Bike Reviews.

Les’ Custom 1949 Norton Roadster

Building a custom bike on a meager budget is dead set impossible, unless that is, you’ve got the technical ability to hand craft most of the parts yourself as well as the knack to scrounge and swap most of the bits and pieces. Well that is exactly what Les did to complete his ’49 Norton Roadster.

My first glimpse of this stunning 49’ Norton was at a recent bike show. Surprisingly, however, it was parked in the outside bike park along with all the other daily rides some distance from main show event.

“This certainly needed more investigation”, I quietly mused to myself as I took a few happy snaps before setting off in search of the owner. Sometime later I tracked him down, introduced myself adding how I admired his bike and was interested in writing a yarn.

We agreed to meet up in a few weeks’ time and exchanged numbers. As we parted I glanced down at the note he’d written his contact details then turned back towards him and asked “Les?” he smiled and replied, “Les said the better”. Had I just met the real Les Norton star from the famous Robert G Barrett novels?

Early Saturday morning a few weeks later over a piping hot coffee the story behind this impressive Norton build began to unfold.

“I’d had a few Harley’s over the years,” Les began. “Besides, everyone has Harleys and I wanted something that was different. The idea of building a Norton had been lurking in the back of my mind since I was a teenager. I had a clear picture of what I wanted the end result to look like; I’d probably built it in my head about a million times over the years. ”

Back in early 2008 when Les arrived home with an old Norton frame and dismantled 73’ Norton 750 engine in the back of his ute he knew this project would take some time to complete and throw up a few challenges. However he quickly admits he didn’t believe that transforming his idea into the finished vision was to prove a painstaking challenge that would take over six years to realize.

The original ’49 model Norton’s only ran a 500cc engine, Les wanted a bit more punch out of his new ride which is why he jumped at the opportunity to grab the 750cc engine out of a 73 model when it was offered to him.

“Norton motorcycle’s have had a bit of history at the Isle of Man in the early days,” Les recalled. “In fact Norton won the first ever TT in 1907. My idea was to try capturing the history of the Norton. “You don’t see many Norton bikes around these days even their standard form. However when you do see someone who has had a go at building a custom Norton they’ve generally grabbed a Norton motor and tossed it into a flat tracker rigid frame.”

“This bike of mine started off as a standard Norton frame and still has all the isolastics in it,” he added. “That was a challenge all on it’s own too. Norton engines are renowned for having a bit of rock to them. Most Norton’s run rough when they idle but will smooth out once you hit the throttle. This engine is worked and fully balanced and still does have a little of Norton rock at idle but no where near as bad a factory engine.”

Les admits this engine rebuild was his first attempt at major engine reconstruction work, by “major engine work” I mean making some serious engine modifications not merely bolting it back together with a new set of pistons and bearings.

“To keep the traditional look of the ’49 style engine, I wanted to use the early model timing cover. This meant that I needed to move the standard ’73 magneto from the outside front of the engine to rear of the block back inside frame behind the cylinders.” 

“It had the originally Pommy one which didn’t work at the best of times, Les smiled. “I fitted a Joe Hunt magneto with the ‘Retro Red’ bakelite cap. “Now that took some working out, I had to fit additional sprockets and chains and modify the oil ways to ensure everything would be well lubricated.”

The highly modified engine stills runs the standard Norton carburetors with open throat staintubes fitted with gauze so moths and bugs won’t get suck in the carby while Les is out winding the throttle on in the fast lane.

When it comes to estimating how far the engine is bored out and how much power it produces. Les just leant back in his chair, smiled and said, “It’s bored out to the max and runs like a ‘raped date’. Needless to say you’ve really got to hang on to it,” he added.

The intricate machining didn’t end once the engine was complete, there is a bracket the on right hand fork leg that Les machined out of a solid aluminum billet. “There were a number of different angles and a couple of radius that needed to be machined into that piece. I started of building a cardboard template so I could check all the angles and the fit. It took a few attempts before I was satisfied enough to commence making the piece out of the alloy billet.

“Sometimes it would take weeks of trial and error just to make one piece by hand,” Les said recalling the despair he’d occasionally feel when he’d head back to the drawing board to redesign a piece that he’d spent days and days making.

Every now and then he’d catch a lucky break, as was the case the headlight. “It’s actually an old Lucas light from a car that I scraped all the paint off and polished up,” he said. “Like everything else it to has been highly modified to house all the switchgear and given the wire mesh in the front to suit the period of the bike.

“The brass badges on the tank I designed myself, and sent the pattern off to a chap in England who made them up for me. “The badges arrived back here in Australia a month or so later, very reasonably priced mind you and with a little note that read, if you have any other bright ideas please let me know.”

The badge is actually held on with wheel spoke adjusters.

Les wasn’t a fan of the original Norton dash, likening it to a Honda Four and set about streamlining it to better suit the fast lines of an Isle of Man contender. I’ve slimed it down to a light for high beam, light for ignition and located the speed, which incidentally is in miles per hour into the headlight. 

There was a large gap in the area above the transmission and Les made good use of this space by building a custom electrical housing. “The top of that electrical box is actually an end cap off an old discarded fire hydrant,”

Glance around the bike further and more hand crafted parts become apparent. The rear brake light switch is an old drinking goblet.

To keep with the period of the bike, where blokes would commandeer bits and pieces from the kitchen then modify and mold them into parts for their bike, Les did much the same.

“That’s how it was back in the day,” Les added. “Mum would wake up one morning and be missing a heap of stuff out of the kitchen. The derby cover on the front wheel is an old steam lid. Sometimes its easiler to modify something than make it from scratch.”

