Sunday, May 29, 2016

'NORTON' GEORGE COHEN

Dr. George Cohen at the Brooklands Centenary in 2007
One of my favorite characters in the old bike scene has left the saddle, and the world is poorer for his absence. Dr. George Cohen, otherwise known as 'Norton George' for his devotion to single-cylinder Nortons (plus a certain Rem Fowler's Peugeot-engined TT racer), fought well against an aggressive cancer diagnosed late last year, but knew the jig was up, that swarf had fouled his mains and blocked the oil lines.  What he leaves behind for those lucky enough to have called him friend, is a ton of wry memories, and his distinctive voice echoing through our heads, with some crack about our terrible workshops, ill-prepared machinery, or silly ideas.  He was mad as a hatter for sure, but a hell of a lot of fun to be around.
A favorite image of George Cohen blasting along on his 1927 Norton Model 18 TT racer on the Isle of Man
George was also a devotee of using his vintage machinery to the hilt, blasting his favorite 1927 Model 18 Norton racer on the Isle of Man, and the roads around his 'Somerset Shed'.  Arriving by train for a visit to George's sprawling country estate was an exercise in bravery, as he'd likely pick you up in his 1926 Norton Model 44 racer with alloy 'zeppelin' sidecar. Strapping your luggage on the back, and no helmet required, meant you experienced the full terror of an ancient, poorly braked but surprisingly quick big single in flight along the ultra-narrow, deeply dug-in Roman roads of the area. The mighty Bonk of the Norton's empty Brooklands 'can' reverberated along the 8' deep earthen walls, as we tore around blind corners of these unique Somerset roads like Mr Toad and Co., headed for home the fastest way possible.  Unforgettable!
George and myself in 2008, with my Velocette KTT and Sunbeam TT90 - sorry no Nortons that day!
George visited the USA a few times, and we were fellow judges at the Legends of the Motorcycle Concours in 2008, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay.  I'd brought two bikes for us to swap on the Sunday morning Legends Ride - neither a Norton, although I had a 1925 Model 18 racer at the time (it was hors de combat from my own relentless flogging).   So George got to experience a vintage Sunbeam for the first time, as the photos show, which he quite liked ('My Norton is faster', of course he said), but preferred a spin on 'The Mule', my 1933 Velocette KTT mk4, which shared his favorite Norton's camshaft up top.  Well actually it was the other way 'round, as Norton copied the Velocette design!  Which he grudgingly admitted with a half-smile as he hand-rolled another cig.
George on his only Sunbeam outing, in 2008
A few days prior, we'd picked up a pair of racing Nortons from California collector Paul Adams, which were entered into the Concours, and it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar characters, who both loved Nortons with passion.  Paul Adams is an ex-Navy pilot of many years' experience, with the unflappable reserve of a military man, and George, well, flapped.  Those two were chalk and cheese, and barely kept from breaking into open argument! Still, George later admitted Paul had a very nice collection, and that his workshop was really clean.
George with one of his many 'specials' built for customers like Dunhill.
Something else he left behind; his incredible self-published love poem to Norton, created from his personal archive of early factory press materials, photos, and documents - 'Flat Tank Norton'. If you're a fan of early Nortons, it's essential reading, and an entertaining mix - some of the early photos of James Landsdowne Norton himself can be found nowhere else.  'Flat Tank Norton' is the kind of book only a devoted enthusiast can produce, as a publisher would have squeezed out the quirks to increase 'general interest', but they would have taken out the George factor, which is what give the book its tremendous charm.  It needs a reprint, as copies run on Amazon for nearly $1000!
Another memorable moment with George came not on a bike, but in one of his select few cars, at the 2013 Vintage Revival Montlhéry meeting.  He'd brought his c.1908 Brasier Voiture de Course after breaking down somewhere in France, while driving the all-chain drive monster all the way from his Somerset home.  He'd sorted the brakeless beast, and was enjoying flying laps around the banking, and offered me a ride, which I accepted with something like fear.  George drove like he rode, and the Brasier had no seat belts, roll bars, suspension to speak of, or front brakes, but it did have an enormous 12 Liter Hispano-Suiza V-8 OHC aeroplane engine with 220hp on tap!  I put myself in the hands of Fate, and George.  I climbed aboard, clinging to the scuttle, and filmed the ordeal with one hand, laughing 100% of the time, as he slid the rear end on the short corners, and got as high up the banking as he could, while the behemoth shuddered, roared, bucked, and squealed.  Unforgettable, just like the man.
With George in his epic 1908 Brasier de Course, with its 12 liter OHC Hispano-suiza aero engine, with 220hp!  Insane for a car with no brakes, and all-chain drive...
George with the re-created Rem Fowler Norton, winner of the very first Isle of Man TT in 1907.  He rebuilt the machine entirely after the disastrous National Motorcycle Museum fire. 
Thumbs up George!  I hate to say it, but goodbye friend.

