14 05 2015

The Art of the Manx

John Stein is one of the few people to have ridden the Ken McIntosh1962 Manx Norton that took Bruce Anstey to victory in the 2014 Classic TT. Here’s Hagerty’s exclusive report.

In the 1950s, John Surtees rode one on his way up the ladder to Grand Prix cars. So did Mike Hailwood, and Stirling Moss got his racing start in a revolutionary rear-engine Cooper F3 powered by one. But remarkably, over a half-century later, the Manx Norton legend continues to grow. That’s because last summer, nine-time Isle of Man winner Bruce Anstey rode this New Zealand-built replica to victory in the GP1 class at the 2014 Classic TT, winning the Hailwood Trophy with a fastest lap of 108.1 mph, the best ever for a Manx Norton. This further defines the Kiwi rider, who is already the fastest rider ever on the island, lapping at 132.298 mph on his Honda Fireblade during the 2014 Superbike TT.

Built in Birmingham from 1950 to 1962, Norton’s “Featherbed” Manx GP racer is widely considered the quintessential British racebike. So successful was the design that Vanwall used its engine as the basis for its Formula One car in the 1950s. Now 53 years after the final Manx left the factory, independent shops are still faithfully recreating them.

Norton’s double-cradle “Featherbed” frame with swingarm rear suspension set the world standard for handling in its day, directly inspiring the top production motorcycle frames into the mid-1980s. Its rock-solid handling remains impressive now. Other period technologies included the robust single-cylinder engine with magnesium cases and cam box, bevel gear-driven DOHC, and high overall component quality.

Instead of the 7000-rpm redline common for 500cc singles of the period, this special Manx’s redline is set at 8600 rpm. In comparison to bikes of the period, it also has smaller 18-inch wheels, a short, high exhaust, a close-ratio six-speed TT Industries gearbox, and big-bore/short-stroke dimensions. Builder Ken McIntosh declined to state the output of its British-built Summerfield engine, but it’s likely close to 60 hp.

Even before it won at the IOM, this bike had history. McIntosh built it for himself, but soon realized it needed a better rider. That led to races with American Kevin Schwantz, Kiwi Andrew Stroud, Aussie Cameron Donald, American Doug Polen and finally Anstey aboard. To date it’s won 35 of 49 races entered.

The Manx is long and low, and you sit well back in the cockpit, with your bum over the rear wheel. But there are scallops in the tank for wrists and knees, so you can tuck behind the Avon-style fairing. McIntosh converted this bike’s right-side gearshift to the left, with a one-up, five-down racing pattern. The four-leading shoe magnesium front brake, single leading-shoe magnesium rear brake, and dry clutch are all cable operated, and have a strong mechanical feel.

Details include needle bearings for the swingarm, modified fork dampers, and Works Performance UltraLite titanium shocks. And yet McIntosh stayed true to the geometry and construction of the original "Featherbed" frames, which were oxyacetylene bronze-welded high-tensile steel.

There is no ignition switch or starter button. At New Zealand’s Pukekohe Park Raceway near Auckland I turn on the petcock and flood the Amal GP carb. The bike is not extremely light; weighing 320 lbs. dry, it is typical for the day. Click it into first gear and back up on compression, and then, clutch in, onto a roller starter. Then drop the clutch and a piston nearly the size of a smallblock Chevy’s slams toward the roof of the two-valve combustion chamber, and the Lucas magneto lights the avgas mixture. Ba-ba-ba-wham! Suddenly I’m astride a bellowing, jangling, vibrating beast. The dry clutch spins near my left foot. Finally it’s ready to rev. Up for first, slip the clutch, and we ease down pit lane. A little more throttle and the entire bike now comes alive. After a warm-up lap, it’s go time.

Accelerating onto the front straightaway, the Manx hunkers down and lunges forward. Instantaneously, it evokes the feeling of a way more modern superbike: stable, linear, and utterly on rails. There’s no upsetting this motorcycle. The “on rails” feeling continues into the fast, right-hand turn one. Next comes a quick left-right flick, which the Norton manages briskly, leads into Castrol Corner, a sharp right-hander leading onto the long back straight. Here the revs fall to 3000 rpm, but amazingly the engine pulls to redline without so much as a hiccup. And the close-ratio transmission clicks off gears with a short throw and level effort reminiscent of a modern box. Without onboard data acquisition, it’s impossible to measure the performance, but an onboard camera of Anstey at the TT shows the tach hovering at nearly 8000 rpm in top gear, suggesting maximum velocity is a bit above 140 mph.

Scrubbing off that kind of speed isn’t difficult for modern sportbikes, but it takes more doing on the Manx. The lever effort on the four-shoe front brake is heavy, and it doesn’t telegraph nearly the feel of a good disc setup. Despite this, with the sticky Avon race rubber the Manx gets slowed down well enough for a right-left chicane at the end of the back straight.

Maybe the part of the Pukekohe circuit that really speaks to the Manx’s inherent goodness is the last turn, a cresting right-hander – ringed by a foreboding concrete wall – that can unweight bikes as they’re fully leaned over. Getting it right is crucial for speed along the front straight…and also for staying alive. The Manx leans over and laser-locks onto a line. In these critical few seconds, every message imparted through the grips, seat and pegs communicates confidence and stability, which, together with speed and reliability, propelled Anstey to win the Hailwood Trophy.

It all proves that in 1950, when Irishman Rex McCandless designed the works Manx’s Featherbed frame, he got it spot-on. And this, together with the inspiring engine, precision chassis and excellent finish work, makes this replica a thoroughly enticing ride experience.

Anstey’s IOM-winning bike isn’t for sale, but McIntosh Racing offers an exact copy that he calls the “Schwantz Spec” Manx for the equivalent of about £42,000. The shop has built a half-dozen copies so far. That’s a bit above what original Manxes often sell for, a surprising contrast to the classic car world, where real examples out-value replicas many times over. And yet, given the winning performance, craftsmanship, total usability and sheer beauty of the piece, the approach makes a lot of sense as function art. If you want history, go buy an original Manx. If you want a jangling, bellowing history lesson, delivered in an asphalt classroom that delivers understanding and appreciation of 1960s racing the rest of the world will never know, here’s your machine.

Class dismissed.

Copyright 2015 by John L. Stein
Photos by Phil Smith

Into classic bikes? Why not visit the Cassington Bike Night- they are expecting 8,000 classic bikes to descend upon Cassington in Oxfordshire on 25th May. We’ll be there- will you? https://cassingtonbikenight.wordpress.com/

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