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Classic versus Modern – Riding a Molnar Manx Norton
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Mike “Spike” Edwards has ridden just about every kind of racing motorcycle. This season, the former factory racer and Macau Grand Prix lap record holder is riding a Molnar Manx Norton. We asked him how it compared with other racers...

Life is cyclical, what goes around comes around. In the racing world what you once thought to be the cutting edge of technology soon fades, becoming Forgotten Era, then Post Classic and finally Classic. I was once told ‘the memory is always better than the reality’; would having a go on a classic racing machine prove that point?

I’ve been racing constantly for 26 years now, starting in production classes and over the next two and a half decades riding just about everything with an engine and two wheels. Because I have not had a break in my career the evolution of the machinery I have ridden has always felt logical and has seemed to be the obvious way to move forward. Lap times have fallen with advent of new technology, more power, improved tyres, better suspension, changing riding styles and so on.

A Manx Norton, yesterday.... 1956 Manx Norton

I have had the chance to ride a real classic machine competitively for the first time this year, and it was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to miss. Andy Molnar, the man who builds the Molnar Manx Nortons, put my name forward to Vanni Jenson who is the main Triumph importer in Denmark. He has four Manx Nortons - two 350s and two 500s - and needed a rider to partner him in this years British Classic Championship.

Getting on the Manx for the first time was a real eye opener; the weight is low down and it felt slim and quite compact. However, from then on in it was all alien territory for me. Cable operated drum brakes, limited suspension travel with almost no adjustment to play with, skinny 18” tyres, and a noisy and rattly motor with only about 50bhp.

What could I do with this, I thought.

'Out on the circuit the Manx is very deceptive...' Mike Edwards on the Molnar Manx Norton

Out on the circuit the Manx is very deceptive; on the surface it feels a little underpowered but that is just the way the engine develops its power. It's very linear with no steps or surges, just smooth power right from 2,000rpm to its maximum of 8,500rpm. Gear changes are slick with the new six speed boxes, progress is deceptively rapid and before you know it you're in top at maximum revs.

Next comes the braking, and this was the biggest single area I was struggling with. Although the double twin leading shoe drum brakes are as good as they get there is nowhere near the feel and power of a twin disc set-up. Hauling the Manx to a stop is quite a feat; normally I hardly ever use the rear brake but I found it necessary because of the lack of ultimate power from the front brake. The combination of using both brakes and rattling down through the gears seems to work, however I understand that on more challenging circuits like Donington Park brake fade is a real issue.

'Is this how it's supposed to be?' "Braking... was the biggest single area I was struggling with."

We have covered starting and stopping, and cornering is the next area where these bikes tend to differ from a modern machine. The weight distribution is slightly more on the front wheel than the back but the rider’s weight and position is further back than I would have liked. This creates an impression of the front wheel being light and lacking in feel. Andy told me to “keep the chain tight going round the corners”, an interesting idea and ultimately the way you have to ride these machines, and the way they seem to work best.

The only thing is, it isn’t the way I like to ride! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to ride them like a Superbike - fly into corners scrubbing off speed, turn it and then fire it out of the corner - it's just somewhere in between is what I would like to do. The classic style seems to be not too hot into the corners, and then open the throttle as early as possible, riding through the turn keeping your momentum.

Not that bad, then... Mike Edwards on the Molnar Manx Norton

It's not easy to directly compare modern machines to classic ones because, well, what would you compare a Manx to? In its day it was a top flight racer, a machine that in the right hands could win a Grand Prix, and thus you must now compare it to a MotoGP machine. I’ve ridden tons of bikes but the closest to the MotoGP bike was the Works RoC 500 that I won on in Macau back in 1996, probably the best machine I have ever sat on. It had the latest generation 'Works' Yamaha V4 big-bang motor making 185bhp and tipped the scales at approximately 135kg. Clearly, to try and draw a direct bike to bike, back to back comparison would be futile.

'Pole position, lap record, then out braked myself on the first lap going into the 1st corner...' Mike on the No.1 RoC Yamaha, Macau Grand Prix, 1996

After a few sessions on the test day before the opening round and then over the first day's racing I was able to lap Pembrey in the 1:03s, and this in 2-3 degree temperatures with wind and rain in the air. I still hold the lap record at Pembrey in the Supermono class, set back in 1995 on the Works MuZ Scorpion at 1:01.7 and that was with 75bhp, modern suspension, twin discs, and sticky 17”slicks; not much faster considering all the advantages, I guess.

Brand Hatch? In the sunshine!? Minimono: a 450cc four-stroke motocross motor in a lightweight 125 sized chassis

The MuZ would be a good comparison to the Manx, but more recently I have been racing what is called a Minimono; a 450cc four-stroke motocross motor in a lightweight 125 sized chassis. These machines are on paper a closer to the Manx; the Minimono puts out about 56bhp, and weighs approximately 95-100kg against the Manx’s 50-55bhp and 120kg. The biggest difference between the bikes is the amount of adjustability in motor and chassis set-up; modern riders have a choice of suspension and power options to cover varying conditions, tracks and individual preferences, while the classic racer has very few options.

Within the paddock at the classic meetings the general consensus is to 'ride with what you have' and 'if it isn’t broken don’t fix it!' It was OK back then so why reinvent the wheel? Well I would like to think you can bring modern technology to these machines and there are certain people within the paddock that already have done.

The paddock is the best place for swapping coiffure tips...

These ‘hell raisers’ have fitted Mikuni Carbs, adjustable suspension units and bucked the trend to use the same size tyres front and rear and to use tyres that suit the rim width more accurately, giving a better shape and grip factor.

Manx stuff on

Lets face, it the Molnar Manx is a replica and is a modern copy of the classic race machine. The attention to detail is wonderful, with superb build quality and following the original design very closely. The motors are short stroke and they have the latest materials in them, the gearbox is a six speed unit with modern drum selection and Andy Molnar has spent years developing the bike and the results show, holding many lap records and finishing regularly on the podium. I’m hoping to continue and push the development as far as we can within the rules. I know it’s a classic machine but why not incorporate some modern technology into the design? It’s a motorcycle, at the end of the day, a wheel at the front and back and you sit somewhere in between; it can’t be that difficult or am I oversimplifying things?

  • Mike's website:
  • Macau photo: Ng Chi Ho.
  • Other action photos: Russell Lee,
  • Static photos:

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