Friday, December 18, 2009

The Flying Merkel and Miami Cycle

My intent with this post is to share photos I’ve taken of Flying Merkels I’ve seen in the flesh during the past couple of years and, by way of introducing Flying Merkels, to provide some greater context to the story of Racycle bicycles.
Let me first state that I know only slightly more than nothing about Flying Merkel motorcycles, except that most were built by the same Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company that built my favorite Racycle bicycle.
The most comprehensive Flying Merkel information I found is at According to this web site, Joseph Merkel began producing motorcycles in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (I tried to contact the web site administrator for permission to use a few photos, but the email connection appears dead. Hence, the historical photos and catalog pictures reproduced here from are borrowed temporarily until official permission can be obtained.) The first machines were single-cylinder jobs, but Merkel vee-twins were also produced. In 1909, Merkel sold his motorcycle company to Light Manufacturing, and production was moved to Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The machines were re-named from Merkel to Light-Merkel and finally The Flying Merkel. With the Model T Ford coming on the scene, 1909 would have been a good year to sell a motorcycle company. Two years later, the company was sold again, this time to the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company, and production was moved from Pennsylvania to the Home of the Racycle in Middletown, Ohio. Production of single and twin-cylinder models continued into the late teens. Most sources cite 1918 as the final year of Flying Merkel production.
Several years before buying the Merkel line, the Miami Cycle and Manufacturing Company had built its own motorcycles. In about 1905 or 1906 they introduced a Racycle motorcycle equipped with a Thor single-cylinder engine. During this same period, Racycle bicycles used mostly Thor hubs. By 1910, the Racycle motorcycle was using a very similar-looking engine but now with “Racycle” cast into the crankcase. The earliest machines used the engine cylinder as the frame’s seat tube.
Miami Cycle must have been familiar with Merkel as a competitor—and an imposing competitor at that—long before purchasing the company. Merkel motorcycles were technologically advanced with chain drive (on many models) instead of a belt, front and rear suspension, and a relatively stout frame that did not use the engine as the seat tube. I have found no information about Racycle motorcycles being actively raced, but my sources agree that Merkel’s machines were renowned for their competition successes. In the end, Miami Cycle abandoned Racycle motorcycles in favor of the Flying Merkel in 1911.
So it was that, from about 1906 to about the end of the teens, motorcycles were being constructed in the Middletown factory known as the Home of the Racycle. A review of advertising from the early teens suggests the company lost enthusiasm for its Racycle bicycles. After 1913, little to no advertizing championed the Racycle in particular. Instead, ads were taken out singing the virtues of the entire line of Miami Cycle’s bicycles: Racycle, Miami, Hudson, and, surprisingly, the Flying Merkel! (ca. 1916.) It appears that the Flying Merkel name was used on a bicycle as well as single- and twin-cylinder motorcycles. One could speculate that the absence of Racycle-specific advertizing indicates that the motorcycle business was taking center stage from the Racycle bicycle line.
The three Flying Merkels I have seen recently have all been orange, and all three were constructed in 1913. The most recent sighting was at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (see indoor shots) in Birmingham, Alabama. The example on display there is truly stunning. The display card notes that it might be the best original Flying Merkel. If I’m reading things correctly, this machine is also one of the most expensive motorcycles to have been purchased at auction. Prior sightings included one in the paddock at the Northwest Historic Races at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington, in the summer of 2008, and one that earned a class win at the Legend of the Motorcycle concours d’elegance (Half Moon Bay, California) in May 2008.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Racycle Pacemaker Restored!

Back in May I was contacted by Mark from St Louis. Mark had recently bought a Model 170 Pacemaker, but it needed to be restored. Mark was lucky that his Pacemaker had its model number badge, which made it possible to deduce that the machine was built in 1912. (It seems that most but not all Racycles carried a model number badge. Read more about Racycle model numbers in my post "Racycle Models".) But Mark’s real luck was finding a few remnants of the bike’s original blue paint job.
If you click on the accompanying image from the 1912 Racycle catalog (second image), you can see that the standard color offered on the Pacemaker that year was black, but the optional colors included gun blue, Racycle blue, Racycle red, and French gray.
Mark asked what color I would paint it. I replied that I have never seen a Pacemaker painted in any color other than black or orange, which might be faded Racycle red, but I do not know. As such I thought it would be great if he returned the Pacemaker to its original blue livery, but I emphasized that the decision should be entirely his own.
Just three weeks after his first message to me, Mark sent along photos of the finished product. (Three weeks! I can't get parts back from the platers that fast, let alone prep them or do the rest of the job!) He admitted that he still needs to re-nickel the hubs and spokes, but “maybe next year,” he said.
