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Video: History-making TT Nortons stir the soul

Published: 07 September 2018

The Manx is Norton’s most successful TT race bike ever, while the SG7 is the reborn firm’s fastest. Seventy years ago, the late Geoff Duke made his debut at the Manx GP and went on to give Norton unprecedented success, on both the 350 and 500 Manx.

And a couple of months ago Josh Brookes lapped the 37 3⁄4-mile Isle of Man circuit at an astonishing 131.75mph average on his way to fifth place in the Senior TT. MCN decided it was time for a family reunion to see what makes both of these Nortons so special.

In garage 34 at a baking hot Donington Park, the Norton technicians prepare the current TT bike. The stunning silver 230bhp Norton is suspended on paddock stands with tyre warmers baking the Dunlop slicks. This is the actual bike that Brookes rode at this year’s Senior TT, finishing one place behind Michael Dunlop.

Sleek and aerodynamic

Switch on the power and the full- colour, iPad-like clocks come alive. One press of the starter button and the angry V4 barks into life. The former GP engine has to be pre- warmed to 70 degrees before it can tackle any track action.

While the motor comes up to temperature the smartly dressed Norton crew checks the oil temperature, tyre pressures and other parameters via the electronic dash. The TT bike is sleek and aerodynamic, everything hidden behind the, now iconic, silver bodywork.

The race set up V4 Norton SG7 seemed pretty loud, until the Manx fired up

All eyes are on the V4, until Ian Bain startles the entire garage by bump-starting his original Manx Norton. With a megaphone exhaust, the 1953 Manx drowns out the modern V4. The throttle has to be blipped, as it won’t tick over. Each handful of revs makes my ribs rattle and my eardrums feel close to bursting.

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There is no bodywork, no tyre warmers, no fuel injection, no cables apart from the one operating the front shoe brake. Ian checks the temperature by putting his oily hand on the separate oil tank; that is as technical as it gets. Once warm, he casually leans the £45k Manx against the wall and gives me the thumbs up.

Slap around the head

With both bikes ready to go, we head towards the hallowed Donington track side-by-side. These two red-blooded racers may be separated by nearly seven decades, yet the fundamentals are familiar. The engines are both in the middle, each has wheels at either end, both have similar rake and trail and the positioning of the bars is almost identical.

Beyond the basics, the differences start to slap you around the head the minute you sling a leg over these unique machines. Norton’s latest 1000cc TT racer makes a wrist-wrenching 230bhp against the 500cc Manx’s 50bhp.

The older bike’s 19in wheels and shoe brakes are humbled by the modern racer’s mighty Brembo radial calipers and 17in lightweight wheels. The 200-section rear tyre dwarfs the Manx’s measly 110 rear.

Edging along pit-lane on the SG7, the up-and-down quickshifter means, once moving, the clutch becomes redundant. All I have to do is focus on my line and braking markers. The TT bike isn’t set up for Donington; the wheelbase is long, as is the gearing, so it’s back to first gear for most of the corners.

Geoff Duke's size and style fitted the Manx Norton perfectly

The party starts

Power is linear, there’s an effortless pull from low down in the revs and the fuelling is impressive for a full-blown race bike. And once you get towards the top end the party really starts.

Over the start/finish line the front-end lifts in first, second, third and fourth gear and I’m not even trying yet. The main straight flashes past in a blink of the eye and I’m only tickling the V4’s power potential, not revving it to its eye-watering 14,500rpm redline.

However, it’s not all about the power; the steering is fluid, allowing the latest Norton weapon to roll beautifully into corners.

The bike isn’t perched on its nose like some razor-sharp track tools. Instead the SG7 handles progressively and predictably allowing smooth and fast cornering.

The current TT machine is also relatively roomy. Mid-corner it’s planted, the wide bars allow you to hang off easily and on corner exit, you’re ready to get back on it. Dial in the power and let the super-sticky Dunlop slick take the strain.

Rolling back down pit-lane I can’t stop smiling. But, now it’s time to step back 65 years and have a crack on the original Manx.

Give it some stick

I’m as nervous about riding the completely original long-stroke Manx Norton as I was the priceless SG7. But owner and classic racer Ian Bain is eager for me to give it some stick.

"You have to rev it. Don’t worry about it, this isn’t a museum bike, it likes to be ridden", he yells over the barking motor.

That’s all well and good, but I need to get my head around a few things first. The Manx has a right foot gearshift and it’s one up, three down. The shoe brakes aren’t the best and the back brake, controlled by my left foot, is almost pointless. The bars feel small, the dimensions tiny and it’s as if I’m sat on the famous featherbed frame. Is there actually a seat?

The seat of the Manx Norton can't be felt at all once you're on it

I was expecting an easy-to-ride single, with loads of lovely torque. I was wrong. Norton tuned the engine for the TT and full-on racing, so all of the power is at the top of the rev range.

Below 4000rpm it nearly stalls and it’s all over just beyond 6000rpm. You have to slip the clutch like crazy too; it’s like riding a two-stroke.

The megaphone exhaust adds to the problem, it makes the fuelling erratic. Get it singing in the sweet spot around 5000rpm and the old Manx comes alive. Drop in the hole of power below that and it splutters and coughs in annoyance.

The Manx starts throwing more quirks at me as I fight to get used to this incredible piece of bike racing history. A blip of the throttle has to accompany every back change and you can only change one gear at a time.

It must have been a nightmare to set it up for the TT

To add to the complications the analogue rev counter bounces around freely. I lose count of the times I am in the wrong gear, just 500rpm short of the sweet zone, only to be greeted by a splutter and backfire; lap ruined.

The likes of Geoff Duke must have been so precise with their gearing back in the day; with only four gears it must have been a nightmare to set it up for the TT.

It handles far better than I was expecting. I’m knee-down with confidence and the modern Avons are offering loads of grip. Carrying corner speed seems to be key; stay tucked in and let it flow. At around 140kg, the bike is light, turns with ease and is fairly stable. There’s an original manual steering damper which can be changed on the move.

The cable-operated stoppers work better the more you pull on the lever. As the heat builds up the lever travels more and brake performance changes from lap to lap. The more I ride the Manx the more it flows and I really start to enjoy the ride. The twin shocks might be 65 years old but the feedback isn’t bad.

The Manx was much harder to ride than I was expecting, and has given me even greater respect not only for the riders at the time, but also for the teams and engineers who had the unenviable task of setting it up and choosing the correct gearing.

The Manx shocked me the most

Back in the garage with both bikes cooling down, I reflect on an amazing day. The current TT bike is frighteningly quick. But the Manx shocked me the most. I can see why the early Norton racers rode on the clutch.

It's easy to see why early Norton racers rode on the clutch

You have to be so precise with the gearing and set up. The chassis felt fine around a smooth Donington Park but at the Isle of Man it must have been something else, especially considering the course wasn’t anything like it is today.

We talk about the bravery of riders now, but back then racers wore open face helmets, soft race leathers, with no safety fencing and very few medical staff. The track was treacherous, too.

Slower speed does not make those pioneering pilots any less skilled than today’s TT gladiators.

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