On The Cusp Of Change—Norton At The 1948 Isle Of Man TT

One year before the World Championship Grand Prix series and two years before the Featherbed frame, Norton was at a crossroads

In 1948, the world of motorcycling was on the cusp of change. Grand Prix racing had ceased in 1939 as the world plummeted into war. Prior to '39, Grand Prix racing was dominated by Gilera and BMW and their supercharged machines. But in an economically stricken post-war Europe, simple single and twin-cylinder motorcycles would be the way to move the masses, so manufacturers wanted a racing series that reflected what was available on showroom floors. Supercharged Grand Prix racers were consigned to history, relics of a champagne and Art Deco age lost to war.

The FICM (Fédération Internationale des Clubs Motocyclistes), the precursor to today’s FIM, sanctioned a new World Championship Grand Prix series to begin in 1949. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It's 1948 and Norton is at the Isle of Man. It's also at a crossroads, facing stiff competition from multi-cylinder machines from the likes of Moto Guzzi. In this video, the Norton team fettles the works racers under the steady gaze of boss Joe Craig. Although Artie Bell would go on to win the Senior TT, his victory had much to do with a field atrophied by breakdowns and bad luck. The writing was on the wall. It was time to innovate. With the help of auto racing firm BRM, Norton began designing a water-cooled, transverse four-cylinder engine with DOHC to take the fight to the continental challengers. It was not to be, however, and the project failed to make it past the preliminary design phase.

Geoff Duke aboard the 1950 Norton
The change to come: the great Geoff Duke aboard the 1950 Norton featuring the McCandless Featherbed frame.foTTofinders

Help was soon at hand, however, as freelance engineer Rex McCandless began testing a new chassis concept. Craig’s Garden Gate frame had had its day, and McCandless’ frame represented a new way of thinking about chassis design. Bucking conventional wisdom, McCandless transferred weight bias from the rear to the front for greatly improved handling. McCandless’ double-loop welded main section frame featured a now-standard swingarm rear suspension, earning it the nickname “Featherbed” by Harold Daniell, the bespectacled TT specialist.

Successful winter testing at the Mountain course with Artie Bell and Geoff Duke proved the Featherbed was the way ahead. Norton adopted McCandless’ frame for the 1950 TT. That year, Norton motorcycles finished 1-2-3 in both the Junior and Senior TTs. And the rest is, as they say, history.

The concerned-looking men in the video have no idea their fortunes are about to change.