A Lifetime of Motorcycles – Part II, The Norton Rides

… continued from Part I, First Bike

December 7th, 1974 Lois and I rode the little Honda to Central Cycle and Marine for the last time. We had test ridden a new 850 Norton Roadster the weekend prior. We bought a European spec 1974 850 Norton Interstate. This bike had been brought over with two John Player Racer Replicas. I liked those too, but really liked the 7.2 gallon steel Interstate tank and big wide saddle. Much better perch for exploring the world than clip-ons and rear sets.

I’m pictured here astride our new 1974 850 Norton Interstate near the University of Denver, Denver Colorado.

The slide-up fog free shield wasn’t fog free. It fogged over one night as we rode home from work around one in the morning on snowy streets. I’d picked Lois up from her job in accounting at a downtown department store after my swing shift at an aerospace machine shop. I tried all manner of at the time gear in an attempt to stay warm. Korean War era insulated flight suits and shooting mitts to no success. I eventually bought a horribly fitting snow mobile suit. That suit had legs that were too short by a little more than a foot. I’d wear my hiking boots and heavy wool socks to my knees to keep warm. My hands would get so cold on my twenty-five mile commute, I’d pull over partway and hold my gloved hands against the cylinders to warm them and wait for the feeling to return to my fingers. One especially cold night I left work and the bank time and temperature sign read -22 F. When I jumped on the kick starter it didn’t move at first. Then ever so slowly it rotated down to the bottom. I lifted my foot and the return spring could barely push it home against the cold 90w oil in the transmission. It took three times to get the bike to fire, and one more to get it lit for good. It sat there idling and warming. I waited a few minutes until I could feel the heat on the cylinders through my gloves, then set off into the night. That night would take three stops to warm my hands. And riding along Evans Avenue the crown in the road would slip me from the center of the road to the gutter in a block as the tarmac was covered in snow. That was a long cold ride home and one I would only repeat a few more times when we got caught out in the elements. Leaving for work at 2:30 in the afternoon in Denver the weather could be lower 50’s and clear skies, only to have a storm blow in while I worked. Once Lois decided to drive up and get me, but had a lot of weather related traffic to slow her arrival. We passed each other on the road from the plant, so I had her follow me to my parents house three miles away where we left the motorcycle and drove the car the twenty five miles home. The next morning was clear and warm, melting the near foot of snow we got over night.

There were many weekend rides in the mountains on the Norton, and a few week day runs to breakfast at a cafe in some canyon. We took a few longer rides around Colorado then, the summer of 1975, Lois and I used the Norton to ride to visit her sister and her husband in Tucson over two week 4th of July shutdown my plant had. We all rode around Tucson on their CB750 and our Norton. We had a great time. We rode up Mount Lemon and got rained and hailed on.

Our motorcycle travel gear began to evolve from our backpacking gear. We added a Better Windjammer frame mounted fairing for travel and winter. We even found real rain gear after destroying a pair of sporting goods store plastic suits. That trip, we got home from fishing and hiking with my parents in the mountains with only the wrist bands, collars and snaps band down our fronts left of our rain gear. We used duffle bags strapped to either side for saddle bags and an old vinyl suitcase on the rear rack for our kitchen kit. The tankbag strapped on and the fairing had a good deal of storage as well.

Riding with friends around the mountains, My buddy Mike and I parked at the top of Loveland Pass.

Working swing shift and Lois in college, Mike and I would ride or play tennis. That was a fun summer. I was averaging 12,000 miles per year riding almost all the time.

We moved to a new apartment about a mile from where I worked. I mostly walked to work. But, this is where my nice linear timeline of motorcycle ownership first goes off the rails. Oh, nothing bad happens mind you, I simply end up owning more motorcycles at once than I can ride at one time. Something to aspire to.

