by Shawn Downey
Based upon the musings, ranting, and aspersions of my previous column, you have probably been able to deduce that my next adventure would entail the purchasing of a genuine non-imitation Irish motorcycle, i.e. a Featherbed framed Norton. Shortly after arriving at this conviction, I happened to be perusing my favorite Brit Iron mailing list when I saw the posting entitled “Norton For Sale”. Actually, it looked more like “nOrTON fER salE”. Being a skeptic, I anticipated the posting to read something like “BasKETcuse NotRUn, ginuswINe, $10,000 or LoTS Of loTtery TickeTS”. Tepidly inquiring for more information, I held my breath in anticipation of an email response, turned blue in the face, and then passed out. You see, my company’s email travels like an orange Ford Pinto with a brown door in the fast lane of the information highway.
Once I regained consciousness, I received an incredibly low res 2″ x 3″ black and white scan of a proud elderly couple astride their British and Irish steeds. The gentleman was standing astutely next to a 1967 Norton Atlas and the lady was seated upon a 1968 BSA Royal Star, both riders beaming with pride and enthusiasm. He had to be in his mid to late 60’s and she was not far behind him in years but judging from the background of the photo, this couple rode these 30+ year old motorcycles to this picturesque destination – a destination that was surely far, far away from civilization in a galaxy far, far, away where the term “trailer queens” did not exist. The resolution of the image was so poor that I checked my eyeglasses to see if I had the wrong prescription…I did, but even with the corrected prescription I was not able to distinguish any intricate details about the motorcycles. The story attached to this black and white scan indicated that the gentleman had purchased the Atlas four years previous and embarked upon a rideable restoration. Two years after the purchase, he died and the resurrected Norton had been left sitting in a shed alongside his wife’s Royal Star for two years as the still grieving widow was not able to part with her husband’s pride and joy. She supposedly had her sons turn the engines over every so often but would not let anyone ride either motorcycle. Falling upon financial hardship, she was hoping to part with her husband’s Norton and intended on keeping the BSA Royal Star as she was doubtful of BSA’s market value. The entire story was relayed to me by a Canadian motorcycle dealer who specialized in British Motorcycles & Parts. I had never heard of the dealer and knowing that all motorcycle dealers are thieving bastards – kidding, kidding, I am just kidding – I was a bit apprehensive about purchasing a motorcycle sight unseen from an unknown dealer in a foreign country. Do we consider Canada a foreign country? A thought for a future column…or perhaps I should forward the idea along to Peter Egan so he can write another dull travelogue, mention the word “motorcycle” once, write the trip off on his taxes, and submit the story to Cycle World. But I digress. It being Christmas and all, I agreed to the seller’s price for the Norton and offered to pick up the BSA as well…okay, I cannot lie…Christmas or not, I suddenly had to have both motorcycles because it is my personal goal to own ALL of the world’s motorcycles – just ask my wife.
After trading several emails, credit cards, and Pokemons, we were finally ready to ship the motorcycles. The dealer went hunting for a Harley Davidson crate since they are the best prefab motorcycle transportation box available and allow motorcycles to be shipped fully assembled…almost makes you wonder why the dealers charge for setup costs when Harleys are already setup. Ooops, did I let something out of the bag? Before the motorcycles left the dealer’s shop, I anticipated two major obstacles: Customs and the dreaded DMV. Multiple telephone calls to each agency revealed a magnanimous amount of differing answers to the same question and, judging by the “hold music”, confirmed my suspicion that all government employees love Helen Reddy. The Canadian dealer was confident that he could find a Customs broker for under $200 and a shipper willing to deliver the motorcycles to a dock for under $150. These figures seemed horribly incredible and I began to suspect that I had become one of those internet fraud victims. My suspicion heightened when the dealer called at 7:30 in morning to say the motorcycles had just left and that I should anticipate delivery that same afternoon. Saskatchewan to Minnesota in 8 hours? I inquired if he was shipping them via Smokey & The Bandit. Mid-afternoon my motorcycles arrived at the dealer’s dock…crate-less and strapped to the top of a logging rig…that was carrying logs… in the winter.
