Colorado Norton Works

Colorado Norton Works keeps the snarly, but smooths out the gnarly on classic Norton motorcycles
By Paul Garson
March/April 2006
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For fans of Britain's classic Norton motorcycles, the seemingly bipolar terms "Snortin' Norton" and "Gnarly Norton" are near and dear to our leatherclad hearts, and help explain the origins of the Colorado Norton Works. The unique bark and snarl of the parallel twin engine, the joys of handling imparted by the classic featherbed and later vibration-isolating isolastic frames, and the lean, clean and purposeful styling all tally up on the "Upside" list of Norton attributes.

However, spotty electrics that helped foster the less than complimentary phrase "Lucas, the Prince of Darkness," some peculiarities of Amal carburetion, mediocre braking, and some engine internals a little on the soft side conspired to form a "Downside" list.

While the Norton motorcycle company faded from existence as the sun finally set on the British motorcycle industry, fans of the bike endeavored to keep them running, and one fan in particular endeavored to keep them running better and longer.

Enter Matt Rambow, who came to the rescue (in Rambo-like fashion) with Colorado Norton Works (CNW), a company he located in the canyon-hugging town of Dolores, Colo. (population 848). He figured it was a nice, quiet place to resurrect motorcycling history.

Named for the Dolores River that runs nearby, the town is also on the doorstep of the famed Million Dollar Highway, an eight-hour twisty-rich motorcycle loop that goes from Cortez through Dolores, Ouray, Durango, and then back to Cortez. It's an all-Colorado loop that could easily be defined as bike heaven.

Dolores does get chilly in the wintertime, but that doesn't faze Rambow, as he hails from Gothenburg on Sweden's west coast. In Sweden he worked on staid and trustworthy Volvos, but he always had a passion for American cars. In 1984 he decided to emigrate to the U.S., forcing him to sell his pride and joy, a restored 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible (white with red leather interior). "It was the one and only such car in Sweden. It was a rust bucket when I got it, and I replaced everything from the waist down."

Rambow had a penchant for putting vintage machinery back on the road — and in much better shape than he found it. He also had a thing for motorcycles, especially Norton twins. Those two passions eventually resulted in Colorado Norton Works, which opened its doors in 1997.

While Ranbow has completed several dozen of his Colorado Norton Works Nortons, all based on 750 and 850 Commandos, he admits one of his favorites is #038, the lipstick-red-framed and polished-alloy café beauty seen on the opening pages of this story. It's a fine example and highly illustrative of his skills.

Weighing less than 400lb, the bike is powered by an 850cc Commando engine sporting a Norvil belt drive conversion for the primary drive and secured to the powder-coated frame via late model MK III isolastics. Ninety-eight percent of the wiring is hidden internally within the frame and swingarm for a super sano look. Suspension is handled by 38mm Marzocchi forks with CNW triple trees while a set of Konis take care of duties in the rear. To lower the bike and fill up the fenders Matt laced on a set of Buchannan wheels with stainless spokes, an 18in up front, a 17in on the rear, rolling a Avon Super Venom front tire and a chunky Avon HKM 130 series rear tire, respectively.

The four-leading-shoe front drum brake, a classic in itself, was rescued from a 1972 Suzuki, the hub highly modified by Matt. Other features include Colorado Norton Works' exclusive billet Z plates, Boyer electronic ignition, high output alternator, and a pair of 35mm Keihin flat-slide pumper carbs: "This is the stuff," Matt says. "They work much better than the Amals or even the Mikunis and, because of their internal rollers, they make this great mechanical sound that's something like the healthy clattering you hear coming out of Ducati or something with a blower." 

Colorado Norton Works by the way, offers a complete bolt-on carb kit to transform your stock Norton. As far as advanced braking upgrades, they also offer a single Brembo front disc conversion designed in collaboration with QTM Inc. that's a straight bolt-on piece replacing the stock Commando front brake.

"It was great working on [the café bike] because the customer said, ‘Do what it takes. Let's have fun.'  I was able to retain the café look and feel yet modernize so that it doesn't feel dated. And then of course there's the impeccable bodywork by Evan Wilcox. It's all hand-formed alloy with the oil tank incorporated into the fuel tank to promote that all-motor, minimalist look." Other details include drag bars, Magura levers, a 1960s Harley- Davidson headlight, and a set of sensuous New Zealand-made Viking 1 and 5/8th-inch exhaust pipes and chromed steel mufflers that make some serious music.

The Café, like every Colorado Norton Works bike, is one-of-a-kind. We figured owners of the companies' fine machines fit that description as well. After all, we're talking a revitalized classic British twin (donor bike supplied by owner) that involves 250 hours of restoration with a price tag of around $20,500-21,500. So, to get some feedback from the people who own CNW Nortons, we hooked up with three owner/riders from across the country and let them add to the story in their own words.

An early Colorado Norton Works Norton

At -10 F thanks to the wind chill factor, Bev Pylman was keeping her CNW Norton snuggled up in the garage at her home out in the country half way between Detroit and Flint, MI. "Not quite riding weather," she laughs. "We had a couple weeks of good riding, then they salted the roads. But it's a good time to do motorcycle maintenance."

Pylman has handled a wrench for some time, having taken her $100 high school graduation gift, and, instead of going on the Senior Trip, bought a used Honda Trail 55. "My Dad was kind of impressed, but you know mothers." Motorcycles went on hold for a few years as Pylman got into aviation, but a Harley Sportster eventually landed in her garage. It fell short of her expectations although the Hugger model did address her height requirements.

