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.


  1. If you are interested in Norton Model 7 Dominators, there is a great enthusiasts' group on Yahoo! at
    --The Racycle Crank

  2. I am writing from France, and sorry, I do not speak English well, but I want you failiciter to restore your Dominator
    I also pocède a 1951, but the quality is less successful, I invested fewer euros !!!!!
    I am against a photo later

    again congratulation

  3. Nice bike
    I am also building the same 1951 norton domi model 7.
    WoW what a challenge to get the correct parts for that model and year of bike.
    your build will be very helful.
    Not many part in Ontario Canada.
    Any info or help is greatly appreciated

  4. I'm glad you found this post helpful. Did you see the link in the first comment (above)? The link will take you to an enthusiasts' group on Yahoo! that is just for Model 7s. From there you can apply to join the group. The members are a great source of knowledge and help. Feel free to write if you have questions. (Email address at top right of this page.)

  5. Great photos and love ya story.
    Restoring a 52 model 7, in NZ, great fun.
    Such a nice bike to ride and hopefully even better when finished.
    Yahoo model 7 forum is great!

  6. Great story and photos. I have the same motorcycle, and as I am selling my house, its for sale. Its an object my dad started many years ago... if anyone is
    interested , email me..

  7. Hi
    What was the colour you have paited the petrol tank panels
    tks alvaro

    1. That's a great question. I used a Ford silver from the early 1980s because it had a very small metal flake and because it took no clear coat. However, I think it is a little dark. Old Norton silver was nearly white. I keep thinking that there must be an old VW silver from the 1960s that would be closer, but I have not gone looking for it. The Norton Owners Club ( has recommended a specific silver, but I recall that it was for a car that was never sold in the US, so the NOC recommendation was a dead end for me. However, the NOC web site might be helpful.