Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles on CBC’s Heartland TV show and Graham Wardle

Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles — or more appropriately, the T-shirt — has hit the small screen.

A few posts ago I gave credit to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for including an early 1970s Norton Commando in their production of the Heartland TV show. And, to give the show some credibility in Season 4, Episode 13 the CBC used a copy of my book Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter. In last night’s Season 4, Episode 16, Ty Borden (actor Graham Wardle) was seen wearing a classic Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles T-shirt in white and charcoal for a couple of moments.

It’s refreshing that the CBC include actual, true-to-life details such as the story of Western Canadian motorcycle pioneers Nicholosn Bros. Motorcycles. Charcoal Nicholson Bros. Motorcycle T-shirts are available in our online store.

Thanks to the CBC for these screen shots.

10,000 miles on a B.S.A. Bantam — why not?

Brenda Collins was a 25-year old journalist from England, and between 1953 and 1954 she rode a 125cc B.S.A. Bantam D1 motorcycle more than 10,000 miles around North America.

The young traveler had no previous motorcycle experience before taking delivery of her Bantam from Arlington Cycle & Sports Ltd., B.S.A. distributors in Montreal, Canada.

Quoted from the brochure, “…Collins, a young journalist from Kent, with a taste for adventure, was working in Montreal, and felt she would like to see more of Canada and the United States – as economically as possible! At a motor-cycle show she saw a B.S.A. 125 c.c. ‘Bantam’ and immediately decided that this was the ideal method of transport for her trip across the wide open spaces – but for one snag – she couldn’t ride.

“However, learning to ride a ‘Bantam’ is so easy and Brenda soon mastered it…”

Collins’ Bantam, one of two models available in 1953, was the 125cc Two-Stroke Model D1 with a plunger spring frame. There was also a D1 with a rigid frame.

The machine was based on the same German DKW RT125 design from the ‘30s that was the starting point for Harley-Davidson’s late-‘40s S125, later known as the Hummer. Both companies, along with Russia’s MMZ, were given rights to produce the little two-stroke design as part of war reparations following World War II.

B.S.A.’s Bantam had a 123cc single-cylinder motor with a three-speed, unit construction gearbox. The fuel tank carried 13/4 gallons of gasoline and oil mix, brakes were 5” in diameter, and the Bantam had a dry weight of 183 pounds.

Leaving Montreal in August 1953, equipped with 100 lbs. of gear, including a portable typewriter, Collins headed west across Canada. She toured through Winnipeg, Manitoba; Regina, Saskatchewan; Calgary and Banff, Alberta; before crossing the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver, British Columbia. From Canada’s west coast, she rode down to San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego before traveling east to Tucson, Arizona; Houston; New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida. Northward she stopped in Savannah, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Washington, DC; and New York, where she arrived in April 1954.

Says the brochure, “En route through Canada she took temporary jobs to supplement her $2 a day budget, wrote up her experiences for several magazines and papers and appeared on various radio programmes.

“In a test that would punish many a bigger motor-cycle the ‘Bantam’ gave her reliable and economical service under all the varied conditions she encountered on her trip.”

Collins’ actual saddle time on the Bantam was 90 days, and her average speed was 35 to 40 miles per hour. But that modest pace was enough to add up to more than 10,000 miles by the time she was through.

It’s proof that, as the brochure says, “You, too, can ‘Leave it to your B.S.A.’”

1954 Meteor Niagra

What a great looking 1954 Meteor Niagra. Here’s the short story: The car was brought to Zeebs Performance Restoration in Chestermere, AB,  for a refreshing, as the vehicle had only 18,625 original miles. The car belonged to the current owner’s grandfather, and he had purchased the Meteor new in Regina, SK. He died just a few years later, and the car was passed on to his granddaughter. She drove the Meteor during high school, and then the car was parked inside a barn for a number of years at the family farm. In 2010, the Meteor was rescued and restored, turning it into a perfect Sunday cruiser. According to Zane Southgate, of Zeebs Performance, the 255″ engine runs very smoothly, and in typical V-8 flathead fashion, you can barely hear the car running at idle.

