasn’t all that oil-tight, the chrome plating was blemished and rusty, as was much of the tin-wear. Most of that work was going to have to wait a while. My father was never one for aesthetics and he was quite content to leave the bike as is.
Dad was not that big on riding his vintage machinery so seldom felt the need to licence a bike immediately upon receipt. If a bike was licensed it generally stayed that way. The Ariel arrived bearing a Tasmanian registration plate, which was good enough for Dad, by the time the registration would run out he’d have enough of the bike anyway. Additionally, there are some fairly quiet country roads and lane ways around the farm where aging bikes, and riders, can be taken for a spin.
Having said that, to my knowledge, whilst the Ariel was in Dad’s shed, it was rarely ridden beyond the driveway of the farm, probably because the driveway is over one kilometre long and by the time you got to the end of it on the ancient machine, frazzled nerves meant one was usually ready to turn around and ride back to the shed. I might add the driveway is gravel, usually corrugated, potholed and dusty. As a teenager it caused no end of consternation to finish a polishing job on my latest pride and joy only to have it look like a trail bike by the time I made it to the bitumen.
The Ariel was a bit rough when it arrived from Tasmania but it ran well and came up alright with a bit of wax and elbow grease.
Aside from the trials and tribulations I have already attributed to the Ariel, once I got over the hinginess of the frame and lack of brakes, I actually learned to love riding it, I still do. That big, old, long-stroke 500 cc piston chugging and shaking beneath the fuel tank (itself vibrating about on its mounts), the induction noise pop-pop of exhaust all add up to a wonderful experience. Once underway, with the timing set to a suitably advanced position, the bike was a joy. I recall back in the early days of riding the Ariel when I finally realised why the big British singles were referred to as “one-lung” bikes. The engine acted as a bellows that sucked air in and coughed it out. Roaring down the road, the big single almost took on the biological aspect of the lungs from some large beast.
At this stage it is evident that I did get beyond the bottom of our driveway. I can’t recall how many rides I took the bike on whilst it was still bearing the old Tasmanian registration but eventually that ran out and Dad chose not to take out Western Australia registration. By that time, having been a bit of a ‘farm-hack,’ the bike would have needed a fair amount of work before it would pass examination so that was going to have to wait. The Ariel mainly sat in the shed as Dad focused his attention towards some of his other many and varied pursuits.
For a long time the Ariel seldom turned a wheel and only received attention during one of my infrequent visits to the farm. As it transpired, the responsibility to get the machine up to roadworthy standard would be vested in me.
Looking back, it actually took a great deal of work to bring the machine up to club licence specifications. Back in those days, raising children and a hefty mortgage meant finances were tight. In motorcycling it is pointless, and in some cases dangerous, to cut corners. This would see me scrimping and saving money to be tipped into the project. The result was well worth the effort and by the time the machine was roadworthy I knew my way around it very well, but it did take a while to accomplish.
At this point, I should explain the Ariel was restored twice by me and at least once by someone else. My first restoration was purely mechanical, mainly to get the bike roadworthy and ready for concessional licensing, chrome and paint would have to wait until I could afford full rebuild – some 20 years later. The rebuilds had quite different objectives, which will become evident in the chapters which follow (recall this is an excerpt from the book Rebuilding the Ariel).
When the Ariel arrived I was living and working in Esperance on the South-Coast of Western Australia, some 650 kilometres from the farm. Back then, we would get up to the metropolitan two or three times a year, which usually included at least one visit to the farm.
Generally, soon after arriving at the farm, I would wander out to the shed and begin tending to one, or more, of Dad’s bikes. Working alongside Dad in his shed was a good way to converse. Never one to sit and have a chat, Dad was more at home with banter about the machinery that occupied his spare time. Frequently he would demand to know what I was doing about the latest high-profile homicide or whatever crime was being reported in the media, between welding strokes of his latest project.
I usually finished off the maintenance with a good polish followed by a ride.
My favourite bike in Dad’s collection was undoubtedly the Thunderbird. Dad finally managed to secure the 650 Triumph a few years after the Ariel. It was a particularly nice example of a 1956 machine that is, by all accounts, rather rare. The Thunderbird is fitted with an English SU carburettor and finished in all-over silver, including the frame, which I was told indicates it was an export destined for Australia, although I have since discovered that to be false.
Ariel bobber photographed at Peel, Isle of Man, during TT week in 2018. Note the front disc brake – we dream of such things for the Motor Shed Ariel.
Despite what was apparently a fine restoration, the Thunderbird regularly needed some tweaking to keep it in order, not the least of which was the odd dribble of oil. Anyone who has ever owned an old British bike, and a good many folk who haven’t, will testify to their capacity to spill their guts from orifices designed to contain lubricant rather than give it liberty. The Ariel was particularly bad for this, therefore maintenance always started with a degrease to get rid of all the oil and built up gravel dust. After I got the Ariel cleaned up I would turn my attention to the Thunderbird.
Artist and dedicated Ariel enthusiast John Hancox leathers display the Ariel logo and hang proudly in his gallery on The Promenade in Douglas, Isle of Man.
