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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.

Ariel 650 Twin on the Prairies

We were at a wedding a couple of weeks ago. At the post-nuptials dinner I got talking with Josephine Lampel, and the conversation, as it is wont to do, soon turned to motorcycles.

She asked if I’d ever heard of Ariel motorcycles, and I said, yes, of course. Lampel then spoke about an Ariel 650 she and her husband had in the late 1950s and early 1960s. John Lampel sold the Ariel in the early 1960s, but he’d liked it so much he often spoke about the machine, right up to his death. And that got Lampel thinking. If John liked the bike that much, why not have ‘Ariel’ inscribed on his headstone?

However, she was unsure of the correct spelling, so she phoned around to some of the local bike shops — where she learned none of the youngsters working at any of them had even heard of Ariel. Eventually, she got it sorted, and now John Lampel’s tombstone has the word Ariel prominently displayed. I asked if Lampel had any photos, and she said she could dig some out. Here, then, are some shots of John Lampel with his Ariel 650 twin. Check out the custom touches, including chrome on the nacelle, the bobbed front fender, and the wild stems on the mirrors. The final photo was shot somewhere in Manitoba, and it shows a clean pre-unit Triumph racing machine.

Calgary Herald, 1953 Studebaker on the Salt Flats, by Greg Williams

Photo courtesy Kristin Martin. This story first published in the Calgary Herald Driving section Oct. 15, 2010.

When he was 13 years old Gord Driedger made a promise to himself.

One day, he’d race on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah – just like the go-fast gearheads he had read about in his latest issue of Hot Rod magazine.

That was back in 1970. Fast-forward to 2010. At 53, Driedger, a Calgary hot rod fan, recently made good on that boyhood promise.

“I remember reading about Bonneville when I was 13 years old,” Driedger says, “that’s when I started buying Hot Rod magazine.”

He owned some fast cars when he was younger, but sold his 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6 and didn’t have much to do with high performance vehicles for a while after getting married and raising his three daughters.

He couldn’t stay away, though. About 10 years ago Driedger got back into the hobby with a 1965 Corvette – a car he’s restored and modified. And, another 1970 Chevelle has found its way into the garage.

Neither of these vehicles eventually got him to Bonneville, though.

This is a story best told by Driedger.

“In January 2010, I was at a live auction for Ducks Unlimited. I bought a wine-tasting trip for four to Napa Valley. My wife Kim and I and a couple of friends went down in late March.

“We were staying at a winery up on the hill, and we were sitting out on the deck one morning drinking a cup of coffee looking out over a field of grapevines.

“Then, I heard this race engine fire up, and the sound is coming up the valley to where we are. I jumped in our rental car and zipped down the valley to try and find the source of the sound, but I couldn’t. When I got back I started talking to one of the guys working at the winery, and he said that it was probably his friend Bob Nance, and that he’d introduce us.”

So, Driedger and Kim drove down the valley a short distance where they met Nance, a member of the Napa Valley Cruisers car club.

“(Bob Nance) gave Kim a glass of wine, me a cold beer and us a garage tour,” Driedger says, “he treated us like long lost friends.”

Around the corner of the garage Nance had parked a 1927 Ford he planned to turn into a salt flat racer. That’s when Driedger told him he’d always wanted to do the same – either build his own or buy a ready-made racer.

“Bob stopped and turned around and said ‘Gord, you’re going to be a happy man in a few minutes’.”

Nance took Driedger to a neighbour’s house to see a 1953 Studebaker coupe. The car had been assembled by one Ron Zampa to race on the salt – but was never finished. Unfortunately, in 2003 Zampa died.

Another Napa Valley car collector bought the Studebaker from Zampa’s widow, thinking he would turn the car into a street rod. After looking at all of the race modifications, though, he thought better of it and left it alone. He eventually decided to sell. Enter Driedger, who made a deal on the car and had the Studebaker shipped to Calgary.

Photo courtesy Kristin Martin.

The Studebaker arrived in April, and Driedger quickly familiarized himself with the salt flats rulebook and set to work putting together the finishing touches. Driedger installed a safety harness and door nets, together with a fire suppression system and some instrumentation.

Driedger took the Studebaker to Dale Adams Automotive Specialists in Calgary for tuning of the 296 cubic inch race-prepared Ford flathead V-8 engine. Original car builder Zampa had commissioned flathead specialist Chris Zootis of Zootis Performance Center in Healdsburg, Calif. to breathe a little extra life into this powerplant.

The Ford engine, topped with a Holley four-barrel carburetor, is connected to a Muncie four-speed gearbox driving a nine-inch Ford rear end with 2:75 gears. Driedger managed 135 horsepower at the rear wheels, which is respectable given that a stock flathead Ford makes about 90.

The Studebaker’s body has been chopped and channeled giving just 76.2 mm (three inches) of ground clearance. Front fenders and hood are Fiberglass; the rest of the car is all steel.

“We had May, June, July and one week in August to get ready for Bonneville,” Driedger says. Bonneville Speed Week ran August 14 to 20 this year, and Driedger managed to get the Studebaker to the salt. And, this was a family affair. Wife Kim and daughters Brittany (23), Kaylee (21) and Spencer (20) were all part of the pit crew.

There were a couple of issues to be fixed before the Studebaker passed the rigorous tech inspection, but Driedger persevered, and finally had the car ready for its maiden run.

“It was a rookie run for me, and a rookie run for the car,” he says. “I’d never driven the car before except for backing it up and down my driveway.”

