by Shawn Downey
Hailing from an Irish legacy, my penchant for British motorcycles has always caused me a trifle amount of guilt. Every British bike purchase resulted in a scolding from my conscience–minute and trite, but a scolding nonetheless. Until now, that is, for I have embarked on the most amazing journey of retribution that will surely lambaste those limey bastards with a furor not yet experienced. I have thinned out my collection of fine art metals, i.e. rusting heaps of crap, and purchased my very first Irish motorcycle–a genuine non-imitation Norton Atlas. Soon to be alloy genuine non-imitation cafe racer Norton Atlas.
Ahhhh. Listen to the naysayers, “That stupid Mic has finally fallen into the bottle. Everybody knows that the Norton marquee is British.” Aye, I am drunk, but I have not lost my faculties. Remember when that multimillionaire purchased, I mean married a bride on television? Remember the swimsuit competition? Remember how everyone remembers those segments but no one admits to having watched the show? Well if you look really deep into that scenario, you may deduce an analogy between that network fiasco and what I am about to tell you. (Then please email the analogy to me for I have no idea what it might be.) Anyway, the infamous FEATHERBED FRAME and SWINGING ARM SUSPENSION were derived, engineered, and implemented by an Irish guy in 1940. His name was Rex McCandless and he kicked ass.
Back in 1940, Rex McCandless was tired of being twisted, thrown about, and generally disrespected by the British on the winding, bumpy, streets of his immediate locale in Belfast, Ireland. So he did what all Irish guys have been doing for over 100 years–he threw back a pint, retired to his garage for some mechanical meddling, and kicked the British in the ass.
Proofreading that previous paragraph, I see that I forgot to incorporate “motorcycles” after “British”. Oops. Now then, the first thing Rex did was grab some tubing and weld a fully duplex loop chassis. Each loop started at the steering head, rounded under the engine and gearbox and met back at the steering head. The down tube section was originally splayed to make accommodations for a, not a Norton, but a TRIUMPH Tiger 100 engine that was canted forward in the frame at a 45-degree angle.
Instituting telescopic forks, Rex turned his attention to the rear suspension and noticed something very peculiar…there wasn’t any. Not a shock, not a swinging arm, nada. “Well !” he exclaimed. “Hang me from a tree and call me a victim of Cromwell, but this would probably handle a hell of a lot better if the frame were able to react to the changes in the road surface.” Those may not have been his exact words, but you get the idea. A couple of minutes later, after spending some time under the chassis of his automobile, Rex arrived with damping units liberated from his Citroen as this was the only known source of telescopic struts.
Performing a seat-of-the-pants test session, Rex determined that relocating the fuel tank would assist in keeping the center of gravity low. He moved the fuel tank back from the steering head by several inches so it rested between the rider’s knees and directly above the gear box. Hmmmm, if one were to visualize this wondrous architecture one would conceive a Norton Manx. Or a hottie named Wilma.
Shortly after World War II, the Irish and the British continued their competition in countless grass track races, Trials, and public road racing. Rex’s beauty was met with a substantial amount of verbal abuse by the tea totaling Limey’s until they noticed Rex’s design on the winner’s podium time after time. In 1946, BSA approached the humble Irish guy and requested a kit to fit to the BSA factory trials bikes. I find it completely marveling that one Irish guy with limited resources was able to accomplish more than hundreds of British guys with unlimited resources…well, actually I guess that sounds about right.
Several years later and tired of Rex’s Triumphs smoking the supposed race-ready Nortons, Norton called upon Rex to assist in the race efforts. Rex went to the factory and when asked about his thoughts on the Norton, Rex replied, “The bikes are not unapproachable and they are definitely NOT the World’s Best Road Holders.” This would be the “burning the bush” versus “beating around the bush” strategy. He was quickly enlisted to assist in the Isle Of Man efforts whereby he encountered conflict with the race team supremo Ulsterman Craig. Craig did not take kindly to an Irish guy questioning his mechanical setup and engaged in several rifts with Rex. Rex attempted to show Craig the error of his ways by using the most simplistic analogy. He told Craig that if his toilet overflowed monthly and it was stationary, what did he think was happening to fuel in a float bowl that was being pressurized at a high speed on a rough surface? Craig was not able to grasp the concept, so Rex rigged a float bowl suspended by shoe laces to demonstrate the need to isolate vibration. Even after Rex’s bike outperformed Craig’s, Craig was still not able to admit the error of his ways and almost thwarted the birth of the GP carb.
