My First Motorcycle

I used to think that Nortons were mythical motorcycles—that they existed only as a pretend brand name in Dan O’Neill’s Odd Bodkins cartoon strip, run in the San Francisco Chronicle. When I was in high school, I lived in Sonoma, which is in the valley just east of Petaluma. In the day, Petaluma was crammed with chickens, chicken coops, and chicken processors, so it was especially funny to see Norton break down and strand our heroes in the Chicken Capital of the World. These days the coops are gone or (rarely) renovated as workshops and outbuildings that have absolutely no function related to chicken husbandry. I was also stimulated by O’Neill’s concept of the Magic Cookie in the gas tank—such a Cookie could actually send a Norton to Mars, even if Nortons were mythical beasts.

Odd Bodkins cartoon
(click to enlarge)
Odd Bodkins cartoons by Dan O’Neill, who had (has?) a Norton Atlas.

So, although I liked motorcycles and in high school learned to ride on a BSA A50, I hadn’t actually realized that Nortons were real. Years later I was driving home to Sonoma and a perfect green fastback rumbled by my rolled-down window. I was incredulous; Nortons were real! I knew I had to have one, but money remained an obstacle for some time. By 1978, though, I was a graduate student at Berkeley making $325 a month. Then I had a chance to be a teaching assistant for extra money, lots: $1700 for three months’ work. At the time none of this was taxable, so here was a stash in the making. My friend Henry and I spent many hours discussing the merits of Triumphs v. Nortons, but each of us was already convinced. Henry wanted a new vehicle for once in his life, and that meant a Bonneville. I wanted a Norton.

At that time in Berkeley there was a wonderful British and Italian bike shop, T. T. Motors. It had a friendly, almost club-like atmosphere, and Henry and I obsessively checked out their offerings. One night we got stoned and walked down to T.T. to ogle the bikes through the display window. A yellow Ducati 750 Sport was up on the plinth, and it was like seeing God. To this day I believe the 750 Sport to be the most visually perfect motorcycle ever made. Henry and I since have owned four Ducati 750s between us, and a couple of 250s. At the time, Ducatis were like things from another planet—unobtainable—but we knew we could buy Big British. I rode one of T.T.’s used Nortons, a $1400 black roadster with open 34 mm Mikuni carbs, and almost bought it, but it just wasn’t the bike. I remember wondering what I had gotten myself in for when I tried to start it. I kicked down and the lever didn’t move. I tried again. It moved a little bit. The salesman wasn’t impressed, but he gave me a dollar to buy gas. It was great to finally ride a Norton. Sometime later I saw an ad in the Chronicle’s Motorcycle Classified Ads, listed under the Js:

motorcycle ad

Five million miles did seem like a lot, but I was intrigued. When the garage door lifted and I saw the bike from a 3/4 rear view (its best angle), I wanted it instantly. I was 24, it was a ’74, and only had 4K miles...but I had no idea of what to look out for and just how much damage can be done in 4000 miles by a cocksure mechanic.

Lots of people were looking at the bike, so I arranged to buy it for $1700 through the seller’s friend and agent, Victor Gozella. Victor, I do remember your name, because of all the little “Gozella tuned” stickers festooned on the bike. I don’t remember the name of the actual owner, poor guy, paralyzed in a dirt bike accident and sad to sell his Norton. As is so common with bike deals, it was hard to consummate. The bike was at Victor’s garage, the owner in bed some 30 miles away, and the San Rafael branch of Great Western Savings wouldn’t honor a Great Western money order. We had to drive 50 miles back to Napa, cash the money order that I had purchased a few hours earlier, and return to San Rafael. Finally Victor, Henry and I went to collect the bike, which stayed put for a while as all of us tried to start it. A push-start worked and I was off, one Dunstall Decibel Silencer bobbing up and down because Victor hadn’t gotten around to fastening it properly. I just wanted to get out of there. I do recall that Victor had “checked the oil,” and, finding the oil tank empty, had poured in three quarts. Of course the crankcase already had three quarts, so at least I could be vaguely satisfied that Victor had to clean up the redundant volume that was vomited out the breather.