To run at Bonneville, a driver has to make licensing runs. An ‘E’ licence simply shows a driver can handle the vehicle and the salt, and there is no minimum speed limit. Driedger, on his first run, managed 218.9 km/h (136 mp/h) – this gave him both his ‘E’ and ‘D’ licences. Over the course of Speed Week Driedger made 10 more runs, with 241.2 km/h (149.9 mp/h) his fastest. The record for the XF/GCC (Flathead Ford/Gas Competition Coupe) class is 251 km/h (156 mp/h).

“We snuck up pretty close but we’ve still got a ways to go,” Driedger says.

While his daughters have expressed an interest in racing the car on the salt themselves, Driedger first wants to get more speed out of the Studebaker.

Above photos courtesy the Driedger family.

Calgary Herald, Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run

As a writer for the Calgary Herald Driving section I always look for a local angle to any column I write for the paper. There wasn’t one for this piece, hence the first line in the story. But as you’ll read, the story is just too good not to share. Good luck to all those riding.

Story first published in the Calgary Herald’s Driving section Sept. 3, 2010. All photos courtesy Felicia Morgan unless noted. Archival image courtesy

Warning: For those looking for local or even national content in the following column, there is none.

However, for anyone interested in motoring, it’s a story worth sharing.

Next week on September 10 more than 90 riders aboard motorcycles manufactured prior to 1916 will leave behind the bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Riders of these rare and sometimes delicate machines will then tour through 11 states and cover some 5,265 km (3272 miles) as they test their mettle (or, is that metal?) participating in what has been dubbed the Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run (

And then, on September 26 and of all those miles later, hopefully more than a handful of riders will roll onto the pier at the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California.

This ride was the brainchild of one Lonnie Isam Jr., of Sturgis, South Dakota. Isam and his friends often talked about getting their pre-1916 motorcycles together for a ride across America, à la Erwin George (Cannonball) Baker.

Born in 1882, Baker was known for his automobile and motorcycle racing exploits, and most notably his coast-to-coast riding adventures. In 1914, he set a record by crossing America in 11 days aboard an Indian motorcycle.

“Lonnie and his friends had been talking about doing a run like this for a long time, and Cannonball Baker was their inspiration,” says Felicia Morgan, Motorcycle Cannonball director of communications.

In 2009 Isam decided to go ahead with the run. And that’s when things got exciting. More than a few folks expressed interest, and the event soon took on a life of its own.

“People from around the globe expressed interest, and this has become universal,” Morgan says. “These are all riders who want to ride their veteran bikes, bond with the road and the people they meet, and enjoy the environment and scenery as they pass through it.”

Route master John Classen has driven the roads twice, mapping out highways and distances that ensure most days are 250 miles or shorter. He also wanted to ensure riders spent little or no time on an Interstate, but they will have to cover 160 km on one — that only occurs in New Mexico where no other option exists.

And that’s a good thing. Many of these pre-1916 motorcycles would not survive an extended blast down the freeway.

For the most part, motorcycles built prior to 1916 are quite different from one brand to the next. At that time, the ‘cycle industry was in its infancy, and manufacturers such as B.S.A., Excelsior, Flying Merkel, Harley-Davidson, Henderson, Indian, Triumph and Thor were very inventive in their engineering.

Early motorcycles were little more than bicycles – including the pedals – with motors attached somewhere to the frame. Final drive could be via chain or belt, and transmissions, if there was one, were very rudimentary. Pedals were often meant to aid starting, or to help a machine climb a hill.

“Most of these bikes, it’s not like you can ride down to the local dealership and get a part if you need one,” Morgan says.

Matt Olsen’s Sears motorcycle taking shape. Photo courtesy Matt Olsen.

One young rider, Matt Olsen, 26 of North Dakota has literally produced a 1914 Sears motorcycle – frame, forks and just about everything else around a rebuilt V-twin Spacke motor. He’s brought the process of recreating a 100-year old motorcycle into the 21 st century with a blog,, and almost daily Facebook updates.

Pete Young on his 1913 Premier.

Pete Young, 40, from San Francisco, Calif., will have two motorcycles at the start in Kitty Hawk. He’s planning on running a British-made 1913 Premier, a 500cc sidevalve single-cylinder motorcycle. His machine has a rubber V-belt drive to the rear wheel, where therein resides a three-speed rear hub with a clutch. Having a three-speed hub gives him some advantage when climbing grades.

Young, an engineer and avid vintage motorcyclist, will also have a 1916 1,000cc V-twin Excelsior as a ‘spare’ bike, in case the Premier breaks to the point where he can’t repair the damage.

“I’ve been through the bikes quite a bit, checking the mechanicals and remaking several parts where I’ve had to,” Young says. “I’ve spent about every evening in the shop for close to a year. My wife, Kim, and the kids have been very supportive.”

The ride will be physically grueling for participants. Did Young invest in a gym membership?

“I meant to, but never got around to it,” Young laughs. “I’ve been walking a bit and doing some push ups and sit ups, though not as much as I should have done.”

There are three classes for the Cannonball. Class 1 is the single cylinder, belt drive, and no transmission machines. Class 2 is the twin cylinder bikes, but any single speed four-cylinder machine is allowed in this class. And Class 3 (this is where Young’s machines fit) features all of the pre-1916 motorcycles, regardless of number of cylinders, with a two or three speed transmission.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t want to miss it,” Young says of the 2010 Cannonball Run.

Pete Young at rest with his 1916 Excelsior.

Motorcycle Classics Norton P11 cover story by Greg Williams

Motorcycle Classics and their 2010 September/October issue features this story about the birth of the Norton P11, and tells  the tale of a ‘new’ re-creation built by the hands of Steve Zabaro. Steve, together with Norton distributor Bob Blair, built the very first P11 prototype that went to AMC for testing and production. A great little slice of history, if I do say so myself.

Click here to read the story on Motorcycle Classics’ website.