Regarding the striking blue paint, this blog post had previously reported that Mark thought the color match was a little light. Mark wrote to correct me. “The blue that was on it was almost black, which I would guess was gun blue, but I had no idea it was blue until I stripped it…. I could probably match (the original gun blue) pretty close because I saved some of it on a piece of paper to color match later if I wanted.” But instead of gun blue Mark clarified that he selected a shade of blue that “was close to the one out of the catalog, and I thought it would look nicer than the almost black color—that was just my choice. I know there are purist out there (I'm one of them), in fact I don’t even like to repaint them, but this one was bad. I love the blue I picked.”
I am grateful to Mark for providing this clarification and additional information about his restoration. His comment that the original color was “almost black” is the closest thing I’ve found to a color chip for Racycle gun blue. While other restorers should not try to match the color of this Pacemaker if they want one that is gun blue, they should be grateful for Mark’s willingness to share his work. I think it’s an outstanding job. The Racycle name was lettered by hand by a painter local to the St. Louis area.
Although I’m sure there must be a few restored Pacemakers out there, Mark’s is the first that I have seen. And it’s the first I’ve seen in blue. If you have or know of a Pacemaker that is restored or under restoration, send along a description and some photos to share. There is an unusual early Pacemaker undergoing restoration in New York City ( What else is out there?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Rides and the Dangerous Learning Curve

I suspect that, like me, a lot of folks riding motorcycles today did so first on a Honda. I learned to ride on a 1966 Honda Super Hawk—and I still have the bike—but it’s not the first motorbike that I rode. No, my first motorized ride was as a youngster on a Honda Monkey Bike, and I recollect that I had only recently learned to ride two wheels of the manual sort. And before then I had been content with three-wheeled pedal travel only to discover the two-wheeled variety when my older brother, Shawn, crashed into me and my tricycle after he had removed the training wheels from his red Schwinn. We lay in a heap tangled in our ‘cycles with me stunned and Shawn laughing his head off. Shawn still rides a red bike (a 1939 Ariel Red Hunter), but his current machine has mechanicals that are heavier and slightly (just slightly) more advanced than his Schwinn.
It is completely irrelevant that my first two-wheeled voyage happened on Shawn’s red Schwinn and that the event was captured on film. My movie-camera-toting grandparents were in town, and they wanted to film me learning to ride a bike. Since I was too small to reach the ground, Dad agreed to get me started if Mom and the grandparents caught me. I had no previous experience with coaster brakes, nor brakes of any kind. My fate was sealed when I was told that, in order to stay upright, I had to keep pedaling. The home movie shows me wobbling down the sidewalk, picking up speed and getting steadier, riding past the Super-8 camera crew, riding off the curb at the end of the block, crossing the dead-end street, and disappearing into the blackberry bushes on the other side.
It was not too long after this incident that I rode the Monkey Bike. The machine belonged to the eldest child of one of my dad’s co-workers, whom our family went to visit one summer evening. While the grown-ups were in the house, Shawn and I were regaled with speed demonstrations as the Monkey Bike’s owner flogged his steed along the pock-marked dirt driveway, out to the road, and back. These folks lived in the country, so the driveway was long enough to let the Monkey Bike generate all the speed and noise it could.
Shawn was offered and accepted a ride, and, before I knew it, my turn came. I was instructed that to make the machine go I should twist the grip one way, and to make it slow down I should twist it again, or the other way, or more, or the other one, or something. Whatever.
I climbed aboard and the Monkey Bike shot off down the driveway, hitting every pothole, and splashing the mud out of the puddles. I held on for my dear, short life while the rest of me flew out behind like a pennant, occasionally coming down as the Monkey Bike bounded up. I couldn’t see clearly for all the bouncing, but somehow--and this is the strange part--I was able to stop, turn around, and tear back toward the kids, who were doubled over in hysterics. I bore in on them like a dive bomber, trusting that one of them would figure out how to stop this crazy thing before someone got hurt.
The Monkey Bike slowed, and Shawn and the others grabbed me as I went by. I didn’t kill any of the kids, and I didn’t put a Monkey-Bike shaped hole in the garage door. I also didn’t ride another motorbike for about two dozen years.
In 1994, I came across a very dead ’66 Honda Super Hawk. It was stored under some junk that was behind the pinball machine in a shop that I still rent with several friends. We were clearing out the shop one day, and someone decided that we should no longer be storing this forlorn motorcycle for Coast Guard Dave, the old cabinet maker across the street. In a fit of cleanliness, we marched over to Dave’s shop and told him that the bike was going to be wheeled out to the phone pole for the scrap hauler to collect. Coast Guard Dave didn’t seem too bothered. He turned to me and told me I could have it if I got it running. (That still seems like a bizarre offer. What if I tried but failed? Would he take it back and give it to the scrap hauler?) Puzzled, I accepted.
