History of the Featherbed Norton Manx


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The featherbed Norton Manx won the Senior and Junior TT at the Isle
of Man in 1950.

The featherbed Norton Manx that Steve Tonkin’s street-legal Norton Manx is based on was one of the greatest racing motorcycles of all time. It can trace its heritage back to 1927, when Norton engineer Walter Moore designed the SOHC engine that took Alec Bennett to victory in that year’s Isle of Man TT. The first DOHC version made its debut in 1937, and between 1931 and 1954 Norton won all but two of the Senior TT races, and often filled the top three places.

In 1950, Norton’s racer got a new frame designed by Rex McCandless. A double downtube steel cradle with a swingarm rear suspension, its superior handling characteristics influenced frame design for decades to come. Asked what it was like riding the new Norton, works rider Harold Daniell replied that it was so comfortable it was “just like riding on a feather bed.” The name stuck, and the Featherbed frame became synonymous with superb handling.

The featherbed Norton Manx (the Manx name was adopted in 1947) were offered for sale in 1951, but with less than 100 made each season, they only went to riders of proven ability. The DOHC 350cc Model 40 and 500cc Model 30 were hand-built by a team of less than 10 men in the racing shop of the Bracebridge Street, Birmingham, factory. Crankcases were cast from Elektron magnesium alloy, and to minimize vibration the crankshafts were made integral with the flywheels to increase rigidity. The cambox contained five shafts with five gears, which were ground, not machined, to size. Engines were always run for two hours on a dyno before being stripped and rebuilt.

Phil Heath, one of many “Continental Circus” riders who toured the European racetracks picking up appearance and place money as they went, said that an engine would last a whole season without being stripped. A Manx engine will hold its tune, and reliability is in the bulletproof category.

Featherbed singles were still the backbone of international racing as late as 1963, when nine of the top 20 places in that year’s 500cc World Championship series were taken by a Norton Manx. Mike Hailwood took the title on the MV Agusta, but Jack Ahern was second on his Norton. The last Manx rolled out of Bracebridge in January that year. 

Glenn McCreery
11/17/2011 10:43:29 AM

Great footage. I look at this from the perspective of someone who made ski movies in the sixties and early seventies using, as one technique, a helmet mounted move camera. So I pay attention to filming technique. The lack of vibration and wind buffeting noise from an outboard mounted movie camera is quite impressive. Note the lack of a vibrating image while the tachometer is bouncing all over the place. The modern GoPro, etc., digital video cameras are so much easier to use than a ten to twenty pound film movie camera. It's kinda like comparing the ease of touring on a Goldwing with a 50's BritBike. The other thing that is apparent is the more casual approach to safety, what with tree lined race courses and a tank pad upon which to rest ones bare chin. It's a chilling reminder that Bob McIntire died in a race crash.

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