Field Find Redux: 1963 Norton Electra ES400
By Ian Easton
1963 Norton Electra ES400
Engine: 383cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 66mm x 56mm bore and stroke, 7.9:1 compression ratio, 25hp @ 6,800rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 90mph (est.)
Carburetion: Single 7/8in Amal monobloc
Transmission: 4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v (two 6v in series), coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Pressed steel with tubular side frames/51.5in (1,308mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front, dual shocks w/ adjustable preload rear
Brakes: 8in (203mm) SLS drum front, 7in (178mm) SLS drum rear
Tires: 3 x 19in front, 3.25 x 18in rear
Weight (wet): 350lb (159kg)
Seat height: 32in (813mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.5gal (13.2ltr)/50mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $789 (1964)/$1,500-$7,000
Regular readers may recall the story of a YR2C (Field Find, September/October 2016) and how it languished in a field for decades alongside the Norton featured here.
My son, Craig, negotiated a deal with the owner and brought them home, where we set to work on them. Decades of exposure to the elements had not been kind to these bikes, and had it not been for their relative rarity they would probably have been destined for the scrap pile. Their fate, however, turned when we decided they were worth restoring, even though we knew there was an enormous task ahead of us.
After completing the Yamaha we turned to the Norton. The first thing I discovered about the Electra is that in the sphere of Norton owners and classic bike enthusiasts, when asked about it, the Electra was almost always met with much derision. Why is that?
Comments are always about the bike being unreliable, both electrically and mechanically, leaking terribly, vibrating too much, and using a built-up frame not typical of a Norton. That doesn’t leave much left to be good about the bike. Its only redeeming value it seemed was that it was fitted with Norton’s reputable Roadholder forks and the full-size drum brakes from the bigger models. I was even told at one point to keep the forks and throw the rest away. These comments didn’t typically come from riders with firsthand experience of the Electra, and it made me think that these myths were just being passed down through generations of motorcyclists. To find sympathetic and knowledgeable owners, I looked to the members of the U.K. Norton Owners Club. The Lightweight section of the club’s online forum was full of help, guidance and encouragement for the Electra.
From 1958 to 1965 Norton produced what became known as its Lightweights, starting with the Jubilee, a 250cc 4-stroke twin. The Jubilee was released to celebrate Norton’s 60th anniversary — its diamond jubilee. The plan was to encourage new riders into the Norton fold, who would then step up to the bigger models as they gained experience. It was also meant to capture a share of the affordable get-to-work transportation sector being capitalized on by rival companies such as Triumph and BSA.
1960 saw the introduction of the Navigator, a 350cc version of the same basic engine design as the Jubilee. Handling was improved thanks to the incorporation of Norton’s own Roadholder forks and braking was improved with larger, full-width brakes. The frame also saw the addition of two steel reinforcing plates behind the steering head. It could reach 90mph (almost).
At the insistence of the U.S. Norton importer Joe Berliner, the Electra debuted in 1963. The bore was bumped up from the Navigator’s 63mm to 66mm and the stroke stretched out from 56mm to 58mm, though the final production version settled for the 56mm stroke. The capacity was now 383cc, which Norton conveniently rounded off to be designated as a 400. This was Norton’s first electric start motorcycle, hence the ES designation — and their last until 1975. Electra production ran until August 1965.
The Electra’s electrics are the first point of interest. It was common for small-capacity bikes of this period to have a 6-volt electrical system, but as some additional juice was needed to cope with the Lucas M3 starter motor and handlebar-mounted turn signals a 12-volt positive-ground system was used, but provided by two 6-volt batteries wired in series. One battery sits in a frame-mounted bracket under the seat, while the second is on the left side of the frame behind the toolbox cover.
By today’s standards the electric start system is big, heavy and cumbersome, but it all works. A push of the button on the left handlebar sends power to a car-type solenoid located within the vertical frame channel behind the carburetor. This kicks in and gets the Lucas M3 starter spinning, which turns a single row chain linked to a three-pronged sprag clutch affixed to the left end of the crankshaft, outside of the alternator. The bracketry and mechanisms give the left side cover of the engine its unique shape, making the engine appear to bulge out when viewed from the front.
