Two Wheel Tuesday: Last Gasp Norton Isolastics

When I was at the British National Motorcycle Museum a couple of years ago, some of my favorite bikes were the prototypes that were developed as Norton Villiers Triumph was foundering in a sea of red ink in the mid 1970s. With the Bonneville out of the picture and virtually no funds for new R&D or production tooling, they tried pouring all the remaining, outdated assets of BSA, Triumph and Norton into a blender and hitting “puree.” The results were mix-and-match specials, very much like what kids do with a Lego kit the seventh or eighth time they put it together.
Yes, that says Norton on the tank. The forward-canted 3-cylinder motor in the frame was originally a BSA, then went on to grow an electric starter and become the Triumph Trident T160. In this guise, it has been enlarged and inserted into a frame equipped with Norton’s biggest selling feature, the rubber-mounted Isolastic frame, so naturally it would have been marketed as a Norton product.
A couple more similar experimental Isolastic bikes are featured after the jump.

This was supposed to be the updated Commando for 1976, creatively named the “Norton 76.” The least innovative or interesting of these bikes, it was mostly the same Commando they’d been selling, updated with cast wheels and dual disc front brakes and restyled with lower handlebars and a smoother, squarer tank and seat.
The “P92” prototype is perhaps my personal favorite. It has BSA script on the tank now, but it was originally intended to be a Norton product. It’s a BSA 500 c.c. single-cylinder motor (which I once owned) canted forward to fit in the frame from the stillborn Triumph Bandit/BSA Fury 350 project. The frame had been subsequently modified to accept (yep, you guessed it) Norton Isolastic rubber engine mounts. This bike has Norton mufflers and bodywork and a BSA Rocket 3 front fender.
Note the left side shifter. A shifter on the right and brake on the left had been the traditional layout for British bikes, but the U.S. DOT mandated the reverse for bikes in 1975. The Triumph Bonneville and Norton Commando were redesigned to have the shift shaft extend through the left side of the engine. Lacking the funds to update the BSA single, this one has a complicated linkage arrangement running behind the engine.
Hey, po’ people got po’ ways.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 64 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

  1. Slow_Joe_Crow Avatar

    It's stuff like this that reinforces the thesis that the British motorcycle industry failed due to the stupidity of management. The engineers were often extraordinarily creative and the number of brilliant ideas they came up with that were killed by management is deeply disappointing. The Bandit/Fury project might have worked out well if Bert Hopwood had been allowed to run with his ideas instead of pulling Edward Turner out of retirement to make a mess. Also the less said about Umberslade Hall the better.
    The sad thing is until the end they were innovating, Norton actually had a decent electric start on the final Commandos and the rotary engined bikes which managed a TT win as well as several large police contracts.

    1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
      Peter Tanshanomi

      According to Don Brown, one of the key failures was the Brits' reluctance to switch to hot-chamber die casting — the BSA Group specifically. The engineering staff had been begging management to upgrade the company's casting works to modern, pressurized machinery (like the Japanese were using) since the mid 1960s. That was the barrier to modern, lighter, oil-tight engine designs. Unfortunately, management balked at the high up-front cost, expected learning curve and impact on production that buying complex new machines would entail. Admittedly, they also didn't want to fight the factory workers' (and trade unions') luddite attitudes — "This is what we know how to do well, and it's been always the best way to do it…" By the time the will to do it was there, sales were dropping off dramatically, cash was tight, and British financiers refused to bankroll such an ambitious project.

      1. Rover_1 Avatar

        This explanation ties in much better with what I've learned about the collapse of British industry in pretty much every sphere and is so much more complete an explanation than the commonly proffered, neo-liberal, rightist claptrap that ' it was all the unions fault '.
        Something that we're coming to realise in an increasingly de-unionised New Zealand where wage rates and job security have continued to decline and the power elites take a bigger and bigger share of any output.

  2. Rover_1 Avatar

    At the risk of a threadjack, did anyone else see this… A motorised cut-away of a BSA Gold-Star coming up for auction. I remember it from a very long time ago when it was at what is now Coleman Suzuki in Auckland.
    <img src="; width="500">
    <img src="; width="500">
    <img src="; width="300">