In 1954, the Meteor was the Canadian Ford, and this Niagra sedan was the most popular model with 7,811 units produced. The car originally sold for $2,408.

All photos courtesy Zane Southgate.

Retroscope vintage motorcycle and motorcar images

There’s some intriguing work coming out of Canada. I last posted about Dermot Walshe and his interest in documenting the early years of motorcycling through his artwork. He’s Canadian — from Oakville, Ontario, to be exact.

And then there’s Retroscope, a small graphic arts company in Ottawa, Ontario that is specializing in vintage illustration. The shop is operated by two friends, Jean Gratton and Jérôme Estirac, and the pair share a common interest in old motorcycles — and other wheeled objects.

Most of Retroscope’s illustrations are inspired by period ads or posters, but the company redraws all of the graphic elements – including figures, logos and fonts – using Adobe Illustrator software.

Retroscope also enjoys producing “custom” creations, where a client provides their own images – of a latest motorcycle restoration, for example – and a concept for a one-off poster. In these instances, photo or document restoration (retouching, colouring, resizing) becomes an important part of the work.

“As a small company, we’re not interested in mass production,” said Gratton. “Our goal is to provide unique and high quality products to a demanding and knowledgeable crowd of connoisseurs. In turn our clients become our ambassadors.”

Both of the partners are interested in riding motorcycles, and they often take their Kawasaki W650s on long tours. Gratton just bought himself a 1973 Yamaha RD350 for $375 and is now at work on restoring the two-stroke machine. The Yamaha is cosmetically challenged, but Gratton intends to have it on the road this summer.

Cycle Canada, Amal Carbs and the artwork of Dermot Walshe

Writing the vintage column, New Old Stock, for Cycle Canada gives me an opportunity to delve into a number of different subjects.

My first piece ran in the January 2011 issue, and that was an introductory column. I simply offered up some background about myself, and how, at the age of nine, I got a Clinton-powered minibike. I have  been interested in motorcycles ever since.

But punk music (Husker Du, D.O.A. and SNFU) and skateboards took up much of my teenage years. Until I visited a fried who lived in Saskatoon. His dad had a garage full of machines, mostly Harley-Davidsons. I was drawn to the lone Triumph Bonneville, though, and this rekindled my interest in motorcycles. I had to have a British motorcycle. I schlepped dishes and earned enough to buy a 1971 Triumph TR6R, and used the machine to commute to work and to college. Since then, just about anything with two wheels and an engine has been of interest.

In the February 2011 issue of Cycle Canada I interviewed Mark Burnett of Burlen Fuel Systems in the UK, makers of SU and Amal carburetors. It’s encouraging to know that there’s enough of an old bike market out there for a company to reproduce classic instrument designs. Burnett said to me: “Given the current climate sales are encouraging. The market seems buoyant, however questions have to be raised as to the sustainability given the aging ownership. Our research shows a recent increase of younger owners/riders turning to classics – perhaps owning more modern machinery alongside. Globally, the classic bike market is still quite large and although fewer and fewer, old machines are still appearing in the back of dusty barns ripe for recomissioning. Who knows what is around the corner?”

And most recently, in the March 2011 issue I’ve interviewed vintage motorcycle illustrator Dermot Walshe. A fascinating creative talent is Walshe. We talked about the rapid pace of technology, and about speed. Walshe recommended reading The Vertigo Years by Phillip Blom. This book takes a detailed look at the years 1900 to 1914 and how quickly and severely society was shifting — from sexual mores to a fascination with speed. Good stuff.

Perhaps one of the most interesting/frightening sections in The Vertigo Years is Chapter 5: 1904 where Blom discusses Belgium’s King Leopold II and his systemic exploitation and mutilation of the Congo populace in his quest for rubber. And that thirst for rubber, according to Blom, was thanks to John Dunlop’s invention in 1884 of the pneumatic bicycle tire tube. Blom wrote: “Fitted with miraculously shock-absorbent rubber tyres, bicycles became a cultural phenomenon, a symbol for the young generation and its time, for speed, freedom and physical fitness.” Definitely a recommended read.

