Clubman Classics is a personal blog inspired by the fearless, amateur road racers who competed in the 1947 - 1956 Isle Of Man Clubman's TT races and their production based machines.

Thursday 15 July 2010

NSU SpecialMax and SportMax

At first glance both bikes below seem very different. On the left sits the quirky but stylish NSU 1955 SpecialMax 250 and on the right a racing spec 1956 SuperMax 250 based SportMax replica. Let's take a closer look at how NSU transformed the Max from road bike to racer..

Using a pressed steel frame the innovative SpecialMax features leading link front forks and a mono-shock design along with a tractor style sprung seat unit, in perfect keeping with your Lederhosen and Bratwurst Mein Herr! The SpecialMax is easily distinguished from the first NSU Max of 1952 by the full width hubs and larger petrol tank.

The Max provided reliable transport from its launch, at a time when NSU were the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, employing an innovative overhead cam 247cc engine with "over-square" 69 x 66 dimensions and alloy head. Use of the Albert Roder designed Ultramax reciprocating long con-rod system to drive the cams resulted in a 17 BHP power output and respectable performance for a 250 machine- an ideal starting point for a competitve race bike.

World Champions in 1953, 1954 and 1955 NSU enjoyed great success with their ingenious SportMax racers. Produced in small numbers with virtually all of the parts differing in some form or other from their road based cousins, SportMax's were built to exacting standards to perform well in the rigours of road racing. The large aluminium or sometimes magnesium, hand-beaten petrol tanks were very advanced for their day.

The factory produced race bikes were expensive to buy when new and to this day retain an aura of high quality engineering and exclusivity, resulting in high market prices for genuine bikes with racing history.

NSU Sportmax machines were raced by top riders of the day including Werner Haas, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees and Sammy Miller, amassing many victories in the 250cc Class as well as taking a factory supported rider, HP 'Happy Muller' to a World Championship title in 1955.

The Sportmax in these images, a later 1956 SuperMax twin-shock based replica, was purchased by its current owner from a former Manx GP rider in a non-roadworthy state, partly disassembled and looking rather sorry for itself. The bike was then transformed whilst in the very capable hands of Harold Nuttall, the UKs No.1 NSU Max expert.

The engine has a Sportmax piston, a special con-rod and a cam to "GelandeMax" specification, together with a 30mm Amal carburettor and close ratio gears. Running an open megaphone and on Castrol R this current spec provides a glorious sound and smell whilst the broader power band makes the bike easier to start, although it does like to be warm..

The 1950s image below right illustrates the lengths NSU went in order to achieve the correct set-up. As the mechanics prepare the race bikes, heaters blowing warm air are aimed at the barrels. Once started they would switch to cool air in order to maintain working temperatures during tuning, thus permitting very fine piston tolerances.

Responsible for the introduction of the 'Dolphin Faring' (above left), NSU were the first manufactuter to develop the open wheel design following the ban of streamliner farings in the early 1950s.

Im planning to enter the Sportmax racer replica you see here in a classic track day and after sprinting the bike at Wroughton airfield, I feel confident in the little 250's handling and riding characteristics. With very little in the way of intrusive vibration and a very positive gear change, the Sportmax will undoubtedly feel more at home on smooth track than it ever did on a bumpy, disused runway.

For other fantastic NSU images not belonging to myself visit this flickriver site.

Friday 9 July 2010

Keith Heckles Tribute

Keith Heckles, one of Liverpool's most famous and popular racers sadly passed away in January 2010 at the age of 75. A well known rider in both the Manx Grand Prix and TT races of the 1960s Keith raced alongside Giacomo Agostini on two occasions.

A true family man Kieth decided to remain in Liverpool to provide for his young family after turning down offers to race internationally during his heyday.

His sons Mark and Paul Heckles star in these two videos, bringing Kieth's Beart Manx back to life once more.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Lewis Leathers

Established in 1892, Britain's oldest motorcycle clothing brand, Lewis Leathers, have recently opened a new store in London. Specialising in made to order jackets and high quality accessories, Lewis Leathers are THE period-perfect choice for vintage motorcyclists.

Monday 5 July 2010

'Harton' Cafe Racer

1957 Senior Manx GP Winners

Fabulous shot of local TT hero Alan Holmes (Norton#83) and Miss Isle of Man 1957, Julie Dawson. Runner up Ernie Washer (Norton-right) doesn't look quite so enthralled with his slightly more mature female companion! Image courtesy of NCNOC.

1952 Matchless G9 Clubmans 500

An original works prepared Matchless G9 racer, campaigned by G R Brown in the 1952 Senior Clubmans TT. Note the lack of silencer, rear sets and purposeful 'added lightness' theme throughout. Image courtesy of roncobb.com

BSA Gold Star 350

The epitome of Clubmans racing, the BSA Gold Star was dominant in numerous TT races in the 1950s. This atmospheric photo is courtesy of silverdragons.co.uk

1954 Clubman's TT Norton 350 International

These images show Isle of Man road racer Geoff Tanner re-united with his 1954 Clubman's TT Norton 350 for the feature in issue 138 of Classic Racer magazine in the Summer of 2009. Geoff finished 5th at a race speed of 81.54 mph for four laps of the 37 mile TT Mountain course with a fastest lap of 83mph. The first Norton home, Geoffs lap was the fastest set by a 350cc Norton in the entire Clubman's races.