The Thunderbird had been lovingly restored by a member of the Vintage Motorcycle Club in Perth. At the time the bike was restored I was in fact a member of that club but there was over 450 members so I was unable to place him. Sadly, the gentleman who restored the bike never got to fully enjoy it as he passed away soon after completing the restoration, receiving “the big chequered flag in the sky,” as the club used to so eloquently put it whenever they lost a member.
The bike was subsequently acquired by an ex-patriot Englishman who very soon thereafter decided he would migrate back to the Old Country. He loaded all his goods and chattels into a container and shipped it all back to the UK. He then gathered up his family and, similarly, shipped them all off ‘home.’ Evidently things didn’t go as well as expected. Upon arriving in England, the gentleman decided things weren’t that bad in Australia after-all and resolved to return. They actually left the UK before the container arrived, and returned to Perth. It took another two years before the container was turned around and arrived back in Western Australia, whereupon the Thunderbird was removed and promptly sold – to Dad.
If this excerpt has wet your appetite, Rebuilding the Ariel can now be purchased online in eBook format right here!
Progress on the Norton has been a little slow of late due mainly to a few unforeseen events that, in the interests of doing a proper job, has resulted in items previously sent for repair having been retrieved. Confused? Don’t be, restorations typically have unforeseen and unknown challenges that test the mettle of the most ardent restorers.
It seems with the Norton I may have over-estimated the skills or our chosen spray painter because, as it turns out, the rear mudguard was simply too far gone. Arrangements were made to have the wonky, rusty and bent piece of 63 year old tin brought back to the shed for re-evaluation and I must say, I had to agree with Simon at Motorcycle Panel and Paint, she was in a poorly state. Fortunately, help was not far away.
Like the mudguard itself, the removable tail-piece was rusty, bent and buckled beyond repair.
Australia’s only manufacturer of motorcycle mudguards and fenders is located in Donnybrook, in the South West of Western Australia, not far from where we hail. Vintage Steel have a great website which is well worth a visit and, for international readers, they send product all over the world. Having collected the dodgy guard I wandered off to Vintage Steel and had a sit-down with Andrew and Michael. These guys love motorcycles and given the opportunity will yarn about bikes for hours. Surrounded by shiny, new, raw steel guards, some impressive metal-working machinery and a few crusty veteran motorcycles one quickly loses sense of time. A new guard was hatched in our collective musings and left with Andrew and Michael to turn into reality. The finished guard materialised within a few days and it’s a beauty.
The old, unrepairable rear mudguard in situ. Note the new item ready to be installed.
With the donor guard being so out of shape, Vintage Steel were unable to drill the mounting holes as the chances of them lining up with the frame would be remote. This required the frame having to be returned and mated to the guard. At this point, it should be pointed out, the craftsmen trusted with specialist paint and powder coat are some 250 kilometres away so logistics can be a bit of an ordeal, although not with the Norton. Whenever the word goes out to family and friends of the Busby Norton the items needing transport are delivered in a matter of hours. These people are well into the project.
The new mudguard is fitted into the frame and mounting holes drilled through the precious metal with deft precision
By the time it became apparent we needed the frame, work was well underway at S & S so there was a bit of a wait for the frame and 38 other pieces to be stripped, blasted, under-coated, top-coat applied and finished off with a clear coat. The result is sublime. Recall in Norton Part II how the frame was a mere representation of lugs and tubes, well dear readers, take a look at it now. My instruction to S & S Powder Coaters was, “finish it in glossy gloss black.” S & S have stepped up to the mark because it gleams. One can almost see one’s face in the shiny black tubes.
Measure twice, cut once.
With the frame back in the shed, it was time to begin drilling the mudguard. That’s right, drilling holes in the new, hand-crafted, rolled-metal mudguard. Many years ago, when my father was building his first aircraft, he had to be registered with the then Department of Civil Aviation who would come down and inspect the project has it progressed. They even inspected Dad’s shed before he commenced construction. In a nod to the DCA examiners, and to remind himself, Dad had a large banner along one wall of the shed that said “measure twice, cut once.” Sage advice that’s stayed with me for the past 40 or more years.
I measured, re-measured and measured once again before drilling tiny little holes in the Vintage guard. I mock-fitted the guard with little bolts and once I was satisfied everything was in the right place, I launched into drilling full-size holes through the mudguard mounting points. I’m happy to report measuring a bunch of times has meant the cuts are roughly in the right place and the guard will soon be sent back to Perth to be reunited with its sibling for panel and paint. Thanks to Vintage Steel there will be negligible panel and the guys at Motorcycle Panel and Paint can launch into coating the guard in glossy, gloss black paint.
Before we go, in our next discussion will visit the heart of the Norton – the engine. The engine has been pulled down and found to be in remarkably good condition. It seems, all that is required is a piston, rings and gasket set. An order has been put in with Feked Motorcycle Parts in the UK and, at the time of writing, I’m happy to report two parcels of Norton parts have just left Heathrow. The parcels include gaskets, wheel rims, spokes, rear shock absorbers, exhaust pipe and other assorted odds and ends. These are all new parts and generally of good quality, in most cases better than the original.
