Why Norton, Why Bother!

Why Norton, Why Bother!

I once had a apprentice who always answered a question as the above instead of “Why not” it was a bit of a standing joke until we were made authorised NVT (Norton Villiers Triumph) agents in 1974 as BSA-Triumph group had collapsed, things were going from bad to worse as very few Triumph twins had been sent to Australia in 18 months while the Meridan factory was blockaded and only Tridents and 850 Norton’s were able to be ordered even know orders for Triumph Twins were at a all time record. Tridents were eventually built at BSA’s Small Heath factory after the Meridan workers agreed to release all drawings in the vain hope NVT chairman Denis Poore would agree to keep the Triumph Meridan factory open and let them produce the Tiger/Bonneville range. Poore reluctantly agreed eventually and got the Trident drawings and then had to re-tool to produce the T150V and the T160V Tridents, stupidly he decided to keep the older Andover factory and Small Heath rather than the much newer Meridan factory, the other ridiculous decision was to abandon the Triumph 500/650 and 750 twins for the 850 Norton twin already underdeveloped in a non unit construction form with a 4 speed gearbox which Triumph had moved from in 1963 a full ten years earlier. 


So 44 years later let’s look at why that decision was made when 9 Triumphs to every 1 Norton was sold and Triumphs dealer network was ten times bigger especially in the States their largest market, was the Norton a better product, cheaper to make or considerably faster then, well no it was a dearer product that suffered with horrendous warrenty problems, cost far to much to produce and relied on police sales to make it viable, other problems stemmed from parts that were produced in 1936 that were still in use in 1974 ie: rear brake shoes and gearbox internals from the Sturmey -Archer bicycle company, a frame that was renowned as the world best Fetherbed was replaced with a Italian fabricated (although designed in Britain) “Rubberbed” isolastic requiring adjustments every 3,000 mile, this coupled with a badly designed head steady caused it in the Interstate version to be renowned as the only machine that can get into a “tank slapper” in a straight line at 60 Klm’s, don’t believe me get on your standard Mk 2A and with a pillion or top box fitted sit on the required speed and roll off the throttle, lift your hands from the handlebars and it will try to kill you! Head of the service department John Hudson was adamant that fitting a 360 x 19 tyre and not a 410 x 19 would help but they reminded owners to keep the tyres in unworn condition to stop the problem.


The Norton head although modern in the combustion chamber suffered with fiddly servicing problems, had terrible screw in exhaust nuts that wore and strip,and the head tended to blow gaskets or “sweat” oil, if you were lucky to get one with a non-porous version even better. The plastic rocker feed pipes eventually work hardened and cracked bathing the engine and owner in hot oil, the strong cast iron barrel was quite nice but camfollower wear was not unknown and wore the barrel as it didn’t have seperate guide blocks Norton’s continued on with a 3 piece crank that Triumph gave up with in 1958 and the stroke on 850’s made conrod geometry acute causing failures, years of main bearing failures on Combat models especially were fixed in 1972 when Norton had FAG bearings in Austria develop a special cylindrical roller bearing in the infamous Combat engine and the crankcase was eventually strengthened with ribs and heat treated. The timing chest had a 1936 gear driven oil pump fitted, although multi-start still wet-sumpted till the last Mk3 version had a ball valve fitted, the chain driven camshaft was a very cheap form of drive and required more service adjustments of over a hour, charged to the customer of course! Camshafts wore at a high rate and only recently this has been rectified with new material.


 Meanwhile the verticle Sturmey-Archer box that came out new in 1936 in the Big 4 and 16 H sidevalve models producing 18 hp and going into the Horizontal box and eventually the AMC “dolls head” and stuck behind 50 hp Manx’s was at the limit on the 70-75 hp Commando and blew up frequently, 5 speed was never optioned or fitted unlike the Triumph first fitted in 1972. The kickstarter lever although changed in shape still was fine splined as the 1936 variant and striped often the “o” ring in this area was a constant leaker on the right hand muffler, at least it never rusted.

Norton although did do a splendid job with the single bolt “O” ring chaincase and going to Laycock-de-Normanville the famous truck transmission engineers for the best diaphragm clutch fitted on a motorcycle period. But with no real shock absorber rubber blocks in the clutch and only hard plastic blocks fitted in the rear wheel which melted on heavy application of the rear brake due to heat transfer the gearbox was even more under stress.