So, up first a small detour. At work there was a bulletin board of stuff near the tool crib. Employees would post rooms for rent, campers and cars for sale and once in a while a motorcycle. I had noticed a card for a 250cc Ducati. Now this was a 1968, no photo of course, just a phone number and price. A tiny price. Tiny enough to make the gears in my head begin turning and encouraged by my buddy, we came up with a plan. So, come morning we got in his truck and drove down to the address the guy gave me after I called. His very pregnant wife met us at the door and lead us to a waist high weedy back garden and the bike. She said her husband had explained the motor had blown up. It was grungy and dirty with drooping footpads and oil soaked parts that should not be oil soaked. An odd Honda seat was bolted to the frame by means of makeshift straps. I pondered. Prodded the kick starter and the motor moved so it wasn’t real bad. No loud clunking, from the lifeless lump. A twist of the throttle provided almost no resistance, but no return spring either. And manually closing the throttle felt like pushing something wrong. The slide did not move. My guess was throttle cable. I opened my wallet to extract the bills as the fellow’s wife peered in and said twenty would be fine.

Done. We pushed the bike out to my friends truck and lifted it in and off we went. At home we found the throttle cable broken, yet had been repaired once using one of those screw-on lugs at the throttle end. The slide end was fine, filthy, but fine. I cleaned things up and reattached the lug. The bike fired right up. Idled a bit high, but ran. Tires were low, all the bearings suspect, but there were bones.

1968 Ducati 250, Westminster, Colorado 1976

The plan was to turn this little bike into something like this:

This is a friend Mike, who was the mechanic at Harry’s Motors in Denver. He raced this 450 Desmo.

Mike’s 450 was street legal. We had talked long and often about racing and Demo Ducti singles in particular. I could pretty easily change my 250 into a 450 Desmo for not too much money. A plan was hatched. I made a list and a priority of each and how long things took to appear. We figured to do the work up at my buddy’s place in Boulder as my apartment didn’t have a garage. As I cleaned and reviewed this new bike, I found the frame was cracked at a weld. a known issue, but since my landlord was a welder he said he could easily fix it up for free. Then another friend entered the picture as I had just fixed the title and registration mess. I’d paid the crazy $45 fees for all that, yet of course didn’t have a paper title in hand. This other friend, upon viewing this little bike the first time at work one evening, offered me $100. Now, I’d spent $5 on a throttle and cable from a Guzzi to improve that, a couple of bucks on new grips and a few more on carburetor cleaner. I of course turned him down, because I’d barely ridden the thing. I did ride it a bit in the next week or so when I had time. I rode over to an open field I’d played in as a kid and flat tracked the little bike there. Rode up and down the trails and slid and just had a blast. It does surprise people that a slightly heavy and well underpowered bike can be fun out hooping it up. Well, another week goes by and my friend with the loose wallet, happens to be standing in my apartment with me and offered me twice his original price. In front of my wife, and knowing all the shortcomings of the little bike, I’d uncovered.

Also at this point I’d not done anything as far as deep service to the bike beyond checking the valve clearances and changing oil. Nothing else. I handed him the registration and we signed a bill of sale. Ten $20 dollar bills were counted out. I’d owned the little bike a few weeks, spent almost nothing on it and made money. This bike holds the title to best return on investment in motorcycling dollars in my history. My paper title showed up almost two months later and was signed over. And my friend was knocked off the little bike in the mountains of Colorado as he rode back from an Army reserve week exercises, when a truck dropped a head-sized rock off as it rounded a bend. The rock hit him square in the chest, at least that is what the doctors figured. He slide into the ditch, nobody noticing for nearly a day, when the Highway Patrol found the bike crashed, they looked around and found him breathing, but otherwise not responding. He was transported. Someone had taken his backpack with all his ID and belongings. While he was out, nobody knew where he was. The bosses at work were going to fire him for being AWOL, his wife was calling us and work wondering where he was. She called the army found he had left on time, and no one had heard from him since. She made calls to the police who after a day or so figured out the guy they had in a rural hospital was our guy. he recovered and wasn’t fired. The little Ducati was a wadded up pile of junk, never seen again. The rock had broken his sternum and bruised his heart.

There was one more motorcycle to come into the fold while we had the Norton. A 1974 BMW R90/6.

