Shed Built. What does that actually mean? For us at least it conjures images of normal folk getting home from their day job, cracking a beer and heading to an outbuilding, shed, garage, workshop, greenhouse, lean-to or tower block balcony to impart creativity on some form of two wheeled project. Over the last few years big boy manufacturers have burst into the new wave party with a keg of craft beer under their arm, inviting everyone to come on over and take a sip. But does that mean the shed is dead?
No, not in the slightest, it’s perhaps more alive than ever. As we’ve mentioned many times before, social media has been the glue to bind a movement and custom motorcycles are all the better for it. You no longer have to take someone’s word for the quality off their work, you can see it with your own eyes, in a constant stream of oooww and aaahhh images on your telephonic device. This networking capability combined with the good old fashioned handshake has shrunk the world in general and allowed for some pretty fantastic collaborations.
What you see here though is more than a the joining of marketing dots, this is a balls to the wall, everything on the line project born through unbridled passion. Jamie Ireson and partner Merry Michau embarked on their Go Big or Go Home journey at the beginning of last year and their stocks of midnight oil have been in decline ever since.
Merry is a renowned photographer within the custom scene and completely bike obsessed, she’ll throw her leg over anything with an engine. She lives and breathes motorcycles and has helped companies such as Belstaff and Triumph with their branding and clothing lines. Jamie is a successful design engineer having worked on projects from power stations to the development of components for Formula 1. Jamie’s custom shop goes by the name of 72 Motorcycles, based in a humble farm building shared with Mark from Reverb Motorcycles.
But how do you go about striking up a conversation with a manufacturer and persuading them to let you loose on one of their bikes, let alone such an important brand? Merry & Jamie had a head start thanks to an existing friendship with Norton CEO, Stuart Garner but he certainly wasn’t going to cut the pair any slack.
Their relationship with Mr Garner might be a cordial one but it’s no secret that he’s a seriously shrewd businessman who’s taken two nostalgic syllables and turned them into a global brand. Norton’s Donnington HQ might be impressive and the chrome liveried IOM TT race programe suggest deep pockets but the company isn’t one of the big Japanese manufacturers, splashing donor bikes around. Jamie and Merry had to look down the back of the sofa, empty the savings account and sell some stuff to get this project off the ground. They got a good price on a brand spanking Commando 961 and a supply of parts but no better than a dealer might have got. If the plan didn’t work out the pair would be left with a very expensive red bike sitting in the shed. Added to which the plan was to make a limited run of 12 bikes, named Norton MM. No pressure then.
So why is it so red? Those in the know will recognise straight away the resemblance to Ron Wood’s Big Tube Norton flattrack racer from the 1970s. Back in the golden era of flattracking in the USA if you weren’t on Harley, Triumph or BSA you’d have more chance of setting foot on the moon than the top step of a podium. Many privateers ran Norton powered machinery but the motor was nearing the end of its development and unit construction OHC Yamaha XS650s had joined the party. There are plenty of famous names in the world of flattrack but as far as building winning bikes goes Ron Wood is perhaps the most notable and his Big Tube Norton racers, of which only two were made, are not only stunning to behold but quick too, winning the Ascot half-mile three years in a row. In fact, the number 44 bike ridden by Alex Jorgensen and Dave Aldana is the last Norton to ever score AMA points.
The success soon petered out as Norton’s old tech struggled to remain competitive against modern power units, funds dried up back in Blighty and the factory was no longer able to back overseas racing projects. Thankfully the rarity of these bikes and the significant nostalgia struck a chord with Jamie and Merry, what better way to celebrate Norton’s rich heritage than to build a modern day replica of Ron’s ace machine.
Manufacturing, and that’s what we’re going to call it given the quantity that will be produced, a road bike is more than slightly different to building a stripped down and focussed race bike. Jamie’s considerable CAD experience meant that the tools stayed locked up until a full prototype was drawn up. Having a meagre facility to work from meant he’d need to pool resources and utilise local engineering firms to bring the project together. The only way to do this in a scalable way is through proper drawings and prototyping. And let’s face it, if you’re one of the customers who’ve parted with a decent wedge for a Norton MM you’ll want to know that not only has it been put together professionally but if you happen to drop the thing that replacement parts are available. It is a brand new motorcycle made for riding, not some artistic folly to be parked in a glass walled foyer. That said, nearly all 12 have been sold, many just off the back of the CAD drawings, although Merry and Jamie’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious enough to open even the tightest of wallets.
