Saturday, February 27, 2010


One of very few photos extant of Leo Kuzmicki, here at the launch of the Hillman Imp, whose engine he designed
Research into the history of VMT816RC inevitably brought up the question - where did Norton get the idea for a 'Squish' combustion chamber, from which Veloce gained their own Production TT victory in 1967?

The answer, in Norton's case, was a Polish engineer by the name of Leo Kuzmicki (1911-82), who, the story goes, began to make suggestions to Joe Craig, legendary race boss at Norton, about how he might improve the performance of the aging 'Manx' OHC engine. In the 1940s Kusmicki was employed by the Norton factory as a 'sanitary' engineer, i.e., a janitor! Who was this broom-pusher to tell the indomitable Mr. Craig how to make his engines faster?

The story of Leo Kuzmicki, like so many invisible heroes, has never been fully told; a web search reveals no photographs, only a few parroted mentions of the high points of his life. Undoubtedly his lack of renown suited his character, for he made no pains to publicize the contributions he made to the English motorcycle and Automotive industry from the 1940s through the 70s. From what little is published, we know that Kuzmicki was a lecturer at Warsaw University in the late 1930s, specializing in internal combustion theory. He must have also been a pilot, if not yet in the Polish Air Force, then as a private citizen, for he managed to escape the two-sided attack on Poland in September 1939 from Germany and the Soviet Union, and make his way to England.

A rare photograph of Polish cavalry defending against the German invasion
A sidebar here on some WW2 history; it's often repeated that Poland fell 'in a day' to the oncoming German Blitzkreig, with images of Polish horse-mounted cavalry facing Panzer tanks to their doom. The truth is more fierce - the Poles fought like demons against an invader with vastly superior forces and armaments, and managed to wipe out fully 30% of German heavy artillery, 285 of their planes, and 16,000 troops. About 66,000 Poles were killed, with almost 700,000 captured; lopsided yes, but Hitler was shocked at his losses. Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, spun stories about a 'walk through' victory in the East which resonate to this day, as do many other of his highly effective fabrications - the man was good at his job. Other forgotten tidbits; three Polish mathematicians, just weeks before the invasion, cracked the German 'Enigma' encryption code, and managed to smuggle the information to England via France which greatly eased intelligence during the War.

A Polish pilot in the Kosciuszko squadron
The Polish Air Force, in common with much of its military, managed to escape through Hungary to France, just in time for Germany's invasion of that country. Kusmicki would have had been a hardened veteran pilot by the time the Polish military-in-exile escaped to Britain after the fall of France, officially establishing themselves in June 1940 on English soil. The Polish Air Force became legendary during the Battle of Britain for their effectiveness (using English planes - Spitfires and Hurricanes), and Squadron 303, named after Polish-American hero Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, had twice the 'kill' rate of the R.A.F., as they had already been fighting the Luftwaffe for a year and were successful tacticians. By the time the War was over in 1945, Kuzmicki had been fighting for 6 years on foreign soil, in the branch of the military with the highest casualty rate, with his homeland occupied first by Germany, then post-War by the Soviet Union; there was no going home. After such an experience, is it any wonder he took refuge sweeping floors at Norton Motors?

Which is where Joe Craig discovered a secret asset already within his building, who extended the useful racing life of the beloved Manx for another ten years. The revelation of Kuzmicki's deep proficiency in combustion chamber theory came inauspiciously, with an upbraiding! Charlie Edwards, a Norton race shop employee, remembers (vide Mick Woolett's 'Norton' - sadly out of print):
Joe Craig (left) with Cromie McCandless at the début of the Norton Featherbed Manx in 1950
"When I came in one morning he [Kuzmicki] was sweeping the experimental department and we got talking. It was soon obvious this man was no ordinary sweeper-up and we were chatting away when Joe Craig came in. He was like a bear with a sore head most mornings and he gave Leo a right dressing-down for standing talking and not getting on with it - and then I got one! But I told Joe that this guy might be able to help, and that he should have a talk with him. Well, it wasn't long before Leo was in the drawing office and in my opinion it was he who vastly improved first the 500 then the 350, He was brilliant on cam profiles, combustion chamber shapes, valve timing, porting - the lot."

Geoff Duke aboard the 1950 Norton Manx
The 'Model 30' racing engine had changed little from its Arthur Carroll revamp in 1929; Joe Craig while a very determined and canny race team manager for Norton, was certainly no engineer, and developed his engines on a 'suck it and see' basis, rather than from first principles or theoretical research. Thus, to have an expert in engine theory land literally inside his office was something of a miracle... one for which he showed no gratitude publicly, but such was his manner. He was a hard man, had been a successful motorcycle racer in the 1920s, and followed this with nearly 25 years at the helm of the Norton race team, which had possibly the greatest run of success in International level racing, with the least financial support! Under his helm Norton won 9 World Championships, 27 TTs, and countless GPs.