Dave was the second owner of the Super Hawk, but he had known it from new because a close friend was the original owner. In the late 1970s, Dave bought it from his friend thinking it would make a good bike for his wife. Not too long afterwards the engine locked up, and Dave’s wife divorced him. I assume the events were unrelated. By the time Dave had given the seized Honda to me, it was partly disassembled, the speedometer was stove in, as were the chrome panels on the gas tank, and all the chrome was orange with rust.
Over the summer I took it apart, cleaned and repaired it, got the necessary machine work done, and put it back together. The engine had locked when a wrist pin welded itself to a connecting rod (there are no bronze bushes in the small ends of Super Hawk con rods), and this was likely the result of a worn out oil pump.
Once work was underway, Dave told me his opinion of the problem with the Super Hawk. I was expecting stories of electrical faults or poor-quality parts. Instead, the problem was that, up to 60 mph, it would beat his 650 Triumph in a stop-light drag race. For me, this problem was easily cured by simply avoiding Dave’s perspective on the matter. The teardown revealed that Dave's friend had fitted the Honda with high-compression pistons and a smaller drive sprocket off the transmission to make it quick.
By the time the Super Hawk was ready to ride, I was intimately familiar with its mechanicals, but I still had never ridden a proper motorcycle. I climbed on and clumsily operated the controls, trying to mix how to drive a car with how various parts of the motorcycle work.
I was not smooth. Once underway I was as mechanical as the bike. Shifting required all my concentration: roll on throttle, reduce slightly, pull in clutch lever, tip left foot up to change gear, roll on throttle and let out clutch lever. I rode around and around the block. Coast Guard Dave stood in the doorway of his shop and shook his head in disgust. But I was triumphant—the machine worked! Looking out over the flat ‘bars there was just a headlight and the road rushing past. I felt like I was flying! I felt like a kid again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Major’s Story: A Racycle Odyssey 100 Years Ago

These days most antique bicycles are ridden only rarely. A terrific exception is the Wheelmen’s century in which Wheelmen ride 100 miles in a day on bicycles built in 1918 or earlier.
But those same antique bicycles were once new and modern conveniences of transportation. As such they were ridden plenty, but typically just for local trips; long-distance bicycle touring was never commonplace.
One of those rare and adventurous early bicycle tourists was the intrepid Major Edward Augustus Weed, who rode out of New York City on a Racycle Pacemaker in 1908 bound for Estrella, California. For his coast-to-coast journey, the major took his time to take in the sights. In all he rode 8,145 miles “on a Racycle Pacemaker in 18 months and 25 days, in 25 states…across uncle Sam’s big ranch….” The major might not have realized it, but during his trip the world had changed with the introduction of the Model T Ford.
We know of the major’s adventure because in 1910 he self published a brief description of his Racycle travels in a booklet entitled The Major’s Story. The Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company offered in its advertisements to send a copy of the booklet, along with a current Racycle catalog and other promotional goods, to anyone writing to the factory and sending along a two-cent stamp to cover return postage. The quoted excerpts in this post are reprinted with the kind permission of the copyright holder, who is the great grandson of Major Weed.
The Route
Major E.A. Weed was not one to take the direct route when there were interesting places to go and things to see. Starting from New York, he traveled up to Maine, then back south again along the eastern seaboard to Virginia before turning inland. He meandered westward through West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, then turned south through states along the mighty Mississippi until he got to Arkansas. He then continued roughly westward again through Oklahoma and Texas and the American Southwest to California. The major reached Estrella, California, on December 23, 1909.
About his route, Major Weed wrote, “My intention has not been to make any records for distance or speed, for I have often gone hundreds of miles out of my way to see any interesting locality or wonder of nature. Hence, the distance I have traveled is more than enough to have gone direct from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles and back again…. No grander and more comprehensive way of seeing the vastness of our country can be obtained than by riding a wheel [bicycle] leisurely and taking in every point of interest.”
The Racycle
A transcontinental bicycle trip is still a significant undertaking today even with paved roads and good maps. The fact that the major undertook his journey 100 years ago on a Racycle Pacemaker is nothing short of heroic. The rider had to be self reliant because the route was only very sparsely populated, and the few roads that existed were bad. “…But don’t think it was a boulevard, for much of the way is rough.”
The Racycle Pacemaker seems an unlikely choice for the trip because its front sprocket was so large (40 teeth, 1-inch pitch chain) that it typically resulted in tall gearing despite the range of rear sprockets available. (The actual gearing of the major's Pacemaker is not given in the story.) Nevertheless, the major was enthusiastic about his Racycle. For instance, when “poor Racy Pacy was ground to pieces on a trestle bridge by an express train, (the only thing that can smash a Racycle),” the major waited for a replacement Racycle to arrive rather than continue his journey on an inferior bicycle. He described the train incident thus:
“On the 12th of April, 1909, on a trestle bridge near Algodones, New Mexico, where I was walking across, I was suddenly overtaken by a California Limited on the Santa Fe and saved my life by jumping 15 feet to the dry sand below, but my wheel fell on the track and was crushed to pieces. The saddle, handlebars, pump, and my watch were uninjured and are still in use on the second wheel the Miami Co. sent to Albuquerque. The broken wheel I had ridden over 10 months in 23 states, 5,955 miles, and it was in perfect order, and would have been all right now had it not been demolished by the train.”
