Note: Another motorcycle post by my friend, Lee Wilcox. -TK
A while back, I came across a little story that explained why Triton/Norvin motorcycles became so popular in the ’50s and what started the movement to rear-engined race cars. If you are like me, you might have never thought much about what you would do to power a race car, especially when the engine size was limited to 500cc. It must be even harder if you are stuck in a situation where there are more shortages than anything else. Into this situation comes John Cooper in war ravaged post WW2 England. He’s smart and he wants to go racing. There is a major shortage of cars, but there are some choices.
Charles Cooper founded the Cooper Car Company. He did this with his son, the aforementioned John and his son’s boyhood friend Eric Brandon. They began building racing cars in 1946. The first cars built by the Coopers were single seat 500cc Formula 3 cars that were driven by John and Eric.
They were powered by a JAP (J. A. Prestwich) motorcycle engine. The prototypes were built, according to Wikipedia, by joining two Fiat Topolino front ends together. To me, many of the pictures look like the same belly tank we used to see on the land speed record cars.
According to John Cooper the engine was put behind the driver because it seemed logical as it was run with a chain. Eric won the first postwar race and quickly created demand from other drivers such as Stirling Moss, Bernie Ecclestone, and others.
Because they were inexpensive, Cooper quickly became the worlds first and largest post-war specialist manufacturer of racing cars for sale to privateers.
Cooper built over 300 500cc F3 cars and dominated the category. They won 64 of 78 major races between 1951 and 1954. Because of the volume they quickly got into the senior circuit competition and names like Brabham and Moss kept winning. Numerous efforts with bigger engines were created. Cooper ran front engine configurations too. The front engined cars made them realize how well the rear engined car handled.
Many say that Jim Clark’s 1965 Indy 500 win in a rear engined Lotus was just part of an ongoing evolution that started with the first Cooper Formula 3. All Indy winners since then have had rear engines.
Okay, so what does a baby race car have to do with a Triton or Norvin motorcycle and for you readers who are not bike nuts – what is a Triton or Norvin anyway? Norton developed the popular double downtube type frame. One of the early riders said it was just like riding a featherbed, and it became known as the featherbed frame as a result. It was developed primarily for racing and it handled very well.
The Norton Manx engine fit the same basic category as the JAP. The car above is powered by a Norton. The Manx had a 500cc single cylinder engine with a four speed transmission. The only problem was that Norton wouldn’t sell an enterprising racer just a motor. You had to buy the whole bike, therefore, there were a lot of excellent Norton frames that could be had cheaply.
Triumph evidently would sell an engine without a bike, so the first known Triton motorcycle was a Featherbed frame with a 500cc Triumph engine. Triumph and BSA both had engines that were cheap for the time and as always, bikers have wrecks, resulting in a wide variety of parts bikes and engines: Triumph (“Triton”), BSA, Vincent Norvin”). Doesn’t seem to matter what you put it a Norton frame, it makes an excellent handling bike with a decent engine. I have even seen a Honda four. Hybrids before it was cool.
People still race these little cars. I am also told you can now buy Norton Manx engine clones. So most likely there won’t be any new Tritons or Norvins being birthed anymore.