New head, new handle

IT’S an old shopping trick, bombarding you with special offers in a noisy kaleidoscope of exciting stuff while many of the things you actually want quietly increase in price. It’s only when you get to the checkout that you really notice how things are changing. Something similar happened when the significant other and I sauntered down the hill to Eastern Creek for the Barry Sheene Festival back in March.

To that point I thought some things would never change, were absolutely immutable, such as Mr Lincoln’s death and taxes and the Manx Norton. I thought, naively, that the Manx would forever stay as Bracebridge Street had left it at the beginning of 1963, with leaky valve gear, 86 x 85.62mm engine dimensions and chain primary drive.

A friend of editor Picko set me right on that one. Mick Neason had two 500 Manxes on view, both modern British-based variants on a timeless theme. One of them came from Andy Molnar while the other had a Summerfield Engineering engine running on methanol.
Each had different engine dimensions, the Summerfield donk running a 92mm bore and the Molnar bike 95mm.

Mick reckoned the engines delivered similar performance but explained there were chassis differences:
“The 92 is set up with 45mm offsets where the other one has 80-odd millimetres. The Summerfield is quicker steering, and that’s the one I prefer to ride. Going into Turn 2 at Phillip Island for example you can get all your steering out of the way and you’re on the throttle much quicker than guys on similar bikes.”

We fell silent as a clutch of TZs shrieked past the pits to do battle with Turn 1. It’s impossible not to be enchanted with the lines of the Manx. It’s not a pretty bike in the way of the 7R AJS or its 500cc sibling, the G50 Matchless, but it’s all muscle and purpose – handsome, for sure – made cleaner by modern touches like enclosed valve springs and belt primary drive.
Not that it enhances their looks but very much more co-operative gearboxes must help, for different reasons. By now the high-speed two-stroke headache was heading for Turn 4 and open country – such as it is at Eastern Creek – so I was able to ask Mick if he’d had either bike on the dyno.

“Yes. The 95 made about 53 horsepower,” he explained, “and this one about 54-55. That’s at the back wheel.” All this fancy re-engineering has enhanced the reliability of the Manx, too: “We took the 95 to Phillip Island for the Classic. It nipped up, so we put in a new piston. As for the Summerfield, I haven’t even had the head off.”
As a general proposition they don’t need too much work, according to Mick.

“I’ve only had these about 18 months and you don’t do that many meetings. One thing, though, after a meeting you’ve got to tighten every nut and bolt because they vibrate so badly, and especially these because they rev out to eight and a half. An old bloke told me it should take two stubbies to get the job finished.”

All those hefty power strokes take their toll on chains, of course, but a drive chain per season usually does the job, likewise a fresh belt for the primary drive. The rivalry between the bigger Manx Norton and the G50 Matchless sustained sub-international racing throughout the 1960s and certainly kept me on the edge of my seat, so how do the two big, classic singles compare?

“I’ve only ridden a couple of races on Kenny Lucas’s G50,” Mick told me. “I like them, they’re all right, but I think the Manx handles a bit better – I’m not at the absolute pointy edge, so I might not notice it as much as some. But they’re similar on power.”

Like anyone who understands a motorcycle’s needs, Mick gives his bikes good oil, and gives it to them often; but it’s horses for courses: “The Summerfield’s got a plain-bearing bottom end so that gets mineral oil; the Molnar has roller bearings, so runs on vegetable oil.”
All up, then, is the Manx an easy, economical ride?

“You have your problems, but you just have to keep on top of them; most important, keep everything tight.”
If Mick Neason is any judge, the Manx Norton, its lineage traceable back through the decades via Arthur Carroll’s International to Walter Moore’s CS1 of 1927, is doing very nicely, thanks very much. It might not be as easy to live with as the G50, perhaps, but handles better and can be faster. And it’s clearly still a competitive piece in classic racing.

More than that, it’s probably easier to lay your hands on a new Manx Norton now than ever it was when the factory was knocking them out in the late 50s/early 60s, with Andy Molnar and New Zealander Ken McIntosh making bikes and Jerry Summerfield building engines.

There may be others. Cost? Last time I looked a Molnar bike cost around A$55,000. But then, what price history?

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