Riding Ogri's bike

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It’s the most talked-about machine in biking. It pulls babes, it grows hairs on yer chest – it’s Ogri’s Norvin! And Olly Duke’s blagged an exclusive spin, in this vintage Bike road test from 1997.

’ve been mates with Ogri for years. 25 years, to be precise. I can remember when he first appeared on the scene, all fresh and not so clean-cut, a little unsure of himself perhaps, but we secretly admitted him. He was always a laugh, poking fun at those cock’ead bastard cops, picking up the dishiest babes, swigging Newky Brown and slagging off piggy establishment suits. Bit of a hero really.

Back in 72 we all rode Brit bikes. Jap stuff was for wussies. I had a BSA Thunderbolt, which shook itself to pieces and frightened the life out of me at anything approaching 80mph but it was a real beaut – then. It wasn’t till 89, when I rode Suzuki’s awesome GSX-R1100, that I realised Limey metal, constant breakdowns and sump oil soaking into the entrance hall carpet could be a thing of the past.

Convince Ogri? You must be joking! He wouldn’t budge, sticking to leaky old macho principles that I considered about as convincing as the home-made, cardboard gaskets he fitted to his Norvin. How we ribbed him as he turned up at the pub in open-faced helmet and goggles, trashy leather jacket, greasy jeans and knackered boots – and parked next to our neat row of Yamakawazukis. Stuck in a timewarp, or what?!

However, I’ve been wondering recently whether we were so right after all. While we’ve since flitted from one machine to another in an orgy of mass consumption, Ogri’s stuck faithfully to his old steed. And as the tables of ashion turned on us (and we started wishing we could relive our youth), we all lusted for a spin on the machine we’d laughed at so much. Suddenly it had mystique and character.

Nobody, but nobody, has even dared swing a leg over that Norvin (‘cept Mitzi, that it). Remember the time Ogri chainsawed some woman’s dog in half? Or the fracas with Father Christmas, when Ogri beat the living bejasus out of the old man at the scene of their accident? Or the state of that juggernaught after it had nudged Ogri’s bike at the lights?

Still the two of us go back a long time. We’ve been through thick and thin together and we have common bonds, like dogs (Ogri’s got little Kickstart, I’ve got Spike, and both mutts ride pillion) and a taste for Newky Brown. That’s probably why Ogri didn’t cave my head in when I suggested I road test his machine for Bike magazine.

Let me tell you about the Norvin’s background. Ogri started building it in the late 60’s, using a 1958 Norton Wideline Featherbed frame and a 1947 Vincent Rapide engine. The Norvin concept arose in the 50s and was the ultimate superbike of its time, marrying 1000cc of stonking V-twin power to what was then the sharpest chassis on earth.

It’s a typical Ogri bike, full of rough-hewn ingenuity and never pandered to. Take the electrics, for example. Ogri, ever the practical DIY merchant, uprated the original, pathetic, six volt Lucas electrics to 12 volts, using parts from a Morris Minor – including the alternator! Or the seat cover, which has been taped up for as long as I can remember. He also fitted an oil cooler to stop the engine from overheating so horribly; the alloy barrels, heads and engine casings can take hours to cool down. In fact, the motor still got hot while we were taking the pics, and the exhaust belched smoke on an open throttle – but it never missed a beat.

You can imagine my elation as I wheeled the sleek Norvin out of Ogri’s shed. I was pumped up as hell and even Spike couldn’t resist posing on the bike as Kickstart. Ogri showed me how to start it: no choke, no need to tickle the carbs, just pull out the massively long kickstart, ease the engine past compression, and heave. The motor bursts into life, even from cold, but as soon as I pulled in the clutch the cable snapped.

Swearing or what!? I’ve never seen Ogri lose his cool like this before, but I suppose with a snapper around the pressure was on. For me it brought back miserable memories of British biking, but I didn’t utter a sound. In a flash Ogri had replaced the sheared nipple at the clutch end with a screw-on one, and I was off.

The Norvin’s exhaust barks out a meaty tune, which matches the bike’s massive (for its age) torque, and it pulls away easily from low revs. And despite being solidly mounted in the frame, it’s extremely smooth. The pistons feel a little slappy, but the engine’s never been touched and Ogri admits it’s due for some work on the internals.

