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Nortons at the beach – the Daytona years

1 September 2023

The overhead-camshaft single-cylinder racers known as Manx Nortons were never officially called that name by the factory but, as every enthusiast of the marque is aware, they earned it for their continually successful performances in the Isle of Man TT from the 1930s onwards. On the other side of the world, the same Nortons enjoyed a period of success from the late 1930s into the early 1950s in a race that enjoyed the same status in the USA as the TT did in Europe. That was the Daytona 200, which still takes place on today’s high-banked super-speedway. Up until 1961, however, it was run on the same hard-packed Florida beach where land speed record breakers like Sir Henry Segrave and Sir Malcolm Campbell had driven at over 200mph in the 1920s.

Photograph by Kyoichi Nakamura courtesy of The Motorcycle Files

On what is now referred to as “the old beach course” there was a bumpy tarmac straight road along which riders ran flat out for two miles.  After that slip-streaming dash the riders would hit the brakes hard before flinging their bikes to the left for the South Turn out onto the beach, sending up rooster tails of sand as they accelerated wide open out towards the water where the sand was harder, and gave better grip.

Then it was north for another two miles, again flat out in top gear, but this time treading the perilous path between water and dry land, before slowing once more for the North Turn, which took them left again and back onto the tarmac road. A 4.1-mile long track with only two corners may not sound like much but as a gruelling 200-mile test of man and machine it had few equals anywhere as an arduous high-speed challenge.

There had been a Norton presence on the beach since the very first Daytona 200 in 1937 when Clark Trumbull rode his own single-overhead-cam single-cylinder Norton International to second place behind winner Ed Kretz on a factory Indian V-twin.

But it was tough, hard-drinking Canadian rider Billy Mathews who scored Norton’s debut Daytona 200 win in 1941, when he registered the first victory for a non-American bike, as well as for a foreign rider, by defeating the array of factory Harley-Davidson and Indian V-twin machines in the final race held there before Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry into WW2.

Mathews did so riding a 1939 single-cylinder, single overhead-camshaft Norton International customer model that had been tuned to Manx road racing specification by Norton’s Canadian importer, J.M. McGill of Toronto. In scoring the win, Mathews set a record speed for the 200 miles by averaging 78.08mph, despite crashing out of the lead in the early stages, and remounting for his charge to the win.

Dick Klamfoth

The first Daytona 200 run after the war was staged in 1947 and for the first two of those post-war years, the race was won by riders of Indian V-Twins.

The American marque, however, faced serious opposition from Norton. No less than 25 of the British single overhead-camshaft singles showed up in the hands of privateer riders who had been impressed by Mathews’ 1941 win.

Success in competition, and especially in the crucial Daytona 200, was an important yardstick by which motorcycles were then judged in the USA. Hence the reason that Norton’s managing director Gilbert Smith decided to enter a team of specially-prepared factory machines for the 200-miler in 1948. The British motorcycle industry in those post-WWII years, when even the UK government had warned “export or die”, had finally realised the vast potential of the American market.

That initial Daytona foray, under the guidance of noted British tuner Steve Lancefield, yielded a second place for Norton after Billy Mathews lost out in a wheel-to-wheel battle with American favourite Floyd Emde’s Indian.

Mathews had lost time at a pit stop when one of his team spilt fuel over the bike, and the engine had to be stopped to avoid a fire (remarkably, it was then normal practice to keep the motor running while refuelling!). Kick-starting the highly-tuned big single was hard work, and bump-starting it on the damp sand proved problematic but the Canadian eventually got away. He was originally acclaimed the winner, only for the results to be reversed after Indian lodged a protest, and AMA officials decided in its favour after seven hours spent poring over the scoring charts for the 140-plus field of bikes in those pre-transponder days.

Finishing second best wasn’t what Norton’s tough-minded boss Smith wanted, however, so the following year Norton returned. This time there was another legendary tuner in charge, Francis Beart. He was justly famed for his immaculate machine preparation and efficient organization and he delivered a hat-trick of successive Daytona 200 victories for Norton on the Florida sand in 1949, 1950 and 1951.

