Bikes People

words and pictures Liz Seabrook

Andy Watkins is a self-confessed motorbike geek. In his basement garage in Bristol sit five beauties: a 1937 Ariel, a Hailwood Ducati replica, a ’66 Harley patiently awaiting attention, a Norton 650 and the apple of his eye, a 1958 Norton International Model 30.

By the time the ’56 came around, the Manx International was a dying breed and Norton itself was hurtling into difficulties. The American market wanted the power that a twin could offer and Norton was struggling to produce the goods. The golden pre-war years of the marque were fading fast. Norton had pulled out of racing and the ’58 Inter was the last to be produced. For a few years after 1958 a number of private dealers lovingly sourced and assembled the abandoned Manx cat, but by the mid sixties production had halted all together.

But this is, of course, what makes this bike so appealing. This is a simple beast. There are a couple of specialist tools needed for maintenance,, but nothing compared to the bikes of today, or even older bikes from other marques. Knowledge flows uncensored owner to Norton owner along with the relevant tools. And it’s what Andy loves about it.

‘You can mess with them yourself with very little equipment. A lot of the old manuals tell you how to do it – some of the techniques I wouldn’t advise; ‘hit it stoutly with the hammer.’ A lot of stuff you do have to clout to get off, but it’s probably better to use a copper hide mallet.’

Not only were these bikes easy to fix, but also – and still are – cheap to run. They burn the purist’s lubricant of choice, Castrol R. Ok, so you might smell like you’re towing a chippy and the laxative side effects may not be for everyone, but it’s the other side effect everyone craves: nostalgia. “I’ve known people to put a bit of Castrol R oil in their tanks just to give off the impression that they’re riding a classic,” boasts Andy, with a smug little smile.

“[Back in the 1950s], cars were just too expensive for most people to own. Owning a bike like this was a way you could get out and about – and you could emulate the racers of the time – particularly on this sort of bike.”

What’s particularly special about this Cat is that it has never been restored, what you see is what you got more than half a century ago. History is what makes old bikes so exciting to ride. You are fully aware of the where they’ve been and what they’ve accomplished. From the transfers on the frame to the oil badge to the worn out bevelled rubber on the tank, vintage bikes wear their miles proudly. “Everyone says with this one that it would be a shame to restore it. You couldn’t recreate that originality.” Andy explains.

For all its years and its retrograde engineering, it’s still this enthusiast’s favourite bike to ride. “This bike just handles like it’s on rails. It’s a simple big single and just thumps along. When you get it really wound up, it gets into the groove and it just goes.”

And when you can give something that high praise why change it?


6 Responses to “Internationalist!”

  1. W FERRY

    Beautiful..just lovely to see one in such condition..and not restored..well done that man.!
    They’re not perfect of course..the cylinder head valve gear leaked oil like a sive.. but.. I’d love that.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Bill Ferry

  2. W FERRY

    Actually, that isn’t strictly true.. I don’t wish to be pedantic but if we don’t keep the facts correct, fables take over.
    There really was a manx International Norton.. at the start of the 1930s, there was just the International.  The works riders rode [almost] the same bike as the public could buy..and you could buy an International with all the good bits right up to works spec.. by the mid-thirties when Norton were winning everything..all GPs and TTs..the Bikes started to separate.. works bikes became VERY special and were not available for sale..BUT, Inters were still for racing and those ordered by stars for the TT were given a cardbord ticket on the production line and at the despatch station which read..” MANX”.  There we have it.  After the war, production for sale, started with what were effectively the pre-war works type bikes.. all called by then MANX, before the twin-cam type took over.. Geoff Duke etc.. FAB
    Thank you
    Bll Ferry

  3. Bernard Sture

    Beautiful bike when bikes are good to work on.
    Bernard Old Biker.

  4. I used to own a 1951 Manx type International Norton, garden gate frame/plunger rear suspension. It had a close ratio gearbox–I wish I still owned it–memories eh!

  5. I used to own a 1951 Manx type International Norton, garden gate frame/plunger rear suspension. It had a close ratio gearbox–I wish I still owned it–memories eh!

  6. Seán O'Maoildeirg

    Could one the of you be expert enough to tell me if Norton or the Inter section of the Norton works, could have deliberately fitted an, all alloy, International engine (number 4053) into a 1958 Model 50 (350cc) chassis (number P 138016P). Could such a NEW bike have left the factory. (Reply to [email protected] )