A TRUE MODERN CLASSIC: MELLING’S ECURIE SPORTIVE MANX NORTON
written by Frank Melling December 19, 2016
One of the reasons I love riding motorcycles so much is that they give me the time and space to play my favorite cognitive game – undisturbed by phones, e-mails or even conversations with another human. There’s just me, the bike and “What if…”
What if General Robert E. Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia, had been successful at Gettysburg?
What if Hitler had turned east, instead of west, in 1939 and, trampling the Soviet Union, had built a new German Empire?
And, most interestingly of all, if the world today was more or less as it was in 1960, what Norton would Stan Hailwood have provided for the up and coming, but not yet superstar, Mike?
Probably the only other person in the world even vaguely interested in analyzing this last question is Patrick Walker – engineering genius and the sole employee of Works Racing Motorcycles who build the finest replica Manx Norton motorcycles in the world.
So, as we sat outside Patrick’s van, I explained the back story to the 1960/61 Hailwood Manx Norton…
Stan Hailwood was Managing Director of Kings of Oxford which was, by far, the biggest and most professional chain of motorcycle and car retailers in Britain with over fifty branches. In short, he was both a millionaire and very well connected.
Before the Second World War, Stan had dabbled at motorcycle racing but was much more successful in car competition, racing a works prepared MG at Brooklands. It was there, at the famous Surrey concrete speedbowl, that he met Bill Lacey – a name central to this story.
As Hailwood’s responsibilities at Kings grew his competition days were brought to a close – but not his ambition to be the very best in racing – even if this dream had to be fulfilled through his son.
Enter then on to center stage WG (Bill) Lacey who was one of the greatest Brooklands motorcycle racers of all time. In August 1928 he had won the Motor Cycle Trophy for the first British rider to average over 100 miles in an hour on a British track, when he thundered round Brooklands in the saddle of a Grindley Peerless JAP at an average of 103mph. On the rough, concrete track that would be fast on a modern Superbike. In 1928, the speed was simply science fiction rapid.
Later, Lacey – partnered by Wal Philips – racked up 306 miles in three hours and riding solo he covered 110 miles in the hour at Montlhéry in France. In short, he was blisteringly quick!
Not only was Lacey a star rider but he was the finest tuner of his generation preparing all his record breaking machines himself.
Lacey’s specialty – obsession is more accurate – was reliability. Concentrating on the double overhead cam Norton Manx engine he carried out major modifications to improve the robustness of the main bearing and then applied meticulous assembly to the rest of the engine.
Not that he was against what was then state of the art technology because Lacey experimented with twin plug ignition, chrome cylinder bores and a whole range of valve sizes – but all of these were secondary to reliability. In the adage which was prevalent at the time: “To finish first, first you have to finish…”
WG “Bill” Lacey on August 1, 1928 after setting a world record at 103mph for one hour on his 498cc Grindlay Peerless JAP.
By the winter of 1960/61, Mike Hailwood’s talent was recognized as something completely remarkable and so father Stan decided to hire Lacey, and his talented daughter Ann, to work exclusively on Norton engines for Ecurie Sportive – the Hailwood team. The aim would be to provide Mike with the very best 500cc Grand Prix engines in the world – clearly after the factory, four cylinder MV Agustas!
Not that the relationship between Hailwood Senior and Lacey was an easy one. Stan was a self-made millionaire and master of all he surveyed. Lacey was acknowledged as a genius and acolytes hung on his every word.
Neither was under endowed in the ego department and arguments between the two were frequent, culminating with Lacey storming out – and Hailwood having to carefully coax him back on to the project.
The rest of the Ecurie Sportive bike was a lot more standard – for a top of the range, Grand Prix Norton. There wasn’t anything better than the legendary “Featherbed” frame and the Norton front forks and Girling rear shocks were state of the art. In practice, the Ecurie Sportive chassis was the best available.
