An engineering marvel as well as an objet d’art, this New Zealand-built 1962 Manx Norton replica literally runs as good as it looks. And how good is that? In Bruce Anstey’s hands in 2014 it won the Classic TT GP1 class — and set the fastest lap ever for a Manx on the mountain course at the Isle of Man. That’s how good.
In the 1950s, John Surtees rode a Manx on his way up the ladder to successive Grand Prix wins. So did the legendary Mike Hailwood, and Stirling Moss got his car racing start in a revolutionary rear-engine Cooper F3 powered by a Manx Norton engine.
Remarkably, more than a half-century since the last Manx left the factory, the Manx Norton legend continues to grow. Last summer, nine-time Isle of Man winner Anstey rode this New Zealand-built replica to victory in the GP1 class at the Classic TT, winning the Hailwood Trophy with a fastest lap of 108.1mph, the best ever for a Manx Norton. This further defines the Kiwi rider, who was already the fastest rider ever on the island, lapping at 132.298mph on his Honda Fireblade during the 2014 Superbike TT.
Built in Birmingham, England, from 1950 to 1963, Norton’s “Featherbed” Manx GP racer is widely considered the quintessential British race bike. So successful was the design that Vanwall used the Manx engine as the basis for its Formula One car in the 1950s. Now, 53 years after the final Manx left the factory, independent shops are still faithfully recreating them.
Norton’s dual-downtube, double-cradle frame with swingarm rear suspension set the world standard for handling in its day, directly inspiring the top production motorcycle frames into the mid-1980s, and its rock-solid handling remains impressive even now. Other period technologies included the robust single-cylinder engine with magnesium cases and cam box, bevel gear-driven double overhead camshafts and high overall component quality.
Instead of the 7,000rpm redline common for 500cc singles of the period, this special Manx’s redline is set at 8,600rpm. In comparison to bikes of the period, it also has smaller 18-inch wheels, a short and high exhaust, a close-ratio 6-speed TT Industries gearbox and big-bore/short-stroke dimensions. Builder Ken McIntosh declined to state the output of its British-built Summerfield engine, but it’s likely close to 60 horsepower. Back in the day, Norton claimed 47 horsepower for the factory version.
Even before it won at the IOM, this bike had history. McIntosh built it for himself, but soon realized it needed a better rider. That led to races with American Kevin Schwantz, Kiwi Andrew Stroud, Aussie Cameron Donald, American Doug Polen and finally Anstey aboard. To date, it’s won 35 of 49 races entered.
The Manx is long and low, and you sit well back in the cockpit, with your bum over the rear wheel. But there are scallops in the tank for wrists and knees, so you can tuck behind the Avon-style fairing. McIntosh converted this bike’s right-side gearshift to the left, with a one-up, five-down racing pattern. The four-leading-shoe magnesium front brake, single-leading-shoe magnesium rear brake and dry clutch are all cable operated, giving a strong mechanical feel.
Other details include needle bearings for the swingarm, modified fork dampers and Works Performance UltraLite titanium shocks. Yet McIntosh stayed true to the geometry and construction of the original “Featherbed” frames, which were oxyacetylene bronze-welded high-tensile steel.
There is no ignition switch or starter button. I turn on the petcock and flood the Amal GP carb. The bike is not extremely light; weighing 320 pounds dry, it is typical for the day. Click it into first gear and back up on compression, and then, clutch in, onto a roller starter. Then drop the clutch and a piston nearly the size of a small-block Chevy’s slams toward the roof of the 2-valve combustion chamber and the Lucas magneto lights the avgas mixture. Ba-ba-ba-wham! Suddenly I’m astride a bellowing, jangling, vibrating beast. The dry clutch spins near my left foot. Finally it’s ready to rev. Up for first, slip the clutch, and I ease down pit lane. A little more throttle and the entire bike now comes alive. After a warm-up lap, it’s go time.
Accelerating onto the front straightaway at New Zealand’s Pukekohe Park Raceway near Auckland, the Manx hunkers down and lunges forward. Instantaneously, it evokes the feeling of a way more modern Superbike: Stable, linear, and utterly on rails. There’s no upsetting this motorcycle. The “on rails” feeling continues into the fast, right-hand turn one. Next comes a quick left-right flick, which the Norton manages briskly, that leads into Castrol Corner, a sharp right-hander leading onto the long back straight. Here the revs fall to 3,000rpm, but amazingly the engine pulls to redline without so much as a hiccup. And the close-ratio transmission clicks off gears with a short throw and a level of effort reminiscent of a modern gearbox. Without onboard data acquisition it’s impossible to measure the performance, but an onboard camera of Anstey at the TT shows the tachometer hovering at nearly 8,000rpm in top gear, suggesting maximum velocity is a bit above 140mph.
