If seven was the magic number of the ancients, in my formative motorcycle years it was 650, as in 650cc. But with a budget that could support nothing better than a castoff moped or a terminally asthmatic scooter, England’s glorious 650s seemed like the chariots of the gods, all of which have become classic British motorcycles.
In my youth in England, a 650 was the biggest, most powerful British motorcycle you could buy: BSA’s Golden Flash, Triumph’s Thunderbird, Royal Enfield’s Super Meteor (an overachiever at 692cc) — these were the “big inch” bikes of the day. So I could never understand why Norton didn’t build one — until 1960, anyway. And why, when 650 Norton motorcycles were finally available, that the company already had a 750 waiting in the wings.
Norton did get a touring 650 in 1961, but only for export to the U.S. market, where it was sold as the “Manxman.” Finally, in 1962 the Norton 650SS arrived and was an instant hit. It seemed to be the bike every Norton twin should have been.
But the Norton 650SS was top dog for scant seconds. In the same year, AMC-Norton introduced the 745cc Norton Atlas, a big bore version of the 650 intended to boost U.S. sales. As a result, few Norton 650s made it across the pond, the majority being sold in the “home” market.
The Norton 650SS was essentially a stroked version of the model 99SS, with dimensions of 68mm x 89mm (the 99’s stroke had been 82mm). Like the top Dominator, the 650SS breathed through twin Amal Monoblocs, but with the intakes now angled downwards. Twin exhausts replaced the 99SS “siamesed” system, and the headlight nacelle was dropped in favor of matched speedometer and tachometer. Finish went from the 99SS two-tone color scheme to a classic black frame, silver painted tank and (optional) chrome fenders. Though simple in concept, the overall effect was stunning. The black, silver, polished alloy and chrome finish created “the look” for sports motorcycles for a decade — until the metalflake Seventies.
Sadly, though, the Norton Atlas always overshadowed the 650SS. After all, cubes are cubes, and the Atlas simply had more. The 650SS was last produced in 1967 — a year after AMC went bust and was acquired by Dennis Poore’s Manganese-Bronze empire — though a single carburetor version, the Mercury, continued until 1969.
Derek Steele’s Norton 650SS
I first saw Derek Steele’s delightful Norton 650SS at a meeting of the Westcoast British Motorcycle Owners’ Club in Vancouver, British Columbia. At first I thought it was an early Norton Atlas — telling them apart isn’t that easy at first glance, and since very few of them were imported here, the 650SS is a rare commodity in North America.
Derek’s bike is from 1962, the first year of the SS model, and is essentially stock except for a few sensible upgrades. Amal Concentric carburetors replace the original Monoblocs, which were prone to flooding during cold starting because of the 650SS’s steep downdraft intake angle. Concentrics were fitted as standard in 1967, the model’s last year.
Derek has also replaced the magneto with a Boyer electronic ignition setup, the pickup housed in a neat casing behind the cylinders where the magneto used to be. Electrics were upgraded to 12-volt at the same time. And a ventilated twin-leading-shoe drum front brake produced by sixties sidecar racer and Norton tuner John Tickle replaces the Norton single-leading-shoe version.
The only other deviation from standard is a pair of period Dunstall mufflers replacing the cigar-shaped stock units.
And as beautiful as Derek’s 650SS is just sitting still, it’s a real looker out on the road, especially working through a long sweeper, where it looks utterly at home.
It’s still curious to me that Norton took so long to build the 650SS, and then eclipsed it so quickly with the 745cc Atlas. A powerful machine with good looks and handling to match, it never really had the chance it deserved to win a larger market. But then, I suppose if you’re one of the lucky, like Derek, you’re just happy they made it at all. MC
1962 Norton 650SS
Owner: Derek Steele
Home: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Occupation: HVAC instrument technician
Bio: Though born in Montreal, Canada, Derek grew up in England, where he says he became smitten with classic British motorcycles. “I got into them in my early teens,” he says, telling us it was the “nuts and boltiness” that appealed to him. “I like old things,” he says, pointing to the 20-plus-year-old Audi he drives when he’s not riding the Norton. A travel hound, Derek spends as much time as possible exploring Southeast Asia.
Etc: In spite of its beautiful condition, Derek’s 650SS is no trailer queen, and he rides it daily. “Though it’s nice to have a fully restored bike to take to a rally, I really prefer bikes you can use.”
The 650SS Derek rides now isn’t the first of the type he’s owned. “I had one before when I lived in England,” he says. “I really liked that bike, its classic, workman-like lines and the beauty in its functionality. It was purposeful.”
Derek acquired this 650SS in England in February 2004, then brought the new bike with him when he moved to Vancouver that year. Since then, he’s completed a top end overhaul as well as rebuilding the clutch and primary drive. “The bottom end is solid,” he says. Cosmetic upgrades were limited to repainting the gas tank and side panels, and re-chroming the primary cover. “I prefer the all metal construction of the Norton, with no plastic.”
What’s it like to ride? “It feels very nimble, yet stable at the same time,” Derek says. “And it has that organic, visceral feel you get from a British bike — as though you’re connected to the machine.”