Thursday, July 10, 2008


And now for something completely different... I recently made the acquaintance of Buck Pilkenton, who built this tongue-in-cheek cafe racer, the Nortley Farster; an odd coupling of a Norton Featherbed frame and Harley Evo engine. Buck's thoughts on the machine are below:
"The Nortley Fartster has its roots in the rocker era of the 60's. A number of British bike riders were assembling homemade specials from parts at hand- factory, aftermarket, and homemade- with the idea of creating machines which combined what they thought were the best styling and/or functional features of various makes. Some of these specials were better than others, depending on the components selected and the quality of craftsmanship that went into the mating up of parts which were never intended to meet. One component which was generally regarded as one of the best of its kind was the Norton Featherbed frame. The featherbed had been around in different formats, all superficially similar and geometrically identical, since 1948, and had the reputation of being just about the best handling unit out there. There were other virtues to the featherbed. One was availability, as Norton engines seemed to have even more vices than their contemporaries and there were often non running Nortons to be had. The vast space surrounded by the frame tubes was another plus, there was room in there for just about any powerplant one wished to install.
A basic theme of rocker customs was cafe racer styling - clip on bars, rearset footpegs, and minimal street equipment. The idea was to emulate the classic road racers which were already being challenged by the Japanese teams. Such cafe racer customs have long been my personal favorites, and are the functional and stylistic inspirations of the Nortley Fartster.
Back in 1988, I bought a new Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster. It was a cool machine, no doubt about that. Like many bike owners, I fooled around withframe2.jpg (41516 bytes) customizing the machine, first with bolt on replacement parts, then with home made bits. A cafe racer theme emerged as I machined up a pair of rearset footrests and controls, made other pieces to give the front end a classic look and performed more bolt on part swaps. The results looked all right, but the more I rode the bike, the less I liked it. Something just wasn't right. One evening I sat and stared at the machine, mentally separating the parts I liked from those that I didn't. The conclusion was that I liked the engine- a gutsy, rumbling lump that, for all its obsolescence in the face of the newer machines out there, says MOTORCYCLE in a loud clear voice. The rest was junk. Not that there is anything wrong with the Sportster, it is one of the purest stock motorcycles made, but given the limitations dictated by the factory frame it just wasn't going to make a satisfactory cafe racer. With its low set seat and rear fender, and the much higher tank and steering head up front there is a stepped look that I find awkward in a cafe racer. This shape can be used to advantage in styling a chopper, a street tracker, or a street drag bike, but again, just doesn't say road racer to me. At the risk of starting a riot, the BSA Gold Star shares this fault and while a generally handsome machine, set up as a cafe racer that steering head spoils the sleek line that otherwise looks like speed.
A week or so later I was up in Seattle and looked up an old friend. It turned out that a friend of his had a featherbed frame for sale so I looked at it. Despite some modification to the bottom tubes, all appeared sound and straight. Mainly, it appeared as if there was room for a 1200 Sportster engine, and the deal was done. Upon my return home, I yarded the engine out of the Sportster and heaved it up onto the workbench where the frame sat. After a few minutes of wrestling, the engine sat in the frame, there was indeed room, if just barely. Thus was the Nortley Fartster (NORTon harLEY FeAtheRbed sporTSTER) was conceived, and there has been no looking back. All I needed to do, so I thought in my childlike innocence, was to cobble up some motor mounts, throw on some wheels, and putt away. As things transpired, mounting the engine to the frame was the easiest part of the project. There have been blood, sweat, tears, dollars and much foul language expended on the job, and if I had it all to do over, there is damned little that I would change. After all, any yahoo with good credit could go out and done.jpg (48815 bytes)buy a machine that would be faster, fancier, superior by any impartially applied comparison, and identical to any number of its ilk seen on the road. More power to those folks, may they ride long and joyfully, but to my mind one must commit oneself very deeply to one's bike, or it is not truly his own. Nor do bolt on pieces make a bike a custom, neither does paying some shop, no matter how competent, to do ones work for him. If it ain't yours, it ain't YOURS. This was from the start one of the ideals of the Nortley Fartster, to do as much of the of the job myself as my abilities and facilities allowed.
Stubbornly sticking to this ideal has been an education. I propose here what I call Buck's Challenge. Visualize the worst factory produced piece of crap you can think of. It doesn't matter what it is, any mass produced object will do. Now, set yourself up with the best equipped shop you can imagine, all the tools that infinite money could buy, and even a telepathically accessed library of all the industrial arts knowledge accumulated since the taming of fire. OK? Now, try to create something better than that worst piece of crap. I guarantee that you will develop a whole new respect for the people who bring things to your store shelves. But then, if there is one common theme among motorheads, it is that we all believe that we each have a better idea. Life could be somewhat boring otherwise."...............Buck Pilkenton

If you fancy owning such a statement machine, Buck is in a selling mood, as his body is currently lagging behind his enthusiasm for the N-F. You can contact Buck by email here.

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