Dermot Walshe — Motorcycle Illustrator

Here’s a column that first appeared on the pages of Cycle Canada about four years ago — still one of my favourites. It’s a reminder that motorcycles, and the passion for them, transcends the metal. Dermot Walshe continues to draw, mostly kids cartoons, but he has plans for a motorcycle feature in the future. Enjoy!

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Image courtesy of Dermot Walshe.

 

With a stroke of his pen Dermot Walshe dramatically moves a motorcycle from the road or the racetrack to the printed page.

Walshe, of Oakville, Ontario is a man of talent. Armed with a pencil, pen and ink, and a computer he creates amazing images. Just have a look at the accompanying panel drawn by Walshe of Stanley Woods on a Cotton motorcycle circa 1922 racing in his first Isle of Man TT. It’s perfect.

Born in 1962 in Toronto, Walshe vividly remembers the first time he ever saw a motorcycle. He grew up on the outskirts of the city, and from a small stand at the side of the highway he would sell rhubarb to passing motorists. One afternoon, Walshe heard thunder. He looked up to the sky, and there wasn’t a cloud. Then, a big Harley-Davidson roared by, and another, followed by a B.S.A., and more – likely all big American v-twins and British iron. To young Walshe, the procession seemed to last half an hour. In all likelihood, it was less than a minute or two. But the sight of that passing gang was seared in his memory.

Not long after Walshe determined he would get some money together and buy a bike. But that didn’t happen until his first year of university, when he dropped out of landscape architecture and bought a used Yamaha SR185. Walshe said he bummed around Toronto on this single-cylinder machine with push-button starting, and he crashed it quite a few times before he needed a replacement.

From that point, Walshe’s motorcycling career has been nothing short of interesting. Between 1989 and 1995 he raced vintage machines including a Yamaha SRX600 and a Honda CB350, and said some fast laps at Mosport and drafting at Daytona were among the highlights. He’s traveled by scooter around Indonesia, and by his count has bought, sold, ridden – or destroyed – more than 50 motorcycles such as a Norton 850 Commando, a Ducati 860 GT and a 1950 B.S.A. Gold Star. Aesthetically, pre-War motorcycles with a rigid frame and a girder fork are his favourites, although he just bought himself a 1977 Yamaha XS650.

As for art, Walshe was always handy with a pencil and paper. He’d sketch and doodle and draw comic strips, and planned to do something creative with his life. Landscape architecture wasn’t it. While in that program, however, he met another student who commented on his drawing talent, and told him he should be in animation. Animation? He got a big shock when he learned what that was.

“That’s when I had my first inkling that animated cartoons were actually manufactured,” Walshe said. “I never really thought that you didn’t take a camera to cartoon land. I was kind of naive that way.” He attended an animation program at Sheridan College but never finished. Eventually, Walshe put his not insignificant talents to commercial use as a storyboard artist –someone who must quickly and accurately draw out the scenes of a movie, television show or commercial. He’s worked for the likes of Disney on films such as Mulan, Return to Neverland and Little Mermaid 2. For most of the last decade he’s worked on a freelance basis (click here to see samples).

During periods of downtime Walshe likes to dabble with projects that are of interest to him. Such a project is the tale of 17-year old Irishman Stanley Woods, who struggled in 1922 against factory teams and experienced riders to finish in fifth place aboard a Cotton motorcycle during his first Isle of Man TT race.

“Stanley Woods inspires me,” Walshe said. “He had a lot of audacity and he refused to give up. He was a gentleman racer who played fair but took advantage of everything he could.” Woods, in fact, had raced his father’s Harley-Davidson before deciding he could take on the TT. He wrote to most major British motorcycle manufacturers, requesting a ride, and it was Cotton who took on the youngster. His creative requests helped him land the Cotton, but nothing was going to come easily. During his 1922 outing on the 350cc Cotton, just about everything that could go wrong, did. He botched the start, having to stop to retrieve some fallen spark plugs. The machine caught fire in the pits. Not long after putting out the flames and back on the circuit, Woods had to stop and wrestle with the valves thanks to a broken push rod.

Recently, Walshe drew up eight pages of Woods’ story, keeping his eye on the clock to determine how long it might take him to produce a 100-plus page graphic novel, or even an animated film. For now, it’s simply an idea that’s percolating. Walshe ideally needs someone to write a cheque before he could spend a year on such a project, but it’s one that’s dear to him.