That first ’49 win saw a Norton clean sweep of Victory Lane over the 154-strong field, with Dick Klamfoth from Columbus, Ohio winning a close and demanding race for both man and machine that lasted for more than two hours. He won by just 15 seconds from his Norton works teammate, Mathews, who in turn was seven seconds ahead of Tex Luse on a privateer Norton.

Billy Mathews (98) won the 1950 Daytona 200 for Norton with Dick Klamfoth (2) in second place and Bill Tuman (51) in fourth,

 

In the 1950 200-Miler, Mathews reversed the positions from the previous year to finally repeat his 1941 victory, with Klamfoth second 1min 45 secs behind in a race that ended with Mathews taking the chequered flag and then, while celebrating wildly, crashing into the sand bank in the North Turn – fortunately without injury! In taking his second Daytona win, Mathews earned the victory on its American racing debut for one of the most famous race engines the world has ever known – the double overhead-camshaft Manx Norton single and used it to average over 88mph.

In fact, Norton’s use of the new twin-cam engine was of questionable legality as the Daytona rules restricted competing machines to those based on production road bikes. Norton had gotten around this by listing the twin-cam cylinder heads as an optional extra for its single-overhead camshaft International street bike! In reality, there was no way the twin-cam head would fit the road-going engine but Norton sneakily listed it in its catalogue and the American Motorcycle Association took its word as fact rather than the fiction that it was.

The production element of the AMA rules did, however, preclude the use of Norton’s new swinging-arm chassis. This was the famous twin-loop ‘Featherbed frame’ as it became universally known and it had turned the Manx Norton twin-cam racer into a Grand Prix and World Championship winner. But at the time of the company’s Daytona challenges, there were no road models using it so Norton was denied the chance to exploit another loophole in the rulebook.

Brown 004

The twin-cam engine, with its bigger and bulkier cam box, had to be shoehorned into the plunger-sprung frame of the older single-cam Manx racer that was also used on the International road bike.

Dick Klamfoth won the Daytona 200 again on an identical bike in 1951 at a record speed of 92.50mph, after Mathews was refused entry to the USA by American immigration officials at Niagara Falls on his way to compete in the Florida race, apparently because they deemed him to have Communist persuasions simply because he was an active member of his local Labour Party!

In 1952 Dick Klamfoth won yet again, to complete his personal hat-trick and notch up the fourth successive Daytona 200 victory for Norton (and its fifth in seven races). Clifford ‘Red’ Farwell was second on a similar machine, with fellow Norton riders Bobby Michael coming home fourth and Bobby Hill placing sixth.

Klamfoth’s hat trick was the last appearance ever for truly competitive Norton motorcycles on the beach at Daytona.

Although the engine had been used since 1950, the AMA looked more closely at what Norton was doing in respect of the rulebook and in 1954 banned the double overhead-camshaft racers on the quite legitimate grounds that there were no road-going twin-cam bikes in the Norton catalogue and thus the motors were ineligible for competition under the production-based AMA rules.

Dick Klamfoth won the Daytona 200 three times for Norton

 

Working in the pits on the beach – not the best environment

 

From 1953 onwards the Norton Dominator 500 twin, with its pushrod-operated overhead valve gear and swinging-arm frame was a production road model and eligible for AMA competition. But it never fulfilled its promise and was outpaced by the similar parallel twins from BSA and Triumph as well as by Harley-Davidson’s side-valve V-twins. Because of their outdated technology, these were logically allowed a 750cc upper limit although this was seen by the British factories as a rule clearly favouring the home team.

In 1955, Hugh McAfee did bring a Dominator twin home in fifth place – the only top ten finish by a Norton between the glory years of the Daytona Manx models and the switch from the old beach course to the purpose-built super-speedway in 1961. So, with the banning of the twin-cam Manx motors came the end of the era of the Daytona Nortons.

For the full story of Norton at Daytona we recommend the e-book by Alan Cathcart in The Motorcycle Files series available from Amazon.

Words by Bruce Cox.

Photograph by Kyoichi Nakamura courtesy of The Motorcycle Files

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