Shaken & Stirred

      

It might be a boneshaker because of its girder forks and rigid rear but riding a perfectly restored war era Norton 16H has its own charm, as Shahwar Hussain finds out.

 

Photographs: Ramesh Pathania

 

The Unapproachable Nortons’, that’s what the catchline said and with good reason too. Even if the slogan had said, ‘The Indestructible Nortons’, I guess it would not have been too far off the mark. ‘Unapproachable’ seemed an apt phrase because ever since the inception of the Norton Manufacturing Company in 1898, its motorcycles have won numerous races. In fact, a Norton won the first ever Isle of Man Tourist Trophy motorcycle race and this helped establish the company. Over the years, Norton motorcycles in all categories won races by the bagful in the Isle of Man, which has become a sort of Holy Grail in the world of motorcycle racing. And British motorcycles were then the last word in racing, in every category.

India has a large number of British motorcycles but a vast majority of these are from the WWII era. Post war British twins are hard to come by and whatever is available costs the earth. The war era 500cc single Norton 16H is the most easily available and affordable Norton around. I have seen quite a few of these in Delhi but hardly any of them are restored to original specifications and most of them don’t run smoothly. But my friend Mukul Gupte is one of those few who likes to keep his bikes in proper running condition and in the original trim, even if it meant waiting for what seemed like ages for original spares.

Over the years, Mukul has bought a 350cc 1952 Matchless and a 1960 AJS twin. But it is the 1940 Norton 16H that he is a little biased towards. Just a little really. He wouldn’t want to annoy his other bikes. Antique bikes can be very temperamental, you know.

Mukul bought the bike a couple of years ago and even though it was not restored, it was still good and ran admirably. Quite a few of the original fitments were missing. The bike ran on a Mikuni carb and the chronometric speedo was missing, as was its drive. The dynamo was fitted on but it was a useless piece of metal and seemed to be there just for ornamental value.

The bike looked shabby with all its peeling paint and rust and Mukul certainly seemed to have paid a rather high price for it. But, as he later told me, he paid the price only because the engine and the gearbox sounded pretty solid. But he rebuilt the engine all the same sometime later. So I wonder why he paid the kind of money he did in the first place.

 

A few months after he bought the 16H Mukul rode it to Dehra Dun and later on to Jaipur and on both occasions the 64 year old machine didn’t let him down. Riding a machine that you have done up yourself or had your friend work on gives you a high level of confidence and, since Mukul wanted to ride the motorcycle confidently, he decided to go in for a groundup restoration. His close friend Gurmukh Singh, who is a vintage bike restorer of repute, was the obvious choice and what a job he has done!

Stripping a bike is the easy part but putting it back together with genuine parts is a different ballgame altogether. Genuine parts are highly elusive but not impossible to find. Stripping the engine revealed that the previous owner had done a rather good job and most of the engine parts were in perfect running condition. But it seems he couldn’t find an oversized piston and so put in a standard piston along with a sleeve. But Mukul didn’t like the look of the sleeve and had the barrel rebored to take in a size 20 piston.

He had to wait quite a while for the piston but the wait was worth it. The crankshaft didn’t really need polishing but he did it all the same and fitted in a new big end bearing. Perhaps for mental satisfaction. All the bushes that were tapped in the engine and the gearbox were made of bronze and even if they were manufactured locally, they had a high degree of finish. Old Delhi has a labyrinth of narrow lanes where you can find anything from dynamite to a dysentery pill with genuine motorcycle spare parts thrown in. But you have to spend a considerable amount of time browsing through them.

 

I am sure Mukul did just that and he found original Norton valves and guides but had the seats locally made. Once he was compelled to put in some adulterated petrol and the engine compression went out of the window. He had to open the head and grind the valves all over again. This bike has side valves. I don’t know what exactly happened but with these old bikes one has to be extremely careful as to what type of fuel is used.

An overwhelming number of Norton models were fitted with Sturmey Archer gearboxes and the 16H is no exception. These gearboxes are built like tanks and are virtually indestructible. Hardly surprising, given the fact that a huge number of the 16H was supplied to the British and the allied army during WWII. They performed superlatively both in the intense heat of the African desert and the biting cold of Northern Europe. The gearbox was just stripped, cleaned and put back again. No replacements needed. It has the one up, three down format and the first gear needs a bit of a jerk to slot in. The rest of the gears slot in very easily.

 

The bike ran perfectly with a Mikuni carb sourced from an Enfield Bullet but there is nothing like an original Amal carb. Amal carbs are not the easiest of spares to find but perseverance obviously pays and Mukul was able to find a brand new Amal 6/4 carb that has a separate float and a thin wire mesh that passes off as an air cleaner. The consumption has gone up but the idling is perfect and when the throttle is opened suddenly, there is no hint of fuel starvation. As with all other bikes of that period, the 16H also has 6 volt electricals. A new armature for the dynamo was sourced and the field coils retaped. The magneto was in a much better condition and after servicing the sparks flew long and blue.

Other than Matchless motorcycles, also a part of Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), no other British bikes of that period sported teledraulic front suspension. The 16H has girder forks in front and the rear is rigid. The saddle seat with springs acts as shock absorbers.

As I rode the bike over some rough stretches I could see the front wheel, miles up front, bobbing up and down with the auxiliary spring working overtime. Riding a vintage bike offers unadulterated joy but every time I hit a pothole, it took the joy out of riding a wee bit. An inexperienced rider will definitely be thrown out of the saddle by the backslap of the rigid rear if he hits a pothole too fast. Sometime back I rode the bike for quite a long distance on bumpy roads. It was fine then, but the next morning my aching bones painfully reminded me of my ride.

 

The starting drill of the 16H is the same as that of any other old 4-stroke single. Decompress the engine and then execute a strong kick with a good follow-through and the engine roars to life. On smooth roads it rode beautifully and during one of my rides I was able to keep up comfortably with the 50kph traffic with a lot of throttle to spare. The jerky chronometric speedometer is new and works well but recently the speedo drive at the front wheel packed up. The speedo was not a legal requirement at that time and is an after market fitment.

Since the 16H was manufactured mainly for the army, there was no chromium plating. But after the war, surplus 16H bikes were made available to the public and these had chrome on the tank, exhaust, handlebars and rims. Mukul’s bike is an war era one and he painted the whole bike black except the tank. The 16H was extensively used in the desert campaign by the Allied Army against Rommel and these were painted in a sandy hue. Mukul’s bike does not have the exact colour but it is close. Although the buffed engine and the chromed exhaust are non-period, they stand out and look good too. A little bit of deviation is allowed and who am I to complain. Besides, this paint scheme makes for great photography. '