“Most motorcycle content (currently being drawn) is about booze and babes,” Walshe said. “But I think there’s more to the story of motorcycling than that.”

The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry: in review

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As the title suggests,  Steve Koerner’s book shines more light on the plight of the English makers.

When Argentina shut its doors to British motor imports, the bell tolled louder for the English motorcycle industry.

In 1948 the South American country imposed strict import quotas and significantly higher tariffs. Losing this single important market helped cause Vincent, the English manufacturer of sporting v-twins, to misfire, and ultimately end in 1955 with the final motorcycle to roll from the Stevenage factory.

Such facts are discovered in a new book written by Vancouver Island historian Steve Koerner. The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry, published by Crucible Books, documents the downfall of the Brit-bike industry.

Why another book about English cycle makers? Several already investigate the topic, including Bert Hopwood’s Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? and Hughie Hancox’s Tales of Triumph Motorcycles and the Meriden Factory. Most recently, Abe Aamidor tried tackling the subject in Shooting Star: The Rise & Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry.

Koerner attended University of Warwick in England, graduating with a PhD in Social History. Enthusiastic about things British, Koerner’s thesis investigated the history of the nation’s motorcycle industry. Rewritten for a broader audience, his thesis became the book, which is comprehensible and not an academic treatise.

Steve Koerner visiting the  Triumph Meriden factory, June 1979.

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. This photo was taken in June 1979 when Koerner was invited to tour the Meriden factory by its Workers’ Coop owners.

What Koerner accessed that nobody else seems to have are the annals of the Motor Cycle Industry Association in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick library. “This is an amazing archive of information,” Koerner says of his original research, conducted in the 1990s. “It took me two years to get through it all. It contains materials about the industry and trade federation representing most of the manufacturing companies.”

Based in Coventry, the association was founded in the late 1800s, and archived information includes minutes, attendance books, guard-books, copies of telegrams, membership lists, periodicals, press cuttings, show catalogues and photographs.

Koerner mined more than just the association archive, also consulting surviving company papers of B.S.A. and Triumph, trade journals including the Cycle and Motor Cycle Trader magazine and a raft of documents kept at the British National Archives.  “I don’t think any other historian of the British motorcycle industry is aware of these sources, never mind used them in a book on the subject,” Koerner says. Indeed, 67 pages of the total 350 in The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry include detailed notes and references.

“I haven’t spent a day of my life working in a factory or motorcycle retail environment,” Koerner says. “But I think I bring a different perspective to the (British motorcycle industry). It’s a business history when you get right down to it.”

Steve Koerner and his 1977 Triumph Bonneville, somewhere in the Kootenays, circa June 1978

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. In the B.C. Kootenays with his 1977 Triumph Bonneville sometime in 1978.

In Koerner’s ideal transportation world everyone would drive an Austin Cambridge or ride a Matchless G80, and he remains a devout fan of British motor products. That’s because Vancouver Island in the 1950s and 1960s was a different place. Ties to old Britannia were evident, and the corridor between Victoria and Cowichan Valley teemed with British motor products.

Born into this Canadian microcosm of British culture, Koerner became immersed in English vehicles. Apart from a couple of Chevrolets, his parents drove mainly British cars, including a Hillman Minx, a Humber Super Snipe and a Jaguar XJ6.  “British vehicles have always been a part of the family, and remain so to this day,” he says.

An avid motorcyclist, Koerner rode a 1970 B.S.A. Thunderbolt around Vancouver from 1976 to 1978. “It was a vile beast,” he recalls, but that experience didn’t prevent him from owning a string of Brit-bikes, including a new 1977 Triumph Bonneville. He shipped the Triumph to England, riding to the TT races and visiting the Meriden Triumph factory in 1979.

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Photo by  Jurgen Pokrandt. Of his ride, Koerner says: “My Norton originally came out of the factory as a 1974 Roadster model with a red-coloured tank.  Several years ago I changed it over to an Interstate model with a used tank (metal and factory original) and seat (both of which I found via the Norton Owners’ Club in Britain) along with new side-panels which come from Fair-Spares in Burnt Bridge near Birmingham.  The tank is painted traditional Norton silver-grey.  No, I realise the paint scheme is not correct for 1974 but I think it looks pretty good, despite, no doubt, objections from the purists.”

