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|Bike Review - Posted 14th July 2014|
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BSA A7 or Norton Model 7
In the early 1950s, both BSA and Norton produced 500cc twins with tele forks and plunger suspension. Given the choice, which of the pair would you choose to own today? We asked RealClassic readers to explain their reasoning...
On paper, there's almost nothing between these two traditional, pushrod-operated overhead valve twins. They share the same engine dimensions of 66mm bore by 72.6mm stroke, giving matched capacities of 497cc. The 'sporty' Norton claimed a power advantage of an entire 2bhp over the 'all-rounder' BSA, delivering 29bhp at 6000rpm to the A7's 27bhp at 5800rpm. Mind you, that was when they were both new. These days we'd be amazed if a dyno registered much difference between them, and in any case it made precious little difference in terms of ultimate velocity. When tested new in 1952, both bikes were clocked at 92mph top speed. Interestingly, the BSA ran higher compression as standard at 7.2:1, while the Norton engine's compression ratio was 6.75:1.
The Model 7 Dominator is physically slightly bigger; by about a single inch, all round. So its wheelbase runs to 56 inches (instead of 55 for the A7); its saddle is 30.5 inches off the ground (not 30), and the Norton boasts 5.5 inches of ground clearance compared to the BSA's 4.5. In practice these small increments can make all the difference: the Model 7's turning circle was recorded as being 16ft 6 inches, while the A7 could turn in just 13ft 6 inches.
The Norton is also the beefier bike of the pair at 410lb, while the A7 just tips the scales at 400lb. That extra mass probably didn't help the Model 7 over the standing quarter mile: when new it covered the distance in 17.4 seconds while the A7 was noticeably quicker at 16.8 seconds. When both bikes travelled sedately at 50mph for a measurable distance, again the BSA had the edge and returned 70mpg while the best fuel economy the Norton could manage at that speed was 64mpg.
Both bikes used a single Amal carb; they both came equipped with the telescopic forks and plunger rear suspension of the time, and both used 7-inch drum brakes. Here the Model 7 does definitely have the edge with a superior front stopper, aided in its efficiency somewhat by Norton's famous Roadholder forks.
Looking at that little list, you might expect these bikes to be equally evenly priced in today's classic market… but that's far from the situation. The Norton badge carries a price premium, which means you'll pay up to 50% more for the Model 7 than the A7. For example, a 1952 Norton Model 7 on eBay in 'ride or restore' condition is being sold for £5000… while the bidding closed at £2850 on a 'running but needs TLC' 1952 BSA A7 which was offered at auction last autumn. You will find very pretty A7s for this era priced at £4000 or so, but that's an exception rather than the rule, and you're very unlikely to find the Norton 500 twin for anything under £4500.
So much for the theory: how about the practice? We asked the RealClassic readers on our Facebook group if they had any opinions on the subject… and it turned out they did. Quite a few!
The Eye of the Beholder
'It's a case of form over function for me, the BSA just looks... right', says Paul Evans.
'The Norton hands down, it has real class over the Beezer' says Roger Slater.
'The BSA, it's got nicer styling,' says Mark Fielder. 'The Norton looks a bit awkward by comparison.'
'It's obviously got to be the Norton,' says Terry Edwards, 'due to it having a tank of outstanding design!'
'The BSA, even though the Norton is probably a better motorcycle. I can't get past the A7/A10 style. Best from the era, hands down' says Nolan Woodbury.
'It's amazing how similar the styling is,' says Dave Simmons. 'Most major components are the same shape in an identical configuration. In the absence of any nostalgia for either I'd have to go for the Norton because the tank is more stylish and, to my eye, it looks more purposeful and faster.'
'I'd go with the Norton, it looks that bit more modern than the BSA. Spares wise I would think that they are neck and neck' says Jim Richardson.
Parts and Performance
'I'm Norton through and through so I think that I'd stick with the marque and a less steep learning curve,' says Richard Payne. 'The Norton forks are probably better and the cylinder head is a clever design - no rocker boxes to leak and no pushrod comb necessary. No unnecessary second camshaft either.'