If you care to send a note to his wife Sarah and his family, I'll gladly forward George's address - shoot me an email.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Paul,

I first met George at Bealieau in 1979. It was my first visit there and I shared a stall with Ian Melrose - Ian’s partner at the time was name Cathy I think and she was great friend’s with Fred Twigg’s late wife. I digress. At the end of the day, Ian and I and the guys from Rockerbox (Darryl and Arfur) hung out using whatever social lubricants could be found. Brough man Simon Miles, in those days looking like a beaten-up hobbit, was another of the “young” group. Late the second day, this bespectacled flat capped chap wearing a cross between a dust jacket and overcoat spilled out a selection of Norton close ratio gears he had acquired by digging deeper through the piles of rust than anybody else. With that cut-through voice of his, he announced he had been winding sellers up by asking if they had a Grindley Peerless piston return spring or knew where one could be found. He relayed with some gusto their desire to help.

It was Ian who really triggered George’s interest in flat tank Nortons. That was Ian’s great interest at the time and he had acquired quite a lot of rubbish. He also had bought quite a bit at the Bill Fruin auction. Ian’s arcane knowledge must have appealed to George and he sold almost all he had to him and that really was the start of his glorious obsession with flat tank Nortons. I last saw George when have lived somewhere near Bromyard in Worcestershire. I remember a long shed with dozens of early ohv Norton engine parts populating the shelves along one wall. I think George was hosting a motorcyclist's weekend - greenlaning and various pub’s was the main entertainment. I had a pukka single knocker racing Norton Inter which George showed no interest in at the time. I don’t remember much else except being persuaded to sit on the bum pad (no pillion footrests) on someone’s 7R (now that to me is the perfect road bike) as the “gang” hared off to another drinking establishment.

George was an absolute nutter in a good way as you so eloquently described. I rather liked it that he had somehow worked his restored pukka Nortons' into the fashion world - not the retro look but the real thing. I think it was his enthusiasm that really defned him. The vintage motorcycle scene is so much the poorer with his passing

Mitchell

Anonymous said...

Paul,

Like your writings, I also always looked forwarded to reading George’s columns as well. I went to George’s web site in March, 2016 to learn more about Norton Internationals as I was considering buying one, and was shocked to learn of his illness. I sent him a “get well/ hang in there e-mail” but never received a reply.

Please express my condolences to his family from someone who appreciated his writings and knowledge of the old motorcycles we all love, particularly race bikes.

Regards,

Bill Mathison

Anonymous said...

Paul - lovely words and photos for George. He’ll be missed big time.
- Colin West

Anonymous said...

Paul, a great tribute to George, you are spot on he was as mad as a hatter & I will miss him greatly.Think I need to get the Inter out & give it some beans.........
- Jon

The Vintagent said...

That's the best possible tribute Jon!

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. I had a ride at Goodwood one year in the sidecar. I got a lift to Goodwood house with George. We got stuck behind a vintage bus on the driveway so we overtook it on the grass! A white knuckle ride .... fantastic.

-Duncan

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece, well written. Saw him on Shed and Buried with Henry Cole and Sam 'The Man' Lovegrove. Seemed like a proper gent and wonderfully eccentric, just the way we like 'em. God speed, George.

- James

Anonymous said...

The world has just become a little grayer with one less 'colorful character' to show us the way. R.I.P. Dr. George Cohen. I did not know you, but I knew of you.

- Albert Sheehan

Anonymous said...

I will never forget his short email reply when I asked him for his opinion on a 1934 Racing Inter which was for sale. "Buy it or tell me where it is so I can buy it" I followed his advice and my Inter will always remember me of George...

- Jochen Schell

William said...


What a shame.. how sad.
I had known George for some years and generally had a catch-up with him at Stafford show. He was a showman, and tremendous craic.. if he liked you.
But crazy really and good fun
Godspeed.
W. FERRY
CARLISLE UK

Anonymous said...

Any comment on the death of someone is hard to put together, first of all my sincere condolences to Georges family , at this difficult time, I can only wish you better times. I first met George when he rebushed the girders on my model 18, I found him difficult to get to know, after a few more visits for advice regarding my 350 Inter I was, I think accepted as a true Norton man. From then on we got on really well, I like to think so anyway, help was always given when I was stuck. I found eventually that he had a wicked sense of humour and enjoyed his company whenever I visited. I took my son on a visit one day and George was kind enough to show him his collection. An interesting man who will be missed by many, put me on that list. RIP George.

- Peter Winter

Anonymous said...

I was there at the Legends that year and was also on that ride. Even though George was a secular Jew, as I am, I'll recite the Mourners Kaddish respecting our tradition. Rest in peace "Flat Tank George"

- Jerry Kaplan

Anonymous said...

First time we met was over a whisky and the open exhaust of a vintage Norton. I'm not sure whether it was the noise or the whisky that drew the most early morning disapproval from those around. Fuck 'em all. Never change.

- Mike Crehan

Anonymous said...

Noooooo. Another British eccentric gone. I've spent many a moment with George at Goodwood. Rip George. 'Made in a shed'

- Tim Gunn

Anonymous said...

Oh no! Rest in peace George, it was a pleasure meeting you at the Vintage Revival Montlhery.

- Marcel Schoen

Anonymous said...

