Last Updated on 25/08/2020
Norvin. A name that was long forgotten in my mind, and truth be told, of course I knew the name but it never really registered as to just exactly what it is. It’s a Norton & Vincent mashup, unless you’re Gregg Wallace or John Torode, and then it would be called a ‘fusion’.
As a child, I’d hear the name Norvin a number of times, but the significance of it was lost on me, I suppose up until right now. Norvin … the legendary Vincent motorcycle, or at least the powerplant from one, shoehorned into a Norton frame.
Of course, looking from today’s perspective, some of us may shudder at the notion of breaking a Vincent apart, junking the rolling chassis and using just the engine as a donor, but the truth is that these were never a bastardised version of a ‘special’, and as such, a genuine Norvin will command similar money to an unmolested Vincent.
Another first for today – after researching the Norvin, my all-time number one ‘want’ has changed; goodbye Metisse Desert Racer, hello Norvin.
So, What exactly is a Norvin?
Despite saying that it’s no homemade bastardised special, it kind of is.
There was never an official Norvin, and there’s no one single specification that’s the definitive Norvin, although of course the bigger powerplants are favoured over the smaller, less powerful motors. The commonality is purely Norton featherbed frame, Vincent engine.
It’s widely acknowledged that the first Norvin was the brainchild of the legend that is John Surtees. He worked at the Vincent factory (before dominating the racing scene on both two and four-wheels), and his father owned a Vincent dealership. Surtees was riding a Manx Norton at the time, racing against the likes of Geoff Duke, and after realising just how capable the Norton was, he looked to up the power.
He built himself a Lightning engine, fitted with two Grey Flash cylinder heads and slotted it into a Manx Norton rolling chassis. Initial testing went well, but before the bike could be raced in anger, Norton offered Surtees a works ride, and that was the end of the Norvin project.
The reasons for the special were simple: The featherbed frame was generally regarded as the best handling frame of the time, beating everything else hands-down, and of course the Vincent engine was beautifully engineered, powerful, and reliable.
When you look at pictures of the Norvin using the big 998cc engine, you can see that when the big Vinny engine is fitted, it really is fitted, like a well-tailored suit.
In fact, it’s such a tight fit that the special builders used all manner of tricks to get them to fit – some tilted the front of the engine upward, which made accessing the front cylinder head impossible. other builders removed the rear engine mounts, some would use the Norton gearbox rather than the larger Vincent ‘box, and in extreme cases, the front downtubes were removed, or the frame widened and lengthened.
All in the pursuit of an extra 20 – 30hp.
Today of course, thirty brake horsepower is pretty easily achieved with a laptop and a rolling road. Back then though it would have involved completely re-engineering the motor, and that then leads to extra stresses on mechanical components that can’t be changed or swapped out, which of course leads to unreliability, along with a bill that would make your eyes water. It just wasn’t practical when you could just swap the motor to that of one that made the power reliably.
The Norton Featherbed Frame
“Like riding on a featherbed, rather than a garden gate” was how Harold Daniell, a successful Isle of Man TT racer described the new Norton frame after testing it in 1950. Interestingly, it also dates back to another successful brand from just over a decade earlier – Brough took great delight in using the quote from ‘Castor’ of ‘Motor Cycling’ in their marketing materials:
“The Rear Spring Frame renders pitching or wobble non-existent, impossible. A feather bed could scarcely be safer.”
This quote was taken just after his experience on a special Brough Superior S.S. 100, on which he clocked 106 m.p.h. in second gear (on the road).
The origins of the frame came about from two brothers, Rex and Cromie McCandless, who along with being competitive racers, were a dab hand at engineering. They’d improved their Triumph with a new home designed & built frame and swingarm, to which they’d fitted two hydraulic shocks from a Citroen car. After BSA purchased several frames from the Belfast brothers, Norton went a step further and commissioned them exclusively.
The end result was expensive, mainly as a result of needing over forty feet of the Reynolds steel tubing, but after testing the new frame, Norton were convinced it was the way forward and ordered new frames for their works racing team.
“This invention relates to a new or improved frame for a motorcycle which comprises two substantially parallel rectangular loops each formed from a single length of tubing, and the ends of the tube forming each loop cross and are welded to each other at the top front corner of the loop, the free ends of the tube which extend beyond the crossing point being welded to the side of an inclined head tube adjacent to the top and bottom thereof. The assembled frame is extremely strong for its weight and designed to provide the maximum resistance to any stresses applied to the frame by road shocks or by the driving torque of the power unit.”From the patent office
The Vincent Engine
“The makers of the world’s fastest motorcycles”.
