Unapproachable: The 1957 Norton International Model 30

The Norton International Model 30 with its Featherbed frame epitomizes British bikes.

Norton International Model 30

1957 Norton International Model 30

Photo by Jeff Barger

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Top speed: 100mph-plus (est.)
Engine:
490cc air-cooled OHC single, 79mm x 100mm bore and stroke, 29.5hp @ 5,500rpm (claimed)
Weight (wet):
380lb (173kg)
Fuel capacity:
4.5gal U.S. (17ltr)
Price then/now:
$750 (est.)/$7,000-$16,000

As early as 1908, Norton had adopted the famous “Unapproachable” tag line to describes its motorcycles; the slogan took on renewed meaning in 1927, when Norton’s Walter Moore designed a new overhead camshaft engine called the CS1 — for Camshaft Model One.

Based on the bottom half of Norton’s Model 18 overhead valve 500cc single, an engine first seen in 1922, the rest of the CS1 was completely different, with a vertical bevel-shaft drive to an overhead camshaft. The bevel tunnel and the paddle-shaped timing chest and cover on the right side of the crankcase gave the appearance of a cricket bat, a reference used by British enthusiasts to this day.

Placed in a new frame complete with a Webb girder fork, a purposeful-looking gas tank and 8-inch drum brakes front and rear, the CS1 looked and acted the business of racing. And while the engine wasn’t entirely without faults, the machine performed admirably. Alec Bennett took a new CS1 to victory in the 1927 Isle of Man Senior TT, ensuring the importance of the overhead cam engine in Norton’s racing program.

In 1929, Moore — who owned the rights to the overhead cam engine — left Norton to pursue a career at German-based NSU. Because of this move, Norton was prompted to redesign the overhead cam engine. Chief designer Arthur Carroll led the work, together with assistant Edgar Franks and development engineer Joe Craig.

Gone was the cricket bat-shaped tower drive, but Carroll retained the CS1’s 79mm bore by 100mm stroke, and these dimensions remained the same for every 500cc single Norton made until 1963.

The International

All of this is a long-winded way of introducing the Norton International, which first appeared in 1932 as the 500cc Model 30 and 350cc Model 40.

These were Norton’s top-of-the-range sporting motorcycles, and were based on developments first tried in their works racing machines. In Norton’s catalog, the CS1 became a touring model, while the International was intended for track use or fast roadwork. The International could be ordered with any number of Norton’s factory race goodies to make it a competitive mount for amateur, or “clubmans,” racing, but it could also be bought with lights and a kickstarter to make life easier for use on the road.

In 1936, Norton introduced the Manx Grand Prix version of the International. Built solely for racing, the Manx Grand Prix featured magnesium crankcases and cambox and, by 1938, undamped telescopic forks. With a magneto to provide spark, there was no need for a generator to supply power for lights, as there were none.

Production of both the Manx and International models halted in 1939. By that time, the standard International incorporated a 4-speed footshift gearbox running in Norton’s “garden gate” plunger-suspension rear frame with girder front fork — it hadn’t yet been upgraded to the telescopic forks of the Manx Grand Prix.

Sparking desire

According to motorcycle enthusiast Joe Block of Chicago, Illinois, early Norton International single-cylinder motorcycles are some of the most desirable machines anywhere. “The Norton International is a gorgeous motorcycle, in my opinion, and epitomizes British machines,” Joe says.

Joe is also a fan of Norton’s famous Featherbed frame, which was developed post-World War II by Irish brothers Rex and Cromie McCandless. In the early 1940s, the McCandless brothers were working to improve the handling of their own Triumph motorcycle, building a new swingarm frame to make their T100 Tiger more competitive. It wasn’t long before the brothers’ work came to Norton’s attention, and they were persuaded to create a prototype frame for the company — a duplex-tube chassis with swingarm rear suspension. It was designed to lower the bike’s center of gravity by moving the fuel tank farther back from the steering head and helped centralize weight for better handling.

First raced at England’s Blandford circuit in 1950, where it won with a record speed and record lap, the new frame brought Norton a 1-2-3 win in both the Junior and Senior Isle of Man TT races. It was clear the Featherbed frame was a game-changer, and the first road-going Norton with a Featherbed frame was the 1951 Model 88 Dominator, equipped with the company’s new 499cc parallel twin engine.

But getting back to the International, the 500cc Model 30 and 350cc Model 40 returned in 1947, updated with Norton’s Roadholder forks but still using the garden gate plunger frame. The last real significant update occurred in 1953, when Norton placed its Model 30 and Model 40 single-cylinder engines in the Featherbed frame. “After World War II and into the early 1950s, these single-cylinder Nortons were becoming less competitive,” Joe says. “When Norton decided to use the Featherbed frame for its International, they breathed a little life back into the model, but sales were starting to dip. They were expensive to produce, and performance-wise they were being eclipsed by machines that cost less to buy. Plus, by the mid-1950s the engine was getting a little dated for the majority of the general public.”

