It was 1966 when Bob Blair and his mechanic/parts manager Steve Zabaro worked together to blend components from two motorcycles to create the prototype of the 1967 Norton P11.
Norton P11 prototype replica (with a stock 1967 P11, far left) is a dead ringer for the original. It should be; it was built by Steve Zabaro, who helped conceive and build the 1966 prototype.
1966 Norton P11 Prototype Replica
Engine: 745cc air-cooled OHV vertical twin, 73mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 7.5:1 compression ratio, 52hp @ 6,200rpm
Top speed: 113mph (period test)
Carburetion: Two 1-1/8-inch Amal Monoblocs
Transmission: AMC 4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: Lucas K2F magneto
Frame/Wheelbase: Dual-downtube steel cradle fabricated of Reynolds 531 tubing/57in (1,448mm)
Suspension: Teledraulic forks front, dual Girling shocks with adjustable preload rear
Brakes: 7in (178mm) SLS drum (fins removed from hub) Akront WM2-19 rim front, 8in (203mm) SLS G50 magnesium hub with WM3-18in chrome steel rim rear
Tires: 3.5 x 9in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 345lb (157kg)
Seat height: 32.75in (825.5mm)
Fuel capacity: 2.7gal (10.2ltr)
History is a subjective experience. Stories of the past are told and passed along, but details get lost with the passage of time. It’s not often that the record can be set straight by talking to the people directly involved — the history makers themselves. But this is exactly one of those cases.
It was 1966 when Bob Blair and his mechanic/parts manager Steve Zabaro worked together to blend components from two motorcycles to create the prototype of what would become one of the most legendary classic Norton motorcycles - the 1967 Norton P11.
New Jersey-based Mike Berliner, sales manager for Berliner Motor Corp., acted as an intermediary between the creators of the American prototype and the engineers at Norton. While Blair died in 1996, both Zabaro and Berliner are alive and well, and they remember the story of the Norton P11.
Bob Blair was the proprietor of ZDS Motors in Glendale, Calif., and was the West Coast distributor for the now legendary Berliner Motor Corp., which imported all manner of exotic foreign motorcycles to the U.S. ZDS stood for Zundapp, Ducati and Sachs — all brands imported by New Jersey-based Berliner. When Berliner took over Norton for the North American market in the mid-1960s, Blair agreed to distribute the English-made brand for them on the West Coast.
Offroad desert racing was hugely popular in the western states at the time. The machines used in competition needed to be powerful, light and fast. American enthusiasts built their own “desert sleds,” and there were also factory-built offroad bikes competing in desert races, such as BSA’s Spitfire Hornet and Triumph’s TR6. Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) had an entire slate of dirt-friendly competition machines, including the AJS 18CS and 31CS, the Matchless G12CS and G80CS, and, in 1964, the Matchless G15CS and the Norton N15CS (CS for Competition Spring frame).
It’s a long way from the arid California desert to the foggy climes of Britain, but that’s where AMC produced AJS, Matchless and Norton motorcycles. AMC grew from the AJS and Matchless motorcycle companies, and in 1952 gained the Norton brand. By 1966, AMC was in financial straits, and according to Zabaro the Berliner’s were propping up the company, even paying for their orders in advance — and in cash — so AMC could meet their payroll.
That same year saw the introduction of the single-cylinder 500cc Matchless G85CS, a purpose-built, high-performance scrambles/offroad racer that worked well in the desert. However, both Bob Blair and Zabaro felt the G85CS could be an even better motorcycle if only it had the bigger and more powerful Norton Atlas 750cc twin-cylinder engine.
“We talked to Mike Berliner and asked him to talk to the factory about putting the Norton 750 motor in the Matchless chassis,” Zabaro recalls. “Mike came back and said the factory said ‘No’ — I don’t know if it was because technically they couldn’t do it or financially or whatever. But Mike told us, ‘If you think it’s feasible, go ahead and do it.’” When told that AMC didn’t think the G85CS/N15CS marriage could be done, Bob Blair didn’t mince words. “That’s bulls***,” was his exact response.
Zabaro should know. He bought a new Matchless G85CS and rode it extensively. It was while riding up a washout in Jawbone Canyon in the Mojave Desert that Zabaro hit a large rock, turning the front wheel into a pretzel and severely twisting the forks. After the crash he brought the damaged G85CS back to the shop at ZDS Motors and simply set it aside.