The Wipac-supplied handlebar switchgear for the left side is a combined high/low beam with a red starter button on top and a black horn button below. The right side has the turn signal switch located next to the choke operating arm. Today’s ergonomics would dictate reversing the switches, as you must remove your hand from the throttle to reach the turn signal switch. A 6-inch Wipac headlight attempts to light the way for night riding. Hella turn signals are another unusual feature on the Electra. There are only two, mounted on stalks within the handlebar ends, making them vulnerable to damage. We didn’t fit them to our Electra.
Ignition comes from two coils mounted under the gas tank, triggered by two sets of points mounted high on the right side crankcase. They are on separate plates, independently adjustable so that timing can be accurately set for each cylinder.
Even though the Electra engine was based on its smaller predecessors, it shares few common parts. The engine is oversquare, having a 66mm x 56mm bore and stroke. The connecting rods run in plain bearings, with a thin, 7-inch-diameter flywheel between the cylinders. You can tell this engine was designed to rev. A pinion gear connected to the crankshaft on the right hand side drives a geared oil pump. Two camshafts are set high in the crankcase, lifting 3-inch-long pushrods to activate the valves. Valve adjustment is by an eccentric cam. Separate cast-iron barrels extend quite far into the crankcase, leaving a relatively short cylinder with five cooling fins. Here’s where both of the three-ringed aluminum pistons do all the hard work.
The claimed 25 horsepower finds its way to the rear wheel from the crankshaft driving an eight-plate clutch connected by a single-row chain to the 4-speed gearbox. The right-side foot shifter operates a one-up, three-down gear configuration. Fuel delivery comes from a single 7/8-inch Amal Monobloc carburetor, and the exhaust passes through two single-wall exhaust pipes that are a push fit into the dual aluminum heads.
Holding all this in place is the much-talked-about frame, and after disassembling the bike I could understand what all the fuss is about. It is assembled from six different parts: a left and right side; a central spine located behind the engine; a pressed steel front “downtube” incorporating the steering head; plus two reinforcement plates. Five bolts hold it all together. Engine removal required the frame to be loosened up and the bottom bolts removed so that the frame could pivot open, allowing the engine to drop free. There is a lot of room for misalignment and flex.
Due to increased weight in comparison to the Jubilee and Navigator, Norton felt the Electra’s wheels and brakes needed to be larger, so it used the setup from the larger Dominator. Up front is an 8-inch single-leading-shoe brake laced to a 19-inch rim, while the back uses a 7-inch single-leading-shoe brake on an 18-inch rim. The shapely fenders are heavy steel items, chrome-plated for the U.S. market, but painted black for the eventual U.K. market bikes, with chrome being an option.
Our Electra, with matching engine and frame number EL/364, left the factory and was sent to the U.S. around May 1963, making it one of the earliest ones built. We have no idea what kind of life it had before we got it in February 2013, but we do know that the previous owner left it outside for about 40 years. The odometer, which looks to be original, reads more than 21,000 miles, so the bike had seen some action before being parked and forgotten. The engine was seized, it was missing the seat, the left exhaust pipe, the inner styling panels, and (coincidentally) it had a Yamaha YR2C front fender — oh, and it was all rusty. It was also a haven for black widow spiders.
After a wash and a photo session, notes were made and a list of needed parts created. Now it was time for disassembly. Surprisingly, despite its outside appearance the tank had only minor rust inside, so we filled it with white vinegar and let it sit for a few days while we worked on the rest of it.
As much of the engine as possible was removed before extracting it from the frame. After removing the head we could see that the left cylinder was badly corroded. The piston wouldn’t budge, but after lots of heat and hammering on a steel bar on top of the piston we finally got it loose, but at the price of a cracked cylinder liner. New-old-stock standard size pistons were obtained from the Norton Owners Club and new liners fitted by LA Sleeve.