Then Pylman and Rambows' paths crossed at the Mid-Ohio bike meet in 1999. "Matt's Norton, a yellow one, was absolutely gorgeous, plus it was lowered and fit me. I told him that if he could find me a right side shift model with both a kick and electric start, and could lower it, that would be great." (The last of the Nortons featured an unreliable electric start. Matt employs a modified H-D Sportster four-brush starter and 625 amp battery to resolve that problem.)

Matt found the right donor bike, a 1975 MK III, and went to work on it.  By the spring of 2000, Pylman had her Norton, one of the first from CNW, number eight, and it was painted silver and a black. "It became my daily rider. I rode the Sportster one last time on our less-than-well-maintained Michigan roads, and that cured me. After riding the Norton, there was absolutely no comparison. My first reaction was easy, so easy to ride and the power… I felt I go across country on this bike, it was such a pleasure. I pulled into the driveway on the Sportster and put a "for sale" sign and it sold the first day." As of this writing, Pylman has clocked some 16,000 miles on her CNW Norton.

A recently- retired model maker at the GM Tech Center, Pylman knows a bit about design and prototyping. "As far as maintenance, it's easy to adjust the bike's valves, find parts and replace them." She's apparently kept her Norton in fine fettle. At the Battle of the Brits show held in Michigan, her CNW #008 has won First Place in the Custom Class for three years running.

Enjoying a classic: CNW #46

Dave Landis has had a passion for motorcycles since he was seven. The love was indelibly imprinted in his mind while walking home from second grade in Miami. When his older brother Richard pulled up on his spiffy new 250 Triumph Cub, "he gave me a ride home and from that moment the dye was cast. I've especially had a place in my heart for British twins," says Landis.

As a member of a military family, Landis found himself transplanted from Florida to Alaska where he rode all manner of motorcycles including a BSA 441. Currently transplanted from his home in Mississippi to higher ground in Highlands, N.C., as the result of Hurricane Katrina, his eclectic garage contains a Harley-Davidson Road King, a1966 BMW R69S and one of Matt's Nortons, bike #46 painted in classic Manx silver.

Prior to its resurrection by Colorado Norton Works, the bike was a 1973 850 Commando Roadster found as a basket case by Dave's brother-in-law. Basically a pile of nuts of bolts, that, to his credit, he got running. "In a moment of weakness, he decided to sell it, and I swooped it up," says Dave. Through the Norton Owners Club newsletter he learned about Rambows' establishment, and further research told him CNW was the answer to his needs. "He balances the engine components down to one tenth of a gram and all the seals are perfect so it doesn't drip oil. Not to mention the stock wiring, a rat's nest that Matt has straightened out with his ultra clean, simplified wiring system. Matt's a real genuine guy with a lot of integrity. He does it first class all the way, and there's never been any problems. When I first saw the completed bike, I was just astounded. It was absolutely gorgeous. Better yet, I got to ride it."

Asked how much he enjoys riding through the North Carolina mountains, Landis replies;  "It's all twisty roads, so you're in second and third gear. There was a smile on my face that would not go away for the rest of the day. It's so agile and nimble; the bike just eats up those corners."

#023, #038 and #24

While Roger Yount was hunting for Norton parts at a swap meet, a vendor suggested he give Matt a call. The rest is history. Roger owns not one, but a trio of CNW's Nortons  "About six years ago I hooked up with Matt over a rebuild for an engine. But after looking at the CNW web site and photos of their work, I ended up shipping them a '74 850 Commando and had them do the whole thing, top to bottom. When the bike was done, I flew out to Albuquerque and drove out to Dolores. I was just amazed and blown away when they rolled it out of the barn. I spent three days riding that motorcycle out there, up to Telluride, over to Utah, through Durango, and over the Passes. That bike sort of put me over the top, figuratively and literally," Yount says. "Matt's taken a lot of the unreliable characteristics out of the bike like the electrical problems, carburetion problems, and the quality of the bearings. Plus CNW's level of fit and finish, the paint and the polish, the fasteners, the bits—everything is right up to snuff.

There's also a huge difference in stopping power over stock when Matt went from the Lockheed braking system to the Brembo on the front wheel. The bike still retains its character, its flavor, but still nothing like a modern sportbike…it's still loud and bumpy and snarly, but it works. It feels like a real motorcycle and it's an adventure. But unlike some stock vintage bikes I've ridden, there's none of the anxiety about making it home without calling the wife for the trailer. Matt has taken a lot of uncertainty out of those Nortons, but left all the personality in. The beauty of his thing is that you as the owner are allowed to direct much of the design of each bike, each one unique, so it's a real personal ride for you."

While he owns three CNW's, including the orange "Juice" bike seen here, Dave's personal favorite is the mouth-watering café bike with its red frame and incredible polished alloy bodywork. "I had been working on it for two years and finally just called Matt and said "help." The front brake is a four-leading shoe unit off an old Water Buffalo and Matt has lowered the bike another two-inches which suits my height but I also think it handles better. And while the stock Norton had skinny tires, Matt's got them fitted with bigger rubber, nice fat Avons. You can get much more aggressive at 55 on the twisties. To me that's the fun part of a Norton, third gear at 4500 rpm on a little back country road. I'm out there on a Sunday doing a 100-mile loop on a 35-year old motorcycle. It just doesn't get much better than that."

And yes, Roger is thinking of getting rid of the Bonneville in the garage and making room for a fourth CNW Norton. MC 


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