1974 BMW R90/6 and 1974 Norton 850 Interstate, Mom and Dad’s house 1976

I found this bike used in the new paper want ads. Owned by a doctor who lived near Cheesman Park in Denver. Low mileage, WindjammerII fairing and BMW bags. I ditched the crashers and airhorns. We decided to sell the Norton. I placed an ad and it was answered. A guy arranged to come by, then called and delayed. We had in the meantime changed course and were moving to California. The Norton was supposedly sold to a guy. But, no real money had exchanged hands. We had played a lot of telephone games and in the end I ran out of time. Our stuff was set to be moved. We arranged for him to pick the bike up from my dad. The guy never showed. So, we moved to California with one motorcycle with us and one in Colorado. After five months I decided to fly to Denver and ride the Norton to California. I flew to Denver at about Thanksgiving and of course the weather decided to not cooperate. A blizzard was set to hit the mountains, well I could go south to interstate 8 and come across the bottom of the US to the coast. One of my uncles had a friend with a trucking company, he offered to ship the motorcycle to my house in California for $50. A return plane ticket was $100, a no brainer. We built a pallet out of scrap wood, drained the fuel and pulled the battery. I carried the live lead acid batter with me on the flight. Different time for sure. And it was a real E-ticket flight for sure. Lots of turbulence over the Rockies, with drops big enough to launch drinks and loose junk.

The Norton showed up a couple of weeks later in the sunshine. A friend and I used a pickup to gather it from the shipper. The pallet split in half as it touched the ground in front of my garage. Now, I had two motorcycles in California. I decided to transform the Norton into a Cafe racer, and further fit the BMW for travel. The stock saddle on the BMW was horrible. We rode to Sequoia one long weekend and had to sleep on our stomachs because our backsides were so sore. Sitting down on anything that next day was painful in the extreme. So much so we cut short the trip and rode home. I ordered a custom seat soon after from Ez Berg in San Diego.

Sequoia National Forest

The BMW was a great travel bike. This was the 70’s with 55mph national speed limit and expensive $.50 fuel. With he 2.91 final drive we would get 65 mpg on the interstates. We traveled to Tucson and Phoenix, and up the coast to Laguna Seca. We had a great time on that bike. It got lowers for the fairing for better protection from the elements, I got a deal on some Morris Mag wheels that added a custom rear disc brake. We added a large capacity oil pan and oil temperature gauge after a very hot ride to a desert development overheated the motor and us.

The Norton was transformed. We found a solo seat at an RC Engineering “garage sale” one weekend and some cross over rear sets to keep my feet working the controls properly. I was working for a small machine shop so had access to tools. I made mounts and bits I needed here and there.

In this livery, I rode the Norton to my local BMW dealer, Brown Motor Works in Pomona, California. I needed some parts for the BMW, the rear main seal had gone bad for a second time and I needed new bolts for the drive shaft coupling as well as the flywheel.

I Brown’s while I was getting my parts, Bob asked if that was my Norton out front. I replied that indeed it was. He then said, “I’ll bet you twenty bucks it doesn’t start the first kick.” Now, Bob likes to rib folks and maybe caught that I might be able to be ribbed a bit. What bob didn’t know is that I’d modified the bike to 12 volt car coils. It started every time on the first kick. So, I replied to Bob that I didn’t want to take his twenty, but I’d let him buy me breakfast. And not only that, I’d let him kick it and it would tick over before the lever hit home.

We marched out to the bike, my business having been done and Bob wanted nothing to do with starting the bike so I proceeded. The venerable Norton fired partway through that first kick and settled into a smooth idle, well front wheel being shook like a brick in a dryer thanks to the isolastic suspension. Bob, then asked who tuned the bike. I stated that I had. he then asked if I wanted a job. I said, you can’t afford me right now. I’m a machinist, which is why I can afford a Norton and a BMW. But, I said in about a year, I’ll be an unemployed student and then you can afford me. We became fast friends after that meeting. And that is how I set off on my second career as a BMW motorcycle mechanic. I’ll leave the rest of those stories for another time.

I eventually sold the Norton. I didn’t need to and it took up no space in our garage. I wasn’t using it hardly at all, so down the road it went and we were back to one bike, the BMW.

The BMW took us to Death Valley and all around the southwest, but the miles were piling up on it and at about 70,000 I decided I could get something sportier and new. I had my eye on an RS. I was by now, working for Bob Brown. We sold the BMW and I bought my next bike.

Published by Mr Head

Retired engineer, former aerospace machinist, and BMW motorcycle mechanic.

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