In the Autumn of 1949, Rex promised the Norton factory a frame that would outshine and outlast the Garden Gate frame. Five of the eight bikes sent to the Isle came back with shattered frame members and complaints from the racers that the frames were becoming too tiresome to throw around the track. Utilizing his engineering degree, i.e. he had none, Rex was able to persuade Norton to replace the 21 inch front wheel with a 19 inch and lean on the tire manufacturers to produce this revolutionary new size. He knew that the smaller tire in conjunction with new vertical frame down tubes would exploit the ideal weight distribution. He developed a manufacturing process that required a fraction of the 96 machining operations required to make a Garden Gate and he employed technology from the war time efforts in the welding department. Instead of using brass, Rex incorporated sif-bronze which had a higher tensile strength and a lower melting temperature.
Most insiders assume that Rex provided only a frame for the ailing race team when in fact he supplied eight complete motorcycles. He located the gas tank on top of the frame rails insulated from vibration by rubber strips and held in place by one single strap. The lack of a capacity reducing “tunnel” to clear the down tube allowed the tank to be fabricated from light alloy shaving additional weight from the prototype. Clip-on handlebars, a cowled front number plate, and a center mount oil tank were all attributed to Rex’s ingenuity. Of course the motor drank from a suspended float bowl GP carb.
They tested the bike in the Winter of 1949 at the Isle Of Man. Using the road course proved to be interesting as they were sharing the motorway with everyday traffic but luckily, one of the clan had a police connection and was able to tip off the local constabulary. In the second lap of the testing, Geoff Duke was overtaken by Artie Bell on a tight corner. As Artie rolled on the gas, Geoff rolled off the course unable to keep up with the first true Road Holding Norton. Pints were raised, expectations heightened, men kissed women, British men kissed British men, and a lot of back slapping ensued until Rex received word that Norton nor the Reynolds Tube Company could make the frame as neither had the expertise.
So Rex did what all Irish guys do–raised a pint, went to the shed, and kicked the British guys in the ass. He returned to England with his own frame jig and with the help of one of his countrymen, he built all of the frames for the entire 1950 race season. Not completely thrilled with the idea of having their entire cavalry of race machines being sourced from Ireland, Norton thought it best to source the rear suspension units from one of the U.K. suppliers. Rex objected vehemently and was able to garner the support of the works riders as well. The riders insisted on letting the track times dictate the choice of suspension and at the end of the day, the British were screaming for the Irish units…and even today, the British are still screaming for Irish units. Ahem.
Geoff Duke made the Featherbed famous in 1950 by accomplishing the first postwar TT lap at 90 plus m.p.h. This was just one of the many podium finishes for the Featherbed that year and many years to come. After the pinnacle race, Duke was offered a seat by the interviewer and replied with a quote that echoes into the 21st century, “No thanks. I’ve been lying down all morning.”
Norton opted to continue Rex McCandless’ contract at the whopping rate of one pound per hour but only under the agreement that at no time now or in the future would he divulge or take credit for the Featherbed Frame or the Manx racers. Rex thought the requirement satisfactory as his primary interest was in designing and riding motorcycles. He kept the secret with him until the mid-1980s when he abandoned seclusion and decided it was about time someone either confirmed or eradicated the various Norton rumors.
If you are interested in what it takes to pay homage to the Irish by building yourself one genuine non-imitation Irish Norton racer, stay tuned, for I intend to document all of my trials and tribulations through the course of this column.