Express trains notwithstanding, the major had prepared his Pacemaker to survive the predictable hazards of the journey. He wrote that he used heavier gauge spokes and wider tires typical of tandem bicycles. The wider tires may have helped on the miles of sandy tracks that passed for roads.
His Pacemaker had a 24-inch frame and was equipped with a Musselman coaster brake, which was built in-house at the Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company. When coaster brakes were still something of a novelty in 1908 and 1909 (most bicycles had fixed hubs), the Musselman brake was reported to work better than most and was simpler to maintain and repair. The Musselman was unusual in that it had no brake arm strapped to the chain stay but relied on an elegant design feature whereby the braking action was instead imparted into a lug that fit neatly into the rear dropout of the frame. For this reason, the makers termed it the “armless wonder.” Major Weed was of the opinion that it was a fine piece of equipment. “In descending mountains for several miles, I found that my Musselman brake would hold the wheel all right, and it was really marvelous to see the tremendous strength of the little ‘Armless Wonder’ not to mention the feeling of safety and security in coasting down those perilous grades.” The performance of the coaster brake is all the more surprising considering that the major claimed the loaded weight of his Pacemaker was over 90 pounds, “and over 100 pounds when canteens are full of water.”
The Rider
Reading The Major’s Story one is impressed as much by the author’s character as by his physical achievement. Major Weed seems to have been a free spirit in the sense that he had a singular passion for travel, but he also understood that satisfying this passion was his means to a contented and healthful life. In this respect, one could compare him with John Muir, who also appreciated nature for its own sake and for its transcendental qualities. Coincidently, Muir (born 1838) and Weed (born circa 1842) were nearly the same age, but Muir had already travelled and published widely by the time the major began his journey. Major Weed wrote, “I most heartily commend bicycle riding and Racycle riding in particular as one of the very best means to see our grand country and come in closer touch with God and nature.” The accompanying photo of John Muir is from the Wikipedia entry (
Despite the major’s age and the hardships he endured, he logged “not a sick day on the whole trip, but perfect health all the time, for you see I am a healthy, hearty young fellow, and only 68 years young…. Though thoroughly drenched with rain by night and day on numerous occasions, I was not injured in anyway, not even taking cold.”
The Major’s Story is entertaining reading if only for its insights into its author’s attitude toward life. As stated above, he knew what made him a happy and healthy man, and at several occasions in the booklet he takes care to fill in the rest of us as to the secrets of his success. “Good food and plenty of it, as much sleep as convenient, entire abstinence from liquor and tobacco in every form, an even disposition, and an avoidance of fret, worry, and anger have been largely instrumental in contributing to my health and happiness…. When short of food or water I make my mind control my appetite and never allow myself to think about it, so I never suffer with hunger or thirst. We can overcome much of our trouble or sorrow if our mind is under proper management. God has given us the ability to be peaceful and happy under nearly all conditions and amid nearly all environments.”
Consistent with his independent spirit, the major wanted his readers to understand that he was not in the pocket of the Miami Cycle Company, and they certainly were not holding his hand as he meandered across the US. Major E.A. Weed concluded his self-published travelogue with the following statement:
“I want it distinctly understood that I have had no salary or expense allowance from the Miami Cycle & Mfg. Co. of Middletown, Ohio, the makers of the Racycle, but rode that wheel because I believed it the best, and my long and hard ride has fully confirmed my former belief, that though there are possibly other good wheels, there cannot be any that compare with the easy riding, sturdily built Racycle Pacemaker.”
That was a century ago this year.

(Please note: The quoted contents of this post are protected by copyright and may only be reproduced with permission. The rest of this web blog post can be reproduced for educational purposes (no profit) without needing to secure permission.)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Racycle Frames

“There are two things in the make up of every Racycle frame that are not always considered in the manufacture of bicycles—honesty and common sense.” --Racycle catalog, 1901.
The following discussion of Racycle frames is offered as an example of the high quality build of Racycle bicycles and as a means to summarize some of the production changes and unique features of Racycle frames.
Frame Tubing and Construction
Racycle frames appear almost svelte compared to the heavy frames of most bicycles of the late 1800s. The catalog illustration at the top of this post is a cut-away view showing the method of pinning the frame tubes to the intersecting joints, which reach far down the inside of the frame tubes. The joints were then brazed.