By 1955, the International was no longer listed in Norton’s sales catalog. A Model 30 International, with its all-alloy 79mm bore by 100mm stroke single-cylinder engine could, however, still be special ordered until 1958. Compression was 8.1:1, and according to Barry Stickland, writing for the Norton Owners Club (NOC) U.K., a new style of muffler was introduced to help the engine, which was rated at 29.5 horsepower, deliver a bit more power. The wheel hubs were full-width cast iron. Roadholder forks absorbed bumps at the front, and distinctive bolt-on chrome panels adorned the gas tank. Very few 500cc Internationals were made in these later years. According to figures Joe has found, only 70 500cc Model 30 and 10 350cc Model 40 Internationals were built in 1957.

Joe Block’s International

With Joe’s affinity for the Featherbed frame, when he found this 1957 Norton International Model 30 for sale, he didn’t hesitate to buy it. Joe also has a twin-cylinder 1961 Norton Manxman 650 with a Featherbed frame, and the single-cylinder International with the Featherbed simply adds to his Norton riding experience.

Joe’s stable of machines also includes a 1953 Ariel Square Four, a 250cc single-cylinder 1937 Velocette MOV, a 1950 Vincent Rapide and a modern 2014 KTM. Joe likes to ride. He is the third owner of this 1957 Norton International, and it’s a very original machine. That’s just the way Joe likes to find them — showing timeworn scars of active duty.

According to its known history, this Norton left the factory on Feb. 8, 1957, and was sold to Woody Kimes, a Norton dealer in Mansfield, Ohio. During the first year or two of his ownership, Kimes somehow damaged the gas tank. He ordered a replacement from Norton, and was sent one meant to fit a 1956 model; it doesn’t have the bolt-on chrome panels that a ’57 or ’58 International tank would have featured.

Kimes kept the Norton until 1973, when Jerry Ficklin of Sheridan, Indiana, bought it. Jerry operates a small British-bike shop called Vintage Motorcycle Supply. As purchased, the top end of the engine was off of the Norton, and the entire machine was dusty and dirty from sitting since the early 1960s. “I took the engine apart,” Jerry says. “The bottom end was tight and the bearings were good. I put in new rings and cleaned the valves. I also put on new chains and tires, and apart from a good clean, that was about it.”

Jerry rode the bike occasionally, putting some miles on it, but by 2014 the International was surplus to his personal collection. “I had it for 40-some years. It’s fun to ride in the mountains and play boy racer, but it’s not the best bike to take out for Thursday night bike get-togethers,” Jerry says. “I just wasn’t riding it as much and it was time to sell.” That’s when Joe heard about the Norton. He bought it with 25,668 miles on the original Smiths speedometer; in a year, he’s added some 600 miles to that figure.

Joe obtained Norton factory records from the Norton Owners Club, and the documents show that his International has all of the correct numbers — including engine and engine case mating numbers, frame, gearbox and forks — that the machine had when it left the works. Nonstandard extras were taller American handlebars and the black finish. The standard home market finish was Norton polychromatic grey, and that’s how most of the last Internationals were delivered. Joe maintains that a black late-model International, from the factory, is a very rare machine.

During his ownership, Joe’s done nothing to the Norton but sort out some wiring. The hot lead to the horn shorted out and slightly damaged a few wires. With the electrical loom fixed and a sealed 6-volt battery in place, the Lucas 6-volt generator keeps everything topped up and all of the lights work.

Joe likes the simplicity and the running characteristics of single-cylinder engines, but admits there is a technique to starting them. “Jerry gave me a lesson on how to start the International, and now I think I’ve got the procedure down to two or three kicks.”

The routine begins by thumbing the choke lever on the right hand handlebar closed, followed by a “tickle” of the float on the 1-5/32-inch Amal TT carburetor. Thumbing the lever on the left handlebar, Joe retards the timing on the manual advance Lucas magneto. Then, using the kickstarter, he brings the piston up to compression, just before top dead center. Next, he pulls the small decompression lever, just below the clutch lever, and nudges the piston past compression. Without disturbing the piston, he brings the kickstarter back to the top of its travel. Finally, with a good, solid kick, the International should fire. The ignition can be advanced and the choke slowly opened as the engine warms. “It is easier to start once it’s been running for a bit,” Joe explains. “The magneto does still seem to be quite strong, although it’s never been rebuilt.”

Addressing his classic motorcycle maintenance philosophy, Joe says, “I prefer to consider myself more of a rider and a caretaker than a collector, and I’m not a fastidious cleaner. None of my bikes are garage queens, and the Norton certainly gets ridden.” Joe keeps the International at a second home near the Driftless Area in southwest Wisconsin, a region known for its carved river valleys. He says the roads around his house offer plenty of curves, as they rise and drop through a diverse topography that includes forested hillsides, prairie grasslands and expansive wetlands. “I can sometimes ride 40 or 50 miles without seeing any other traffic,” Joe says of the experience. “It’s something of a motorcycle mecca.

“The Norton, with its rather tall gearing, is ideally suited for this kind of riding. It’s not an easy bike to ride in the city, because there’s such a gap between first and second gears. But second, third and fourth are all close together, and once up to speed, it’s a distinct pleasure.”

And for Joe, that’s as close to an unapproachable experience as there could be on a finely fettled Norton. MC