Dan Gurney, the legendary Formula One racer and car-builder, was celebrating his birthday at lunch a few years ago at his favorite restaurant when he heard the distinctive sound of a British-built single-cylinder motor outside.
"I looked out, and there was someone on a Manx Norton, wearing a pudding-bowl helmet," Gurney recalls. "I went outside with the idea of looking at it and listening to it, and the next thing I know, it's my son, Justin, riding it, and he's giving it to me as a birthday present!"
The choice of a 1959 Manx Norton as a gift was simple, says Justin: "They really don't get much cooler than that," he says. "He really likes singles and loves the history of old bikes."
When it comes to vintage racing, few bikes are more iconic than the Manx Norton.
The quintessential British-built road-racers of the 1950s, the bikes started life as Norton Internationals, but were re-tuned from the factory for the singular purpose of racing on the Isle of Man in the Manx TT, the most prestigious race of its time.
Engine: 499cc, double overhead-cam
Bore/Stroke: 86mm x 85.6mm, single cylinder four-stroke
Power: 50bhp @ 7,200rpm
Wheelbase: 56 inches
Top Speed: 150mph
Raced by: British racer Ray Petty
Owner: Dan Gurney
The 495cc single-cylinder motor was designed for longevity—the Manx TT was, after all, a 264-mile race. But the motorcycles were equally well-known for their chassis, which were all-welded duplex frames with pivoting rear forks and suspension. Designed by Rex McCandless in 1950, the frame provided the high-speed stability so important to the TT.
So impressed was Norton's Harold Daniels that he described the chassis as offering a "featherbed ride," and the Norton Featherbed frame was born. From the start, the bikes built a reputation for speed and handling that was unmatched in Europe, and Manxes were raced by legendary riders, including Geoff Duke and John Surtees, through the 1950s.
"What's most impressive," Gurney notes, "is that the company spent a lot of time tuning the bike without having any kind of modern computers, yet they managed to get that single where it was very reliable and relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain—and still capable of winning international races."
The bike is all the more amazing, Gurney says, considering the demands of the Manx TT track, which is made up of closed public roads. "I was able to ride two laps of the course on a different motorcycle, and I was staggered by how high-speed the track was," he says. "There's not a lot of hairpins or slow corners, and a lot of really fast stretches. To build something that runs strong the whole way is impressive."
This historic machine was previously on display at the AMA's Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, as part of the exhibit "MotoStars: Motorcycles + Celebrities."