Monday, November 17, 2008


The Norton twin has a mixed history in the eyes of collectors, and has never achieved the level of desirability of even the humble sidevalve models from the 20's. First laid out in 1947 as a response to the huge success of Edward Turner's lovely Triumph Speed Twin (fully 10 years after that sensational debut), the new Model 7 'Dominator' of 1948 was designed by a protege of Turner's, Bert Hopwood, which did nothing to dispel the image of a 'copycat' machine.

The Model 7 engine was installed in the cycle parts of the ES2 single, with Roadholder forks and 'Garden Gate' (so-called due to its tendency to feel 'hinged' while racing - so much for Norton roadholding!) plunger frame.

The reputation of Norton was at the time completely built on their immortal 79x100mm singles; 16H, Model 18, International, and Manx. While a few vertical twins had managed successes in competition by 1948 (see post on the Wicksteed blown Triumph), it was obvious to any motorcyclist interested in competition that this new design was really not a Thoroughbred, and contrary to the claim of the Triumph 'GP', this design had no Grand Prix future at all.

Nortons seemed almost embarrassed at the introduction of the Model 7, which is understandable given their corporate culture and history. Norton had spent the previous 20 years trouncing their competition in International racing with their well-developed singles. They must have eaten a bit of Humble Pie to be forced to create a twin-cylinder machine to compete with Triumph in sales, but thus was the economic reality of postwar Britain. The demand for big Singles was on the wane, and every major factory in Britain began to produce twin-cylinder machines (even Velocette - but theirs was the 'LE'). The above photo shows the new Model 7 at the Earl's Court Motorcycle Show in 1948; with Bert Hopwood himself and Joe Craig, maestro of the Race Shop, with his hand on the seat. What Joe is thinking to bring that curious smile to his face is worth conjecture; we need a Caption Contest!
Here's mine; 'This golden goose better pay for my 4 cylinder racer...'

The Model 7 engine was installed in the Manx's Featherbed frame in 1951, becoming the Model 88 Dominator. In response to American demand for More Power, the capacity was increased in 1956 to 600cc (the Model 99), and in 1961 the frame top rails were pinched together to make the Slimline frame (requiring less of a bow-leg to sit comfortably), and the 650SS model was introduced, which was truly Norton's answer to the Triumph Bonneville. The Atlas arrived in 1962, as the trump card to the Bonnie (which didn't grow to 750cc until 1973).

The Atlas was named after the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) developed in 1957, which formed the backbone of US Air Force nuclear deterrent strategy ('Mutually Assured Destruction' - MAD). It was soon adapted by NASA to launch satellites into orbit, then humans too, as the chief booster of the Mercury space project, which by 1962 had launched John Glenn into orbit. With a namesake of such awesome and threatening power, perhaps it was fated that the Atlas gained a mixed reputation.

What the buyer got with the Atlas: Cycle parts which were the Gold Standard of motorcycle handling from 1951 until the late 1980s - the Featherbed frame (designed by Rex and Cromie McCandless in 1949), and the Roadholder forks (designed before WW2, after the BMW tele forks). An excellent gearbox, developed from the Sturmey-Archer design from the early 1920's (Norton purchased the design in the early 1930s, and continued to develop the 'box until the final Commando in 1978). Electrics which were at least modern (ie, an alternator), if not quite in Japanese e-start territory (that came in 1975 on the MkIII Commando). The tinware was attractive, if not as pretty as a Triumph, with deeply valanced chrome mudguards and a big chrome Norton flash badge. Weight was 435lbs or so with a bit of fuel. The clutch wasn't really up to the job of handling the massive torque of the new low-compression engine (7.6:1), and tended to slip when the throttle was suddenly opened. As for the engine itself, it developed 50hp @ 6800rpm, not that you would want to stay at such revs for long; luckily, the Atlas developed power all over the place, from almost no revs, and didn't need to have its neck wrung to build up speed.

Which certainly echoes my own experience. An Atlas was my first British motorcycle, when as a young lad I was a budding Rocker. In 1985; I read an ad in Citybike magazine for a 'low-mileage, fully rebuilt' '65 Norton Atlas 750cc ($800!), so I hitched a ride from SF to Santa Cruz to pick it up. I was a complete newbie to Britbikes, and didn't think much of the fact that the gas tank had been trimmed at the bottom (where it wraps over the frame tubes), the front fender was missing, and worst of all, the headstock had been altered to give more 'rake' to the forks.

