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Classic TT Rotaries: Dunlop rides a TT Norton

Published: 05 November 2015

Updated: 09 September 2015

23 years after Hislop’s TT win, the Island will once more echo to the wail of a Norton rotary, with William Dunlop in the hot seat. And MCN was there for his first ride.

he slight figure of a racer waits patiently in pitlane while a white-haired boffin in a blue lab coat fusses over a race bike. It’s on paddock stands, tyre warmers gently cooking Dunlop tyres. But what it is, isn’t immediately obvious. It’s clearly from several decades ago; WP forks and twin rear shocks, bulbous seat unit and colossal Spondon beam frame, gleaming like an aluminium girder, place the bike firmly in the 1990s.

The machine fires into life; an angry, spitting gargle somewhere between the rasp of a two-stroke and a four-stroke’s deeper bark. It’s a terrifying noise, but it’s neither an inline four, nor a V-twin, nor a triple. 

The rider steps up, gets on, and crackles away onto the track in a cloud of sweet-smelling blue smoke. A few minutes later he hurtles back into view, drifting high up the banked circuit, flashing past the pits in a white blur of speed, engine wailing with a flat, plaintive drone. The boffin in the blue lab coat looks satisfied. “I think he’s enjoying that...”, he says. 

William Dunlop, brother of Michael, son of Robert and nephew of Joey, is the rider. The boffin is Brian Crighton, famed ex-Norton engineer and tuner. And the bike is a Norton RCW588 rotary-engined racer. It’s the design Crighton has devoted much of his life to developing, having convinced Norton of the Wankel engine’s race potential back in the 1980s when they were building rotary-powered police bikes. Crighton’s design subsequently went on to race in a Grand Prix, win British championships and, although Brian is keen to point out he was no longer involved with the factory in 1992, the legendary Senior TT victory with Steve Hislop wouldn’t have happened without his founding work. 

The reason Dunlop, Crighton and the Norton race bike have come together at Rockingham circuit is because they’re competing in this year’s Classic TT [August 29-31] under the banner of the National Motorcycle Museum. The NMM owns no fewer than 18 Norton rotary racers, including Hislop’s 1992 NRS588 White Charger, all the multiple race-winning JPS RCW588 Nortons and the Duckhams QXR rotaries that came first and third in the 1994 British National Supercup Championship – one of which is now William Dunlop’s Classic TT bike.

Dunlop pulls into the pits after eight laps. It’s the first time he’s ridden a rotary Norton, and Crighton is keen to hear what he has to say. “They always notice how smooth and how broad the power is, then complain about a lack of engine braking when you shut off,” he says, as William removes his helmet. When you shut the throttle on a rotary engine there are no valves, cams, or reciprocating piston assemblies to slow the engine down. Instead the big rotor just keeps spinning, giving the rider the unnerving feeling the bike is running on. “Then they get used to it and it’s not a problem any more,” whispers Crighton. 

Dunlop sits down on a jerry can and stares at the bike, as if communicating with it telepathically. “Was that OK? How does it feel? Do you want me to change anything?” asks Brian.

Dunlop pauses, thinks about what he’s about to say, pauses some more, then delivers his verdict.

“Aye, that’s really nice, that is.” He sounds surprised. “It’s unbelievable how torquey it is. You open the throttle and it doesn’t feel like there’s anything there, but there is. It’s weird. But it’s fast.”

William mentions the brakes are shuddering, and says it’s pushing wide mid-corner, and the gearing is too long. Crighton gets to work, raising the rear ride height, checking the discs and swapping the rear cog. I ask William if it feels like anything he’s ridden before.

“No, it’s completely different. It’s very, very powerful. When you get to the middle of the corner and crack the throttle it’s unreal. Very controllable, but it’s deceptive how much there is. But when you shut off, the engine braking isn’t like a two-stroke, where you get a wee bit. This is like you’ve pulled the clutch in.”