The 8” rear Manx hub was considered to be the ultimate but the top GP runners of the day all used the 9”, twin leading shoe, Fontana front brake which was an order of magnitude better than every other stopper.
To make the best of the Lacey Norton engine, a very, very expensive six speed Schafleitner gearbox was fitted to the bike. The standard Norton clutch was retained along with its exposed primary chain which was lubricated by having oil dripped on it – ideal for getting on to the rear tire!
A true GP bike at a true GP circuit.
As I finished telling the story to Patrick, I paused – and then really took the pin out of the hand grenade. “I wonder what Stan would have had for Mike if he had been building a Norton today?” The “What if…” game had just been moved into the world of classic bikes.
Now for another aside. Patrick Walker is a university educated, formally trained engineer with a passion for Manx Nortons. His bikes dominate the Lansdowne Classic Racing Series – the Premier division of classic motorcycle racing. They are fast but pragmatically functional because this is how Patrick sees a racing motorcycle.
Despite being desperately competitive, Patrick is also a purist. He won’t have anything to do with fakes, in any form, and this is one of the many reasons I admire him. He is also a thoroughbred engineer – and this has its advantages and disadvantages.
For example, to Patrick, 1mm is one thousandth of a meter or 0.039 inches. It doesn’t mean anything more or less than that.
To me, 1mm is a very small distance which is ever so tiny but not really as minute as a tappet clearance, which is really, really small, but which is also bigger than lots of things, whose names I forget, but which are inside an engine and, for that matter, other parts of the bikes and which remind me of… you know, we had a tiny little insect in our paddock and the end of its proboscis was ever so wonderfully miniscule, much less than 1mm, and there it was feeding off the pollen on a plum flower and how interesting is that? Yes, 1mm is a very useful adjective.
Much as I like and admire Patrick’s bikes I have never wanted to own one. It’s not that the bikes are anything but rocket ships, or that the engineering is not superb, but simply because a standard Manx is about as physically attractive as a badly bred Rottweiler with an attitude problem: blunt, square, functional, aggressive – and utterly graceless.
The tank is hand-made, with a graceful series of infinite curves.
I am at the end of my racing life now and have long since given up being bothered about success – or lack of it. Now, I wanted a racing motorcycle which performed wonderfully but which was also catch-your-breath beautiful – a bike which compelled you to touch it, last thing at night, for the sheer tactile joy of being so close to beauty. I was chasing the ephemeral and subtle, and these are not easy targets.
The final part of the story is that I have spent all my working life as a journalist, criticizing and commenting on the designs of others. In the real world of real motorcycles and real money, could I do any better?
So, Patrick and I agreed to a price which was vastly more than I could afford, or justify, and vastly less than the cost of the bike, because we both wanted to make not a copy or fake of the 1961 Ecurie Sportive bike but an homage to it – the “What if…” game in metal.
We laid the foundations of the project outside Patrick’s van with the bike’s color. The original Ecurie Sportive Norton was white so our bike would be black – as far away as we could possibly get from making a fake anything.
After this momentous decision, things got much harder – for both of us.
The problem was not nearly as straightforward as it seems. Without resorting to any computer generated virtual reality programs, I can see things with pellucid clarity merely by half-closing my eyes and letting my mind do the rest. I can then describe what I have seen. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, what Patrick needed was a set of measurements and precise specifications – and so the fun began.
In some ways, many ways in fact, the mechanical aspects of the bike were the easy part. The heart of the engine was one of Patrick’s normal, two-valve, 86mm bore engines – the same basic specification as Bill Lacey was using for the Ecurie Sportive engines.
The double overhead cam engine is a thing of mechanical beauty.
The big difference at the top end of the engine is that Patrick uses enclosed coil valve springs, instead of the exposed hair pin springs of the Lacey bike which allowed oil to spray everywhere. Things were not so environmentally sensitive in 1960!
