Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Rex McCandless and his brother Cromie were responsible for the creation of the infamous 'Featherbed' Norton frame, among quite a few other innovative designs, regardless of the fact that he left school just after his 13th birthday, and had taken no courses in engineering.

"I never had any formal training. I came to believe that it stops people from thinking for themselves. I read many books on technical subjects, but always regarded that as second-hand knowledge. I did my best working in my own way."

Always a motorcycle enthusiast, he began to tune his own machines, and by 1940, had a new Triumph Tiger 100, which was faster than a factory-tuned bronze-head T100 of his friend, Artie Bell (future Norton Works racer). He won the Irish 500cc Road Race and Hillclimb championships that year, even though he felt his brother Cromie to be the better rider. In the '49 Ulster GP, he was the first privateer home, in 6th place (see pic above of Rex, left, and Artie Bell).

Yet he found that his Triumph racer was often making unreasonable demands of its rider, and began experimenting with weight distribution. "I had noticed that when I removed weight in the shape of a heavy steel mudguard and a headlight, that the bike steered a lot better. It made me think about things which swiveled when steering. I was in an area about which I knew nothing, but set-to to find out. It seemed obvious to me that the rigidity of the frame was of paramount importance. That the wheels would stay in line, in the direction the rider pointed the bicycle, regardless of whether it was cranked over for a corner, and to resist the bumps on the road attempting to deflect it.
Of equal importance was that the wheels would stay in contact with the road. That may seem obvious, but fast motor cycles then bounced all over the place. I decided that soft springing, properly and consistently damped, was required."

The first test-bed for Rex's ideas, built in 1944, was named the 'Benial' (Irish for 'beast' - see above). In general layout, it looked much like the double-loop frame used on the Gilera-Rondine watercooled dohc 4-cyl racer of the 1930's, but it had a proper swingarm at the back with vertical hydraulic shock absorbers (from a Citroen car). More contemporary viewers will see a direct lineage to the Seeley frame, and of course, many of the best Italian and Japanese space-frames from the 1980's. "The Benial was the best-handling bicycle I ever made."

Using the ideas garnered from his experiments, McCandless first designed a bolt-on rear suspension kit for rigid-frame motorcycles (see above), which was tested publicly by the Irish grass-track racing team at Brands Hatch in 1946. Prior to the race, other riders looked askance at the rear suspension kits, but after the race, they clamored for them. Rex had no ambition to go into manufacturing, and sold the rights to Feridax (pic below - Rex discussing his conversion with Stanley Woods).

Rex made friends with Freddie Dixon, famous as a tuner and rider/driver (for Douglas and Riley), and they were entreated by fellow Irishman Ernie Lyons to sort out the Triumph Grand Prix he had bought for the 1946 Manx GP. The Triumph as set up by the factory handled poorly, but Rex and Freddie sorted it out, and Lyons famously won the race, even though his frame had broken (see pic below).

Norton was none too happy of course, as they were having problems of their own with their 'plunger' Garden Gate frame, which had a tendency to break, and handle like a camel. Joe Craig, in an effort to cure the cracks, kept making the frames heavier, with negative results (below; 1948 Works Norton).

In McCandless' view, this showed an insufficient understanding of the stresses involved on the chassis, "...all they did was to fix together bits of tube and some lugs.." In 1949, he told Gilbert Smith, the Managing Director of Norton, "You are not Unapproachable, and you are not the World's Best Roadholder. I have a bicycle which is miles better!" The Norton brass set up a test on the Isle of Man, where a relative of Cromie McCandless' wife was Chief of Police. They closed the roads, "Artie Bell was on my bike, ultimately christened the Featherbed by Harold Daniell. Geoff Duke was on a Garden Gate and both had Works engines. Gilbert Smith, Joe Craig and I stood on the outside of the corner at Kate's Cottage. We could hear them coming from about the 33rd [milestone]. When Geoff came through Kate's he was needing all the road. Artie rode around the outside of him on full bore, miles an hour faster, and in total control. That night Gilbert Smith and I had a good skinful."

Further testing took place at Montlhery, with four riders (Artie Bell, Geoff Duke, Harold Daniell, and Johnny Lockett) going flat-out for two days. "We went through two engines, then the snow came on. The frame hadn't broken so we all went home." The debut of the new frame came at Blandford Camp, Dorset, in April 1950, with Geoff Duke aboard (below, winning that race). The string of successes which followed gave a new lease on life to a 20-year-old engine design, and Norton won 1-2-3 in the Senior and Junior TT's that year.

Interestingly, Norton didn't have the facility to produce the Featherbed frame themselves, nor could Reynolds (the tubing manufacturer), so Rex brought his own jigs over from Ireland, and personally built the Works Norton frames from 1950-53 (that original jig, as it exists today, can be seen in the pic below - what a historic piece of scrap iron!).