To illustrate the effort and fine materials that went into constructing a Racycle, a narrative description of the manufacturing process was included in the 1905 catalog. The frame department occupied an area 200’ by 50’ in the basement of the three-story Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company factory in Middletown, Ohio. “We shall start in at the further end of the basement on Grand Avenue where peculiar machines cut the 1-inch, 20-gauge seamless tubing into proper lengths. Proceeding along the north side of the building, we pass a long row of benches where busy workmen are putting the head, seat post, and other connections into the tubing, which, when rough shaped, are carried over to the forming machines to be drilled, wired, riveted, and made ready for the noisy, sputtering brazing tables on the south side of the room. Here brawny artisans ladle molten brass around the red-hot joints, turning and twisting their work to make sure that the brass penetrates to the end of each reinforcement.”
In 1897, a wide variety of frame configurations and styles were offered. By 1901 the line was standardized with respect to frame geometry (only the Racer and the ladies’ models were obviously different), and the tandems had been discontinued. The frame geometry of the 1901 models was described by the maker as “practically the same as they were last season, with not quite so much drop to the crank hanger.”
The Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company continually improved the Racycle frame. The 1901 catalog lists 1 and 1/8-inch (1.125”) diameter, 22-gauge tubing on all models except the Racycle Racer, which was built of 1-inch, 20 gauge tubing. By 1904, all Racycle frames were constructed of the smaller-diameter (1 inch) and thicker-walled (20-gauge) tubing that had first been introduced on the Racer. At some point between 1905 and 1908, slightly thicker 19-gauge tubing was introduced throughout the Racycle range, but the diameter remained at 1 inch.
Seamless English tubing was introduced in top-end models in 1908 but appears to have been quietly dropped in favor of tubing that retained the same specifications without the cache or expense of English tubing. The 1908 sales literature described “weldless English steel tubing and drop-forged heads, fork crowns, and seat-post clusters.” As testimony to the strength of its frames, the same brochure includes photos of ten men on a single Racycle and America’s heaviest bicycle rider with his Racycle roadster, which was a standard production model.
Catalogs from 1910 and later do not mention English tubing. For instance, the 1913 catalog describes the frame material as “19-gauge cold-rolled seamless steel tubing. All joints are heavily reinforced with extra long reinforcements of the fishmouth design and are carefully brazed together by the immersion process, which unites the frame as nearly as possible into one piece.” “Frame connections are made of extra-heavy gauge stock.” The Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company claimed that the use of these materials in the manufacture of Racycle frames “…Represents a new era in bicycle frame construction that has never before been approached.”
Frame Colors
We usually see Racycles in black, which was the standard color for most all of the production run, but it appears that they started out much more colorful. For instance, black paint was not mentioned in the 1897 advertising. Instead Racycles were supplied in carmine (red), with royal blue supplied on a couple of the lower end Racycles. By 1901 (and perhaps a couple of years earlier) black was the standard color.
The 1901 catalog mentions that other colors and striping were subject to a two-week delay. However, custom colors were available on only the top-end Racycles; the Roadster (Model 64) and the Taper-Head Chainless (Model 67) were available in black only. (Yes, there was a shaft-drive Racycle for a few years around the turn of the century.) Similarly, the 1905 catalog indicates that you could order your Racycle in whatever color you wanted if you were willing to wait an additional two weeks and if you sent in “a piece of silk in the desired shade…attached to each order as a guide for our enamellers.” It seems there was no extra charge for the custom color, but an extra charge would be levied for “full nickel frames, combination colors, (on Model 105 only) gun barrel blue, or rims enameled to match.” This seems to have been the company policy from about 1900 to 1910, after which catalogs did not refer to custom colors but instead offered one or two selected color options.
From about 1908, the Pacemaker and other top-end models were standard in “gun blue” or black. Catalog descriptions suggest that “gun blue” was probably a paint color that looked similar to a gun-blue metal finish like on firearms. For instance, the 1913 catalog description for the Pacemaker lists color “No. 1 translucent gun blue” as the standard color on this top-of-the-line machine. An option was No. 4 black.
From 1910, a few colors followed translucent gun blue onto the Racycle pallet, but black endured as the standard color. Garnet and blue were listed as options on the Tourist and the ladies’ Pacemaker, and color options on the Rideabout and the Roadster were limited to blue and garnet, respectively.
To its credit, the Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company made a real effort to build high-quality frames for the Racycle line. The design, materials, and construction techniques were first rate for the day and probably did much to help legitimize the maker's claim, “buy the Racycle and you will have the best; there are no cheap Racycles.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Norton Model 7 Restoration Part 2: Return of the Dominator

The story is set in a steel industrial building, a shop I share with friends next to Seattle’s Interbay rail yard….
Restoration Plan
My 1950 Norton “Dominator” is only my second motorcycle, and it was my first attempt at restoring a motorcycle. So I’m in no position to offer advice about how to undertake such a project, but I have read that you should have a restoration plan. My plan was not to restore the bike at all. I just wanted to get it running but could not.