That night Henry and I went for our first ride together in the Berkeley hills, and the exhaust pipes fell out of the head. Victor hadn’t quite gotten around to tightening the exhaust nuts and I hadn’t understood that they needed to be checked. Despite the darkness and my complete naivete, it was clear from the incredible machine gun-like sound that there was a problem. The threads in the exhaust ports were buggered, so we ended up loosely wiring the collars on and the next day I took it to T. T. Motors. Dan Batchellor, whom I will always think of as “Mr. Norton,” chased the threads with a set of enormous taps and remounted the exhaust system. When he started the bike, he told me that the kickstart lever needed replacing and—from the vicious kickback—that the auto advance unit had probably been welded on full advance, “a foolish thing to do, but people do it.” This first week of Norton ownership was getting expensive! I have since learned this is not unique to Nortons, particularly if one has a tendency to buy absurd motorcycles such as Velocettes.

Until I had the money for a new kickstart lever, which cost a fifth of my monthly salary, Dan told me to be careful starting the bike. Poor Henry was the designated pusher. If we didn’t stop on a hill, Henry had to push the bike with me on it, then jog back to his Triumph and kick-start that. Since this wasn’t always a sure thing, sometimes it took quite a while for the two of us to get going. We also discovered that the two bikes had rather different niches—the Triumph favored winding roads with tight corners whereas the John Player came into its own at higher speeds. Highway 1 along the coast was an incredible rush on the Norton, but the sustained high speeds were not as much fun on the Triumph because of its punishing vibration. Henry had replaced the rubber handlebar mounts with steel ones for better steering response, and the vibes were fierce. I could never keep up on tighter roads. In part this was because I knew nothing about countersteering at the time—how I actually steered the bike I really don’t know, but it was not a fast process. Sometime later Henry and I read about countersteering and we tried it. What a revelation! But he still left me for dead on tight roads.

Now it was time to ride the bike up to Sonoma to show my parents, who were so far unaware of my adventures. The next Sunday morning I set off from Berkeley. All went well until I got to Vallejo, where I got stuck in a Veterans’ parade! The Norton quit while I was creeping along behind a high school band. It was surreal watching them walk away from me. I spent three hours, off and on, trying to start it, until finally I accepted that the battery was stone dead—idling in the parade had drained what little juice the corroded thing had had. I called my father, who was just sitting down to lunch. He had opposed my buying a motorcycle, and I remember wincing as I told him that my jewel had died and that I hoped he would bring the truck and rescue me. If ever there were a time for a father to say “I told you so,” this was it.

I still admire his tact and forbearance, for he merely said that he was sorry and that he would stop by the Parks’ Yamaha shop and pick up some kind of ramp. In the meantime, to my surprise (since I had assumed I looked threatening by virtue of the motorcycle), the little old lady in front of whose house the Norton had settled invited me in for pastries and tea! When my father arrived, he noted that the Parks had displayed much mirth over my choice of motorcycle. Their tune changed, however, once they saw the bike. They and their next-door neighbor Charlie, who at age 70 still rode his son’s hopped-up Bonneville, put in many hours showing me how to care for my Norton. One of Charlie’s points was that “Limeys are very particular about their timing.”

Norton in Sonoma
Norton in Sonoma ca. 1978.