About himself and his own motorcycling career, Walshe said: “Certainly Vintage racing between 1989 and 1995 was a lot of fun…..some fast laps on Mosport and  drafting at Daytona in 1995 are high on the list……as well as touring Indonesia a bit on my scooter in 1993. The same year I was also loaned a bike in Japan on a job there and tried hard not to lose the view of my buddy’s helmet as he split lanes in  the congested turmoil of downtown Tokyo. I lost count of how many machines I bought, sold, rode or destroyed; probably over 50 including an 850 Norton commando , an 860GT Ducati….the 1950 Goldstar 500 and a BMW 1000 but the most fun to ride were the small ones. My SRX 600 was like a street Manx and was awesome around Mosport…..sliding 2 wheels and catching a freakishly good drive out of turn one and two on the CB 350 racer counts right up there too!
I love the vintage bikes for their sound and lively feedback……rode a GSXR1000 but the smooth hyperspace sensations don’t quite capture the romantic spirit of the iconic machine for me…….they’re more like 2-wheeled Jet-Skis but to each his/her own.
And, I don’t have any tattoos.
Best advice from a friend or mentor: Peter Sheppard ( North Bay ) ” you just have to ride your own race”.”

Pick up the March issue of Cycle Canada to read the column.

Walshe’s work featuring Stanley Woods in the 1922 Isle of Man TT.

And something else Walshe has drawn is an illustrated update on the old Tortoise and the Hare tale — this one featuring a frog who has all of the latest and greatest technology, including a racecar. He challenges Tortoise and Hare to a race, and the pair have to work together and learn to ride an outfit. Looks like fun reading.

Heartland’s Norton Commando — props to the CBC

There are not many television shows that feature an old motorcycle in some key scenes. But CBC’s Heartland does.

Here’s how the CBC describes the show: “Set against the stunning vistas of the Alberta Rocky Mountains, Heartland is a sprawling family drama that follows sisters Amy and Lou Fleming and their grandfather, Jack, through the highs and lows of life on a horse ranch.”

In Season 4, Episode 13, Amy and her boyfriend Ty (who owns the Norton) have hit a rough patch in their relationship. Ty (played by Graham Wardle) goes into a funk, and stops attending his veterinary classes at university. So, Jack comes along and tells him to get his act together. What’s great about some of these scenes is the fact that they include Ty reading my book, Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter.

Take a look at these screen grabs, and view the episode (the Norton is used throughout).

How did my book get onto Heartland? One of the prop masters, who happens to own a Norton Commando herself, read the script — which originally called for Ty to be reading a dirt bike magazine. Not likely, she said. If he was interested in Brit bikes, he’d be learning about J.B. Nicholson. She knew Nicholson herself, and back in the 1980s she’d visit him at Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles in Calgary. He sold her parts and gave her advice — and she became a big fan. So, after she read the Heartland script, she spoke up, and suggested they use my book as the prop. The CBC bought Prairie Dust, Motorcycles and a Typewriter, a copy of Modern Motorcycle Mechanics, and a Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles t-shirt.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation purchased Heartland’s Norton from Calgary’s TJ’s Cycles, a local wrecking and service shop.

Saying goodbye…

It’s official. After 10 years with Inside Motorcycles, I’ve left my post as columnist and book review editor. This is the final Western Perspectives column.  My thanks to editor John Hopkins and publisher David Weber for the many opportunities this position offered me. If ever I interviewed you for an Inside Motorcycles column — cheers. It was your story that was important, and I appreciate you sharing the details.

Column ran in Volume 12, Issue 8, December 2010/January 2011 issue of Inside Motorcycles.

Norton returns to Calgary — and Canada

First published in the Calgary Herald Driving section 14 Jan. 2011.

Photo of Norton Commando 961 SE courtesy Norton Motorcycles (Canada) Ltd.

It’s been well over 35 years since a new Norton motorcycle rolled out of a dealership and onto the city’s streets.