Once it was obvious that Plan A had failed, I resorted to Plan B, which was to restore the machine as a number of major assemblies so that I wouldn’t have too much of it apart at any one time. First up was to finish a rolling frame including the suspension, wheels and brakes. Next would be the engine and gearbox, then the sheet metal, and then everything else.
It might have been quicker to restore the whole thing at once, but it would have been significantly more difficult to afford. Parsed out over three years, the cost of the restoration was easier to take. Plus it would have driven me nuts to have the bike completely apart all at once. The world already has too many boxes of greasy parts that would be viable machines if not for their well-meaning owners having disassembled them into their constituent molecules.
For the most part, I followed my secondary plan of restoring the machine as a series of major assemblies, but there were plenty of excursions. For instance, I started restoring the fuel tank (part of step three) long before even disassembling the engine (step two). In the end, my timing was good; I started the engine the day after I got the tank back from the plating shop. But that coincidence says more about the slowness of the plating shop than it says for my ability to see the future or plan for it. The second picture here is from the night we first lit it off. The drain pan was needed to catch oil from the crankcase breather as the bike had wet sumped a bit in the two weeks or so since I had installed the oil tank.
A Few Mod Cons
I restored the old Norton to ride it. So, with reliability an issue, a few modern conveniences crept into the restoration. For instance, I installed a solid-state voltage regulator for the charging system, figuring that the solid-state unit would be less apt to melt the generator or boil acid out of the battery. I upgraded the crankshaft main bearings to a Commando-type roller bearing on the drive side and a ten-ball main bearing (replacing the original eight-ball bearing) on the timing side. But I really cheated when I installed a belt primary drive inside the “Norton Oil Bath” primary-chain case. It’s quiet, will seldom need adjustment, and eliminates one oil leak. There’s no oil under it because there’s no oil in it.
There were other items that I returned to their original specification for the sake of what I consider the sport of the restoration. It might be easier to buy a wiring harness than it is to make your own, but it’s a sporting challenge to research what were the original materials, procure them, and build the whole thing yourself. Plus, only you can make it all fit just so. I even fitted the unusual KLG spark-plug leads and spring-wire retaining clips that Norton used to supply. The brass ends of the high-tension leads are clipped to the plugs—completely exposed—like a Frankenstein motoring accessory. There is no provision for keeping out rain or any other source of incidental shorting. Returning after the inaugural ride, I reached down to shut off the fuel, fumbled around, and mistakenly found one of the KLG terminals—I nearly jumped right off!
It would have been simple enough to use later parts to improve performance with greater engine displacement, an alloy cylinder head, and bigger brakes, but that approach would have subverted one of my goals, which was to learn what this motorcycle was like in 1950, small brakes and all. So the old Dominator still has only 500 c.c.s and 6.7:1 compression under its original cast-iron head, and it still relies on 7-inch single-sided brakes. Surprise, it gets along just fine.
I suppose that with any British bike, fasteners are a challenge. Not only is the Dominator held together with the usual mixed bag of thread pitches (Whitworth, British Standard Fine, British Association, and British Standard Cycle), but they were all originally finished in satin chrome, not cadmium. It took me ages to research what the metal finish was, how to replicate it, and to finally prepare all the parts for plating. I suspect that Norton used satin chrome because it’s almost bullet proof (if done correctly), and since wrenches don’t mark up the fasteners, they are less likely to corrode than if they were cad plated.
Fixing the chrome-plated fuel tank actually went fairly smoothly once I figured out how to start. I cut it in two along the welded seam where the bulbous outer skin joins the rest of the tank. With the tank cut apart, I had complete access to the rust and dents. I was able to sandblast the interior and weld up some cracked seams in the lower portion that forms a saddle over the top tube of the frame. I spent evenings and several weekends (perhaps six) knocking out the dents. Dents in curves are relatively easy to make look good; the difficult ones are those in the flatter areas.
After a friend TIG welded it back together, I filled most of the rust pits with silver solder, then sent it off for plating. I should have spent more time soldering the rust pits; in the end, I had the tank nickel plated four times (wet sanding each time with 400-grit paper) before the last of the pits was filled and it could finally be chromed.
I try to do my own work, but I also know to pick my battles. I turned to specialists for straightening the frame, rebuilding the generator and magneto, welding aluminum and cast iron, machining, and pin striping. I had the engine’s reciprocating parts dynamically balanced at Hill Machine in Ballard. Also, I bought a new reproduction of the original carburetor, instead of trying to repair the cobbled-together mess that came with the bike.
Every project has its setbacks. The first time I got it on its wheels, I wanted to test the patented Roadholder forks. So I leaned on them good, but they didn’t compress. Finally I leaned forward and pulled on the front rim while pressing my chest against the steering damper knob. That did the trick—the Roadholders gave suddenly, but I lost my balance and the bike and I went to the floor. I resolved to never again work past 1:00 AM. The forks were apart the next day to repair damage to the sheet metal gaiters, and when I put them back together I made certain the fork legs were parallel so they would not bind.
