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?