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AMC / Norton Hybrids, Part 3
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After examining the UK-spec Matchless G15 Mk2, Frank Westworth turns his attention to the American G15CS, N15CS and P11 models...

Not content with being the sole recipients of the original, and now very rare Atlas Scrambler, the American cousins were treated to their very own version of the G15CSR, which featured the scrambler styling they preferred. This machine, which is very rare indeed in this country - only a few models being offered for sale when export orders were cancelled in the debacle of the final AMC crash, wore a chrome and red two gallon petrol tank like the G80CS scrambler, and a pair of high, wide and handsome (to coin a contemporary phrase) handlebars. It may not have been perfectly proportioned, unlike the home market version, but it was undeniably striking…

Mmmm, kinky Matchelss G15 and Norton P11 today

These US-spec CSRs would appear to have been available in the UK in small numbers, when they were listed as the G15CS (or N15CS), if you preferred a Norton to a Matchless, and riding one can be something of a sobering experience. Motorcycle Mechanics roadtested one such, which was fitted with Dominator-style silencers, rather that the open pipes favoured by our American cousins, and were plainly baffled by the beast. Their comments reflected their obvious enthusiasm for the amount of go, stop, and general machismo of the big machine, but the references to the lightweight-style handling fail to disguise their worries about its steering.

Shame about that front mudguard Matchelss G15 and Norton P11 today

This writer's encounters with the G15CS have been memorable indeed - mainly because of the urgent need to search out straight bits of road. If bendswinging is your aim, the G15CSR is by far the better bet.

The Americans, in the shape of their major importer, Joe Berliner, were able to dictate a substantial part of the AMC design and development effort. It was the US demand for more cubes which resulted in the adoption of the 750cc capacity - until the advent of the motorway network, the UK roads really didn't require 50bhp to get about smartly - and the US demand for off-road styling (and indeed off-road ability) pushed AMC into producing the most radical and final twitch in their fight for survival.

Period adverts

One of the branches of motorcycle sport which, for obvious reasons, is uncommon in the UK is the truly heroic pastime known as desert racing. As America has a couple of decent deserts, it follows that Americans, all of whom seem to be extremely competitive, will want to race across them, and so they did, and indeed do.

One of the top bikes for this wild pursuit in the early Sixties was the Matchless G85CS, the final development of the long line of AMC scramblers. In addition the well known, all alloy 500cc single power unit, with its phenomenal 12.5:1 compression ratio(!), this machine held its wheels together with a beautiful lightweight frame, which was built from chrome-molybdenum steel tubing; a material which provides, at some expense, great strength and light weight.

As this machine lost its competitive edge to the twin-cylindered opposition, Joe Berliner (or so the story goes) persuaded Bob Blair of ZDS Motors to combine the G15 power train with the lightweight G85CS chassis to produce the final, and most sought-after hybrid; the Norton P11 / P11A / Ranger 750 series. As Joe Berliner was by far and away the biggest customer for AMC machinery, the factory lost little time in accommodating his demand for factory-built machines to this specification, and the Norton (or Matchless, according to one sales brochure) P11 was made available for export for 1967 and the early part of '68.

Norton P11 Scrambler brochure Dynamite on Wheels
Nortons on eBay.co.uk

By this time, sadly, the once great Associated Motorcycles concern had passed on to the great breakers in the sky, and the Plumstead factory was under the control of Denis Poore's Manganese Bronze company, being called Norton-Villiers or Norton-Matchless, depending upon which material you read. While the new management recognised that the AMC (Matchless / AJS) 650 twin engine had reached the limits of its development, they soldiered on with the Dominator engine, in its current Atlas / G15 guise, while development of the Commando range was completed, and as they were traditionally desperate for cash - and especially Dollars - Joe Berliner received his final, and beautiful, hybrids.

That the P11 series was viewed by the factory as a stopgap method of utilising the Plumstead production lines can be shown by the number of changes which the bike went through in its short life. Anthony Curzon, the hybrid expert who supplied much of the information for this article, reckons that in less than two years, the P11 / P11A and Ranger 750 series used no less than four types of oil tanks (two alloy, two steel); two petrol tanks (3.6 and 2.2 gallons), two types of handlebars; two types of fork internals ('desert' and 'road'); three different frames; two sets of hubs (some finned, some not); two ignition systems and two cylinder heads - late models carry Norton Commando castings. This can either be viewed as evidence of dedicated factory development engineers continuously refining their bikes or as a new management clearing out all the obsolete parts of the ailing AMC concern. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

N15CS brochure

Whatever the reasoning which dictated its production, few could argue that in the Norton P11 an ultimate of some kind had been achieved. Only the Royal Enfield Mk2 Interceptor offered a comparable amount of sheer brute beauty, and that was a rather less purposeful offering than AMC Plumstead's final fling. There are so few motorcycles which bear a realistic comparison to the big Norton that it is hard to describe just how impressive a cycle it actually is. It is tall, with a 33-inch high seat, but it is very narrow and extremely light at a quoted 381lbs (a stripped down TT Bonneville would weigh in at around 350lb), and the wide, braced bars supplied ensure that this bike fulfils its role as the supreme street scrambler of its day. In fact, it makes a truly mean street tool now, twenty years on.

In the late Sixties, in the States, it just did what it was supposed to do; it won the desert races for which it was designed, and it provided all of the lean good looks which were required by street poseurs who pretended, then as always, that they were powerful as the bikes they rode. In the UK, Motorcycle Sport magazine acquired one for a road test and decreed that it might be just the ideal weapon for the Lands End Trial. It's hard to argue with that.

Printed on blotting paper, for your delight... Norton P11 Ranger

And so, it can truly be said that AMC bowed out, not with a whimper, but with a final flourish in the form of the unusually unappreciated hybrids, before the Atlas power unit was tamed and civilised in the Norton Commando, with its emphasis no longer on muscle but on smooth power. If you can find a hybrid, buy it; you will not be disappointed!

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More RC Reading: There's more information (road test plus owner feedback) on the Matchless G15 and Norton P11 in the Dec08 issue of RealClassic magazine (RC56)

Thanks to Tim Roberts for supplying many of the original brochure images seen here

See the G15s in the metal at the National Motorcycle Museum, at the intersection of the A45 Birmingham-Coventry road and the M42 motorway. It is open every day from 9.30am to 5pm (except 24-26 December). Admission charges: Adults £6.95, Senior Citizens £4.95, Children (under 15) £4.95, Family Tickets (2 adults and 2 children) £20.


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