Everything else in the engine looked remarkably good, except for a small piece of alloy chipped off where the clutch actuating mechanism sits and holds a large diameter C-clip. Every part was cleaned and inspected. The clutch plates and springs all measured up as new. The gears were all in perfect condition, as was the starter sprag clutch, the primary chain and the starter motor chain. The internals seemed to belie the mileage on the odometer.
New bearings and seals were fitted to the crankcase. A specially ground bearing, unique to the Electra, is required for the timing side. Failure to fit this bearing will result in lubrication problems and premature wear on the crankshaft. New bearing shells were fitted to the connecting rods, as well as new pistons and rings. Despite the cylinders being one casting, the cylinder head is two separate pieces. The left exhaust valve, which had sat open exposing the cylinder internals, had to be replaced. All the joint surfaces, especially the heads, had to be surfaced, and for this we ground them over oiled wet/dry sandpaper on a flat surface. It would have leaked terribly if we hadn’t done this. The carburetor, which was full of mud, cleaned up well, and for peace of mind we installed a new set of jets.
The frame was probably the hardest thing to get apart, as some of the bolts had rusted inside the steel spacer tubes under the seat. A replacement seat was found and a new cover and foam fitted after repairing the base, which had split and buckled. A hard-to-find front fender was located and sent with all the other chrome bits to El Monte Plating in El Monte, California, to bring back their former luster. A new rim was found for the front wheel, and the spokes were all tin/zinc plated at home.
Assembly was easy, but the procedure was a little different than that for a “normal” framed bike. On the Electra, the frame is bolted piece by piece to the engine, with the advantage that you don’t have to lift a heavy engine into the frame. The forks were rebuilt with new stanchions, again supplied from NOC. We managed to save most of the original wiring harness, as it had been tucked away and protected all those years. The original high handlebars were discarded in favor of the lower U.K. type.
As he did with the Yamaha, Craig painted the bodywork. We picked a shade of silver (the bike was originally red) we thought close enough to Norton’s original silver, topped by four coats of two-pack clear coat. We are very happy with the results.
And the verdict is?
Well, having spent so much time on this bike and having looked at it from every possible angle, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s quite an attractive bike. It’s very compact and looks well balanced. The engine cases have fine curves to them that seem to just flow together. Like all bikes, it has its quirks, but overall it’s really nice to look at.
Time to try it out: Turn on the fuel, tickle the carb until you see fuel seep past the button, turn the headlamp mounted ignition key on, see the ammeter flicker, then give the kickstarter more of a push through rather than a kick. One or two prods and it burbles into life. The exhaust note gives the impression that it’s a much bigger engine than it is. Sitting astride the comfortable seat the controls are a bit of a stretch. Pulling the clutch lever in takes a bit of effort while the right side foot lever has to be lifted a long way before a satisfying click is heard as first gear is engaged. As you pull away you can tell the bike wants to rev, but it also has plenty of low-down torque, so low speeds in upper gears are manageable without any snatching from the clutch.
Gearshifts are smooth, and riding at an indicated 50mph brings a slight buzz to the handlebars. Acceleration isn’t fast, but it is good enough to stay up with city traffic. Handling is surprisingly good. It seems to carry its weight down low and feels quite planted in the curves. Rolling from side to side doesn’t take much effort at all. As for the brakes, I know they should be good, but for the moment I think they need some bedding in and more adjustment as they are brand new and a little weak.
As for oil leaks, there’s a little bit of misting from the valve covers and there’s a minor drip from the filter cover. But this is a newly built engine so some retorquing needs to be done. Despite the naysayers, Craig and I have found the Electra to be good looking. It handles well, runs well, sounds great and generates lots of interest. As for reliability, only time will tell, but I think that will come down to a regular maintenance regimen.
The biggest thrill of all though was the day Craig and I had the Norton and the Yamaha out on the road side by side. It was a bit emotional thinking of the past they had both shared, and now here they were again doing what they were designed to do — being out on the road. We accelerated past each other over and over, enjoying the sounds of an old 2-stroke and an old 4-stroke. We looked at each other and smiled. It’s been a long journey, but certainly worth the trip. MC
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