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Bike Profile - Posted 18th September 2009

Norton Rotary Prototype
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Before the Norton Classic, F1, Interpol II and Commanders were built, a factory mule was used to develop each model. Frank Westworth tells a Ten-Ten-Tale...

Nortons are great bikes. All of them, each in their own way. And we all have our favourites; mine are rotaries and Commandos; once my Bendy is back from Norvil's tender ministrations it will be amusing (at least to me) to compare it with the oldest of the rotaries, because the one was intended to follow the other. Had things been different…

You may already be familiar with R1010, a rotary originally registered in 1979 as one of the first batch of 'production' (in a loose sense of the word) rotaries; the model originally known as an Aurora. R1010 was featured in RC The Magazine, in issue 60, and as is the way of these things, I somehow ended up acquiring it. The 1979 Norton Aurora was intended to replace the Commando, along with the Challenge, a rather more conventional Norton in a rather conventional Norton big twin tradition.

Studio shots. All Nortons were black and white in those days. Norton Aurora '1010' Prototype in the studio

But the launch didn't happen. Most of the early batch of Auroras (Aurorae?) were rebuilt as police bikes, as Interpol 2s, a decent number of which are still wailing and whistling their way around the roads. R1010 had a different fate awaiting it; R1010 was to be used as the Shenstone factory's development mule; the bike which would be used to try out the various developmental devices as the factory research team produced them. Try them out in the real world; on an actual bike and on actual roads.

And so it was. Over the years R1010 lost its original air-cooled rotormotor and gained instead a prototype water-cooled device. So it lost all the beautiful cooling finnery and gained an unlovely radiator. But it also gained a superb engine, so it wasn't too unhappy a trade.

Still air-cooled, still black and white... Norton Aurora '1010' Prototype in the outsde world.

The bodywork changed. Away went the neatly integrated tank / seat / sidepanel arrangement of the Aurora, to be replaced with a back end familiar to all Classic admirers, and a fuel tank which so far as I can find out is a one-off. It's a steel one-off, not alloy, and is a tribute to some anonymous metal-basher's skill - probably that of Don Woodward of Bourne. Its mounting is a bit mysterious, as there an extension bracket connecting the rear mounting with its lug on the frame. Checking with Richard Negus, latterly MD of Norton Motors, revealed that although the original rotary frame and the late versions look very similar, in fact a lot of the detailing was changed, and R1010's tank really does date from that 1979 date, whereas the frame is a much later replacement.

Richard Negus also supplied a little more about tank-basher Don Woodward; 'Don used to work for BRM, making alloy bodies, tanks, etc, and later had his own business restoring interesting cars (he contributed to a V16 BRM for Wheatcroft) and motorcycle fuel tanks. A real craftsman, now retired.'

The seat, unlike the production Classic's, hinged skyward to allow access at some point, but that has also vanished during one of the several rebuilds.

And as Norton constantly developed their road bikes, so their mule metamorphosed into something old and something new at the same time. Away went the Italian Marzocchi front end, replaced by the Yamaha components which graced the Commander. Along with the Marzocchi forks, went the Radealli wheels and Brembo brakes, sadly, being replaced by off-the-shelf Yamaha bits which should have been just as effective but which never inspired confidence. I'll mention this again at some point…

Richard Negus again; 'I think at one stage, R1010 was one of the black P51s, a forerunner of the Commander, which had a cockpit fairing and that tank / seat / rear light combination. The right-hand end plate was slightly different around the thermostat housing, the rotor housings were sand castings and the water pump was prone to leaking water, although it looked much better than the piss-pot that ended up being 'styled' by Seymour Powell.

'One of the P51s, was sent to Germany for autobahn testing, but ended up featured in 'Motorrad' and then MCN as a pre-production model, much to the disgust of Denis Poore.'

Of interest only to serious anoraks is the snippet that the original Yamaha XJ900 front end used on R1010 in its role as mule was from the UK, not the different Euro version of the Yamaha.

The UK version featured a set of forged alloy handlebars which were bolted to the top yoke on a pair of serrated bosses, allowing much more adjustment than the Euro version's simple tubular bars. Amusingly, the UK originals are in one of the several boxed of spares which came with the bike, but the simpler Euro forks were used on production Commanders.

As well as those Yamaha parts which are familiar to all Commander owners, R1010 also sported the half-fairing from the Yamaha XJ900, and although that has been replaced with a half-fairing from a Suzuki, riding the bike raises a lot of questions - well; it raises questions for me, a madman who followed the rotary project from beginning to end.