Customs deemed it doubtful that two motorcycle crates labeled “Motorcycles” would actually be carrying motorcycles. They speculated that the crates could be carrying Canadians…midget-like, but Canadians none the less. After performing a “smash and dash” search, the truck driver had no other alternative but to strap the motorcycles to the uppermost logs and continue on in hopes of not finding a low bridge. Traveling “Free Willy”, the bikes arrived coated in a skin of road salt and once I was able to remove the salty epidermis I was able to confirm that indeed, I did purchase two very fine motorcycles. Being an avid motorcyclist and not willing to leave anything that works alone, I immediately dragged the Norton into my basement for dismantling and evaluation…actually, Ed Karrow from Trackstar dragged the Norton into my basement and I watched. Ever see the biceps on that guy? Geeeez. Convinced that all motorcycles should assimilate the original Rex McCandless design and everything else is crap, I deduced that I needed to replace the gas tank and the handlebars to maintain the Rex McCandless imagery. And the oil tank and the fenders and the forks… and the carbs… aw to hell with it, tear the whole damn thing down. Several weeks later, I stood triumphant over a pile of parts that once resembled a Norton Atlas and beamed with pride. Just then my wife entered the den of destruction and questioned, “Oh my god, what the hell did you do THAT for? I thought this one actually ran!” “It did,” I retorted. “What the hell were you thinking?” Mumbling something about an Irish legacy, I excused myself and did what all good Irish people do…got myself a Guinness and then kicked my British neighbor in the ass.
Turning my attention to the front end, I noticed a potential liability in the braking department. A single leading shoe was standard equipment of the period, as Norton did not feel the commuting customer would pony up the cash for a high performance braking system. Hello? I guess they considered “stopping” to be a luxury. To rectify the sad sack braking system, I found I had three options. The first option involved replacing the center hub with that of a twin leading shoe, or TLS. Aside from the re-lacing of the hub, it was an attractive option. The second option involved converting the Atlas brake hub to the Commando brake hub. This would grant me superior stopping power in the form of a disk brake but in addition to the cost of affixing a disk, I would once again be subject to the re-lacing of the front rim…besides, did the Irish have disk brakes? HELL NO! So I opted for the third scenario. I contacted my buddy Heinz Kegler from sunny New Mexico and asked him to work his magic. Heinz Kegler if you remember from reading my previous columns – if not, then maybe you should get busy – hails from the original Norton factory and spent years in the racing department contemplating performance and braking dilemmas. He was able to refurbish the original brake drum and machine the hub to match the shoes. The craftsmanship can only be described as a true art form.
Convinced that the front end was now capable of stopping, I turned my attention to the suspension. The Roadholders I had could barely hold oil much less the road and they exhibited a rather deterring suspension effect – when they compressed, they refused to decompress. This could be problematic if I were to approach two bumps back to back so I disassembled the 30 year old suspension units and discovered that one fork was suffering from indentitis – i.e. someone or something had inflicted a great deal of force on the lower fork leg thereby creating a crease in the slider. Hence, once the fork was compressed past the crease, it was not able to return to the original position. Since I needed a new fork slider, why not rebuild the forks? The tubes were pitted like a thirteen year-olds face before the school dance and the damper rods exhibited a keen resemblance to Jed Clampett’s rifle rod. Aw what the hell, why not replace the rods with hand spun alloy units? And how about those stupid lock nuts? Why not replace them with alloy copies? Oh my, those fork caps are surely going to clash…alloy, alloy. If everything is alloy, won’t that cast iron instrument panel cause the motorcycle to tip over? Alloy, alloy. What’s up with those springs? Why not replace them with springs from Progressive? And damn it, since the Progressive springs are so shiny and new, why hide them inside the fork tubes? Let’s convert the sliders to carry the springs on the outside so everybody can see them. Oh yeah baby, now we’re rolling, warm up that charge card, pound that telephone key pad, let’s get to know the UPS man. Send it! Send it all! Be sure to check back next month when I mortgage the house for a gas tank.