Test: Norton 18 H
Racing motorcycle from the 1920s
In the 1920s, the Norton 18 H was one of the most successful half-liter machines – and established the legendary reputation of the British brand in racing.
There were hardly any permanent racetracks after the First World War. They should still be years away.
TDespite the difficult track conditions, racing machines already existed in the 1920s that reached top speeds of over 100 km / h on only moderately paved ground.
In those years, English machines in particular dominated the international scene. And the English racing drivers in the Golden Twenties were hard to beat for daredevil and willingness to take risks. Norton soon became one of the leading brands in racing. Initially with built-in engines from Peugeot, the company’s own engines were to be used as early as 1908. When the side valves were reinforced by OHV variants, there were hardly any opponents for the Norton. The foundation for a decades-long winning streak was laid. Between 1922 and 1927 the brand became world famous in motorcycle racing. The models called “Flattank-Norton” because of their flat plug-in tank won the Senior TT twice – in 1924 under Alex Bennet and in 1925 under Stanley Woods. Joe Craig, who later headed the successful Norton team and legendary “racing professor”, won the Ulster Grand Prix four times in a row with the bumper Norton before he took over the reins of racing at Norton.
Change of scene: Hockenheim, Motodrom. Almost 90 years after the head-operated Norton first competed in a race, one of the rare half-liter racers is being prepared for its next outing in the pit lane of the Hockenheimring. Not a factory machine, but an ordinary production machine, as it was available from Norton at the time and was used with great success on all racetracks in Europe. The extremely flat fuel tank made of sheet brass underlines the classy appearance.
The Norton 18 H with OHV engine was one of the most popular and successful racing machines in the 1920s. It laid the foundation for a decades-long winning streak for the English manufacturer.
It’s fresh this morning. The route is still dry, but the weather report announced extensive rain. First there is still some service work to be done. The engine receives 100 cm³ of oil, which is injected directly into the crankcase with the help of a large syringe. Some spray grease from the can for the valves hanging open in the airstream and a little more grease for the two drive chains. With the help of a historical funnel, the machine is refueled from a no less historical tin can. Three liters of super, that should be enough for a few test laps on the small course.
The starting procedure is very simple. There are various levers on the handlebars for manual adjustment of the ignition and air slide, but none of them are needed. The time of the magnet is set to 45 degrees advance ignition. Shift start is announced.
When I step out of the box, the clouds are torn. The rays of the morning sun warm the black leather. It’s a soothing, pleasant warm-up for the driver. The seating position is good and the distance between saddle and handlebar is ample. The three-speed gearbox is shifted by hand. A lock prevents skipping second and engaging first gear when shifting down. However, if this is to be chosen consciously, the lock can be unlocked with a lever on the handlebar.
Flood the float chamber, engage first gear and “pull up” the half-liter stew backwards against the compression. This gives the engine a full crankshaft revolution when it is pushed to gain momentum and overcome the compression stroke.
With the clutch pulled, I set the Norton in motion. Although it only weighs 125 kilograms, it requires a lot of strength. After five to six meters I release the clutch, the engine responds with a metallic puff. Two or three more steps, a twist of the throttle and a dull rumble begins. I jump into the saddle and gently accelerate the Norton to the end of the pit lane. At 3000 rpm I pull the clutch and let go of the throttle. My right hand feels between the knee and the cylinder for the wooden ball at the end of the gear lever to engage second gear. The driver has to spread his knee, feel it, grab the knob and pull it up a few centimeters. A few seconds later the whole thing again and we are in top gear, third.
The chassis is absolutely stable and good-natured, even at fast pace on a modern race track. At most, the tire grip sets limits to the lean angle.
After two or three warm-up laps, the engine is at operating temperature. In the second it goes through the north curve. Now for a few seconds in the third and immediately back again through the relatively slow right-left combination at the beginning of the crossbar. This is followed by a short straight that ends in a quick left turn.
The chassis shows itself to be absolutely stable and good-natured even at faster pace. It invites you to ever greater inclines. The two friction dampers of the Webb fork are only moderately tightened due to the flat surface. The cushioning works perfectly. In the right-left combination of the chicane, the handicap of not having the right hand available for braking and shifting at the same time is particularly noticeable.
After the two consecutive right turns, which can be driven through with a lot of momentum in a single fast arc, I turn into the Motodrom. For the first time I made myself small on the Norton, slipped far back on the saddle. Now you could press your knees tightly against the tank and sail through the Sachskurve if your hand didn’t have to reach for the gearshift lever between the tank and thigh. All of a sudden I remember pictures from back then, when Stanley Woods started with such a flat tank Norton, where the gear lever was cranked and mounted further down. This enabled him to reach the lever with his foot and keep both hands on the handlebars when shifting.
Lap six: Immediately after the Sachskurve, the tachometer calls for third again. After the quick left turn and the depression, the second is the start and finish straight. With a lot of excess speed, I let the machine take a long way out so that I can switch back to third on the straight. The Norton is like a one. I move back, but instead of a small leather cushion, I only find the hard apron as a seat. The driver can almost rest his chin on the tank for this. Alone the frame tube running above the tank and the attachment of the steering damper prevent this. Nevertheless, it is possible to dive with your head completely behind the delicate frame, which is covered with fine wire mesh, which is supposed to protect the pilot from falling rocks from the person in front.
The machine accelerates from below without holes and powerfully, the sound from the open pipe is a symphony in itself. There are vibrations, low frequency and so not really annoying. Now there is time to take a close look at the small celluloid window of the oil pump, which is located on the far right of the camshaft housing. To be on the safe side, I give the engine a portion of lubricant with the hand pump attached to the oil tank so that nothing sticks.
It is possible to dive with your head behind the dainty, wire mesh frame and keep an eye on the Smiths tachometer.
Then I fly over the start / finish line, past the pit lane and this time stay on the far left. The Smiths-Chronometric shows a good 5200 rpm before I have to close the throttle. The engine begins to rumble and pop. His very own unmistakable way of asking for more food. The braking effect of the long stroke is so strong that I don’t have to use the brake.
The Norton can be angled far. Nothing threatens to affect the inclination. For the first time, I didn’t shift down at the end of the long straight, keep both hands on the handlebars and pull up the gas at the apex of the curve. Then comes the crossbar again. Close the gas, brake the load. Release the brake, spread your knees to release the gearshift lever, shift gears, close your knees again, hand back to the throttle. The process now takes no longer than two seconds.
We have become one, Norton and me. It drives extremely stable. The only drawback is the brakes. Eighty years ago it was definitely one of the best on the market, but today, on a modern racing circuit, it is hopelessly overwhelmed. Although the test machine is already equipped with the larger brakes of the successor model, they are not really capable of seriously countering the engine performance. Severe fading occurs after just a few rounds without actually announcing it beforehand. Again, the engine brakes more reliably with the gas cock closed.
It may have been a good dozen laps when the engine shuts off after a brief stutter. It’s a shame, the three liters of fuel have been used up. All of a sudden, I was overcome by the feeling that many of you probably remember from their childhood. You put a chip in the bumper car and when it’s at its best, the ride comes to an end. We roll almost to the pit lane and a little later the first raindrops fall. If that wasn’t perfect timing…
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