The rear shocks on the Aurora and on Interpol 2s came from that nice Mr Girling, but those on Classics and Commanders were Konis, so R1010 got a set of those, too. Mysteriously, although the frame frequently changed to accommodate the various fixtures and fittings under development, its number remained the same, the 'R1010' which has somehow become the bike's identity. Equally mysteriously, the engine has managed to retain that same identity, too, providing a continuity which is unusual for a bike with history like this.

Police bikes for sale on :

How much of the original Aurora is left? Very little, at a guess; the side panels look like originals…

But that's not the point, really. Every motorcycle factory uses a mule - or a fleet of mules - as part of their development process. What happened to them is too often lost in the mysteries of the histories of the various factories. Some of them appear from time to time, like the Norton / Triumph 'Trisolastic' and Norton P10, both of which are held in Birmingham's National Motorcycle Museum, and the Unified Twin prototype, superbly brought back to prolonged active life by Anthony Curzon. R1010 was sold off by Norton at Shenstone back in the early 1990s, dark days indeed, and although it never really dropped from sight, it wasn't actually seen much.

No longer air-cooled, no longer black and white... Norton Aurora '1010' Prototype as it is today.

Enter Reuben Fowles.

Reuben acquired the bike around five years ago, and set about making it better. He did an amazing job; not a single solitary bodge. I could never have done that. He upgraded the unhappy Yamaha brakes with a set of truly awesome 4-pot Brembos, for which Norton Motors prepared and fitted the brackets. He replaced the dull Yamaha instruments with those from a Suzuki, which match the fairing and look superb; he even replaced the Suzuki's fuel gauge with the water-temperature gauge from the Commander, and … possibly my favourite detail on the bike … he even fitted the oil-level light testing switch found on the air-cooled but not the water-cooled rotaries. It all works, and it all looks as though it was intended to work together. Which it wasn't.

My own personal happiness set in when Reuben decided to accept an insultingly small amount of money for it, and R1010 found a new home in Cornwall. I'd never recommend that anyone buys a bike without riding it, but I did, and it is no disappointment at all.

And not about to be ridden off a cliff... Norton Aurora '1010' Prototype as it is today.

Before I talk a bit about riding such an unusual machine, I'd like to place it in context by mentioning that I have three other Norton rotaries: an Interpol 2, which is weary but ever-willing; a Commander, which I've had from new since 1992, and an F1 … which lives in a Vac-Bag. Long may it stay there.

R1010 is like none of the others. The engine, prepared by Norton Motors, is simply remarkable. It starts instantly, hot or cold (if your rotary is reluctant, visit Paul Goff's site and ask him for one of his trick batteries); it idles immediately from cold and it pulls from an indicated 1000rpm. They are not all like this, believe me.

It is also mechanically silent, and burbles gently along, perfectly happy to trickle at throttle-shut, clutch-home tickover if needed. They are not all like that, either. The F1 is particularly not like that.

Listen to that; you can barely hear it ticking over... Norton Aurora '1010' Prototype

R1010 was used to develop the hydraulic clutch which Norton never actually fitted to the Commander, and Reuben fitted one to it during the course of its rebuild. It is excellent; light and easy, and first gear engages silently, with neutral being equally easy to select. They are not all like that.

The riding position is odd; I prefer the more upright IP2 and Commander, but you get used to it; at least, I got used to it when I fiddled the footrests and their controls to suit me. You can do this with rotaries, you know! The brakes are excellent, too, as is the steering.

Ah. The steering. I've had two Commanders from new, and ridden several others. I don't much like the way they handle. The IP2 and Classic are much more to my tastes. R1010 uses the suspension from the Commander but steers excellently. It lacks the vast and very heavy fairings of the Commander. There may be a clue there. In traffic, the Commander's radiator cooling fan runs all the time, cooking the rider and entertaining riding companions. The fan on R1010 hardly ever comes on. At all. It's that great lack of a fairing again.

The only thing *I* don't like is the Bandit fairing; makes it look cheap and dated to me... Norton Aurora '1010' Prototype

But more than anything, riding R1010 begs a question. Why did Norton not produce a half-faired model to run alongside the Commander? OK, the engine is ugly, with the water pump housing a particularly unlovely thing, but a belly-pan would cover that up. I expect that the old evil, Money, is the reason, but that's a small puzzle, given that there are plenty of plastic panel suppliers around.

Back when R1010 was originally registered, in 1979, it would have taken the market by storm. OK; the engine would have been air-cooled and a little more eccentric than this, but we are talking about the age of the Laverda Jota here! The Norton range back then would have seen the rotary standing alongside the more conventional dohc water-cooled Challenge twin in Norton showrooms. How different things could have been…


Thanks to Tony Page, for the photo of the Aurora


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