Finally, the head and rocker box have been vapour blasted by Rusty’s in Capel and they’ve come up beautiful and clean. We’ll talk about the engine in more detail soon, in the meantime, here’s a sneak preview.
Newly cleaned head and rocker box by Rusty’s in Capel.
There has been some major progress on the Norton this week. The frame has been repaired, likewise the oil tank and the whole lot has been bundled off to Perth for powder and paint.
For a time, during the formative years of the motorcycle, the gearbox and engine were two separate units within the frame of the machine. They were cast out of great lumps of alloy and filled with pieces of hardened steel that were stressed into a rotating mass that was a bee’s dick away from self-destructing. Most of the time. Sometimes that little bee’s dick wasn’t enough and the engine would fly apart, not this little M50 however, she’s a survivor.
The engine and gearbox were cobbled together by a chain that was referred to as the ‘primary-drive.’ The primary-drive chain spins the clutch housing which transfers power into the gearbox, through the various cogs then to the rear-drive sprocket and secondary-drive chain, to the rear wheel and finally, the road. Squeezing this complicated power-train into the frame, whilst maintaining functionality, required dedicated engineering and creativity. Norton was no exception, they were actually very successful in meeting their objectives of producing a motorcycle that was functional, nimble and reliable. The evidence of this can be found in the little 350 single that, some 63 years later, is still with us. Having said all this, the Norton is no less or no more complicated than its contemporaries from Triumph, BSA and a host of other manufactures that were meeting the demand for reliable, exciting and affordable motorcycles. I’m a little biased so I’m going to say Norton was more successful here than its rivals.
The engine from the M50, note the primary-drive sprocket at the side of the crank-case.
Combine hardware and tinwear prior to being sent off for paint and powder.
For the past couple of weeks I have been delving into the Pandora’s box of M50 parts, identifying what we have that will connect the engine and gearbox, what we will need, what needs to be repaired and what will go back into the machine as is. Working on this conglomeration of M50 hardware I have to consistently remind myself it is a 350 cc motorcycle. It is constructed in much the same way as my Triumph 650 twins. It’s hefty, solid and looks unbreakable. Sadly it’s not, but I digress.
Eventually, around the early sixties, someone thought to join the engine and gearbox in one unit and, in so doing, greatly simplified the design. The term ‘unit-construction’ was applied to this new form of motorcycle engineering and the bikes that went before were retrospectively called ‘pre-unit.’ Coming out of the factory in 1956 the Norton is well and truly in the pre-unit category of motorcycles. The bikes still had two drive chains, but the design enabled the bikes to be shorter, lighter and easier to manufacture.
Arranging an engine and gearbox in mid twentieth century motorcycle design required substantial hardware to keep everything in place. Admittedly, the bike develops less than 20 horsepower so one doesn’t expect the engine would exactly be bursting out of the frame, yet there are no less than six metal plates and eight bolts holding the engine and gearbox in place. For comparison purposes, my late-model Norton Commando has 90 horsepower and the engine is secured by four bolts. This perhaps suggests the little 350 might be a tad over-engineered but we have found a flaw.
One of the tubes on the side of the frame has a tiny crack in the paint. The frame is a substantial piece of kit so it’s hard to imagine it cracking, nevertheless, on grinding the paint away, the crack was proven to be more than a paint chip. It went down, well into the metal of the frame and required someone with better skills than I possess to repair it. Enter Rob Teale of Teale Custom https://www.facebook.com/tealecustom/ . To know Rob is to marvel at his skills in working metal, the man could build a Rolls Royce from a jam tin.
Metal has been ground away from the cracked frame in readiness for re-welding.
Like a dentist grinding away layers of tooth enamel, Rob was able to dig below the decay to clean metal and has repaired the frame with fresh welding. Likewise, the oil tank had to undergo a bit of the Teale magic and now both are as good as new, albeit a bright, shiny new that is exposed to the elements, inviting oxides to latch onto it like sugar to a tooth. To protect this raw metal, and all the other pieces that have been in a slow, elemental rot for some years, the whole lot has been packed off for a gleaming finish in glossy, gloss black (my terminology). Along with the frame, there’s an awful lot of pieces that make up this simple, small motorcycle that will be given a coat of powder and paint.
Rob has filled the broken frame tube with a fresh new weld.
Welded, ground back and ready for a new coat of glossy black powder.
Powder-coat has its limitations. It’s great for hardware and robust pieces that are likely to take bangs and knocks but it’s not all that suitable for tinware. Tinware includes the fuel tank, mudguards and any other items that are constructed from sheet metal that will be on show when the bike is back together. Tinware really needs to be painted, particularly when it’s been dented and requires filler. Powder over dents looks hideous and nothing grabs the eye more than a shiny dent. So, new maxim: hardware powder, tinware paint.
The oil tank cap was a bit rough and needed repairing.
Oil tank is done and ready for painting.
We love our Nortons at the Motor Shed. Here’s a picture of Dan at the Norton factory in 2018.
Read more about our visit to the Norton factory at the Bike Shed Times.
Read more about our modern Norton Commando here
Read more about our Triton here.