“Take the mirrors, they are full spun alloy billets that I’ve turned up on the lathe then I’ve made the brass inlay around the glass but the backing plates are actually brass bowls that you dip your fingers in from the Chinese restaurant.” 

“We get plenty of wildlife around this neck of the woods so I made up these critter whistles out of brass,” Les said. “I pulled one of those cheap plastic ones apart to get the pattern then made them up. Funny thing once I’d finished them, I had them sitting up on the shed roof blowing some compressed air through them to see if they worked. I couldn’t hear anything when I blew the air through them and was feeling my efforts might have been in vain.

“The neighbour’s dogs down in the valley had started barking so I wasn’t really in a good place mentally, when I gave the whistles another few squirts of air. That’s when I realized those dogs barked louder and more aggressive each time I blew a squirt of air through the whistles so I was more than pleased with how they worked.”

The fuel tank is a standard Norton Commando tank, and Les built the front out to give it a wider presence in the nose. “It probably chewed up $500 worth of liquid steel to do that,” he added.  But one day I’d like to build an aluminum tank for it.”

“The engravings all around the bike are my own designs which I took it into town and got it all professionally done.”

Les pointed out that all the oil lines are hand done and took hours to carefully bend. The cooper winding around the fuel line is another piece of Les’ handy work and he added that he scored the wire from some old power wire at the local scrap yard.

“The success of any bike build is a painstaking process and that involves getting the stance of the bike right,” Les revealed, thoughtfully pointing to ward the bike. “You’re half way there when you have established the lines of the bike.”

“The seat was the last thing that I made for it I even did my own leather work,” Les said. “It gives you really nice road feel and the bike is very responsive to any input, if you twitch on the seat then that’s where you’re going.”

“I ride it whenever I can, but mind you, you’ve got to pick your spots because its pretty low and some places it just won’t go,” he smiled. “I only run 12 pound in the rear tyre. I made the mistake once of adding an extra pound or two and ended up busting the headlight off it. The front tyre I run standard pressure like you do in your Harley.”

Make no mistake, Les is adamant this bike is true street machine and it’s made to be ridden.

Norton’s Famous Frames – Sidebar.

At the 1949 Isle of Man TT, Harold Daniell riding a Norton won the 500 CC Senior TT event with an average speed of 86.93 mph. Second place went to Johnny Locket also riding a Norton with an average speed of 86.19 mph. Artie Bell came fourth on a Norton. Of the top five bikes to finish the 500 CC TT that year Norton convincingly dominated with three places with Velocette in third and Triumph in fifth.

It’s little wonder that Les chose 1949 as the year to commemorate his hand built Norton Roadster and honor the marque that dominated Isle of Man that year.

The original 1949 Norton Isle of Man racing bikes had a new frame that went into production bikes in 1950. Leading up to the 1949 TT event, Norton engineers were becoming increasing concerned about the reliability of their aging plunger frame, as several had broken through the stress of racing. According to some historians a Norton engineer Joe Craig solved the problem by reworking the frames with heavier material, however the bike’s handing suffered as a result.  At the same time a couple of Belfast brothers who were self taught bike builders were competing successfully on the racing circuits with a modified Triumph Tiger 100.

Rex McCandless had been a successful motorcycle racer prior to the Second World War and his innovative designs and modifications saw his bikes consistently at the front of the field. One of his improvements to the Triumph, was an innovative new frame with a swinging arm fitted with vertical hydraulic shock absorbers from a Citroen car. It worked well and caught the eye of BSA who promptly purchased several of his converted frames.

It also caught the eye of Norton, who saw the real opportunity and contracted the brothers to work exclusively for them from 1949.

Now Norton had the McCandless brothers busily designing a complete new frame that would incorporate their swinging arm, confidence was restored. McCandless' finished design was expensive, as it required over forty feet of the best Reynolds steel tubing. It boasted superior strength to resist torsional twists from a twin loop welded construction with a swinging arm fitted with the brother’s own design of shock absorbers, with a heavily braced cross-over headstock. In two months a prototype motorcycle with the new frame was on the test track and it was tested on the Isle of Man in the winter of 1949. The new frame performed exceptionally well and Norton elected that their Norton works team would use the new frames for racing that year.

When winning rider Harold Daniell stepped off his Norton with the new frame, he declared that it was like "riding on a featherbed" compared with riding the "garden gate– and it has been called the ‘Featherbed’ frame ever since.

Move ahead to the late sixties where the capacity of the Norton engine increased to 750cc however with the power enhancement came an increase in engine vibration being transmitted through the frame.

The solution was an all new innovative designed isolastic frame that made it smoother through the use of rubber bushes to isolate the engine and swingarm from the main frame, forks, and rider and went on to become know as the Super-Ride.

The 1973 750CC Norton Commando Roadster boasted a 2 1 gallon (18 litre) steel petrol tank. A long distance version, called the Commando Interstate was also available with a larger 5 3 gallon (27 litre) steel tank.

Bike Specs

Model                                     ’49 Norton Custom Roadster

Running Gear

Engine                                   Modified ’73 Norton twin 750CC

Carbs                                     32 mm Wassell

Magneto                                Joe Hunt

Engine Mount                       Norton Isolastic

Frame                                                Hard tail

Primary Drive                        30mm belt

Primary                                  Open cutaway

Chain guard                         brass

Cables                                   Copper Braid

Fuel Line                               Copper Braid

Oil Lines                                Copper

Front Wheel                          19 inch with stainless spokes

Rear Wheel                           19 inch with stainless spokes

Front Brakes                         Drum

Rear Brakes                          Drum

Headlight                              Lucas Polished brass

Seat                                        Leather hand crafted

Washers & Spacers                        Copper

Tool bag                                Leather hand crafted

July 01, 2017