Paul Fishburn would opt for the BSA. 'OK, I have a plunger A10 which obviously influences my choice a little but the main reason, just look at the lines, so much better looking than the Norton and the 500 BSA twin is one of the sweetest sounding engines ever built. It's also bullet-proof and under-stressed. Spares are relatively easy to source but the prices are shooting up for them at present which shows how well thought of they are. Also, have you noticed how few 500s left?'
'Way back when I was an 18 year old apprentice,' says Bob McGrath, 'I had a 1949 rigid frame A7 and best mate Johnny had a Model 7 as shown. I never believed the Norton superior roadholding blarney until one day we swept down to the Porepunkah Bridge. It was the classic scenario with the road running parallel to the river bank, then turning at a right angle across the bridge, and then a right angle off the bridge to again run parallel to the river bank on the other side. I followed behind Johnny at exactly the same speed on exactly the same line. He just swept around in a lazy 'S' while I was scrabbling with graunching noises as bits touched down wot shouldn't be touching. My bridge exit was very undignified. No lazy 'S' for little Bobby. I tried again a few times to emulate the Norton line following Johnny but when really pushed the A7 just couldn't do it like the Model 7 could.'
'I go with the Norton,' says Roger Cooper: 'the Roadholder forks have got to be the best in the business.'
Neil Cairns prefers the A7: 'BSA reliability and ease of spares. I do all my own service / maintenance. I've had lots of Beezas and like their staid, solid, go on forever mould. I've never owned a Norton and seeing how fickle my mate's new Jubilee was put me off.
'The Norton please,' says Nigel Smith. 'I had two 99s and loved them both. I know they were featherbed, but the engine was so tractable, Roadholders forks, great cylinder head design.'
'The BSA certainly has a bit more speedy style then the Norton,' says Todd Ethridge, 'but my choice would be the Norton. I have only a bit of experience with Nortons of this era, but I do have a fair amount of BSA twin experience. The BSA is a good bike and worthy of most of the great praise it gets, but some parts of the design I find fiddly. I really do like the Hopwood motor produced by Norton. I do wish they had a real primary cover, but the motor stands head and shoulders above in my opinion. Such a bike would become my main club run and errand runner bike.'
Familiarity / Nostalgia
'I had a 1961 Dommie 88 for a short while in the mid-70s and loved it,' says Carl Wadkin, 'despite it catching fire crossing the North Yorkshire moors. A roadside rewiring session got us home. I loved that soft burbling engine which would go virtually anywhere in top gear.'
'My father had an A7 from about 1957-61,' says Adrian Saunders. 'He rebuilt it and it was quite happy to go from Birmingham to Poole (150 miles) and back, with sidecar, my mother on pillion, myself, sister, dog and luggage in the sidecar!'
But Robbie Sands says 'it's got be the Norton. I've owned a Commando 850 for about 28 years and I still love it.'
The Price is Right
Says Bill Nelson (just about the only person to talk about price and value, interestingly enough): 'the Norton has style, charisma, enduring good looks, excellent rideability and is so accessible for the routine home maintenance - clearly a classic worthy of every £ of its future capital growth. The BSA on the other hand is just a rough old everyday get you to work exploration of the world of twins that will forever be worth less than the value of its parts, simply because it is boring old grey porridge and definitely of no interest to any level of "investor". Given that there will be righteous clamour for the Norton, and the BSA will struggle to find anyone who notices it, I have to choose the BSA, in the hope I can talk down the price…'
In fact, totting up the initial responses from our entirely unscientific survey, we discovered that 41% of RC readers chose the BSA; 44% chose the Norton, and the remaining awkward 15% either wanted both bikes or neither. So the 'accepted wisdom' that the Norton twin is always going to be the more desirable ain't necessarily so.
Words: Rowena Hoseason - Photos: RC Archive
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