Norton is in stiff competition with Indian for the brand that has died and been resuscitated most often. While they are both back among the living, I give Norton the edge in the life expectancy sweepstakes this time. Part of it is sentimental. I’ve owned two Nortons and want to see the marque play on and perhaps work its’ magic on a new generation. Up until the early 70s, they were great looking bikes (IMHO), and they were reasonably fast as well. Despite reversed foot controls, oil leaks, and lucas electrics, you loved them anyway because, once on the boil, they were the match of anything in their time. And then there was the history. First TT winner, dominant racing force for years in the early part (perhaps the first half) of the 20th century, the “unapproachable” Norton lived up to its slogan. The history includes a Lotus-like partnership with John Player to produce the John Player Norton (JPN), unheard of at the time in motorcycle circles. In the halcyon days of the mid sixties to the mid seventies, Norton helped define the Cafe Racer era. The Atlas and Dominator were prime candidates for conversion, and the Manx was the blueprint. Norton later went on to produce the first production rotary-engined bike, and a host of prototypes and demonstration models for a variety of new company owners as their fortunes ebbed and flowed.
However, Norton’s greatest product may not be a complete motorcycle, but a frame. That frame would be the patented featherbed frame. It was produced in 1949 by Rex McCandless. The McCandless brothers built racing motorcycles in Ireland, and Norton wisely convinced Rex to work exclusively for Norton once they saw his work. He designed a new frame to replace the plunger frame which broke often in competition. It was a swingarm design with twin loops, which doesn’t sound very exciting now, and neither loops nor a swingarm were new ideas. However, in 1949 the basic understanding of stresses on a frame which the McCandless brothers understood well from earlier work with Triumph and BSA, allowed Rex to put together a superior game-changing design.
The results were impressive. Nortons finished 1-2-3 in the Senior TT in 1950, and set new lap and race records with Geoff Duke aboard. Artie Bell also racked up some victories, Norton won the Daytona 200 (the premier US event at the time), and an era of sidecar domination for Norton began. TT racer Harold Daniell compared the new frame with the old and declared the new to be like “riding on a featherbed”, hence the name. If the course or road had curves in it, the featherbed provided a significant advantage over the competition. The famous Norton Manx used a lightened featherbed to great advantage in the early 1950s. A wider version of the frame (dubbed the wideline) also made its way into the ES2 Dominator, and later narrower versions (dubbed slimline) made their way into the Atlas. Finally, the Isolastic frame introduced with the Commando in 1969 was really more of a featherbed with rubber bushings to reduce vibration.
However, the Norton featherbed was not just home to two decades of Norton engines. The company’s featherbed frame was so well respected that racers and tuners soon began using it as the home for other engines. This gave rise to Tritons (Triumph engine), Norvins (Vincent engine), and others. It is not often that a However, the Norton featherbed was not just home to two decades of Norton engines. The company’s featherbed frame was so well respected that racers and tuners soon began using it as the home for other engines. This gave rise to Tritons (Triumph engine), Norvins (Vincent engine), and others. It is not often that a motorcycle component other than the engine gets top billing. The Norton featherbed frame did just that, and remains a much sought after base for any number of projects today. As for the newest iteration of Norton, I hope you find your featherbed.