Even with wear, the 8:1 compression feels beefy. It’s matched by a maximum 55bhp at 5800rpm, which may sound feeble by today’s standards, but was a real shit-kicker back in the 40s and 50s. The Rapide’s 120mph top speed and sheer acceleration wasn’t surpassed until the late 60s, and even now the bike’s no dawdler.

The throttle action is light and the response, through the twin Amal monoblock carbs, is superb. The broad spread of power and well-spaced gear ratios mean you never hit a flat spot, even through the slick, unit-construction box is only four-speed. Getting away from a standstill takes some getting used to however, because although the clutch lever action is easy the servo clutch is snatch: it’s either on or off.

Once rolling, Ogri’s Norvin really gets a move on. The classic, black-faced Smiths speedo and tacho suggest the bike will top 120mph (which it can) and rev to 8500rpm (max revs is actually 5800rpm). The motor is lazily free-revving and cruises at the magic ton at an unfussed 4600rpm. The set-up is just right for Ogri, who never hurries anywhere unless Mitzi’s hot to trot (I’m beginning to thick she gives him the run-around).

Getting places quick is the job of the Featherbed frame, which was originally designed by Rex McCandless and raced by Geoff Duke back in 1950. So when Og started building this cop-baiting stormer it was the biz. Frames didn’t get any better until the early 80s.

Although it doesn’t steer quickly, the Norvin isn’t heavy to turn, bit I have to say Ogri’s limited budget (he’s STILL on the dole!) means his mix ‘n’ match worn tyres are a serious drawback to country lane scratching. The front Avon Roadrunner is stepped with age, the rear Metzeler Laser is horribly illegal, and both these narrow strips of rubber drop the bike alarmingly into corners. It’s a far cry from the 190-section stuff you see on today’s machines.

If you’re used to upside-down forks and multi-adjustable suspension, you’d be in for a shock with this thing. The spindly, 34mm forks just go up and down, while the wobbly-looking Girling shocks sport nothing more sophisticated than three preload settings. There’s only limited travel up front and the forks get rattly over bumps (probably because Ogri’s never checked on the oil), but the twin rear units ride fairly well.

The truth is I wouldn’t like to try knee-down action on the Norvin, but that’s not Ogri’s style anywhere. Takes the piss out of us and our ‘namby-pamby’ knee sliders, he does. I reckon he’s too greaser-tough and full of oiky stubble, but don’t tell him I said so. Having said that, his hybrid handles pretty sweetly on the whole, slicing gracefully down the glorious, hedgerow-lined Shropshire country lanes that are Og’s stamping ground.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to balls-out riding are the brakes. Cables and drums never did add up to much, and grabbing a handful at speed isn’t exactly inspiring. If you apply the front brake while pottering, the eight-inch twin leading shoe snatches a little, but you really need to slam both it, and the rear brake, on if you’re bombing along. Which probably explains why Ogri couldn’t stop when Santa pulled out in front of him.

You need a leather arse to ride the Norvin any distance, as there’s hardly any seat padding, but in a caff racer sort of way the machine’s not too uncomfortable. There’s a good stretch to the clip-on bars and you’re very aware of the long, quick-release petrol tank, while the footpegs are placed in a racy sort of position. I dunno where Mitzi sits, unless of course she cuddles up VERY close (though I can’t imagine that would do his concentration any good). Whatever, this is strictly a one-man machine, but that’s the way Ogri likes his biking.

If you think the Norvin is a bit scruffy, it is, but plenty of attention to detail has gone into building it. All nuts and bolts are stainless for starters, as are the mudguards and the kickstart lever, and I rather like the front wheel trims (a 60s go-faster accessory that today’s yoof often mistakes for disc brakes).

This really is a bike conceived in a pub and built in the garden shed, but unlike all the others it’s the work of an inspired genius. Never again will I laugh at Ogri’s ancient leather jacket, or his clod-hopping boots, or even that ridiculous helmet of his, because they’re as much part of the Norvin as he is.

Oh, how I’d love me entrance hall carpet covered with sump oil once more. And if Santa cuts me up this Christmas, he’s better watch out.

Words Olly Duke

Bike magazine

By Bike magazine

Britain's best-selling motorcycle magazine