It ran fine, and I rode it back to San Francisco over Skyline Blvd, testing the limits of the new machine, soon discovering that the bike shook so badly over 90mph that I literally couldn't see straight - everything became a blur. I had read all the literature I could find about this model, and had been warned, but it was still surprising to experience such vibration, especially as my previous bikes had been smooth vintage BMWs and Hondas. I kept that first Atlas for about 3 years, making some improvements, but the fact remained that I had bought a dog. After rebuilding the engine completely after only 3000 miles, I sold it along, vowing never to own another one.

My second Atlas (!) was a racer in a nickel-plated Wideline frame, Manx fiberglass tank, and huge Fontana magnesium brake. The engine had been beautifully worked over, with larger carbs (magnesium bodied Amal Concentrics - and I bet you've never seen a pair!), big valves, high-compression pistons, a genuine gold Lucas Racing magneto, Manx alloy oil tank, alloy rims, and a home-made rear disc brake setup. Shockingly enough, it was fully epuipped for the road, 'ish', as the 2-into-1 exhaust with reverse cone megaphone was devoid of silencing. The engine was much smoother than that first Atlas, and had been clearly built up by an expert. It was understandably a bit of a monster on the road, although the power was amazing, and it was certainly the fastest vertical twin I've ever owned.

My third Atlas hardly counts, as it was a basket case, and was resold before I had turned a wrench, to a fellow who wanted to build a Triton. Such was the fate of many an Atlas, I fear; the temptation to ditch the Hopwood vertical twin in favor of the Edward Turner Triumph was too great. And you must admit, Turner had a flair for proportion and detail which eluded Hopwood - the Norton engine is attractive, but workmanlike and not especially beautiful (sacrilege!). While the performance gain from adding a Triumph twin engine of 650cc capacity is nil, the Triton lives on today as a means of improving the handling of the Triumph powerplant.

Last year I bought my current 1966 model, in silver, for two reasons: 1. Whenever my path crosses with local collector Mike Shiro, always seen riding a 60's British twin (Triumph, Norton, Matchless), he looks so damn cool. 2. The Atlas was a known quantity, bog standard, in lovely condition, and didn't smoke or rattle. The Atlas is an underappreciated model here in the US, with a deserved reputation for bad vibration; thus they can be found very reasonably.

As per its reputation, the Norton 'Featherbed' frame is solid as a rock, with a bit of rake to the forks, requiring modest effort around bends. You don't 'think' this machine through corners, you nudge it, and it will do whatever you ask. It's possible to change 'line' in the midst of a corner, even a fast one, and while it always feels safe, it isn't necessarily agile.

Last summer I spent a week riding this Atlas through some of the twistiest roads CA has to offer - I mean 5 hours continuous riding through 30-50mph corners. At some points, with a passenger on board, I could feel myself really pushing the handlebars when changing direction quickly; this never got tiring, but it was noticeably different for me, having become used to smaller machines. I'm sure many riders, used to modern machines, would prefer the stability of the Norton, as it feels safe as a house.

As the 750cc vertical twin is decried for its vibration, I was a bit worried about riding it for a week, wondering if my hands would swell and my fillings fall out. But I came to understand the bike, and found its sweet spots, so that by Friday I could report an extremely smooth and very comfortable ride. The character of the machine changes dramatically when the throttle is twisted past Medium. When power is needed, say for overtaking cars, the Atlas surges forward like the rocket for which it's named, without any fuss or drama, but certainly with vibes.

But, if the throttle is used judiciously, the Atlas is actually an exceptional Sports-Tourer, requiring few gear changes even in rapidly changing conditions. I found it almost never necessary to use first or second gear, except when starting from a dead stop. Even in 20mph hairpins, third gear would suffice, and a gentle twist of the throttle would see the bike surging forward out of the bend. With a passenger, the Atlas has power enough to handle just about any hill or bend with disdain; such is its Manx heritage, and the breeding shows. I suppose I've made peace with the model after all these years.


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Nice posting about your Atlases.
I had to write and ask about one of the photos. In the picture of your 2nd Atlas (the one with the red tank, etc.) that looks an awful lot like my friend Mike Rettie in the picture with his arms crossed. Am I correct? I met Mike when he was working at TT Motors and we have stayed in touch to this day. A great guy...