Rex McCandless was never an employee of Norton; he was paid by what worked - if an idea panned out, he was paid £1 per hour. If the idea didn't work, no charge.

By 1953, Rex could see that the writing was on the wall for the Manx engine, and pressed the factory to build a proper 4-cylinder racer, as Gilera and MV Agusta had done. "Joe Craig was against the 4-cylinder project, and persuaded the Board that he could continue to extract enough power from the single." (pic below, Rex and Joe Craig).

As a stopgap measure, Rex designed a new frame, more like the original Benial, with the dohc Norton engine vertical between lowered top rails. The petrol was carried in pannier tanks (see bottom pic), which allowed the rider to stretch out over the frame and behind full streamlining.

The bike was known as the Kneeler, and Ray Amm tried it out first in the North West 200 in 1953. It put up the fastest lap, with Amm calling it the most comfortable bicycle he'd ever ridden. Amm and Eric Oliver took the Kneeler to Montlhery, where it broke the 1-hour speed record at 133.66mph.

"After that, Norton put the Kneeler aside. I had nobody there to support me and they felt it wasn't a real Norton."

Although Eric Oliver used the frame design as the basis for his World Champion sidecar outfit (to be copied by every other outfit shortly afterwards! See pic above), they refused to pursue McCandless' ideas further, and the Kneeler never raced again. Disillusioned, Rex McCandless turned to designing cars.

Photo credits: Photos 1, 2, 3, 5 are from 'Sweet Dreams', by Gordon Small (Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, 1989). Sadly, out of print.
Photos 4, 10, and 15 are from Dark Davey Maertyn, Notorious Anglo-Cajun Photo Pyrate, Scourge of the Elektronyke Seas, Nemesis to the Evyl Muse Kopyryte, Drynker of Whysky, and Dryver of An Olde Pyckuppe Trucke.
Photo 6 (Triumph GP) is from Ivor Davies' 'It's a Triumph!' (Foulis, 1980). A transitional book; part 'Old School' publishing - the writing and small format - and part 'New Breed'; lots of great photos.
Photos 8 (first Featherbed) and 15 (tank shot of Kneeler) are from Mick Walker's 'Norton; the Racing Story' (Crowood, 2002). Still in print; buy it!
The remainder of the Norton shots are from Mick Woollett's excellent 'Norton' (Osprey, 1992), which is also still available, and with George Cohen's 'Flat Tank Norton', is the best book written about this illustrious marque.


JS said...

Great story!!

Shaun said...

Very interesting article. Thank you for putting it together!

Was the Featherbed frame really "infamous", though, except perhaps to its competition?

And, do you have any other pictures of the Kneeler? I'm curious about how they managed the gearshift and rear brake controls that, on a more conventional bike, reside down by the pegs.

Thanks again, and happy holidays.

vintagent said...

Yes, I would say Infamous, then and now; there was no other frame before this which was advertised, given a name, studied, and copied like the Featherbed. Afterwards, you had Seeley, Drixton, Smith, Harris, Rickman, etc, all of which followed McCandless' train of thought.

The Kneeler deserves a post of its own. I'll work on that....

Anonymous said...

only one disgruntled customer out of 200000 (the Indian, not me), lol dave

vintagent said...

Ah, there have been a few others! An anonymous Dutchman called me 'blind' for missing that the spark plug hole on a Dutch AJS racer was behind rather than in front of the cylinder-head stirrup... I mean how could somebody miss that?

Overall, the response has been very positive.


Anonymous said...

looking at your pictures of the norton kneeler and the one in Sammy millers museum , they are two different bikes or at least two body's , if not three i always thought it was just one , Sammy's bike must be the earls court show bike , or at least the body is dave

Anonymous said...

Hi - just stumbled across your 'notes' on the featherbed - thought I'd share some info - my father was Rex's lifelong friend (Rex was the best man at my parents wedding...) rode the first on F/bed on a public road (Hillhall Road oustside Belfast) on Xmas day 1949...he also made a few bits and pieces for the bike, helped develop the rear dampers - the remote reservoirs etc ...was the second person to have his bike converted to swing arm (a Triumph 500 GP), raced the second of the 4wd cars Rex made and finally placed the the date of death on Rex's gravestone...
Together they blew up a number of Triumph twin engines in the search for more power - had a make shift dyno in the tech college my father taught in - a rig with a set of paddles flailing in the air - move them further out along the 'spokes' to add load...so simple.
They ran them on aero fuel and/or methanol - anything to get it to run harder..
last thing they did together was make a still...
Alcohol was never very far away...

