Sonny Angel Motorcycles
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Two years later, Sonny raced his Norton Manx at the Willow Springs 200. Both Mike “The Bike” Hailwood and Don Vesco were racing Manxes, and although Sonny knew he was down on horsepower compared to the champions, he had a plan. He ran the practice sessions, but just before the race he flipped his tires around. That gave him fresh rubber on the right side of the tires, and with Willow Springs’ fast right-handed sweepers, he had a considerable advantage.
Initially, Hailwood and Vesco ran away from Sonny, but as the race wore on, their tires started to give way. Sonny remembers watching the tail end of Vesco’s Manx doing the jitterbug just before he made a pass. Hailwood won the race and Sonny finished third.
By 1969, Sonny had been selling Nortons for 15 years, but he wanted to see more out of the storied company. “I went to Norton and said, ‘Hey, you need to build a four like an MV Agusta or a Gilera,’” Sonny recalls. Norton wasn’t interested, so Sonny made his own.
Power came from a 900cc Hillman Imp car engine set across a stock Norton frame, but Sonny retained most of the Norton sub-assemblies (gearbox, exhausts, carbs, stator, etc.), and he claims his four-cylinder Norton picked up only 29lb over a standard twin. Sonny tested the bike in Mexico (ironically, it was the same week that Honda introduced its revolutionary CB750 Four), and the bike’s only fault was that the smallish radiator was capable at 85mph but overwhelmed at 100.
He then rode up to Los Angeles to show the Norton folks his creation. They still weren’t interested, so with that he rode the bike across town to Motorcycle Sport Quarterly magazine. The editors were suitably impressed, and Sonny and the bike were featured in the 1970 summer edition.
Sonny continued to road race until 1974. Over Sonny’s 18 year road racing career he raced, among others, Aermacchis, Norton Manx 350s and 500s, Yamahas, MV Agustas, a Triumph 650 and a featherbed Norton with an NSU engine.
Back to the flats
With his road racing days behind him, Sonny was drawn back to the world of top speed, and in 1981 he took his Vincent back to the flats and ran 144.95mph — exactly 0.26mph faster than its previous run 28 years prior.
About this same time, Sonny started working with his old friend Max Lambky. Max had fabricated a frame for a Vincent engine and he’d designed the bike to go fast and straight. Max brought the bike to El Mirage, a dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert of California, along with a young drag racer who would act as the jockey. On the morning of the time trials one of the pistons kissed a valve. Max had a spare piston but no spare valve, so Sonny took the valve and beat it back into shape. The engine went back together and the bike made a pass at 150mph-plus, bent valve and all.