But that’s about to change. Norton, a very recognizable name from the annals of motorcycling, has been resurrected. This past weekend the British manufacturer had its 961 Commando Sport at the Calgary Motorcycle Show, where it was just one of many new models on display.

Just under 30,000 visitors attended this event at the BMO Centre at Stampede Park, and Calgary Motorcycle Show manager Laurie Paetz said: “Recreational products are such a niche market. To be able to attract that many people, and especially on a weekend when there was a blizzard, shows the industry continues to appeal to a large number of Albertans, and especially Calgarians.”

Every major motorcycle and ATV maker was represented, and show goers I spoke with seemed interested in a wide variety of products, from electric machines by Zero Motorcycles to touring bikes such as the Gold Wing from Honda – and just about everything in between.

However, all weekend there was a steady crowd around the Norton, proving Calgary retailers, brothers Jim and Tim Wild, of Wild and Wild, Inc., just might be onto something.

“There’s so much passion for the Norton brand,” Jim Wild said. “There are still guys out there sporting Norton tattoos.”

Calgary motorcycle enthusiast Bobby Baum currently rides a 2008 Victory Vision touring machine. He’s passionate about all motorcycles, and is at work restoring a vintage Royal Enfield. He was impressed with what the new Norton 961 Commando Sport had to offer.

“It’s one of the finest new works of rolling art at the show,” Baum said. “(I think) Norton has a hit on their hands. This bike is beautiful from all angles.”

Norton joins three other ‘premium niche’ brands retailed by the Wild brothers. Royal Enfield, Indian and Ducati are also sold from their 35,000 sq. ft. facility, which, for lack of a better name right now, is referred to as the Super Bike Centre. A new name will likely be announced when the northeast Calgary Pegasus Road location officially opens this spring.

This new facility on Pegasus Road makes the area just south of the airport something of a motorcycle destination. The Wild family’s Calgary Harley-Davidson — itself a standalone 35,000 sq. ft. facility — has been on this street for some 15 years.

The first Norton to leave the Wild’s dealership won’t be delivered until this spring, when the brand officially launches in Canada.

“These are not high-volume brands,” Wild said of Norton and Ducati, and added, “But there’s keen interest in them.”

Instead, Wild said Norton and Ducati are motorcycles that riders aspire to own, and are ‘move-up’ brands.

The story of how Norton got to where it is today is one of interest. Founded in 1898 by James Lansdowne Norton, or Pa, as he was commonly known, Norton was one of the most race-winning motorcycle factories in the world. The firm took many Isle of Man TT titles, and while they did produce some bread and butter machines Norton motorcycles could have been considered   thoroughbreds when compared to the other well-known British makers – including B.S.A. and Triumph.

Arguably it was the Norton Commando, with its 750cc and later 850cc parallel twin engine produced from 1967 to 1975 that was the most famous model.

Like many other British motorcycle makers, however, Norton hit a rough patch in the early 1970s from which it never recovered.  After going bankrupt, there were more than a few attempts to bring the Norton name back to market. There was some racing success with a rotary-engined Commando model, including winning the 1992 Isle of Man TT, but the bike didn’t receive commercial acclaim.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s when an American, Kenny Dreer of Oregon, began producing at a very limited rate a redesigned Norton Commando. The bike featured many technological upgrades, but the model held true to the parallel twin version of the original Commando.

He had some financial backing, and was going to begin larger-scale production. His finances, however, fell through and in 2006 Dreer had to suspend the dream of full-scale production of his own Norton Commando.

That’s when Stuart Garner, a UK-based businessman, stepped in. He formed Norton Motorcycles (UK), and although the company got a few of the Dreer Commandos in the deal, his design team completely re-engineered the model. In April 2010 limited production began of three Commandos – the 961 SE (an edition of 200, already sold out), a Café Racer and a Sport model.

The Norton features a tubular steel frame with integral oil tank and a fuel-injected 961cc parallel twin engine. Many of the component pieces are sourced from UK suppliers, but the Norton is equipped with some of the best globally-available components including Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes.