The principal change Kuzmicki made to the Manx engine for 1950 was to create a 'Squish' combustion chamber, although a host of modifications were made to the engine and chassis that year, including the introduction of the Featherbed frame. His efforts on the engine raised power by 20%, from 30hp to 36hp on the 350cc engine. The totally redesigned Manx made its début in the hands of young star Geoff Duke that April, where he smashed race and lap records, a situation repeated at the Senior TT that year, where Duke's race average bettered the previous lap record at over 92mph. Much praise was given to the McCandless brothers' new frame design, and Joe Craig was publicly praised as 'the Maestro of Poke'... although of course, no mention was made of the quiet Pole who had completely revised the Norton racer. But, Geoff Duke certainly knew the score, saying in the 1980s, "After the way he [Kuzmicki] transformed the singles, particularly the 350cc, I had great respect for him." (vide Woollett).

The Norton 'Featherbed' frame, designed by the McCandless brothers, and half the reason the Norton Manx remained competitive in GP racing
Kuzmicki continued to develop the Manx for a few years, and was heavily involved in the design of a four-cyliner DOHC Norton racer, but funds for racing grew short worldwide by the mid-1950s, and the Norton race shop was shut down Such talent, even if unsung, does not go unnoticed, and Tony Vandervell, a major stockholder in Norton Motors Ltd, had a passion for Formula 1 car racing. His father, Cornelius Vandervell had purchased a large quantity of Norton stock back in the 1920s (the C.E.V. magnetos which graced Norton motorcycles in the mid-20s were C.E.Vandervell's product, and while technically inferior to an M.L. or Lucas magneto of the day, it took a few years before C.E.V.s disappeared from Norton 'original equipment'). The Vandervell family made a fortune with 'Thinwall' bearings (ie, bearing shells with special soft metal linings for high-pressure oiling systems), and around 1950, coincident with Kuzmicki's contribution to Norton, the 'Vanwall' (VANdervell thinWALL) Formula 1 team was created, using modified Ferrari engines in Cooper chassis.
The Vanwall F1 race with successful Kuzmicki-designed engine
A new all-British F1 car was required, and Kuzmicki laid out a 2.3liter engine in 1954 which was effectively four Manx engines on a common crankcase; similar to the extent of using four Amal GP motorcycle carburetors! The engine produced 235hp, which was certainly good enough to win races in 1955 when the car débuted, but the chassis was simply not up to snuff. In a move reminiscent of the McCandless brothers' new Featherbed chassis being mated to Kusmicki's revamped Norton engine in 1950, the services of a rising star in racing chassis design was hired to start from scratch on the Vanwall racer. Colin Chapman, later to gain fame for his Lotus cars, created a typically unorthodox and very rigid tube frame chassis, which allowed for much softer suspension and exceptional handling, the hallmark of Lotus racers to come. The Kuzmicki/Chapman Vanwall became the first British car to win a GP series since the 1920s.

Another shot of Kuzmicki at the launch of the Hillman Imp - he stands second from left.
The Vanwall team began to wind down in the late 1950s due to Vandervell's health issues, and Kuzmicki found work with the Rootes group, designing the OHC engine for the Hillman 'Imp', a late competitor to the Austin Mini. Of course, the Imp engine became a favorite with quite a few sidecar racers, and the wheel turned full circle again. In his later years, Kusmicki worked for Chrysler, and his star faded into obscurity. By the time of his death in 1982, few people realized the contribution he had made to Grand Prix World Championships on both two and four wheels - an engineer's version of John Surtees!


Don O'Reilly said...

Mr. d'O, many thanks.
Kusmicki's story is one of subtle, profound genius.
Truly inspirational, and many of us can use a little more of that these days.
btw, in "next up" do you describe what exactly waht "squish" means? something to do with compression?

Anonymous said...

See the revised (most current) edition of Mick Walker's "The Manx Norton" at pp. 162 - 167 for a somewhat less romantic, but just as impressive, version of the Kuzmicki story. Walker spoke with Kuzmicki's widow. According to Walker, Joe Craig knew who Kuzmicki was and he was hired directly as an engineer. After Norton he had quite a career in the motor industry and ended up, at the time of his death, as a consultant for Hesketh. By the way, there's always more than one version of every story and your blog is the best motorcycle site on the internet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

as you know I like your work and am a regular

Your pictures usually expand nicely when I click
on them, to study the details thoroughly, but
I have not been able to expand any of the pictures
you submitted since the article about the machines
in Brazil, just before the Snelling bit.

I can still expand the Brazil pics, so I suppose
it is not a problem in my reader.

Have you changed procedures? If so, please
reconsider, as the Velo letters are pretty
much unreadable and it makes me so curious!

Best regards! And thanks for the interesting work
you do.

Mats Munklinde

Anonymous said...

I think you really out did yourself this time. Wonderful piece on Leo Kusmicki and his contributions to our Cycling history.
A great many Poles made wonderful contributions during WWII and throughout history. I was aware of the Enigma breakthrough
and had the very great privelege of knowing a gentleman who worked at Bletchly Park (sp?) on the Enigma program. Stan Sedgewick,
who was for many years the head of the Bentley Drivers Club worked at Bletchly. He was recruited because he was a pre-WWII
crossword puzzle champion. That became very useful when trying to piece together the sometimes broken up words they tried
to put together. Stan, like all the others, never spoke about it until the secrets act ran out and the story was told.