Ever seen the picture of the man on a Vincent motorcycle, wearing just his trunks, setting the land speed record? That’s Roland Free at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948, riding a Vincent Black Lightning – 150.313mph. You can only shudder at the thought of hitting the salt doing 150mph wearing just your ‘bathing suit’.
Vincent motorcycles were sporty, but weren’t sporty sporty; think of it like a big Kawasaki ZZR1400 or Hayabusa in the modern day – bullet fast, but could be beaten by something that handled and rode better, with a little less power. The logical step is to fit the big Vinny engine into a chassis that could maximise the power, and the featherbed frame was just the thing.
Whilst there have been Norvins made with the smaller 500cc Meteor and Comet engines, the Norvins that have achieved the greatest acclaim all started with the beast of the 998cc V-twin engine. Power from the standard engines ranged from 45 – 55hp, but with a few minor tweaks, that could be raised to around 65hp, which was a significant upgrade over the competition.
Modern Day Norvins
While it’s possible to find a genuine 1950s or 60s Norvin for sale, they’re obviously becoming harder to get hold of, and owners are tending to tuck them away for sunny days, never to be sold. Prices fluctuate wildly; the nature of the beast, being typically a homemade special, means that condition and specification always varies.
With that said, even at the lower end of the market, you could easily be looking around £20,000, and then prices start to rocket – £40,000 – £50,000 for a genuine original isn’t unheard of, and time will only ever see that price rise.
However, scarcity is one problem that you shouldn’t worry about too much if you have your heart set on one. It’s possible to buy a new build Norvin, using as close to genuine parts as it’s possible to get – either from manufacturers that supplied original components, or engineered from the original drawings and specifications. It’s not a ‘homage’, perhaps not even a replica, but you couldn’t quite call it a genuine original either.
The really great news is that along with 50+ years of history, comes many decades of development, which means they’re even better than the original; the frame geometry has been perfected, weight-distribution is near perfect, modern electronics take care of essentials like ignition, and of course, modern compounds have been used for tyres, giving the bike excellent grip characteristics.
Pricing is sensible too – a new 1000cc Norvin (they do a 1200cc version) starts around the £40,000 figure, although of course there are plenty of options and customisable components, so maybe add an extra ten thousand or so onto that figure if you want your dream built for you. The downside? It takes around a year from initial conversation to completion.
JMC Norvin Specs:
A Wide-Line Norton frame featuring Girling dual shocks and Road Holder front forks. Stopping is taken care of with the JMC Manx Hubs, which are attached to 18” alloy rims, spoked. A JMC alloy fuel and oil tank take care of the fluids, and similar to the original Vincent, a 5” speedo dominates your eyeline, only this time it’s teamed with a 3” tacho.
As for the engine, both the 1000cc and the 1200cc version use similar components, the difference being that the 1200 utilises a 90 x 90mm bore & stroke, whereas the 1000cc measures up at 86 x 90mm, and the 1200 version has a slightly bigger carb – 34mm opposed to 32mm for the smaller bike.
As for the rest: a twin cylinder four stroke, with power rated at 66hp or 76hp at 6200 rpm (1000 vs 1200), mated to a 4-speed gearbox, with electronic or magneto ignition, an Alton alternator, JMC race style clutch (surprisingly light), and electric start. Twin spark ignition can also be an option.
Finally, there’s a choice of exhaust options, including a race pipe, which must sound glorious.
The reality about purchasing, or living with a Norvin is the same as any other bike, classics included. Of course there is an element that the originals could be somewhat ‘homemade’, so reliability could depend entirely on how proficient the creator was in the engineering department, but you’d have to think that over the last fifty or so years, any kinks would have been ironed out by now.
As for the new Norvins by JMC, a road test published in the Classic Bike Guide back in April 2018, reports that thanks to the updates, modern components and engineering principles, owning and riding a modern Norvin is the same as any other modern bike, even when fitted with drum brakes (that are specified as ‘Racing’).
It can even have an electric start.
For so many years, I’ve loved the Metisse Desert Racer, I’ve yearned for one, even if it was to just sit in my living room, never to be ridden – it’s a thing of beauty. While researching the Norvin, I came across a picture of (I presume) a restored Norvin, and gosh, I fell in love instantly.
In a separate article for the Ancient Hippy, I wrote about being too stupid, and too immature to own a Hinckley Thruxton, mainly on the grounds of it being a bit slow, despite looking great. The Norvin has changed that. This is the only bike, classic or otherwise that I’d happily live with as my sole bike, to be ‘restricted’ to just 75ish horsepower, and to kerb my roving eye for faster, sleeker, cooler bikes.
Is it wrong to love an inanimate object?