Scrubbing off that kind of speed isn’t difficult for modern sport bikes, but it takes more doing on the Manx. The lever effort on the four-shoe front brake is heavy, and it doesn’t telegraph nearly the feel of a good disc setup. Despite this, with the sticky Avon race rubber the Manx gets slowed down well enough for a right-left chicane at the end of the back straight.
Maybe the part of the Pukekohe circuit that really speaks to the Manx’s inherent goodness is the last turn, a cresting right-hander ringed by a foreboding concrete wall that can unweight bikes as they’re fully leaned over. Getting it right is crucial for speed along the front straight — and also for staying alive. The Manx leans over and laser-locks onto a line. In these critical few seconds, every message imparted through the grips, seat and pegs communicates confidence and stability, which, together with speed and reliability, propelled Anstey to win the Hailwood Trophy.
It all proves that in 1950, when Irishman Rex McCandless designed the works Manx’s Featherbed frame, he bloody well got it right. And this, together with the inspiring engine, precision chassis and excellent finish work, makes this replica a thoroughly enticing ride experience.
Anstey’s IOM-winning bike isn’t for sale, but McIntosh Racing offers an exact copy called the “Schwantz Spec” Manx for about $66,000 U.S. The shop has built a half-dozen copies so far. That’s a bit above what original Manxes often sell for, a surprising contrast to the classic car world, where real examples out-value replicas many times over. And yet, given the winning performance, craftsmanship, total usability and sheer beauty of the piece, the approach makes a lot of sense as functional art. If you want history, go buy an original Manx. If you want a jangling, bellowing history lesson, delivered in an asphalt classroom that delivers understanding and appreciation of 1960s racing the rest of the world will never know, here’s your machine. Class dismissed. MC
Way back in the 1970s, the streets of Southern California fairly teemed with new Japanese bikes. In stark contrast to the chrome-plate cache of these latest designs, in a neighbor’s garage sat an old Manx Norton, dusty and disheveled. It was clearly from another time and place, but did it ever have presence. I never even sat on that Featherbed, but its racy profile deeply and forever imprinted me with the exoticness that is the Manx.
Decades later, opportunity has allowed dozens of racing sessions on five different Manxes, from a 1937 500cc rigid rear suspension model (technically an International) up to the Anstey bike featured here. In between were races on a 1948 500cc Garden Gate, a 1951 500cc Featherbed long-stroke, and a 1961 500cc short-stroke of my own.
Manxes are all business — extremely stout, powerful and rapid. With a rigid frame and girder fork, and powered by methanol, the 1937 model was like a rodeo bull on crystal meth. It’s all engine, and minimal ground clearance, brakes and suspension made for a wild ride.
The 1948 Garden Gate is better. With its Roadholder telescopic fork and plunger rear suspension, it’s halfway between the maniacal ’37 and later Featherbeds in character. Even so, the “Garden Gate” nickname aptly describes the rear suspension’s spindly appearance and the bike’s “hinged” handling — the limiting factor for all Manxes before the works Featherbed swingarm frame arrived in 1950.
The situation improves dramatically for 1951-1963 Featherbed Manxes, which are magically accurate and steady. I’ve raced or tested three Featherbeds and found them similarly brilliant, with key differentiators being engine tuning, gearbox and wheel variations. The cherry on top for a Featherbed is the amazing performance of Avon AM26 race tires as used by Kevin Schwantz at Goodwood. Some vintage bikes would throw fits with this level of grip, but not the Featherbed Manx. After short-stroke Manx engines replaced long-stroke engines in 1954, performance marched to a crescendo in 1962 with the addition of a four-leading-shoe front brake, creating the final Manx model.
Now after nearly 20 years of involvement with 1937 through current Manxes in New Zealand and at Daytona, Willow Springs, Laguna Seca and elsewhere, I can say with conviction that if you get a chance to race one, aim for a Featherbed, particularly a 1954 or later model. If sighting one at a show gives you pause, riding one will definitely grab your attention, and racing one will enrapture you forever. Now go forth and get Manxed. — John L. Stein
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