by Shawn Downey
In the process of building a Norton Atlas Cafe Racer, I have interrogated, questioned, pleaded, and berated a number of vintage parts suppliers/mechanics. During this quest, I have arrived at the following conclusion: Old guys kick ass.
A bold hypothesis by any means of measure, but please allow me to explicate.
I just concluded an extended telephone call with one Heinz Kegler. To those of you familiar with the Brit Iron mailing list, you may associate Heinz’s name to several controversial posts concerning the robust Norton. Heinz Kegler was employed by Norton during in the 1950’s and 1960’s and is not very coy about the history of Norton’s demise. I doubt anyone has ever correlated his bedside manner to that of Dr. Zhivago’s.
Heinz was a truck driver in his motherland of Germany and rooted about on a 1932 Norton International. After continuously wringing out the motor on the highways and byways in search of sauerkraut and wiener schnitzel (guess which part I made up), the bike was due for a complete overhaul. Considering the support and the expense for Norton motor work in Germany at that time, Heinz decided to spend his holiday as all good Germans did…at the Norton factory in Bracebridge, England. While his bike was being serviced, Heinz hung about the shop cajoling the mechanics and the sales manager.
Upon completion of the overhaul–a time span of several hours versus my several months–Heinz was presented with an invoice devoid of any charges for the factory labor or parts used during the rebuild. He was to pay only the Queen’s tax stamp.
Shocked and bewildered by the gesture, he did what all good Germans do…he drank a beer. Then in perfect Sesame Street English, he protested the gift and insisted on paying for the service. To quell Heinz’s ranting, the sales manager suggested that Heinz tip the mechanic to show his appreciation. Not fully aware of the currency conversion, Heinz stuffed a five pound note into the mechanic’s pocket and fled for the exit not realizing that the five pound tip was more than the mechanic’s weekly take-home pay.
Impressed by his personality and generosity, the Norton sales manager told Heinz that if he was interested in working at the Norton factory, Heinz should meet him at the Scottish Six Days Trial with his Lederhosen in tow. Expecting a position amongst the janitorial staff or, if he was lucky, learning to perfect his skills in crumpet and tea preparation, one can only imagine his surprise when he was presented with an accordion and requests for “Roll Out The Barrel Of Fun”. Not really, I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.
Say, this would probably be an excellent opportunity to take a break and share some Twin City gossip…did you know that a certain young man who is very fond of short pants was sighted with a national celebrity? It seems that this celebrity specifically requested Mr. Short Pants to procure a lovely cruiser from one of our local dealers where Mr. Short Pants just happens to be employed, mmm…back to the story.
Heinz was very surprised to find his timecard listed under the “Experimental Division” time clock and found himself tearing around the English countryside on experimental machinery in the company of racing greats such as Geoff Duke and Eric Oliver.
It was here that Heinz became privy to all of the strengths and weaknesses of the Norton design. For example, the gear box on the Norton Atlas is based on a Strong design that originated back to the early 1930s and improved upon by AMC over the years. He claims that this gearbox is stronger and more efficient than the gearboxes found in today’s sportbikes. The secret ? David Hasselhoff…because all German people love David Hasslehoff. Actually, Heinz claims that simplicity is the secret to the gearbox as well as the Single Leading Brake Shoe. The weakness found in the Single Leading Brake Shoe is not in the design but lies in the production methods. In order to save pennies on production, Norton used an inferior material as brake pads and never put forth the effort to close the tolerances on the pads and the drum.
Ever wondered why Norton did not simply balance the crank to relieve the featherbed models from such horrendous vibration? Because balancing does little more than move the vibration from one plane to another. The featherbed frame was originally designed for the 500 Manx motor and then used for the 650 motor as well. In 1961 when America was caught up in the muscle car rage, Mr. Berliner, the East Coast Norton importer, traveled to the Plumstead factory and insisted that Norton produce a 750cc model to compete with the other manufacturers. Never mind if the frame was not designed to quell the competing forces, just make it so (no, I am not a Trekkie). Berliner was so confident of his scheme he even financed the design and production. What a tough guy. Heinz came along as part of the deal and has been here in the United States ever since.
Hanging out in his garage in New Mexico, he is still involved in “Experimental Design”. He just hot rodded his 1978 Blazer and 1970 pickup truck to the point of breaking rubber in all gears. Why? Because that is what he does. Donning experimental flywheels in his 650cc race bike and dropping high torque motors into his colleagues Nortons takes up most of his time. With what time is left, he performs Norton brake mods that should have been done at the factory and installs one finger clutches. If you have ever ridden a Norton, you know a one finger clutch is a welcomed miracle. I will let you know how it turns out…
If you are considering entering into a restoration project, be prepared to meet guys like Heinz. Most of the parts guys and mechanics I have encountered during the course of my vintage bike days have exhibited a unique and rich background like Heinz. They relish the act of sharing their knowledge and will answer just about any dumb_ _ _ _ question you can formulate and yes, I am commenting on personal experience. The old guys are the ones who seem to still exhibit more passion about the motorcycles they service than hair dye and being phat, and that, is why they kick ass.