All Best,

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul, This piece is right up my alley so I have to throw in my tupence. I'm currently building 2Atlases, one's cafe'd and the other will be quite stock. Plus another `58 wideline 99 sold new at Hap Jones that will be for concours (by the way, any news on the Legend?) I'm moving along slowly as other things always get in the way but I will get them done eventually.

I'm delighted to know you're back on an Atlas too and I'd just like to share a couple of thoughts on the old Norton vs. Triumph theme. I've been a huge fan of Bert Hopwood ever since reading "Whatever Happened To The British Motorcycle Industry" Back in the day the Industry was very incestuous with the chief engineers often going from company to company and Hopwood came to Norton knowing all the defeciencies in the Triumph twin design (I could name them but it would take too long) He intentionally addressed these issues when he created the model 7engine. And to my mind he did an outstanding job. Yes the Triumph unit may be more symetrical looking but the Norton lump has a very purposeful, powerful look. Especially when viewed from the timing side with what I consider to be one of the best organic design elements in all of motorcycling, the look of the gearbox alongside the timing cover. I've always been greatful that Norton never adopted unit construction.

I'm enjoying this site immensely and I thank you for your efforts. I'm going to email you some stuff that you might be interested in using. Thanks again, C-ya, Jerrykap

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your Atlas piece. I have a running 650SS which can only be visually told apart from an Atlas if your know that the Atlas has a breather with a hose off the drive side of the camshaft and the 650SS does not. I also have an early 1962 Atlas basket case with the original single carb set up like one of the bikes in your pictures. Your comments about the Atlas as a touring bike are consistent with Burt Hopwood's design intentions since, as he originally designed the bike and as it was mmanufactured for at least part of the first year of its production, the Atlas was supposed to be a low compression, single carb, tourer. Of course the Berliner brothers whose independent operation had Norton's distribution in the US didn't think a tourer was what the Americans wanted so we got twin carbs and more and more compression. Nice site.

Brian said...

Congratulations on your great piece about the Norton Atlas. Thought you might appreciate a bit of trivia regarding the third photo (the Norton Motors men around the debut twin at Earl's Court). The fellow on the left is Edgar Franks, a mechanical engineer at Nortons. I am a fan of Mr. Franks because of the excellent repair manual he wrote in 1949 (Norton Motor Cycles, A Practical Guide Covering All Models from 1932, published by C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd. London). Mick Woolett (Norton, the Complete Illustrated History, Osprey) says that Edgar Franks was responsible for "updating" the Norton range for the 1931 model range. The changes included Norton making their own hubs, brakes, and Webb-type forks. Seems I heard once that Franks had helped Arthur Carroll redesign the Norton range after Walter Moore left for NSU in 1929, but I cannot confirm that. Franks designed the oil-bath primary chain case that Norton used from 1934 through the 1960s. If I recall from Geoff Duke's autobiography (In Pursuit of Perfection, Osprey), Mr. Franks was not only a significant engineer, but he also answered all of the technical questions that came in to the works by cable or post. My copy of Duke's book is on loan to a friend, but I recall that when Duke first was hired on at Nortons (late 1949?), Duke prepared his racing machines himself in a second floor room at Bracebridge Street, and Mr. Franks in a nearby office was a helpful resource for the aspiring racer. The 1952 third edition of E.M. Franks's Norton repair manual was helpful and enjoyable reading when I was restoring my Model 7. It cannot hurt to get your technical information from the source.

dan with plan said...

Hi Paul

Excellent piece. I am rebuilding my 68 Atlas now. I have owned about 14 British bikes since I was a kid and unquestionably prefer the Atlas above all others. As old as it is, it will give many a modern bike a good spanking. You CLEARLY know more about this than I do, thus if you, or anyone else reading this wants to give advice, comments, or critique, please do so.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul, I am doing some research and wondered if you have any idea how many of the Atlas were produced by Norton?
A bunch of years back, I had the pleasure of testing a rotary powered unit in Birmingham. It was in a Featherbed frame and what a joy to ride. Too bad it never got produced.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wondeful article..I had a late 1967 Atlas with the concentrics, chrome primary case and capacitator ignition.. I put clubman bars on it , Dunstall exhaust and dripped the countershaft sprocket to 21 teeth..I rode it for 3 trouble free years and almost 60,000 miles....I had to sell it when I went into the service.....She was a terrific ride and never left me stranded...There were many more bikes but few with the charm of that Atlas...