So what has gone into this bike to make it worth it? Well, an awful lot, some of which might not be entirely obvious. To remain true to the original racer a CNC-bent section of large diameter tube links the frame’s spine and swingarm pickup/rear engine mount. A constant loop subframe is welded to this and then triangulated back down, picking up the Öhlins piggy-back shocks on the way. A frenched-in LED tail light and indicator strip minimises electrical clutter and keeps the SVA and MOT man happy.
The spine of the frame contains the engine oil and alongside this runs the majority of the wiring harness so the fuel tank needs to multitask. The drawings insisted that the tank shape was right but Jamie wanted to be certain before committing to aluminium so reverted to the old school, tried and tested method of shaving expanded foam board into the right shape. Once happy with pipework, cable routing, fuel capacity and proportions a wooden buck was made. The tank is formed in four main parts before being welded together. It’s rare to see a logo of this size painted on a tank but once you’ve scrolled down you’ll see that the guys from Imagine Designs have done an excellent job in staying true to the original race bike.
Apparently cameras add ten pounds and in this case I’d say that’s valid. When standing next to the MM the fuel tank appears much smaller than these images suggest.
The handlebars are the opposite, they’re massive. 1″ in diameter and to proper flattrack race-spec. Grabbing hold of these is a properly purposeful experience and the rather decadent ISR lever setup from Sweden a reminder that you’re about to ride something a bit special.
But it’s when the starter motor lurches into life that the real magic happens. The 961cc twin barks into life, drawing huge breaths through exquisitely machined (Fastec Racing) intake trumpets. But don’t worry, small children won’t get get sucked into the combustion chamber, behind the short velocity stack there’s a short run of air filter foam to keep out all but the vital oxygen.
Despite appearances the exhausts contain a small baffle and sound fantastic, deep, sonorous and fierce – just how a tracker should sound. Hi-Spec Coatings applied a black ceramic finish, in keeping visually with the race bike but with the added heat reducing properties and much longer lasting than old fashioned fireplace paint.
Fastec Racing were called in again to machine a set of triple clamps to grip the Öhlins USD forks which although beautiful in their own right, became slightly overshadowed by the number board. Jamie had done his homework and measured thrice and cut once but in raw metal the proportions looked awkward to him. It wasn’t until the DTRA style paint was applied that the sides disappeared the overall dimensions shrank. As with many other stages along the way Mark Alder and Neil Gyfold were on hand to offer advice, support and opinion. And of course, as everyone knows, things in the workshop go much smoother when your mates stand around sucking their teeth when you are about to mess something up.
I can’t imagine much of the latter went on as Jamie seems to be a calm and methodical chap. So many parts of the MM are an extension of his obsession with detail. Welds are smooth, wiring neat and properly finished, even decent components were removed and improved. Norton send their bikes out with perfectly good rearsets but Jamie saw room for improvement so it was back to Fastec again to have the webbing machined-out for a more refined look.
The late nights continued and Jamie may as well have put a blow up mattress next to the work bench, ploughing in the workshop time after a full 10 hour day at a grown-up job, but as with everything in life, you get out what you put in. Merry has worked tirelessly to promote the Norton MM and as mentioned the order book is nearly full. Norton’s boss might have just lucked-out once again, rather than dishing out a load of donor bikes to make the most of the ever growing custom scene he’s found two people who’ve laid it all on the line and achieved what many people bemoan as impossible, to build custom bikes in volume and actually sell them.
So what’s it like to ride? Well Merry and Jamie were kind and trusting enough to let me take their baby for a spin. All I can say is that it sounded absolutely epic, popping and banging on overrun and the commanding position of the bars felt great. But in all honesty I was so concerned with making sure that the third person ever to ride the thing wouldn’t be the first to drop it. Once MM number 44 has been road registered and had a full shake down test I’d love to have another go and see what it goes like with the taps open. Dirtquake, now there’s an idea…..
To snap up one of the last Norton MMs or to discuss the project in more detail contact Merry here.