What do you need most from a bike at the TT? 

“A chassis you can hold flat out without shutting off on the fast bits,” William says, immediately. “You need confidence. There’s no question this bike has the power, so to get it to go quick at the TT is going to be about set-up. But it’s already a lot better than I thought it would be. I thought it was going to be a real pig but it’s really good.”

Crighton has made the changes and William goes back out onto the
Rockingham circuit for more laps. I chat to Mrs Crighton, Doreen. “These are very much Brian’s babies,” she says of the 13 works rotaries lined up, also here being tested prior to a parade lap at the Classic TT. “Obviously not so much the Barry Symmons bikes...”

Ah. There are broadly three eras of Norton rotary: the Brian Crighton RCW588 Nortons, when he worked for the company at the end of the 80s, which brought early racing success. In 1990 Barry Symmons, ex-Honda racing boss, was brought in to run the race team while Crighton was promoted to senior engineer. But Symmons took development in a different direction, using different parts suppliers and ideas, leading to a fall-out and Crighton’s resignation in late 1990. When Symmons’ bike, the Norton NRS588, appeared the next year, it too had success – notably Hislop’s TT win. But it was a harder bike to set-up, riders struggled to adapt, the wins dried up and the Norton factory itself began to fail. Meanwhile, Crighton continued his own chassis development using the same engine, first in an ill-fated partnership with an Australian backer (which scored a single point in the 1991 Australian Grand Prix), then in the UK with Duckhams’ support. Crighton’s RCW continued to win, taking first and third place in the 1994 Supercup Championship (the forerunner of BSB).

And that’s the bike William is riding now. Brian puts it in perspective, pointing at Dunlop as he laps faster and faster: “That very bike is the first one I built; it’s the one we shipped to Australia and got 12th at Eastern Creek, raced it through ‘93, then came third in the Supercup Championship in 1994.” 

And it’s been in a museum since then?

“Yes. We’d get it out for a few laps of Mallory every year at a vintage festival... but, basically, yes. I rebuilt the engine and went over the bike a few months ago, but otherwise that’s where we are.”

Astonishing. William Dunlop will be hurtling round the Island on a 150bhp missile hand-built in 1991, raced around the world, and then sat in a museum for 20 years. Crighton nods. “Yes, mad, isn’t it?”

Is he worried by the responsibility? 

“Yes! I am! It’s irreplaceable.” 

I didn’t mean for the bike, I meant for the man riding it. But Crighton’s right. If you’re racing the TT, you’d want your engineer to care more about the bike holding together than anything else in the world.

William returns to the pits and asks for more changes to the Norton’s balance – he wants yet more weight over the front. The yokes are dropped down the fork, and an inch of seat foam is added to raise William higher on the bike and put more mass on the front under braking.  

William Dunlop has his own connection to the rotary race bike – his father, the late Robert Dunlop, took two wins in the North West 200 and a podium in the F1 TT in 1990 on the famous Crighton-built, John Player Special works RCW rotary. As that very bike is fired up in the pitlane I watch as William stands, otherwise unnoticed, in the garage and films the bike on his mobile. It means a lot.

I ask Crighton if he’s made any changes to the bike to prepare for the rigours of a TT race. 

“The oil was held in a frame cross-member, but it was only designed for short races and held 800cc. That’s not enough for the TT, so I’ve added an auxiliary tank in the subframe. And we’ve got a larger fuel tank, and fitted Brembo front brake calipers to replace the ISR six-pots it originally had. But that’s it as far as modifications goes. We’ve no more testing planned, the best test will be when it’s on the TT circuit – there’s nowhere else like it anyway.”

As William Dunlop’s Norton is packed away for its trip across the Irish Sea, I wonder about the likelihood of another Norton rotary TT victory. If Dunlop’s smile is anything to go by, it’s more than possible. Dunlop, Norton, TT. Sounds like a winning combination.

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