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1962 Norton Atlas
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Norton’s first 750 has a reputation for being something of a bone-shaker. But is that a fair way to think of a 1960s superbike?...

The Norton Atlas was built in the early 1960s and formed the stepping stone between the Dominator and Commando ranges of twins. Bert Hopwood’s 497cc Dominator engine was stretched out to 745cc in an attempt to satisfy the American market’s desire for bigger, beefier bikes, and initially the Atlas was only available in the States.

American market: high bars and a small 2.5-gallon petrol tank, plus deep valanced chrome mudguards 1963 Norton Atlas

The 73mm by 89mm motor ran lower compression than the Dominator's at 7.6:1 and was fitted at first with just a single 376 Amal monobloc carb. Maximum power was around 55bhp at 6500rpm. The result was gutsy low-rev performance but unacceptable vibration higher up the rev range. There’s a story that the factory testers came back from their long-distance trials with hands badly swollen from the vibes, and dropping the compression ratio helped somewhat (and gave the crank a better chance of a longer life…)

British winter: bare trees, low sun, damp tarmac 1963 Norton Atlas

The bike seen here is one of the very first export models built in 1962 and shipped to Norton’s agent, Joe Berliner, in New York. All the early Atlas bikes were styled for the US market so came with high bars and a small 2.5-gallon petrol tank, plus deep valanced chrome mudguards. At first it was described as the 750SS, and then the Mark 1 Atlas, and came with a 150mph speedo (optimism must have been a national characteristic back then!) but no rev counter. The chain guards were also chromed for the American market, and the Atlas was fitted with a heavy-duty WM3-18 rear wheel and Lucas Competition magneto as standard.

Otherwise, the Atlas has an awful lot in common with the last of the Dommi twins like the 650SS and Mercury, and uses Norton’s four-speed gearbox and heavy-duty clutch, 6-Volt electrics, standard Roadholder forks and adjustable Girling rear shocks fitted onto the slimline featherbed frame.

1963 Norton Atlas

However, you’ll certainly notice the difference between an Atlas and a featherbed 650 twin, as Frank W has explained; ‘The Atlas engine offered the same 49bhp as did the 650, but its delivery was rather easier, and the spread of power is very noticeable if you are able to step straight from one bike to the other.’ Of course, when it was new the Atlas was marketed as having 60bhp… but ten less seems rather more likely!

Norton bits on

In 1963 Cycle World managed to hit 119mph on an American Atlas (not quite 150 then), and covered a standing quarter mile in 14.5 seconds. In regular use, owners would often see 110mph, and could normally stop from 30mph within 32-feet. Despite those problems with vibration which the factory testers encountered, Cycle World found it was ‘a most pleasant motorcycle to ride for long distances – especially if high average speeds over twisty roads are a factor. Despite its size, it handles with agility and can be zipped through S-bends like a lightweight.’ The Americans did notice the vibes but felt that the Atlas was ‘not really any worse than any other big-displacement twin’ of the time.

150mph? 1963 Norton Atlas, with 150mph Smiths speedometer

In 1964 the Atlas gained 12-Volt electrics, an extra carb and wider yokes, and a version was finally put on sale in the UK with flat bars and twin clocks. The Atlas continued to be built until 1968 but by then the Commando had seized the spotlight.

If you’re looking to buy a Norton twin today then an Atlas tends to come second to the more easily-available Commandos and Dominators, so it’s become a choice only for the cognoscenti. Roy Bacon reckons that the Atlas ‘offers the greatest capacity of the Dominators but also the most vibration. However, for sheer low-down power and easy cruising it has much to offer.’

And the Atlas certainly has its fans. ‘Although the Atlas has a reputation for excess vibration’ says Frank Westworth, ‘I prefer it to the 650SS which is often harsh.’ Cycle World agreed: ‘the Atlas may not rev too freely but it pulls so strongly from 2000rpm that no one with any sense will care. Simply twist the wick and the bike moves away like the rocket for which it was presumably named.’

Too clean? 1963 Norton Atlas, with Lucas Competition Magneto

Plus there’s all those exotic Atlas-engined specials, like the Dunstall racer and the Metisse, and the factory-built Atlas-powered AMC-Norton hybrids, so the 745cc engine certainly proved popular enough at the time.

This very early Atlas is on display in the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham, and was restored for the Museum by WorldVista in Canada. If you really want to own an Atlas then you may well need to search on the American side of the Atlantic to find one – only four Atlas motorcycles have come up for auction in the past couple of years and they were all in North America…


Visitor Info
If you'd like to see this Norton Atlas plus the hundreds of other motorcycles in the NMM collection, then you'll find them on the M42/A45 junction. The NMM is open every day from 10am to 6pm (except 24-26 December). Admission costs Adults £6.95, Senior Citizens £4.95, Children (under 15) £4.95, Family Tickets (2 adults with 2 children) £20. See www.nationalmotorcycle


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