A few months later, the finished frame and suspension were on a rolling table when the Nisqually earthquake sent everything to the floor. On the way down, the Norton left a pretty good reminder of itself on the back of my friend’s Ducati Elite, narrowly missed his Facel Vega, and only nicked my old Sunbeam sports car. By the time I got to the shop to check out the damage, one of my fellow tenants had placed the frame assembly on a blanket on the floor. The bike was laid on its side in case there were any aftershocks. I’m sure that was the kindest treatment the bike had ever received. The forks had sustained cosmetic damage that was similar to what I had done to them earlier. They came apart again for repeat work on the sheet metal gaiters.
And then, from across the street, there was the old cabinetmaker: Coast Guard Dave. This was the character who had given me my first motorcycle, but the gift was contingent upon me getting it running. (There’s something about that deal that still seems strange.) The bike was a ’66 Honda Super Hawk that had been left under a bench for 12 years with a seized engine. Dave rode mostly Triumph, AJS, and Harley. The Honda was something he had bought for his wife, but that was before the divorce.
Coast Guard Dave figures into the Norton restoration for two reasons. First, Dave was a walking repository of archaic knowledge, which he shared freely. For instance, as soon as he saw the old Norton, he insisted that I borrow his 1953 edition of Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, certainly one of the world’s great literary works and a true asset to the project. He also insisted that I balance my wheels the old-school way by wrapping the spokes with solder. Dave was emphatic that I immediately drop everything and go over to his shop where he gave me the sacred remnants of a small roll of all-lead (no tin) wheel-balancing solder. To my untrained eye it looked just like any other old roll of solder.
Another time, after setting up his metal lathe to let me turn some half-inch rivets that would secure the rear brake drum to the hub, Dave proudly produced (and insisted that I use) an assortment of rivet mandrels and strangely-shaped bucking bars to finish the job. When Dave wanted to help, you had to let him. As it turned out, Dave’s strange rivet mandrels and bucking bars were just the thing, which was typical.
The second reason Dave figures into the restoration is because he would always come into the shop, pull up a chair, and proceed to distract me. Often several times a day. Whatever you had, Dave used to have two of them, only his were works racers. Blah, blah, blah. He told me about the time he crashed his Triumph Tiger, got the kick-starter through his leg, and how the muscle tissue looked like cooked vermicelli. Then there was the one about his alky-burning Matchless that would have been stolen if it hadn’t broken the leg of the poor bastard who tried to start it. In the lifeless world of the Interbay industrial area, Coast Guard Dave was omnipresent, whether you liked it or not—kind of like the help he offered.
Dave died a few years ago at the ripe old age of 53. Dave’s death was a tremendous blow. For a long time I could not take apart anything without leaving behind enough information for someone else to put it back together. And the solitude of the shop definitely has its down sides. Without Dave’s distractions and interruptions (“come over to my shop for a minute—I’ve got something to show you”) weekends at the shop became very, very, long indeed. The second half of the Dominator project felt very different from the first half.
Once the bike was together, I rolled it across the street and took a few photos of it in front of Coast Guard Dave's old cabinet shop. Now the building is gone too, but two of my shop mates salvaged some of the timbers as it was being demolished. And so the past lives on.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Norton Model 7 Restoration Part 1: Postmortem

The machine was long dead when I rolled it off the delivery truck and into a cold Seattle rain. I pushed it across the broken street to the workshop space I rent, and, as it sat dripping, I went over it assessing what I had just gotten myself into.
It was a 1950 Norton Model 7, a specimen of the first multi-cylinder engine Norton had ever produced. (A Peugeot engine had propelled the Norton twin that won its class in the inaugural Isle of Man TT in 1907.) Although it was not strictly a sporting motorcycle, Norton advertising of the period made all the hay it could of the firm’s myriad racing successes, and so Nortons gave their new twin the name “Dominator.” The model debuted at the 1948 Earl’s Court show, and production commenced for the 1949 model year.
The Norton Owners Club in England reviewed its copy of the factory records and told me that this particular machine was dispatched from the Bracebridge Street works in Birmingham on March 20, 1950. It and two consecutive Model 7s had been purchased by Brockhouse Limited and were destined for the United States. Brockhouse had purchased Indian Moto Cycles in the late 1940s and by 1950 was actively using the Indian dealership network in America to sell various British bikes. Norton ads in American motorcycle magazines proclaimed “Sold by Indian.”
The seller in Cincinnati had told me the bike was last licensed in 1974 in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes. But as I looked over the bike in 1998, it was another 24 years on; by now the bike had been off the road for as long as it had been on it.
