SANTIAGO NORLEY - OLD ANGLO AMERICAN CUSTOM
If an archetypal streetfighter fan had been around in the 1960s, then it’s a safe bet that their two-wheeled automotive object of desire would have been big, British and fired with two cylinders.
While the cult of the cafe racer has recently been embraced by bright young things the world over as the latest fad, to many of its fans the race track-inspired hooligan bikes from the days when Britain was swinging have never been away.
The rationale behind the cafe racer was a similar ethos to that of a streetfighter, vis a vis to modify a stock motorcycle in order to make it lighter, faster and more manoeuvrable - with form taking a back seat to function. Sixties Britain might have been swinging to the sounds of the Beatles and the Stones, and while much of the youth was influenced by the sartorial philosophy of the Modernist movement, the Rockers and Greasers who coveted cafe race motorcycles were firmly entrenched in the music and the bikes born in the of the rock‘n roll Fifties. Cafe racers were the ultimate modified motorcycles of the period and the manifestation of the style involved changing the petrol tanks and seats for lightweight race-inspired alternatives and modifying the handlebars downwards and footrests rearwards, many to such extreme positions that made the bike near impossible to ride further than to the cafe and back - and, naturally, tuning the engine to make the bike go faster.
While just about any Brit bike could be transformed into a cafe racer, the Holy Grail for any respectable Rocker was stuffing the biggest and fastest engine into a Norton ‘featherbed’ frame. Originally designed by the McCandless brothers for the Manx Norton factory single-cylinder race bikes in the late 1940s, a mass-produced version of the race winning featherbed frame in 1953 turned Norton’s 500cc Dominator twin into a realistic competitor for the best performing 500 around at the time, the Triumph Speed Twin. Basically the same shape as the featherbed frame fitted to the Norton Manx models, the road bike version however was made of very different materials. The Manx frames were made from brazed Reynolds 531 high tensile chrome-moly steel while the cheaper mild steel tubing of the roadster frames was welded and came in two versions - wideline and the later slimline that narrowed at the nose of the seat to make it easier for the vertically challenged to put both feet on the ground without causing great pain to the rider’s genitalia.
By far, it was the joining of the Triumph twin-cylinder engine and the Norton featherbed frame to produce the ‘Triton’ that was the most popular bastardisation of Rex and Cromie McCandless’ revolutionary duplex frame, and ever since its inception in the late 1940s it’s been a national pastime to squeeze every shape and size of motorcycle, car, and even boat engines into the long-suffering featherbed frame. But it was the insertion of the more exotic big bore British bike engines, such as the mighty Vincent 998cc V-twin, that became the stuff of legend. While roadster featherbed frames are pretty easy to come by (and the more desirable Manx version isn’t), and it is possible to buy a brand new Vincent V-twin engine, or even a second hand one if you look long and hard enough, to build your very own Norvin will cost about the same at the Greek national debt.
So you fancy the ultimate featherbed framed cafe racer, but you don’t fancy selling your wife and kids to a white slaver or making a withdrawal at the bank with a shotgun and a mask (although these days it’s the bankers who should be wearing the masks), to finance the purchase of that all important 1,000cc Vincent V-twin motor. Hmm, so what else has a large capacity air-cooled V-twin engine that’s cheap to buy, cheap to tune and will slip into a Norton featherbed frame without too much hassle? Easy answer, it’s made in America and can be found outside any pub, bar or cafe (usually ridden by a man with a ponytail), and you can buy a complete bike cheap, or just an engine. It’s also easy to work on, easy to get parts for and can be tuned to produce twice its original BHP without too much heartache. Yep, it’s a Harley-Davidson Evo Sportster. Cheap ones come with 883cc engines that can easily be upped to the same 1200cc as the later and larger models, and although the older 900 and 1000cc Ironheads are also cheap they’re best left alone unless you’re a mechanical masochist … or have a silly beard and eight inch cuffs on your Levis and want to build an old school/scool/skool (delete as appropriate) bobber. And if you can find a 1200cc motor from a tube framed Buell, you’re already laughing as they come with approximately (depending on which model you’ve stolen the engine from) 100 horses right off the bat.
While jamming a Harley Sportster engine into a Norton Featherbed frame is hardly a new idea - an American racer called Lance Weil campaigned an Iron Sportster engined featherbed ’Norton’ in the UK in the 1960s, and the Goodman family concern (one-time owners of the Velocette factory), built cool cafe racers with Sportster engines and replica featherbed frames in the 90s - there have been myriad backyard specials built along the same lines, with the same major components, since the Sportster became cheap enough to butcher.