He currently owns a 1974 Norton Commando Mk. IIA Roadster, which he’s converted to Interstate specification. There’s also a 1958 Matchless G80 in the shed. However, the bike he now rides most is a Harley-Davidson Road King.

Koerner is as much a British motorcycle enthusiast as he is an academic, but he doesn’t wax nostalgic about the industry. He is critical in hindsight, and although players in the trade aren’t identified as heroes or villains, it’s fairly obvious who they are.

Steve Koerner in front of old Norton factory, Bracebridge St., B'ham, circa autumn 1992

Courtesy Steve Koerner. This is the same Norton seen in the previous photo, and was taken at the Bracebridge Street factory in the early 1990s.

Managing director of Ariel and Triumph and later chairman of BSA, Jack Sangster, is a hero. “He was competent and successful,” Koerner says of Sangster. “I think he came out of the womb on a motorcycle, and he was effectively a talent scout, hiring Edward Turner and Val Page.”

Bernard Docker, chairman and managing director of B.S.A. from the late 1940s to 1956, is a villain. Koerner describes him as ‘inept and scandal-prone’.

B.S.A. was a massive company, with several divisions including Daimler – a low-production luxury limousine maker. Docker wanted the firm to break into the far more competitive middle class car sector, which in the 1950s was largely dominated by Humber, Jaguar and Rover. Moving Daimler downscale was a high-risk strategy, poorly conceived and executed with millions of pounds wasted. The results almost destroyed both Daimler and its parent B.S.A.

“If only a small amount of money had gone into motorcycles instead of cars,” Koerner says. “B.S.A. never recovered from drowning in red ink, and when Sangster took over he had to sell off assets to keep the company liquid.”

Koerner investigates many facets of the British industry, which seems to have built itself into a corner after the Second World War as it supplied mainly sporting motorcycles to a young, male dominated crowd. But the industry had tried post-1918 to design and market an ‘Everyman’ motorcycle, one that would appeal to a broader audience, including women. The scooter was the answer.

Many of these new products were either designed or built by the aviation industry (after the First World War, airplane manufacturers were looking to expand their markets and utilize their manufacturing capabilities). Vehicles such as the Skootamota and the Reynolds Runabout, and even the Ner-A-Car, which was engineered by an American but first built in Britain, couldn’t find traction.

Of the machines produced, Koerner says, “(I think) these British scooters failed because, although often innovative in concept, they were undermined by poor design work and engineering. I suspect the companies which made them just didn’t have enough experience in making motorcycles/scooters to make a success of it.”

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Photo copyright Steve Koerner. This assembly line image was taken in June 1979.

Crippled by the early 1970s there is no easy answer regarding the downfall of the British industry, but Koerner’s book is one of the better attempts at an in-depth exploration. “Life is complicated,” Koerner says. “And there aren’t simple explanations. It wasn’t all Bernard Docker’s fault, nor was it German or Japanese manufacturers, or the attitude of management. It’s simply not that simple to explain.”

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.

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.

Inside Motorcycles, Norton’s Rocketship, by Greg Williams

1968 Norton Atlas a dependable missile

This story first published in Inside Motorcycles, Issue 1206

All photographs by Amee Reehal

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The slogans ‘The Unapproachable Norton’ and ‘The World’s Best Road Holder’ defined one of the most fabled British motorcycle builders. Founded in 1898 by James Lansdowne Norton, or Pa, as he was commonly known, Norton brought to the motorcycling masses several technological advancements. Not the least of these developments was the featherbed frame as designed by the McCandless brothers.

Since the early 1940s the brothers had been working on advanced frame designs, labouring at improving the handling of their own motorcycle – a Triumph. But the McCandless brothers came to the attention of Norton and they were persuaded to design a frame for the Birmingham, England motorcycle company. The featherbed was the result – an all welded duplex tube frame with swingarm rear suspension. The design of the frame was such that the centre of gravity was lowered, and the fuel tank placed further back from the steering head to help centralize weight

Their featherbed motorcycle chassis, introduced to Norton in 1949 and used in the 1950 Isle of Man TT races, revolutionized how Norton motorcycles handled. There are a couple of stories about how the name featherbed was coined. The most popular is that in 1950, when Norton racer Harold Daniell first rode a 500cc single-cylinder equipped McCandless frame he was so impressed with the handling that he equated it to “riding on a featherbed.” The name stuck.