By all appearances this was a machine that had suffered from what I call “Volkswagen Syndrome”—a sad mechanical fate that befalls obsolete vehicles that refuse to die. They are hardly worth repairing, and they certainly are not worth maintaining, but they soldier on with everything about to give up the ghost, yet not enough things do. Whatever the aesthetic reality, cases of Volkswagen Syndrome are often interesting if only for their extraordinarily bodged repairs and extremely worn parts.
Most of the bike was there, but it was in generally shabby condition. The gas tank and fenders were in gray primer, which told me they weren’t good enough to tolerate either bare or painted. Sheet metal parts were dented, fatigue cracked, and repaired badly. Short strands of wire stuck out of the few electrical components on board; someone had re-wired the plot completely with brown wire only to have someone else come along and snip off all of it. The drive chain was one size too wide and had carved a path out of the back of the primary-chain cover. The sprocket teeth were worn hook shaped. Happily the frame and engine numbers did indeed match, just as I had been told. But when I removed the gas tank it was obvious that the frame was bent at the head tube.
The original owner must have lost the tool kit on his way out of the Indian dealership. Water-pump pliers and pipe wrenches had chewed up bolt heads, nuts, and even the carburetor. Some bolts had been removed from non-critical areas to serve where the original fasteners had left the scene. Unable to remove the fork-top bolts, someone had drilled them, tapped them, and installed a bolt in one and a stud and nut in the other so that fork oil could be added without having to borrow a really big wrench.
In the tradition of those before me, I tried to piece the Dominator together enough to get it running. I would restore it as I rode it. The problem was, everything I touched came apart in my hands. I finally gave up and tore it down for a complete rebuild.
The machine had apparently been driven two-up for a fair distance. Once the primer was stripped from the rear fender, it was obvious that a pillion saddle had been bolted on and used long enough to severely fatigue and tear the top of the fender. One of the original Norton pillion footrests was received with the bike, but the other was a well-worn replacement. Disassembling the plunger-sprung rear suspension revealed that one of the coil springs was broken. Its two broken halves had wound past each other to form one very short, incompressible spring.
From the bent frame and fork yokes it was obvious that the bike had been crashed. At the moment of impact, the forks sprung back so far that the front fender got caved in from behind when it smacked into the frame tube. The steering had then whipped right hard enough to strike a sharp dent in the front of the bulbous, chrome, gas tank. Twenty-two smaller dents balanced out the tank damage. The 21-inch front wheel, when rolled across the shop floor, wobbled badly over its repaired spots and fell immediately upon reaching a grizzly warp that was probably the collision site. Regardless of the damage, someone had continued to ride the bike after rounding out the front rim as best they could and straightening the dent in the back of the fender. It was an old repair—they had used lead instead of Bondo on the fender.
Unscrewing the timing cover revealed that the phenolic generator-drive gear was missing. But even disconnected, the generator would not turn. It turned out that a commutator segment had escaped from the spinning armature, snagged the brushes, twisted the brush holders, and stopped the generator cold. This might have been enough to destroy the fiber drive gear, but inside the engine there wasn’t even the tiniest trace of phenolic shrapnel. Someone had already cleaned out the remains and put the bike back into operation without any electrics except the magneto. That explained the snipped-off wiring.
When splitting the crankcases I discovered that the best secrets were those hidden deepest. The left crankcase bore evidence of having been pierced by a broken connecting rod. The hole had been expertly welded shut, but the welder had also addressed the left piston, welding in place the broken pieces of piston skirt that had been cleaved off by the flailing remains of the broken con rod. The welds had been crudely ground off and the piston re-installed in its bore, connected to a replacement rod that was obviously a different casting from its neighbor to the right. The right con rod had suffered a giant gouge from the event but was retained. And this despite the fact that Norton twins use aluminum rods, so re-use was tantamount to a postponed death sentence.
The big-end shell bearings had also been re-used, and, when one had checked out lose, a piece of paper had been stuck behind the bearing to take up the slack. Because the paper used was a piece of blank shop receipt, I assumed the whole mess was a professional job. By the time the rod failed, the bike had already lived a long life; the pistons that they repaired and reused were 0.020” oversize.
In the end, the most surprising thing I found was the absence of any obvious cause of death, except perhaps for an indifferent magneto. Despite the laundry list of ailments, it looked like it might have continued to limp along had someone not started to disassemble it to paint a few parts.
Even so, it is all better now, and I am happy to say it is mostly an amateur job. In late September 2001, the engine fired for the first time in a long time, and by May 2002 I had the machine assembled, wired, and on the road. Since then it has covered more than 10,000 miles from sea level to 7,000 feet. Its greatest feat was a 1,200-mile trip from Seattle to the International Norton Owners Association (INOA) rally in southwest Oregon in 2005. My brother (1939 Ariel Red Hunter!) and I rode there down the Pacific Coast Highway and rode back along the Cascade Mountains. The Model 7 Dominator is such a wonderful machine to ride that I can see why prior owners had tried to keep it on the road despite its various incidents and the mounting toll of bodged repairs.