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Norton 1931 490cc Works Racer

You might think that a 1931 ex-works Norton racer belongs in a museum, and indeed Steve Lacey's Manx GP bike had pride of place at Brooklands for a while. It was originally raced by Ron Harris, then ridden by Phil Heath, and owned by Titch Allen. Steve tells its story

This CS1 was built by Norton as a spare machine for the 1931 TT but it wasn't used. Instead it was sold to successful rider/agent Ron Harris of Maidenhead, to ride in the Senior Manx Grand Prix of the same year. Harris was a small dealer specialising in racing machines, and advertised his machines on 'adjustable drip feed terms'!

The Jimmie Guthrie memorial, at exactly the place where Guthrie stopped during his last TT (1937) on an almost identical mount.

It was despatched on the 20th August 1931 direct to the Isle of Man, and the entry in the despatch book reads; 'special for Manx Grand Prix'. First practice was on Monday the 31st August and, in perfect conditions, Harris was the sixth fastest senior at 64.9mph (a lap time of 34 minutes, 53 seconds). That meant Nortons filled five of the top six places on the practice leader board, with a lone Rudge in fourth place. All machines had to be fitted with regulation fishtail silencers for practice so more pace was expected on race day, when they could run unsilenced.

Harris was part of the three man Sidcup Club team, his colleagues being Harold Daniell (Norton) and Jock West (Ariel). Out of 55 entrants for the senior, 18 were Norton mounted, but only three were on the new, Carroll-designed engine, Harris being one of these. Harold Daniell was fastest in practice, and Jock West fell but was not injured.

Senior race day Thursday the 10th of September dawned to pouring rain, but the race was started at 10am as per the programme. Harold Daniell was first of the Sidcup team away at number 15, with Harris next to go at number 34, and West away at number 44; but by the end of lap one only Harris was still going and lying in fifth place. By the end of lap five, Harris was really flying, turning in a 68.15mph lap (33 minutes, 14 seconds) and second place, but an unknown misfortune slowed his sixth lap to 50 minutes exactly (45.29mph).

This put him in tenth place overall at the end of the race at an average speed of 61.8mph for the 225 mile event. His six laps took a total of three hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds on mainly unsurfaced roads; they were real men!

After the Manx, Harris returned to Maidenhead and registered the bike for road use on the 21st November 1931 and later raced the bike at Brooklands, where he was a local specialist -- even the top men rode to most events, hence the road registration.

The machine's history from the mid-30s to the early 1960s is unclear, but it is highly likely that Harris sold it from his shop when the next season's model came out. The bike turned up in rural Leicestershire in the early 1950s and passed through a number of owners until bought in a dilapidated state by ex-continental circus rider Phil Heath in the early 1960s. Phil made the bike famous for the second time with a series of articles in Motor Cycle Sport called 'instant racer', where he detailed the trials and tribulations of preparing a 30 year old race bike for vintage racing. Later, it became part of the 'instant sidecar racer' story, being used to provide an outfit for Mick Broom. In this guise, it was ridden by ex-World Sidecar Champion Eric Oliver; a one-off ride that persuaded him into a second racing career with the VMCC!

By the early 1980s, Phil had sold the bike to lifelong friend and vintage club founder Titch Allen, who returned it to its original 1931 specification. It was then exhibited at the Brooklands museum, with occasional use up the test hill!

I bought the bike from Titch in 1998, with the intention of parading it in the 1999 TT lap of honour -- its first return to the island since 1931. After a full mechanical and cosmetic refreshment it was finished just in time to catch the Steam Packet ferry! One of the pictures here shows it at the Jimmie Guthrie memorial, at exactly the place where Guthrie stopped during his last TT (1937) on an almost identical mount.

Since I bought it, the Norton has enjoyed (?) its first ever MoT examination, and was taxed in June 1999 -- its first tax disc since December 1956!

Taxed, MOT'd, and ready to go...

Norton experts will notice the unusual specification of the bike: TT Webb forks, 8-inch Enfield rear brake and cush hub, two-stay frame with crossover rear brake rod, Sturmey Archer 4-speed gearbox, needleless carburetor, and TT BTH magneto. This specification is exactly as dispatched to Ron Harris in 1931. This bike was essentially a cross-over from the old Walter Moore bikes, and has the sixth Carroll engine ever made.

Still capable of an honest 100mph (once only, out of respect!), it's a delight to ride.


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