I continue to be amazed at how long the Manx Norton remained on the Grand Prix scene. Simply amazing.

Anonymous said...

A couple of fascinating posts, Paul, especially for a one-time Thruxton owner who knew about the TT "production" win but didn't know the technical back story.

On the Norton post, coincidentally today I came across a lengthy profile of Joe Craig in _Classic Bike_ for September 2001, written by Don Hewitt (who worked with Craig in AMC's development shop until Craig returned to Norton a few years before Bracebridge Street passed under AMC control). Hewitt's article confirms many of your observations regarding Craig's areas of expertise and less-than-expertise, so to speak, and although not mentioning Leo Kusmicki leaves the clear impression that engineering brilliance at Norton rested on shoulders other than those of the "technical director." There are also some telling insights on Craig's "style" of management.

Delighted to see the F1 part of the story factored in as well, something we see too little of in motorcycle journalism. Coming hard upon the disappointments of the V-16 BRM, the achievement of the Vanwall team was a welcome tonic for British enthusiasts and pointed the way for the greater glories to come thanks to John Cooper and Colin Chapman.

Add in a little WW II history and the mixture is complete. Not to fine tune your essay, but the damage done by the massively outmatched Poles to Hitler's (first time out, other than a little track testing in Spain) war machine was even greater than the numbers you cite. According to Richard Evans's The Third Reich at War (2009, volume three in his comprehensive history), 300 German tanks and mobile cannon were destroyed and another 5,000 military vehicles lost. This was not insubstantial for an invading army that required the use of 300,000 horses to maintain its momentum. So much for "lightning war." (The "myth" of the Blitzkrieg is a favorite topic among WW II historians.)

All in all, great reading. Feels like the day's work is done.


James J. Ward
Professor of History
Director, Honors Program
Cedar Crest College
100 College Drive
Allentown, PA

Anonymous said...

As an history student and one who loves the UK, British Bikes, and the efforts of the 303 squadron I loved your post.
I would pay a lot of money to fly in a Spitfire and have read many books on the Battle Of Britain, most don't say much about the Poles- and their effort and contribution to that time. Heroic times with heroic gentlemen-
So well done, I continue to be a fan of your blog.

Dr R Proud

Racycle Crank said...

Terrific story, Paul! I imagine that a lot of research went into your squish-head posts. Too few people doing their own research these days (maybe because it can be difficult and risky).
Regarding how Norton came to find Leo Kusmicki in their midst, Charlie Edwards's recollections that you quote from Woolett are consistent with those of Geoff Duke from his autobiography (In Pursuit of Perfection, pg. 51). Duke says that Edwards discovered that Kusmicki the sweeper had some good ideas about internal-combustion engines and introduced him to Joe Craig, as you state. Given that Kusmicki was a very smart man and knew he knew things that others did not, and given that the Norton OHC racing single was world renowned for its output and dependability, it seems plausible that Kusmicki was smart enough to plant himself inside the race shop with a broom in his hand as a means to bypass the regular hiring channels. Sure it's speculation, but it makes more sense (to me anyway) than the argument that the meeting was random chance.
By including airplanes, WWII, and 1950 GP race cars on your motorcycle post, you hit just about all my buttons. Thanks! (Have you had a post yet about Beatrice Shilling? Her story crosses some of the same topical territory.)

Brian b said...

its a small world wide web
just today on Bring a trailer a Formula 3 hill climber is listed for sale in NY with a Norton 500cc OHC engine. Wonder if this was touched by any of those in the last few post?

Anonymous said...

Big Sven online:

Loved your very erudite contribution about Kusmicki. I knew Czechs and Poles in the Swedish shipyards, and not a few ex-SS lads too, mostly from the Russian front, many service-engineers, and heard the odd story. The Poles were the best theoreticians, the Czechs the best engineers, the Germans the best copiers! To the poster who wondered how Norton (and by inference the G50's, Seeley's too) were able to race so long - to be frank there wasn't anything else, let alone affordable, racing would have folded without them. Also frank is the fact that they are actually very nice bikes to ride and race, on some tracks faster than the wobbly Jap 4's of today. I'd sooner race a Brit single than a Jap 4. I knew Bernie Ecclestone back in the late 50's-early '60's, he managed a motorbike shop in Bromley, an AJS-fan (rode a brill CSR 650cc) he was good friends with several AJS drawing-room and workshop men who were working in secret on V-twins. A chap called Duckworth was working on 4-valve heads for them. 7-speed cassette gearboxes, held in place by one allen-bolt for quick changes. The factory folded before they were ready, but I believe Tom Kirby (met him) used bits for Bill Ivy's short-stroke Metisse. Moral: let the workshop lads decide what to make and use, not the bean-counters!