In 1951 Norton’s Model 7 500cc twin-cylinder engine slid into the featherbed frame, and that was the Model 88 Dominator. Over the years Norton used the featherbed frame for many of its motorcycles, including its more pedestrian 350cc and 500cc single-cylinder machines. It was the twin-cylinder Dominator Model 99 that grew to 600cc in 1956, and in 1960 the machine’s top frame rails were pinched together (this made the Slimline frame), thus decreasing the width to better accommodate a rider’s knees. In 1961 the first 650cc Norton was an export only Manxman, and in in 1962, the company introduced the  650SS with the Slimline frame.

Then came Norton’s 750cc Atlas. Introduced in 1962, the Atlas was initially intended to be something of a sport-touring machine, often sold with a single Amal carb. (The 1961 Manxman and 650ss were twin carb bikes with 9:1 compression were much more comparable to the Triumph Bonneville. The Model 99 did have the option of twin carbs, high compression and polished ports as far back as 1958.) In 1964 the Atlas was fitted with 12-volt electrics and a second AMAL carburetor. The Atlas was produced until 1968, when the Isolastic-framed Commando was introduced.

Calgary motorcycle enthusiast Bob Klassen has been nuts for bikes ever since his first – a 175cc Harley-Davidson Scat. He got into old British motorcycles in 1985 when he bought a 1970 Triumph Bonneville, literally as an offshoot to his English car hobby. He does, however, have some Italian and American motorcycles in his collection of eight machines. Klassen discovered this featured 1968 Norton Atlas on eBay in 2005, and encouraged a friend to purchase the motorcycle.

“He’d had a British bike in his younger days, and I was always trying to convince him to get back onto a British machine,” Klassen said. “This Norton was in the northwest U.S., and it appeared to be in stock condition. I got my friend interested and he bought the bike.”

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After he got the bike home to Calgary, though, his interest waned, and he had trouble getting the Norton started. It languished for three years until the spring of 2008, and that’s when Klassen got a phone call. “He said ‘Come pick up the bike, and do what you need to do to get it running’,” Klassen recalled. After Klassen picked up the Norton it took him a day or two to sort through some wiring and the points ignition system – difficult to access thanks to their location behind the cylinders and underneath the carburetors — before ho got it fired up. But after it started, the Atlas seemed to run and idle fine, so he strapped on his helmet, zipped up his jacket and pulled on his gloves and went for a ride. “I had the thing seize up 20 miles later,” Klassen said. “I got the truck and brought the bike back home and took the motor apart. That’s where this very pretty and stock looking Atlas came off the rails.”

Inside the motor there was a bent connecting rod, and it appeared the cause was from a seriously ham-fisted rebuild job. “The rods were installed backwards,” Klassen explained, and this shortened the life of the rod shell bearings and the rods. His friend didn’t want to get this far involved with the Atlas, and at this point offered to sell it to Klassen – and Klassen couldn’t refuse.

NortonBike-4“Finding the engine in such poor condition was a shock, and it was such a shock because it was in total contrast to what the rest of the bike looked like. Everything was there – even the enameled brass Norton insignias and Road Holder fork badges. I suspect the tank has been repainted, but the frame and everything else, including the fasteners, are original.”

(Note: Reader Benjamin Gradler added this comment: The Atlas in the photos is not 100 per cent original. It has a Commando front fender and two-leading-shoe front brake plate, it has a much older rear tail light as used in the early ’60s, and after 1963 Norton did not use the riveted on Roadholder badges on the forks anymore, they switched to a decal, so someone added those to this later bike too.)

Over the course of two months Klassen completely rebuilt the Atlas motor. In the bottom end he had the crank reground, installed new main bearings, rods and big end shells. After the cylinder was bored .020 over new pistons were installed. The cylinder head was completely refurbished with new guides, valves and springs. The twin 30mm AMAL Concentric carburetors are showing some signs of slide wear but were cleaned and bolted to the intake manifold. With the motor back in the frame it took Klassen little time to tune the carbs and get the Norton running. After that, all that was required for the Norton to pass inspection was a new rear tire. With the Atlas back on the road and more than 850 miles on the rebuild Klassen has nothing but praise for the machine.

“I’ve never owned a Norton and I’d never ridden a Norton until this Atlas,” Klassen said. “The Atlas is a heavier feeling bike, and it’s not as quick feeling as my Bonneville. It’s got a firm, pointed where you want to go feel to it. The engine, being a 750cc, has a very pliant torque characteristic. I love it.”

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