Several notable motorcycle magazines have reviewed the new Norton, and it has thus far received favourable reviews.

Fiat 500 makes its way to Canada

Story first published in the Calgary Herald’s Driving section, Dec. 17. Images from Steve Balla, Chrysler Canada.

Fiat brand ambassadors with the European version of the 500 at the Venetian Ball in Toronto, Ontario on Oct. 16.

Canada’s selection of diminutive automobiles is poised to become a little bit bigger.
Joining the likes of Smart and Mini is an Italian vehicle that will soon be plying the nation’s roads.
In early 2011 the Fiat 500 is expected, starting with a special edition version of the vehicle – the Prima Edizione.
Interest in the Fiat 500 is impressive. In late November 500 of the Prima Edizione Fiats sold out in just 12 hours during a special online reservation event.
In a news release, Chrysler Canada president and CEO Reid Bigland said: “Frankly, (that) just underscores the interest Canadians have in a youthful, stylish and highly fuel-efficient car. The 2008 European car of the year, the Fiat 500, is just that.”
Fiat purchased a 20 per cent stake in Chrysler late last year, and this move has allowed the Italian maker to return to North America – starting with their 2012 Fiat 500.
Calgary’s Steve Balla is interested in seeing the new Fiat 500 up close. Balla owns a 1949 Fiat Topolino (Italian for little mouse) convertible, a vehicle he found languishing here in the city.
The Topolino was produced between 1936 and 1955, and was powered by a water-cooled 569cc engine. During its era there weren’t many other cars as small as the Topolino.
Balla found the Topolino in a Calgary body shop, where it had sat for some 15 years. The car, which had been disassembled and pushed into a corner, was conered in a 2.5 centimetre thick layer of dust. He pestered the owner of the body shop before he finally agreed to sell the car, and what Balla got was the shell and three or four large cardboard boxes of parts.
All that was missing were four connecting rods, and these parts Balla sourced from Switzerland.
“There were only 14,000 original miles on the car,” Balla says. “All I did was put it all back together, everything was there, with the exception of the (connecting) rods.”
Balla is originally from Hungary, and he said the small, urban commuting cars commonly found in European countries simply fascinate him.
Of the new Fiat 500, he said, “I love it. In a smaller car you’re burning less fuel, and that has a big impact on the environment. Here in Calgary, you see 90 to 95 per cent of the vehicles, often big SUVs, with just one person driving in them and that’s just not necessary.”
Chrysler hopes the Fiat 500 is a winner. First launched in European countries in 2007, the Fiat 500 pays homage to a long line of original ‘500’ vehicles, dating back to 1955.
A three-door, four seat vehicle, the new North American version of the car is powered by Fiat’s own 1.4-litre inline-four cylinder MultiAir engine. This engine will deliver just a hair more than 100 horsepower, and because it is moving a relatively lightweight vehicle fuel efficiency is expected to be miserly. Either a six-speed automatic or a five-speed manual transmission can be had with the car.
Chrysler said every aspect of the Fiat 500 has been put under a microscope and reengineered for the North American market. According to the automaker some adaptations include a redesigned body structure, a retuned suspension system to keep the car comfortable yet nimble, ABS, a larger fuel tank, new driver and passenger seats and an upgraded heating and cooling system.
There will be 14 colours in metallic, non-metallic and premium tri-coat paint finishes, and the interior is offered in either black or ivory. To further individualize each Fiat 500 there is a choice of 11 seat colours and material combinations.
After the Prima Edizione launches, Canadians will be able to get one of three different Fiat 500 models. There’s the Pop, which is the base, yet well-equipped version, the Sport, which features modified springs and shock tuning and distinctively styled front and rear fascias, and the Lounge, which adds some chrome bits and pieces, alloy wheels, leather seats and a host of technology items.
Chrysler says the starting Canadian M.S.R.P. for the Fiat 500 is $15,995.
Thus far, two Calgary dealerships have been named — Eastside Dodge Chrysler Fiat and Renfrew Chrysler Fiat.