In the spirit of the great Mr. WG Lacey himself, Patrick wanted to try some new, pre-prototype valve gear parts that he had designed just for the Ecurie Sportive motor. Being highly experimental, Patrick wanted feedback from me as part of his continuous improvement strategy. Only when they were proven in the ES engine would they be put on sale. Truly, I would be a works, “Works Racing” rider!
The cylinder barrel is Nikasil coated. This is a mixture of silicone and carbide, electro-plated directly on to the aluminum of the barrel. The finish permits extremely good heat transfer and is porous – so retains lubricant. When a Nikasil coated barrel is honed correctly, unbelievably tight piston clearances are possible. Patrick’s pistons are no more than five microns from perfect over a bore of 86mm – whereas Lacey was lucky to find a barrel within 20 times of that tolerance. This is what modern engineering can achieve in practical terms.
Externally the bottom half of the engine looks identical to a Manx, unless you are a real expert on these engines, but is vastly different internally with a one piece, plain bearing crankshaft built to aerospace tolerances, and a modern oil pump circulating thin, fully synthetic race oil.
In fact, the engine has everything which Bill Lacey would have put into the Hailwood bike 56 years ago.
The six-speed gearbox looks old but internally it is pure 2016 technology.
The gearbox is a six-speeder, just like Mike’s, but although the external castings look similar to a 1960’s Norton, internally the Mick Hemming’s produced ‘box is pure 21st century with a smooth, silent change which would grace any 2016 bike. Only the original right-hand shift, with up for first gear and down for the next five ratios, would have been recognized by Hailwood.
Imagining what Mike would have made of the belt drive is interesting. Instead of a fragile primary chain, lubed by oil drips, the ES has a toothed belt drive which runs perfectly clean, without any lubrication, and also acts as a shock absorber. The dry clutch, machined from billet alloy, is a masterpiece of British engineering produced by NEB in Coventry and really ought to be in a picture frame rather than being used for the vulgar job of controlling the bike’s power.
The big difference between the Ecurie Sportive homage and Nortons from the 1950s and 1960s is the quality of the engineering. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the iconic “Featherbed” frame. Lacey’s determinedly selective engineering ensured that Mike’s bike was as near to perfect as the manufacturing practices of the day permitted but every single frame which Patrick has made is precisely to specification, using Norton’s original Bracebridge Street drawings – and on a frame jig which is true and accurate. The chassis of our homage bike would have brought a smile to Lacey’s face.
Maxton gas pressurized rear shocks are state of the art modern.
Where the smile would have changed to admiration is with the suspension. Just a couple of miles from our house is Maxton Engineering who make some of the best suspension in the modern world. Additionally, they produce the cleverest classic racing suspension anywhere in the galaxy!
Technically, I wanted Maxton suspension on the bike but Ron, Mary and Richard – who own and run Maxton – brought something else to the project: a wonderful mixture of enthusiasm, kindness and care. These are ephemeral traits but manifest themselves in a very real way in a project like this one.
At the rear was a pair of gas pressurized shocks which, unlike the Girlings which Mike Hailwood used, actually function perfectly throughout their range of travel. The front Norton forks were completely re-worked with precision shims which provide sensitivity and feel equal to the best 2016 fork.
So now we had all the important bits of the bike except for one: its appearance. I wanted a long, elegant, ellipse of a motorcycle which looked as if it was doing 100mph on its paddock stand so I specified a tiny, near anorexic, bikini fairing which flowed across the bike like a wraith of mist.
In response, Patrick fitted a great big, fat blob of carbon fiber which was designed to provide excellent high-speed protection at the Classic TT. This was the correct technical solution but was a million miles away from what I wanted aesthetically. And so the discussions went on, and on, and on…
Probably, the best way of describing the outcome was that Patrick won 95% of the engineering debates and I got my wishes with the majority of the styling.
And how Patrick worked to put my ideas into practice! Take the black on the bike. Black is virtually unknown in modern painting because it always has an addendum so that it is black with a hint of brown, blue, metallic or something. By contrast, on our bike the black is base black – hand applied and rubbed and re-rubbed until it has such depth that you can swim in it. This black is point zero on the black scale!