A work colleague wrote and published a biography on Rex - sadly my father by that point had had a stroke and couldn't contribute very much but we tried to get as much out of him on what those days were like...my brothers and I have many stories opf the antics they all got up to in that frantic 10 year period 1945 - 55 that so changed motorcycling.
Book is no longer in print but it is the definitive story of the mercurial Rex mcCandless.
I met him a few times and was so impressed by his engineering alacrity - I'm an aerospace Engr of 30 years and I witnessed him cut straight to the heart of an engineering problem in a heartbeat. Too good for words almost.
You are the first 'casual' writer who got it right and described the story pretty well - many have written about this and mostly it's rubbish - all Irish and begorrah etc....

keep up the good work.
Patrick Cowan - son of Billy Cowan (or as we called him Willy Beart - because he talked incessantly about Nortons when we were young and naive..)

Anonymous said...

Sorry but I agree with Shaun, "Infamous" cannot be used with the Featherbed Norton frame, praiseworthy, reputable, renowned, infamous, imfamy is something being known for "positively" negative attributes, this cannot be said to apply to the McCandless featherbed frame which set the standard for road holding and frame design for the next twenty years, the "Featherbed" was famous for design and practicality over its opponents and is still used benchmark today!
I might sound like a "nit picker", but this one word skews the meaning of an otherwise enjoyable article.


John Hall

Anonymous said...

Paul, in the process of putting the necessary parts and expertise together to build a Norton Special, an Imp-engined Featherbed Norton, as we progress in design and acquiring parts, one of the people involved is A.J. Dixon the Great Niece of Freddy Dixon, of Douglas and Riley fame, mentioned in the above article, she at present is one of my mentors in how to mount the engine in a slim-line frame and the best way to design, execute and construct the primary drive and other technical conundrums.

Indeed the "beast" may have to be fabricated in the north of England, as I need help and expertise found in this region, having lots of ideas and enthusiasm, but limited fabrication and engineering acumen, at this point in time. However, hopefully, by this time next year, the above statement may not be true anymore
I would love to see an article dedicated to Norton Specials, as the Imp-engined Norton specials were found in sidecar and solo circles and dare I say it, were more in many ways more adventurous, technically challenging and refined, than the much more common brutal in characteristics and achievable in build, Triton derivatives.

A.J tells me that Rex McCandless spent a few years with her Great Uncle acquiring lots of knowledge and expertise..!



Norman G said...

Just happened upon this story of Rex and the FB frame. This brought back memories, as, between 1951 and 1955 I was an apprentice in a workshop at Queens University in Belfast, and I worked under a man called John Elder who was a close friend of both Cromie and Rex McCandless. John gave me quite a few drawings of bracketry to make up at lunchtimes, and for which I got a wee bit of pocket money to supplement my £1-19-11 weekly wage !! I was later told they were used on the special frame Rex had made for the racing Nortons. I have always been chuffed to bits that I had played a very small part in the making of those first frames. Of course I also saw all those riders mentioned at the Ulster Grand Prix, which I never missed, as a number of my relatives lived on farmland close to the 'Seven Mile Straight' Thanks for the opportunity to post this memory.

Anonymous said...

Hi, just for info, although I'm now middle aged, I remember as a kid, Rex McCandless coming along the straight outside our house on a 'kneeler' and side car outfit, with a silver and black helmet. The whole outfit was painted green with a dog also in the sidecar!! I remember my parents proudly pointing out the large McCandless 'nissan hut' and telling me that he was a well known inventor!! I also remember passing it many times and seeing a 'kneeler' sitting outside!
If only I knew then what I know now!
Unsung heroes.....


alvin shintaku said...

Wow thank all of you so very much. I feel privileged to be able to learn the inside stories of this wonderful moment in time.

Dave Smith said...

Hey Paul,

I'm curious if you/anyone can answer this question. We're putting together a Norton 500 for a land speed record and BUB changed the rules a little. We don't want to go over.

Can anyone let me know if Norton ever produced a bike on slimline featherbed frame with a wheelbase longer than 56.75 inches listed in Specs? We need documentation of a 58 inch wheelbase or longer for the new BUB rules for 2013.

Kind of specific and hard for me to find. No luck on Access Norton and I know that you have a ton of books (scattered coast to coast and continent to continent, I bet).



Gene said...

As a teenager I worked for Rex and Cromie in their shop on the Limestone Rd. in Belfast in the mid 1950's. I was in my element as a delivery boy, riding around town on a motorcycle. The main business of the shop was heavy equipment repair, so I got to play with bulldozers, excavators etc., and Rex always had new ideas under development. Rex introduced me to the science of race tuning for engines, (admittedly on a strictly utilitarian delivery van.) He was a patient instructor, and I learned a lot from him. When the Ulster Grand Prix was run some of the world leaders in motorcycling would visit the shop. What a life for a teenage boy!