Very sad, I was talking to Paula about him just yesterday as we passed his farmhouse in our neighbouring village which is up for sale. Got the chance to look around his barn a few years ago and see the bikes during a village fete. We chatted about you if I remember correctly. A true character.

- Paul Manning

Anonymous said...

Rest easy George they are sure to have Nortons in heaven.

- Smudger Smith

Anonymous said...

Sad news, indeed. He was a gentleman and a scholar.

- Corey Levenson

Anonymous said...

Had some great times with the Doc it was expected but still hurts like hell. God speed Doc RIP.

- Matthew Walmsley

Anonymous said...

This is a shock. I knew him quite well to talk to in his camper on the classic racing circuit. He was definitely his own man who did the most magnificent customised restorations. There will be many who will miss him

- Neil Abraham Dowsing

Anonymous said...

The world has just become a little grayer with one less 'colorful character' to show us the way. R.I.P. Dr. George Cohen. I did not know you, but I knew of you.

- Albert Sheean

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I hope you're doing well. I had seen thru Instagram that George Cohen has passed away, and just noticed your blog post as well. I was never lucky enough to meet the man, but have always been inspired by his passion for Norton motorbikes, as well as all the stories I've heard thru the years. I had traded emails with him once, and got the expected type of response, which I certainly enjoyed. Can't quite recall the topic, but only his sarcasm in the response.
I'd like to send a letter to his wife, and express my condolences as well as hopefully share how he's been an inspiration to fellow enthusiasts from around the world. If you could forward the address, I'd appreciate it.
Regards,
Jeff

The Vintagent said...

Please send condolences to:
Sarah Cohen
Manor Farm, Chillington, Ilminster, Somerset, UK
TA19 0PU

Scotty Hayes said...

How incredibly tragic :-(
Unfortunately I never met the man but spoke with him about a half dozen times on the phone. Last time we spoke he was shouting madly into the phone, as the extremely loud (presumably antique) car he was driving was hard to hear over its din but he kept making the racket anyway. It made me smile the rest of the week!
May he rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

We raised a glass to George's memory at the Dinnington Docks (his local pub) last night - coincidently the 29th anniversary, to the day, of the Docks (vintage) transport society monthly meeting. Funeral is midday, Friday 10th at Lower Chillington, when George will be buried in the church next to his house.

Anonymous said...


Dear Paul
Many thanks for your sparkling memories of Norton George.
He was my best mate for 40 years, we never once fell out, and he quietly tolerated my obsession with BSA motorcycles.
It has been a privilege to know him....
Best Regards
George Wander
www.BSA-M24.com

Ian Melrose Motorcycles said...

Dear Paul
I first met George in 1977 when he was a junior doctor since that time we have been to hundreds of auto jumbles, shows rallies and both TT and Manx GP events not to mention dirt riding in his various country homes.
He had boundless energy and enthusiasm and could turn his hand to anything by application to the task.
He did not suffer fools gladly and could be rude at times. A colourful character that leaves the world a little greyer.

Good bye gorge I miss you already.
Rest in double knocker heaven.

Ian Melrose



P.S Paul I did send this on the 30th May was not sure you got it as it has not been published. Thanks Ian

Ben Walker said...

When I first got to know George he asked me where I was from and I told him Sutton, Surrey. He said that, as a Junior Doctor, he'd delivered babies at Sutton Hospital between October and December 1977 and asked me where and when I was born - with my jaw dropping I replied "Sutton Hospital…5th November 1977". Unfortunately my mother cannot remember the name of the doctor who delivered me so who knows! I may have been delivered by George. Would explain a lot.

I'm proud to have called George a friend as well as a member of our team. His incredible knowledge of Nortons made him our go-to person and we will all miss greatly.

- Ben Walker

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,
George's Brother, Andy forwarded the web page.
George and I first met in Cambridge, (primary school era and further studies at the school of 'Mechanical Experimental Semantic Sophistication' thinking. ye gods, all those years !!
Like with Georges Wanders comment (I have known Georges W for yonks too), you do justice to the memory of Dr Geo or Norton George.
Words have significant expression, but all of us will remember George, re attached picture from his webpage [riding his Norton, with a wicked grin - pd'o].
"this is how we should remember Norton George Cohen"
yours
Bryan et famille
Switzerland
ps
as for Nortons, I have a '49er gardengate easy2 and 1961 wideline easy2 ( motor built and well adjusted! by the good Dr George)

David Clark said...

I have great memories of Dr George as I called him. The sight of George arriving at Le Mans Classic having driven his Brasier from somerset non stop with his brother Andrew and announcing his top speed was 105 mph, if the enormous chain had broken at that speed it would destroy everything in its path.

I had wonderful times with him "in the shed" while he was building my Cohen Special which I will treasure forever.

I will miss him as a friend, most of all one of the greatest characters I have ever met.

Never to be forgotten Dr George.

David

David Clark

David Clark said...

Paul

I forgot to say, lovely and fitting words from you.

David

David Clark

Chris Daniels said...

Good words Paul,
Used to bump into him in the lanes and workshops around here, a serious character and another loss to the world.
Chris

Anonymous said...

I onle meet with george at stafford a good guy.Ride that old Manx in the SKY.