Making a one-off race bike is no easy task!
The exhaust, fabricated entirely from titanium, arcs across the bike like a python on the hunt and, after a long debate, concludes in an elegant tapered silencer which is pure motorcycle art.
As I bombarded him with e-mails, Patrick toiled with the detail which makes the bike special. Titanium is everywhere and the engine plates are milled to save a gnat’s diet sandwich of weight. Not only are they milled but Patrick wrote the CNC computer program so that there are the merest hints of tool marks arcing to and fro across the metal in a modern tribute to the engine turning of old.
And there is the fuel tank – a hand-made, graceful series of infinite curves which makes a standard Manx tank look like a five-gallon jerry can from a downtown discount store.
Patrick apologized that the workings of the English Wheel and planishing hammer could still be seen on the tank and offered to get it sprayed in silver to the same standard as the rest of the bike. I almost wept in despair! So the tank stays as naked as the day it was born, bearing testimony to its creator’s skill with hand tools and the eye of a genius. Truly, deep in the English Midlands, metal working magic still exists.
The final result is a 500cc motorcycle weighing in at 275lbs (125kgs) with looks which stop admirers in their tracks.
And, of course, the end of the fairy tale should be that the aging hero rode off into the distance on his perfect steed – except that he didn’t. The first test session was a disaster. Nothing fitted me. My new, hand-made, bespoke English racing suit hung off me like a cheap rented jacket at a $99 Las Vegas wedding. Patrick toiled with a smile which would have done credit to any saint and we finally got everything to fit me: then the troubles really began.
Ecurie Sportive Manx Norton in action.
The bike wouldn’t steer – or stop and so instead of coming home with us, back it went to Patrick for some serious TLC. The brake was easily sorted with some simple corrective machining which the Italian manufacturers of the Oldani front brake should have done from the start.
The suspension was a much bigger task. The problem was that there are myriad combinations of fork spring length and weight for every Manx and so each bike is effectively a one off job.
The Maxton team were supremely helpful, not to say kind, but it wasn’t a two-minute fix to get the suspension to precisely match the bike – and me. Don’t ever think that building a one-off bike which is intended to be raced, as distinct from just being a show object, is easy.
So, there we are with the sun shining and the ES bike outside our designated garage at the fabulous Spa circuit and along comes a serious collector of MV Agusta GP machines. He spends 10 minutes examining our Norton from every angle and then says: “You have the most beautiful bike at Spa.” At that compliment, I almost choked with emotion.
But the looks were not the reason for building the bike. On what is the best race track in the world my dream, which Patrick made live, was flawless. The motor pulled hard and revved like a 125 GP bike and all the days of work which Maxton put into the suspension produced the best handling classic race bike I have ever ridden.
The relationship between a rider and a race bike is difficult to articulate but, at its best, there is an intense, anthropomorphic intimacy. Our bike has these traits in every way so that I became part of the bike, and the motorcycle an extension of me. And, as we passed modern GP bikes one after another, the effort, the money and the frustration of the last 14 months disappeared.
Dropping down past the old pits and heading towards the legendary Eau Rouge our tribute to Hailwood’s Ecurie Sportive team was singing. With my head buried in the wonderful alloy fuel tank, I had a long look ahead and considered whether I could take the chicane with 7000rpm on the tach in fifth gear – 100mph plus and a real achievement for a fat, bald, old, wrinkly racer.
Then, without warning, Patrick’s prototype valve gear decided that enough was enough. Clearly, in his quest for perfection, he had pushed the envelope just that bit too far: that’s the joy of prototype engineering! For me, and the ES, Spa was instantly and completely over for 2016.
Now, the Ecurie Sportive Norton is back with Patrick but I’m not too disappointed because I feel truly privileged to have ridden a very, very special motorcycle – and one which I have played some part in creating. The future will be good.