This is the bike that Bernie built: Norton's 500cc Manx is back in production. Roland Brown meets the man who aims to make a profit building four of the classic machines a year

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SALES of Norton's modern rotary-engined motorcycles are so low and the company's debts so high that Sir John Harvey-Jones, of the BBC's Troubleshooter series, concluded that the best thing for the famous old firm would be liquidation. Yet one Norton bike-builder is confident of success.

Bernie Allen, 61, will make a profit if he wheels just four factory-approved Norton bikes off his one-man assembly line this year. The name on their petrol tanks, however, is all they will have in common with Norton's F2 rotary roadster.

The bike Bernie builds is the 500cc Manx, the most famous Norton of all. An exotic, single-cylinder sports machine produced in limited numbers from 1950, it conjured unbeatable performance from its 50hp engine and Norton's famous Featherbed frame, so called because it gave an unusually comfortable ride.

A Manx took Geoff Duke to the 500cc world championship in 1951, and the silver-and-black Nortons won countless races throughout the Fifties. Production ended when Norton's Birmingham factory closed in 1963. Now the Manx is being built again, from new parts, by Mr Allen, a leading restorer of classic machines, who works from the garage beside his bungalow near Marlborough, Wiltshire.

In his racing days during the Seventies, he was one of the diehards who rode British bikes such as the Manx against the swarms of faster, lighter Japanese two-strokes. More recently he became involved in restoring old machines, and four years ago he began to work on bikes full time. Demand for his services has been boosted by the worldwide rise in popularity of classic bike racing, which has led to the manufacture of new components for old machines, especially the Manx.

At first, only minor parts were produced, but later frames and even complete engines became available, some of higher quality than the originals. That was when Mr Allen realised complete new bikes could be built for sale.

The model he chose is the 1961 version of the Manx, with the larger engine option (350cc machines were also produced). Lean and functional, it will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with motorcycling when British bikes ruled the roads. Period features include the tiny, near-vertical flyscreen, the front wheel's large drum brake, and the distinctively shaped petrol tank, secured by a metal strap.

Only the magneto of Mr Allen's Manx is a reconditioned part. Most of its parts are exact reproductions of those used in 1961, but a few - such as the toothed rubber belt that connects the crankshaft with the five-speed gearbox (Norton used a chain) - are recent improvements common in classic racing.

Most Manxes were used only on the track, but Mr Allen's machine qualifies for a road licence because he has introduced a speedometer, a small, six-volt battery in the nose-cone powers, a horn and stop-light, and given the silencer extra padding.

He has also fitted a centre-stand, but - true to Manx tradition - neither an electric starter nor a kick-start. My brief ride commenced - after I had donned authentic goggles and crash-helmet - with 'bump' starting the single-cylinder engine.

It was a strange experience for someone unfamiliar with classic motorcycles. You change gear with your right, not your left foot; and first gear, in Norton tradition, is up, not down. The closely spaced gear ratios, designed to maintain the revs for maximum performance on the track, mean that first gear is very high: I had to slip the clutch for what seemed like ages as I pulled away. The Norton is remarkably fast and smooth for what is essentially a 30-year-old bike. Once it had passed a hiccup at about 4,000rpm, the single-cylinder engine surged forward with a lazy rumble from the silencer, and I had to take care not to pass the 6,000rpm limit set by Mr Allen. Fully run in, a 500cc Manx would be good for 125mph and, ridden hard, could lap the Isle of Man's TT circuit at more than 100mph.

In the Fifties, it was famed not so much for sheer speed as for its excellent handling, based on the strong Featherbed frame, whose twin steel tubes encircle the engine in distinctive fashion, and Norton's trademark Roadholder front forks and twin rear shock absorbers.

The Manx felt stable but, understandably, crude by modern standards: it needed a firm hand to change direction despite its light weight (320lb). The big front drum brake was reassuringly powerful, and the smaller rear drum excessively so. The Dunlop tyres, unfashionably narrow but made from a soft racing compound, gave plenty of grip.

For everyday use, the Manx would be hopelessly impractical, but as a machine to be admired, polished and ridden occasionally, it has few equals. It is a shame that the cost of components and the time involved in its construction ensure that, at pounds 25,850, the reborn Manx is a bike for the fortunate few. The one I rode was bought at the end of the year by a local enthusiast. Mr Allen had thus sold one new Norton - and met his 1992 target.

(Photograph omitted)

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