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4th July 2014

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Testing Times: NBT

Borrowing classic bikes to feature in a magazine is usually a hoot. However, you don't always want to take the test bike home with you, as Rowena Hoseason reveals...

NBT. No that's not a typing error: it's not meant to refer to Norton-Villiers-Triumph, that odd conglomerate which typified an imploding industry. NBT was exactly what I intended to type.

And with it comes a small confession. I attach that label to a whole bunch of old bikes, ones which I thoroughly enjoy borrowing but which I'd never want to actually own. The owner asks me what I think and I can honestly burble enthusiastically for half an hour about the amazing merits of his machine, but that doesn't stop it being NBT. I might come back from a test ride with a mile-wide grin, and a chronic case of the adrenalin-induced jitters, but at the end of the day the contents of my wallet are entirely secure.

Why? Cos those motorcycles are Nothing But Trouble, my friend. And Trouble rarely comes cheap.

Now that can sound like a damning statement indeed, but for some people these challenging machines represent the whole reason why they're interested in classic motorcycling. They actively seek out models which require a greater level of owner commitment than I'm prepared to supply. I have nothing but admiration for the people who dedicate their riding lives to just one or two models, and get to know those motorcycles intimately. They can smell the timing slipping at a thousand paces. They can rebuild the gearbox during their sleep. And they revel in resolving the engineering inadequacies of yesteryear by utilising the technology of today. For people like that, a cammy Velo, Square Four or Scott Squirrel (or a Norton rotary…) hold no fear.

But for me? NBT.

Nothing But Trouble
Nortons on ...

Take, for example, the prewar Norton Inter which I rode for the magazine several years ago - it was featured in RC57. That ferocious little snapper was one of the most engaging, exhilarating motorcycles I've ever unleashed on public roads. You think an early Gixer is a handful? Try a girder-forked cammy Norton with rigid rear end and tell me which is the more challenging (and rewarding) to get right. I absolutely adored riding that bike. It was the kind of classic motorcycle you could keep coming back to, time and again, testing yourself against its limitations and its seldom-seen performance potential. Riding it was very nearly an expensive mistake: something in that bike called out to something in me and my bank balance quailed at the mere idea.

However, my money was safe because I was painfully aware of how tricky OHC classics can be to keep in fine fettle. Even the experts admit that some cammy Norton and Velo engines are good 'uns and some… aren't. When a decent motor reaches the end of its road and requires top end attention, then there's no guarantee it'll retain its sparkle in its next incarnation, and many of them just plain refuse to run right without finickity fine adjustment every 500 miles.

Nothing But Trouble

So instead of a cammy Norton single, I got a similar Model 18 - OHV for simplicity; rigid, but with teles. It promptly dropped first gear and hasn't found it since. Sigh.

And lest you think that mechanical incompetence is entirely to blame for NBT bikes, I can reveal that these kind of machines can test the patience of the most experienced and accomplished motorcyclists. Jeff Clew loved to tell the tale of his own Scott, which would be running as sweet as a dream when he put it away at the end of a day. Overnight, parked in the garage, it would accumulate all manner of awkward ailments which meant that it needed a morning of spannering to get it back to working order…

Some bikes roll out the welcome mat for gremlins, much to the despair of people like me, who want our mechanical involvement to begin and end with topping up the oil and (on a good day) adjusting the chain. Thankfully, however, the British industry manufactured squillions of motorcycles suitable for riders of my ilk and many of those machines remain robustly reliable in their dotage. I even own a couple of them: T100C, take a bow. It's much the same age as I am, and it has considerably less trouble waking up in the mornings!

Nothing But Trouble

That's one of the reason why putting RC together each month is still an entertaining business. FrankW and I get to read dozens of stories from real-life riders who likewise have encountered NBT bikes - and their exact opposites.

If you'd like to share your experience of an NBT bike (or a robustly reliable regular ride) with other RC readers, here's how to get started.

Words: Rowena Hoseason

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