The famous Norton Roadholder forks were made oval on the sliders which stiffened the forged castings ready for the worse front disc brake ever manufactured by Lockheed,it was “wooden” and had hopeless stopping ability, and if you were “slack”and the pads wore out they could “spit out” of the single piston caliper leaving you with no brakes on the front at all the Mk3 had the same caliper on the rear so a possibility of a poorly maintained machine leaving you with zero brakes. People thought the skimmer introduced on the late caliper was introduced to keep water off the pads but in fact the fitted it to stop killing customers, meanwhile the  forks were widened slightly for the disc rotor and unfortunately the front hub was spoked vertically which gave it no lateral strength and it was possible with a physical hard kick to buckle the rim, so avoiding potholes became mandatory. The plastic fork dust scrapers instead of rubber wore the hard chrome from the staunchion tubes in months causing fork seal failures either fit Interstate gaiters or 97-4002 Triumph rubber or gaiters to aleviate the problem.

As discussed earlier the rear wheel was updated slightly with hard nylon shock blocks and a set of brake shoes that are 1936 Big Four type we’re hopelessly inadequate. So brakes front or rear were never a selling feature there are literally dozens of brake modifications out there for Norton’s at all the dealers. Front Disc brake models can be rectified simply with a 12mm front m/cylinder


So what about the servicing of this machine, the frame was a pain with the engine having to have the exhaust, head steady oil lines etc removed to remove the isolastic bolts so it could be shimmed, the clutch slipped and all models had to have the plates removed and washed in solvent and the chaincase refilled with Auto trans fluid every 3 months otherwise clutch slip occurred recently Barnett in the USA have made decent plates which cured this issue, the cam chain was adjusted every third service and the timing case was removed which of course meant removing the ignition points plate and ATD, what a pain. The tappets were very good, which didn’t make up for 1/2 hour to remove and replace the air filter to clean or synchronise the twin Amal carburettors people dumped the twin Amal’s in favour of a single carb conversion kit this makes the engine “sweeter”, draining the oil tank was easy but generally the tank was cracked or one of the three rubber spigot bushes made far to small had failed! The RVB horn was mounted in front of the rear mudguard, it weighted a ton and used to break its bracket off and short out regularly, getting it out was major with the rear wheel, and mudguard having to be removed along with the battery carrier and the oil tank,while the horn bounced around it would start sounding! 

The swing arm pivot pin wore out the gearbox cradle as it ran in it direct, very expensive and time consuming to replace, strangely it had a grease nipple on it that you never greased as it was a oil hole to oil the felts in swing arm for lubricant, if you did grease it the centre end caps exploded as the tie rod stripped. Other problems beside early model frame breakages ( resolved by the factory) were the unsupported rear frame loop which used to sag down (especially with Interstate variants) which made it look like a dog that had “a boot up the backside” with its tail folded under its arse. The poorly designed gearbox subframe mount which held the swing arm wore and of course the swing arm pin ran directly in this un-bushed naturally it would wear out!

The exhaust mufflers rubber mounts break and one of the 9, yes 9 brackets of which held the footrest castings back through prolific rubbers mounts to the mufflers, were having my apprentice calling them a “bracket on a bracket bike” the seat held on with two large round thumb nuts had a few owners despairing as returning to their machine the seat could be missing or sidecovers, enabling it to be easily hot wired for a thief.


At this time these Norton’s were forced onto reluctant Triumph dealerships so we got two years of woes and NVT in Ballarat and Punchbowl were on speed dial. We were used to frames that didn’t need adjustments simple servicing procedures and 5 speed unit construction engines with brakes that worked and good forks and strong wheels it wasn’t till September 1975 that Triumph twins were rolling out and the workers Co-op was formed ensuring my boss could refuse Norton’s and we sold heaps as many as could be ordered. NVT did have a final fling and fixed the frame on the Mk 3 also the headsteady for the tank slappers although the brakes and gearbox weren’t fixed a new electric start which wouldn’t work unless the engine was hot didn’t help they went broke early 1977, Triumph battled on till 1983 then under licence till 1988 eventually to become the largest and most modern factory in Europe while Norton has gone broke twice in that time. Norton is producing at the moment bikes are twice as dear as comparable Triumphs and guess what they are still suffering warrenty problems, so now tell me Triumph’s are not as good as Norton and I smile every time I hear people buy them and pay a third more for the privelage and parts “Why Norton” indeed. (Ps, anybody want to buy my 850 Mk1?) cancel that it’s now sold at a handsome price, time to ride the T140V


Phil Pilgrim 2018