A maverick Frenchman who went to the USA and made a living beating the Americans at their own game, with regard to building Harley choppers and bobbers, Alain Bernard is really a racer at heart. While he builds Harley Unridables for his customers, when time allows Alain lets his wild side loose and puts together personal rides that reflect his passion for performance. Always on the look out for a new market for his talents, Alain pre-empted the current craze for cafe racers in the USA a few years ago with a featherbed styled bike powered by a big old Harley Panhead engine, but that was before the TV Series ‘Café Racer’ (in which Alain also starred), told the Americans that caff-aaaay racers were waaaay cool and little interest was shown in anything that wasn’t ‘built’ by the likes of Orange Cunty Choppers.
After seeing an ad by JW Cycles for their replica Manx Norton frames, Alain also noted that JW (who’ve been in the frame making business for over forty years), also listed a bronze-welded lightweight T45 steel frame to take a Sportster engine. So he bought one and built his first ‘Norley’ using a Buell 1200 engine with forks, wheels and brakes lifted from a Paul Smart Replica Ducati Imola. A photo of this bike is used on the JW Cycles Norley website (www.the-norley.com), and Alain sold the bike to a happy customer in Australia almost immediately after it was built and appeared in a few bike mags. Being a former racer and a fan of all things fast, Alain knows what it takes to build motorcycles that can go round corners as well as look good parked outside the bar/cafe/topless club (again, delete as appropriate), so putting a series or Norleys together using JW Cycles ‘featherbed’ frame kits with Buell or Sportster engines and forks and brakes from late model European sport bikes was well within his capabilities.
But while the typical head-down and arse-up cafe racer riding pose is okay for short hops to the bar/cafe/topless club etc etc, and especially so when you’re young and reckless, it’s not the ideal position for a comfortable ride. While Alain might still be reckless the legacy of accidents when he was young make riding a bike with a ‘shitting frog’ riding position more than just a bit painful, so he built himself a sit-up Norley with a stock Sportster engine to make his riding more of an enjoyment than a struggle. And besides being a talented creator of custom bikes, Alain also has a flair for re-using many parts from previous projects and has a vast knowledge of what-fits-what from a vast array of motorcycles, so that he’s more reliant on the likes of eBay than the brand new stuff found in proprietary custom catalogues. Hence the Norley wears a set of custom made USD forks that previously held the skinny front wheel of a chopper, with the Bates headlamp and machined billet aluminium rear drive sprocket also coming from a reworked form-over-function motorcycle.
The rear-end is supported by a pair of Girling gas shocks, both Bucanan alloy wheels are shod with sportsbike size sticky tyres (120x17 and 140x18 inches respectively), and both the front and rear brakes came from Wilwood. A name you might not be familiar with (Wilwood make calipers and discs for the likes of NASCAR), with twin 4-piston front calipers being squeezed by a master cylinder by Brembo and the rear 4-pot Wilwood caliper operated by a stock H-D master cylinder. And the race spec stuff doesn’t stop there either as the 2-1 exhaust system is a Kerker with a carbon fibre can and Steve Storz supplied the same rear-set footrest assemblies used by the bikes in the Sportster race series. Both tanks, fuel and oil, are perfectly formed sheet aluminium replicas of the original Manx Norton tanks and come with the JW Cycles frame kit, the seat is all Alain’s own work and the Mikuni flatslide carb is hidden behind a classic ‘Spam Can’ Harley air filter. Fashion is fickle … but style always remains the same.
Alain Bernard, Tampa, Florida, USA.
2001 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200, Mikuni HS42 carburettor with K&N air filter cartridge in original H-D air filter box, Dyna S ignition & coil, Kerker 2-1 race exhaust system with carbon fibre can, stock 5-speed gearbox, up-rated clutch with Barnett plates & diaphragm spring, JW Cycles aluminium oil tank.
JW Cycles lightweight steel ‘Featherbed’ frame, Storz rear-set footrest assemblies.
Mean Streets custom USD forks & billet aluminium yokes, Pro Taper Evo handlebar & clamps assembly, H-D alloy hub with Bucanan alloy rim & stainless steel spokes, Continental Road Attack 120/70ZRx17” tyre, Dual Wilwood 4-piston brake calipers, drilled brake discs, Brembo master cylinder, Parker Parelex nylon lines.
JW Cycles lightweight steel box-section swinging-arm, twin Hagon gas shocks, H-D alloy hub with Bucanan alloy rim & stainless steel spokes, Bridgestone Battlax 140/70ZRx17” tyre, Wilwood 4-piston brake caliper on custom billet aluminium mount, drilled brake disc, H-D master cylinder, Parker Parelex nylon lines.
JW Cycles aluminium fuel tank, Mean Streets custom front mudguard, custom seat by SCS.
Custom wiring harness by SCS, Bates type 5” headlamp, SCS rear light.
Custom paintwork by Craig Skiver @ SCS.
Polishing by SCS.