How right he was, especially if you time your Norton at exactly 28° BTDC on the exhaust stroke, as I did while replacing the auto-advance unit. The wiring was funky and there were all manner of cross-threaded fasteners (a stripped drain hole in one of the forks is still problematic). Literally everything that had been touched had been screwed up in some way. The clutch center nut had been removed and replaced using the punch method and was so knackered that I had to walk it around with a chisel. The oil filter was so tight that my dad and I had to hoist the entire bike into the air to get enough room to pierce the filter with a giant screwdriver and lever it off. All gasket surfaces had been liberally smeared with silicone sealer, and it always amazed me that a cover could leak so much oil and yet be so hard to remove. The outer gearbox cover took an entire morning. I had to use razor blades to saw through the gasket around the entire perimeter. The “Gozella tuned” stickers were also hard to remove, but careful work with a hair drier got them. It’s funny, now I wish I had one of those stickers to put in my Shrine of Horrible Motorcycle Catastrophes. This is a large shelf in my garage.

Some hardships were my own making. The first time I changed the fork oil, I didn’t have a centerstand (the previous owner had thrown it away when he mounted the Dunstall exhaust), and so the bike was leaned over on its side stand. The instant that I got the second fork nut unscrewed –bang– the front end dropped and the bike landed on top of me. I didn’t want to screw up the fairing any more than it already was, and I knew my mother was inside the house, so I turned on the key and signaled S.O.S. on the horn. Henry also got to see me protecting the fairing in this special way. One night in the Berkeley hills, I heard a scraping noise, looked down, and saw that the sidestand was down. As I pulled over to the gravel shoulder I locked the front wheel, and –bang– I was under the bike instantly. Henry, as usual, was far ahead, but he eventually turned around and figured out the scene when he saw the headlights stacked vertically instead of side-by-side. The cumulative damage to the fairing meant it was repair time. The T.T. Motors boys had a good laugh about the costs of sidestand springs and referred me to a fiberglass expert. He did such a good job on the original Avon fairing that I decided to buy an aftermarket copy and run that. The Parks got it for me at dealer cost and Charlie made it fit. He did a perfect job and wouldn’t take any money, but he did finally accept a bottle of cognac.

I know that knowledgeable people dismiss the production JPN as a sheep in wolf’s clothing, just a Commando carrying some extra weight. The steel 19” rims and the clipons do make for a singularly heavy-steering motorcycle. It is a real reach to the controls and the position of the rearsets causes one’s hips to rotate so that the testicles are on the line, more so than any other bike I’ve ridden. However, it is also a fact that the JPN is absolutely fantastic at high speed. Peter Williams developed the fairing to compensate for the JPN racers’ power deficit, and even the shortie version on my bike slips through the air and gives the rider a very calm airspace. Because it was my only motorcycle for many years, I naturally favored high-speed roads such as Bear Creek Road on the east side of the Berkeley hills. My rule was that I had to exceed 100 mph every time I rode the bike, and in the day, there were no houses on Bear Creek and the pavement was wide and smooth. I am not a particularly fast rider, but I learned all the corners and established baseline speeds through each. I then pushed myself by incrementally increasing speeds a few mph each time. Once I got the isolastics shimmed to .006” and put Konis on, I was able to go through corners at speeds at which I could feel the front and rear wheels oscillating in and out of alignment. A Norvil head steady was a pain to get adjusted right, but it did increase my terror threshold by 5 mph. A fork brace added another 5 mph (the JPN has only a fiberglass fender). In order to go faster, I had to buy a 1974 Ducati 750 Sport, which I did in 1982. But it was only good for an additional 5 mph of terror abatement, so the Norton isn’t bad, and the fairing means that you don’t have to hang on as you do with the Ducati. The speedo and tach needles are calmer as well.

My God, all this was a long time ago on the human scale of things. I had to leave Berkeley in 1986 as part of the process of getting an academic job. I was forced to the Outer Reaches = Durham, North Carolina. I took a normal Norton with me and that helped ease the pain. After 26 months I got lucky and got a job at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. One of the downsides of Portland is that I don’t have easy access to fast roads, and the JPN and Sport don’t get out much. The local roads favor smaller motorcycles. But that is why God created Moto Morinis, BSA Goldstars, and Velocettes. Or are these the Devil’s work?

Odd Bodkins cartoon
(click to enlarge)
One of my favorite Odd Bodkins cartoons by Dan O’Neill.