After being told the AMC factory didn’t believe a bike could be created by installing the 750cc Atlas twin engine in the lightweight G85CS chassis, Bob Blair and Zabaro got to work.
“We brought out my bent G85CS, and we brought in a new, crated Norton N15CS from inventory,” Zabaro says. New Matchless Teledraulic forks were installed as was an Akront 19-inch alloy rim laced to a Matchless hub. With the G85CS now rolling, the single-cylinder engine and gearbox were removed, together with the fuel tank and oil tank. From the uncrated N15CS came the 750cc twin engine equipped with dual Monobloc Amal carburetors and Lucas K2F magneto. They also took the twin’s gearbox and fuel tank. The rest of the Norton’s pieces went on the shelves in the ZDS parts department.
Zabaro recalls fabricating aluminum engine mounting plates, and shaving a very small amount of metal from the lugs on the front frame downtubes in order to get the engine to slip into place. He then used a number of small spacers to line everything up — something he didn’t suspect the factory would keep if the motorcycle went into production.
Bob Blair and Zabaro liked the look of the steel Norton N15CS gas tank as opposed to the fiberglass Matchless unit, so the Norton tank was installed on the Matchless frame. At this point they needed an oil tank, so they turned to Paul Crowell, a local California racer and fabricator. “Paul made a beautiful alloy oil tank that cleared the frame from side to side,” Zabaro recalls.
Mercury Tube Bending in Los Angeles supplied the U-bends and straight exhaust tubing that Zabaro cut and welded into the purposeful high-rise pipes.
Zabaro thinks it took them about three weeks to pull the package together, and they soon had the prototype in the hands of Mike Patrick, a successful offroad racer ZDS Motors was sponsoring in desert events. “We said, ‘Go wring it out’,” Zabaro says. “And he did.”
The prototype performed flawlessly during testing in the desert — with the exception of the mounting tabs on the alloy oil tank. These cracked, and Zabaro welded them back up.
“Mike said it was great — light and fast,” Zabaro recalls. While Mike told them not to change a thing, he did want to see it with the longer Norton Roadholder forks fitted, but there wasn’t time to make the change. “After Mike rode it and we welded up the oil tank, we crated it up and sent it to New Jersey,” Zabaro says. “We built the prototype in the summer of 1966, and there was a big rush to get it done and back to the AMC factory so they could produce it.”
The prototype arrived at Berliner Motor Corp. in New Jersey to be forwarded to the AMC factory. Bob Blair and Bob Budschat, a Seattle, Wash., dealer and racer, followed the bike to New Jersey, where they joined brothers Joe and Mike Berliner. Together, they all flew to England to meet with AMC brass. Budschat test rode the prototype and showed off the machine’s capabilities.
How did AMC feel about being shown a prototype product assembled in the United States?
“They were proud people,” Mike Berliner says today. “I don’t have to tell you, just like any manufacturer is proud of their product, they were, too. But if they are smart — which they were — they will adopt any change which will improve the product.”
He continues: “[AMC chief engineer Charles] Udall and [group managing director A.A.] Sugar, they both decided to do whatever (AMC) could sell best, and this prototype was a machine we thought was going to do good.”
Although Berliner couldn’t recall all of the specific details surrounding the Norton P11 project, he remembers well the Berliner corporate culture, and how the company would support their dealers and their mechanics.
“Any manufacturer who is interested in selling their product is interested in continually improving it, and if there is a suggestion from top mechanics or an engineer that will improve the product — and after they test it out — naturally they will go ahead and put it in production.
“That’s the way we worked with Norton and Ducati and Moto Guzzi; all the same way. You test the machine in the U.S. — there is no better place to test a machine than the U.S. — because the mileage from one area to another is so great. Some American riders are pretty rough on the machine, too.
“And if there is anything wrong you report it to the engineering department, which I did. I was in Italy and in England about every six or eight weeks. If I had a problem, I took the product immediately to the engineering department.”
Berliner adds: “You listen (to the dealer or the mechanics) and if they have anything to suggest or any concrete information to improve the product, rather than relay the information to the factory you pick up the guy and say, ‘You want to come to Europe with me? Let’s go. You have the suggestion, and you explain it the best way possible.’” That’s pretty much how the Norton P11 prototype came about.
