Thursday, August 23, 2012

1947 Norton Manx 500


1947 Norton Manx 500

Since 1907 the Isle of Man, a tiny nation in the Irish Sea, has turned its public roads into the world’s most storied race course. The “Manx” people, as native citizens of the Isle are known, embrace motorcycles and racing as their national identity – even printing images of racebikes on their coins. Their beloved annual race is known as the Tourist Trophy, or TT, and no other bike could be more emblematic of this event than the machine named for the island’s people: The “Manx” Norton.

Built from 1947 to 1962, the Manx is a marvel even today. Using only one piston kept the bike light, a scant 313 pounds (by comparison, today’s “replica-racer” sportbikes range from 350-375 lbs). Yet this single combustion chamber could propel the bike to over 130mph. The Manx was the dominant competitor of the TT’s 264-mile racecourse.

The Manx featured here is owned by Portland motorcycle icon Tom Young.  In over 40 years of experience on two wheels, Tom has ridden street, dirt, trials, ISDT in Scotland, Baja Desert, Club TT, Supermoto, Central America, South America, motocross, choppers, sand bikes, road racers, endurance race, cross country, desert race, dualsport, vintage MX, vintage trials, and Alaska with a sidecar. Yet of all these experiences and bikes, Tom reports that the first time he heard the Manx start:  “It was Beyond ear-splitting!”

Noteworthy features of Tom’s Manx are its ‘Garden Gate’ frame (predecessor to the Featherbed frame), exposed valve springs and, especially, its magnesium front hub and crankcase covers. Following WWII magnesium was in extremely short supply in England. The government doled out precious little of it, and only to vital industries.  Evidently deemed vital, the Norton motorcycle company was allocated just enough magnesium to build its Manx motorcycles.

1951 Velocette MAC 350

1951 Velocette MAC 350

The only American ever to ride an internal-combustion motorcycle to victory on the Isle of Man is Dave Roper. Since starting as an AMA novice in 1974, Roper has raced motorcycles that most riders have never laid eyes on. This 1951 Velocette MAC is one.

Affectionately called the “Silver Bullet” by its owner Gary Roper (no relation), the bike came into Gary’s life at a church gathering. The minister introduced Gary to a fellow parishioner, Ron, who shared an interest in bikes. Amazingly, both had owned and ridden similar Velocettes years before.  Ron revealed he still had a Velocette of sorts, in a box. Ron and Gary made a deal – Ron would supply parts if Gary would assemble the bike.  More than anything, Ron just wanted to hear it run.

Velocette never built the MAC to be a racer, so Gary’s goals were simplicity, lightness, and keeping the engine and transmission from self-destructing in the races.  He had a headstart with the engine; years before it had been breathed upon by someone known only as the “Mad Scientist.”

Upon completing the bike, Gary knew just what to do – he contacted Dave Roper to see if he would like to race it.  Dave asked if it had been raced yet.  Gary confessed it had not, but was quick to point out he’d ridden it about the Southern Oregon countryside until it stopped leaking oil and losing parts. Dave was in!

When raceday arrived, the bike ran well for the practice sessions but broke an oil line during the final practice lap. With a quick repair to the oil line and some welds to the exhaust to stave off impending cracks, the bike was ready to race. The MAC was pitted against a favored BMW, a Manx Norton, a Vincent Gray Flash, and a Matchless--all 500s against the little 350. 

Dave had a phenomenal start and, within the first several corners, had made it past all but the BMW.  By the end of the first lap, Dave was in the lead.  For the rest of the race the little MAC was stretching a lead that just kept growing. Dave took the checkered flag with a 1/2 lap lead over the next closest bike. 

Gary stood in utter amazement that his underdog Velo won by such a solid margin, untested and built by his own hands - a first-time racebike builder.  As he packed up the van at the end of the day, the bike rested proudly on its race stand – a passerby whispered to a companion:  That’s the Velocette!”

Roper shows no sign of slowing down.  He will arrive in Portland on August 4th, and will check the Velocette out of the Gallery to race it at PIR!  Join us at Graeter Art Gallery the evening of August 4th to hear from Dave about his racing career and how the MAC performed that day.

Pat Miller’s triple-engine Yamaha

Pat Miller’s triple-engine Yamaha

Motorcycle drag racing is mysterious, even among motorcyclists.  The sport hides in a corner of the two-wheeled world that few riders know much about. Yet it is one of the most inclusive motorsports (or any sport) around – riders of all ethnic backgrounds and genders have been successful at the highest level. Whatever your perspective, the machinery of drag racing is clearly impressive. 

Underdog innovation is at the heart of it.  The parts required to create, harness, and apply horsepower are so specialized they are often homebuilt or adapted from other applications.  To hurtle down a ¼ mile track racers began with single-engine machines, then turned to double-engine machines. By the late Sixties there were even a handful of triple-engine drag racers competing. But shortly thereafter drag racing returned to a single-engine sport, which it remains today. Virtually none of the late-‘60s triple-engine beasts are known to still exist. 

One survivor is this B/Gas Yamaha of Pat Miller. Miller first built and had great success with a single-engine Yamaha 350cc two-stroke. He then added a second --also successfully-- and eventually a third. The engines are Yamaha TR2 350cc factory road racing motors, generating roughly 60hp each. The bike also features one of the first slipper clutches used on a motorcycle.

An enormous trail bike sprocket was incorporated to compensate for the limitations of the four-inch Avon slick. And not always effectively: the machine would often smoke the tire for the entire quarter mile. Regardless, its best time was 10.09 seconds at 144 mph. 