He was delighted to see the bike in all its former glory, having not seen it in over 50 years! Accurately restored by Bernie Allen, the bike now runs beautifully and sounds fantastic through it's open pipe. Once sat on the bike, Geoff looked totally at home. Sporting a fixed grin whilst blipping the throttle and sounding like a true racer, he commented that he remembered it to be "Bloody slow!".

Essentially road bikes the Clubman's specification allowed only very minor race upgrades. Lights, silencer and centre stand were deleted whilst the addition of a fly screen, a set of Manx mudguards and seat were added. Rear-set foot rests completed the transformation from road bike to racer.

The following year in 1955 Geoff went on to win the Manx Grand Prix in both 350 and 500 classes cementing his talent as a racer. He also competed as part of the Continental Circus in Europe.

Bultaco Metrella 250

Norton Manx

Back by popular demand..

Friday 2 July 2010

Benelli 350 Wards Riverside

Benelli Wards Riverside makes a well proportioned racer.

Pushrod Performance Nortons

Mike Pemberton of Pushrod Performance wakes up the neighbours with his two custom made Norton road bikes, the Norton Supermoto and the Poor Man's Manx.

A Tale of Two Norton Inters

The Norton International was the pre-war flagship bike for Norton from its inception in 1932. Used for racing both by the Norton factory Works racers, clubman racers and for fast roadwork, the International was produced in 350 and 500 versions (with a few 600cc bikes for sidecar racers). The first bikes were produced with girder forks at the front and rigid rear ends , with plunger rear suspension appearing at first on the Works bikes and later on the customers models. The very last pre-war racing Inters were very quick specialist machines and were christened "Manx" by virtue of the marques immense racing record in the Isle of Man TT and Manx GP races.

Post war, the Inter acquired telescopic front forks as well as plunger rear suspension from 1947 until 1952, when the Inters had a final makeover with the adoption of a version of the acclaimed Featherbed frame, which took it up to its final demise in 1958

Keen to ride both the post war plunger and featherbed bikes on modern day public roads in Somerset, I spent a fabulous day in the brisk March sunshine comparing road manners whilst scaring a few horse riders in the process!

1949 Norton International 350 Clubmans

First up the 1949 350cc 'Plunger' Inter. Having spent many years in a leaking shed in Northumberland and once raced by Bill Camier in the 1949 Isle of Man TT, this Clubmans spec machine has been fully restored by Mike Pemberton and George Cohen.

Now demonstrating a distinctly road bias set-up, this machine has a comfortable but sporty riding position demonstrated by the turned up bars and lack of 'bum-perch' seat. The elegant but rorty Brooklands exhaust can, rear set footrests and lack of lights turn the balance back towards road racer. Considering the engine, recently rebuilt by George Cohen, has covered less than 50 miles since the rebuild, this road test was an exploration of handling rather than outright speed. We'll save that for another day at Wroughton Airfield.

Starting easily on the first kick, the 350 makes a fabulous noise. No doubt thanks to the Brooklands can, I scare a pair of juvenile ponies and their riders, trotting up the neaby bridleway. Cutting the engine immediately I make my apologies. Horse-hair-raiser over I restart the 350, again first kick.

Once underway, the free revving, all alloy single ohc motor begins to warm up and I am rewarded with a charmingly smooth power delivery. Positive gear changes are very straight forward and within a mile I am begginning to swing the Inter into corners with confidence. Approaching a bumpy kink in the road, I am keen to discover the cornering abilities of the plunger frame. Entering the bend at 55mph I learn a shift in body position to the rear of the bike helps the dampers smother road imperfections also emphasising the need for a bum seat.

On reaching a long straight I find even in run-in state this 350 Inter can still reach illegal speeds with ease as I instinctly overtake a Sunday-driver-driven Nissan Micra. Back in the fifities, the driver of an unsuspecting Ford Anglia would have received quite a fright. A practical, sporty machine with a wealth of charm and character, the '49 Inter is a real gem.

1954 Norton International 500 Clubmans

Next up, the 1954 Featherbed 500 Inter Clubmans, another machine with a fascinating history. Raced by G W Shekell in the 1954 Clubmans TT, finishing 12th at an average speed of 80.25 mph (the second Norton to finish) and restored by Bernie Allen in 2009, I rode this bike at last years Norton Owners Golden Jubilee event at Donington Park.

Restored to Clubmans specification, including an all alloy engine, no lights, rear set footrests, Manx front numberplate and seat, this Inter has a very purposeful appearance. Second kick brings the 500cc motor to life, producing a deeper but no less fantastic sound. The riding position of a racing featherbed is much heavier on the wrists than the earlier Inters, even with flat bars fitted, resembling that of a more modern sports bike.

Fitted with race cams, the featherbed Inter is happiest on an open throttle which makes for swift, rewarding progress especially blatting along country A-roads. The long Manx seat permits plenty of movement in the saddle, the drum brakes are soft by modern standards but provide ample stopping power.

With more grip than outright power, the 500 Inter is a very confidence inspiring machine and a bike that cries out to be ridden. The combination of low weight and a rev hungry engine make for a smile inducing road experience, the bike responding to delicate inputs and with none of the plunger's evident pre-war feel. With only 50 bikes built to Clubmans specification, this is a very rare machine as many were turned into Triton cafe racers. Following on his Honda VFR 750 my Dad commented, "You looked like you were having fun!", and indeed I was.
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