AMC clearly liked what they were shown, because they pushed the prototype into production quickly. Designated Norton P11, the new bike was launched in 1967, only months after it had been created. There were, of course, changes to the production P11. The Amal Monobloc carburetors were replaced with newer Concentric units, and the Lucas magneto ignition became capacitor and coil. And where the prototype used the solid footpegs from a Matchless G85CS, AMC fit folding footpegs to the production P11. The prototype also used the special magnesium rear hub from the G85CS, while the production P11 used a standard Matchless rear wheel.
The biggest outward change from the prototype to the production P11 was the addition of lights and instruments. To accommodate electrics the aluminum oil tank was chopped off and a tray for a battery and a cover fitted to the left side of the machine. “Because of the trouble we’d had with the oil tank mounts, Bob (Blair) told AMC not to build it like ours, but they did, only with a part of it missing so they could run the battery,” Zabaro recalls.
In the U.S., the production P11 quickly became the desert racer to have. In fact, a new Norton P11 was presented to racer Mike Patrick, who then proceeded to take the No. 1 plate in desert racing two years in a row with this machine. In all, it is thought some 2,500 P11s and its descendents, the P11A and Ranger 750, were produced before being dropped from the Norton range in 1969.
Bob Blair’s son, Steve Blair, was only four years old when the prototype desert racer was coming together in his dad’s shop. But the legend obviously left an indelible impression, because for years Steve Blair has wanted to faithfully recreate that prototype. And what better way to do that, he reasoned, than to work with the very man who helped build the first prototype?
“When my dad was told [the AMC factory] couldn’t build the bike, he went into the back of the shop with Steve and started to fabricate a bike, and lo and behold, they did it,” Steve Blair says. “The prototype they built became the P11, but they didn’t document each and every step of the fabrication process. It was done very quickly.”
Steve Blair and Steve Zabaro are lifelong friends. In 2008, when he told Zabaro he wanted to recreate the prototype Norton, there was no question that Zabaro would help. “He said, ‘Bring it up and I’ll help you do it,’” Steve Blair recalls. “There was no way it could have happened without him — he’s the only person alive who knows exactly how it went together in the first place.”
In February 2009, Steve Blair bought a production model 1967 Norton P11 to use as the platform for his replica. The bike was a San Francisco Craigslist find, a second-owner motorcycle in fine condition. Steve Blair then collected some of the rare bits and pieces that would turn the P11 back into the prototype, including a conical magnesium rear hub, which he sourced from Molnar Precision Limited in the U.K.
To make the Norton engine like the one fitted in the prototype, he located the correct Amal Monobloc carburetors, not an easy find these days. Ignition had to be by Lucas magneto, and not the capacitor and coils fitted on the production motorcycle. He found the original G85CS non-folding footpegs at Baxter Cycle in Marne, Iowa. “I couldn’t believe Randy (Baxter) had a set of those!” Steve Blair says.
With the P11 donor bike and parts in hand, Steve Blair went to Zabaro’s shop, where the pair completely disassembled the P11 and rebuilt every single component, from the gearbox and engine to the forks and wheels, the front with the correct Akront flanged alloy rim.
The oil tank was made from scratch to replicate the prototype’s alloy unit that spanned the frame from side to side. Steve Blair started on the tank at home, but finished it at Zabaro’s shop under Zabaro’s instructions. Removing the mufflers from the Norton P11 exhaust pipes brought the tubes close to what the prototype ran — straight pipes without a baffle. The frame was painted the silver of the Matchless G85CS, and various items were chrome plated. All told, building the prototype took about four weeks.
“I wanted to recreate what my dad and Steve created, and then tell the accurate story about the P11,” Steve Blair says, adding, “And I wanted the recreation to be as accurate as possible. For example, I could have used another rear hub, but that wouldn’t have been right. That comes from my dad — he was a real black and white guy.”
For Zabaro, the project brought back memories of working beside Steve Blair’s dad at ZDS Motors. Like most people who shape history, back in 1966, he had no sense that he was doing anything noteworthy.
“I was running the parts department, and when I could catch a moment I’d do something on the project — it really wasn’t that difficult to do — it was just making up your mind to do it. But I didn’t have any sense of it being historic.
“Even at the time, I realized what we were doing was building a dinosaur. The P11 has to be the last heavyweight scrambler designed and built. Lightweight and competitive Huskys and CZs were already here in Southern California,” Zabaro says.
And that, we think, should set straight the record on the Norton P11. MC