Look closely at the build details of the bike:  each motor’s transmission has been sawed away, the headstock is integrated into the tiny fuel tank, the rear axle carrier mounts to the frame with just four 6mm bolts on each side. This is a bike that rewards study.

Thanks to the NHRA Museum in Los Angeles for the loan of this motorcycle.  The bike’s current owner, John Stein, recently authored Motorcycle Drag Racing:  A History.  Copies of this highly acclaimed book are available for purchase here at the Graeter Art Gallery.

1966 Honda CB160

1965ish & 1966 Honda CB160s

 “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” was the slogan that helped Honda take the U.S. motorcycle market by storm in the 1960s. Yet Hondas could nearly have sold themselves, thanks to unheard-of affordability, reliability, and performance that embarrassed bikes twice their size. The energetic CB160 is a prime example.

Light as a feather, the little 160 exemplified Honda founder Soichiro Honda’s approach to engine building: “with smaller pistons the reciprocating weight is thus reduced, the engine can be spun faster to produce more horsepower for its displacement, without coming unstuck.” This approach resonated with racers. An affordable, reliable bike that could be revved to the moon – what more could a go-fast guy want?!

In Portland and Seattle, 160s experienced a racing renaissance in the early 2000s. A group of local racers rustled 17 bikes from backyard sheds and basements, descended upon local vintage-friendly shop Vicious Cycle, and set about building a fleet of high-winding, low-budget race machines. The racing groups dubbed themselves The Flying Circus and Group W, then adopted the “We Build, We Fight” motto of the US Navy construction battalion, the Seebees.

The 160s here demonstrate the before & after transformation that occurs in Building Speed. The stock example is owned by Mike Fontanarosa, a local rider, racer and original member of the Flying Circus. Mike lovingly claims, “It is built from spare parts, spit, and tape.”  It exudes a certain found-in-a-barn charm; a fun runabout or a racer waiting to be. 

Scarcely looking like the same machine, the #1 racebike 160 has shed all its spare parts in pursuit of speed. Every bolt, spoke, and bearing has been scrutinized, building performance in baby-steps.  Owned and raced by SFRC member Jon Munns, the bike and Jon are the current National Champions in the highly competitive 200GP class of the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association.

1971 Honda CB 500

1971 Honda CB 500

The Building of Speed that began in the 1950-‘60s found mass appeal in the 1970s.  Accessible, affordable, reliable bikes from Japan became the tool of ’round-town racers. 

The inline four cylinder engine, pioneered by Honda in the 1969 CB750, was quickly expanded to include a half-dozen displacements. It became the engine design of choice for all the Japanese manufacturers, and remains as such today.

Built by Bridge City Cycles, the CB500 here draws its inspiration from the performance of its predecessors. And adds a bit of “primary art” paint. A leaky carburetor led to a complete rebuild with a “nickelette” frame, hot camshaft, and Hagon suspension along the way. The bike has been with owner Anthony-Michel Mautemps from the very beginning. Mautemps, a Newsweek photographer turned long-haul trucker turned motorcycle mechanic, documents portions of the build in his photographic series: “As it is; life as a vintage motorcycle.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

1969 Norton/ Redline

1969 Norton/Redline

Flat track racing of the 1960s was largely the domain of torque-thumping, ground-pounding twin-cylinder engines. British-built bikes used a parallel twin design, while American mainstay Harley-Davidson was “The” v-twin. But the real secret to flat track racing is the motorcycle’s frame. 

A good flat track frame must be light and strong, and most importantly it must resist the flex-inducing forces of high-speed cornering. It must also have a sharp angle on the headstock that tucks the forks and front tire in close – better for quick steering and transferring weight to the front tire to help it grip. Finishing off the frame with flashy nickel-plating doesn’t hurt either.

The flat track racer here has all of the above. It uses a Norton engine in an early Redline frame, made “about ‘69” estimates owner Dick Slusher. Dick “found it at a funeral.” For years, the deceased had wanted Dick to meet a friend of his who had the bike in a basement.  Dick and the fellow never met until the mutual friend died, then they finally crossed paths at the funeral. Dick bought the bike, brought it back to life, and found himself flat track racing for the first time in decades. The bike’s sound stirs his soul.

1969 Triumph TT FlatTracker

 1969 Triumph TT FlatTracker

The quintessential form of American motorcycle racing is flat track. Raced on dirt-surface oval tracks, the bikes break loose with their back tire spinning, blasting sideways in a continuous fish-tail through each turn. With dirt flying, the riders turn the handlebars the opposite direction just to keep the bike adrift. It is a sight to behold at any speed, let alone the 120mph reached on some tracks.

Triumphs of the 1960s exemplified the “standard” motorcycle. An all-around machine, they could be easily modified for a variety of racing with a minimum of changes. This one is set up for a specialized form of flat track racing known as TT Steeplechase.  

Unlike other flat tracks, which all turn left, TT tracks feature one right-hand turn. They are also unique in that they include a jump. Since flattrackers always turn and lean on the left side, a typical flattracker would have exhaust pipes both on the right side – to make more room on the left for leaning. But the TT machine tucks its pipes high and tight under the middle of the bike, ready to lean either direction in a turn. 

This Triumph flattracker is a homebuilt racer’s pride and joy, beautiful in its simplicity.  “Life is pretty special, you never know what might happen,” says Tom Young. Tom came to own this Triumph after its prior owner, a good friend of Tom’s, died without warning while getting ready for work on a Tuesday morning. The bike reminds Tom of his friend and the importance of enjoying the here and now.