1934 596cc Norton
Engine No. None. The crankcase is cast in bronze/brass with no identification. (A spare cylinder barrel is stamped 56859, which corresponds with the original engine number for this frame)
Frame No. 30-596 / 51506.
Gearbox: Sturmey Archer N. F IV 7892
Some time around 1964, I found this outfit tucked away in a corner of a wrecker’s yard run by one Joe Vial in Blackburn, Melbourne, Australia. The bike was covered with the bonnet of a Standard ‘Vanguard’ and numerous waterlogged potato bags. It appeared that Joe’s brother had cleared out his garage and the outfit had been dumped in the yard – probably because it was closer than the tip. When found, the Norton was fitted with a narrow 1930’s-period racing sidecar, rather like a ballet shoe in contour. The sidecar is built up on the ‘cut & shut’ frame of a lightweight Goulding touring ‘chair’.
The most notable things about the bike on casual inspection (apart from extensive surface rust) were the crankcase, rather roughly cast in bronze (!), and the faded legend “Norton 596” painted on the sidecar nose. When, on discovering it, I asked Joe about the bike, he described it as an ‘Oily Manx’. He claimed that it was essentially a prototype that later evolved into the single OHC ‘International’ sports machine and the twin-cam ‘Manx’ of racing fame through the 1950’s, 60’s etc. The crankcase had no identification nor could any frame number be found.
Joe said that he and his brother had raced it in Victoria, mainly fitted with the side-car, prior to World War Two. It had ‘blown up’ in 1939 and had been re-built. It was being run-in when WWII broke out and it was not used again. Its claim to fame, according to Joe, was that it held the record for the long defunct Whittlesea hill climb.
Although I had never heard of a ‘596’ Norton, I was a great admirer of the cammy Nortons in general and I coveted the machine from the outset. However, being in the ‘impoverished student’ category, I couldn’t afford the £50 Joe demanded for it. I went around to the yard from time to time for car parts and checked up on it whenever I was there. The price went down to £45 after a time, but that didn’t really help me much.
Finally, during one visit Joe told me, with a sort of disillusioned moroseness, that one night, a week or so before, someone had tried to steal the bike. They had dragged it to the corrugated iron fence of the yard, but apparently found it too heavy to lift over. The evil-doers (or at least evil-attempters) then tried to take off the carburettor and magneto. Fortunately, as both are rare period racing items (a BTH racing magneto and an Amal twin float chamber carburettor), they could not get them off with the pair of pliers and screwdriver which seemed to be their only tools. All that was actually stolen was the fuel lines and magneto chain cover (bastards!).
Now this episode thoroughly scared me, and I immediately came to the conclusion that the Norton was actually more desirable than having three meals a day for an indeterminate stretch of the future, so I bought it for £45. It came with a box containing a set of engine shaft sprockets and a selection of alcohol jets of sewer pipe dimensions for the carburettor, together with a spare cylinder, a high compression piston and a few other odds & ends.
In order to get it from the wreckers yard to where I lived four or five miles across town, I enlisted the help of an understanding student friend who owned a car to tow me on the equipage. (I believe that he may not have appreciated what a performance this would prove to be.) Being towed through Melbourne suburban Saturday afternoon traffic on a sidecar outfit with only one grabbing brake and the chair hovering in mid-air on its dirt-track camber was something of a defining experience in my life – it brought home a profound conviction of my own mortality.
According to Joe a rough Roneoed factory information booklet, with tuning and gear ratio recommendations, etc. was around somewhere; he thought his brother still had it. At that stage I was leaving Melbourne for a couple of months, so I arranged to pick up the manual from Joe on my return and hopefully get more detail on the bike’s history. When I went around to the yard next, not only was the manual not there, but the whole yard had disappeared and a housing estate was going up. Despite detective work I never located Joe or his brother.
Various explanations have been offered for the bronze/brass crankcase, but no definite explanation has emerged – It may have been part of the 1939 rebuild, but looks far more weathered than short running-in sessions would explain. Presumably the extra strength of bronze over aluminium justified the awe-inspiring weight of the unit.
Alan Bruce and some of the old-time riders in Europe became very excited when they heard of it, saying that Norton had built a couple of bronze-crankcase 596’s in the early 1930’s for an attack on records on Brooklands and this could well be one of them. However, enticing as this idea is, information that has been uncovered by more recent research seems to rule this out
The frame seems to be heavier gauge than a standard Norton 500 and there is a shallow hump in the top tube to clear (barely) the top of the engine. The bike has very low ground clearance, as if it were designed specifically for side-car use.
It has been very difficult to get much information about this machine:
BACON, Roy; 1983, Norton Singles, Osprey Publishing Limited, p. 47
- “There is however, an offshoot of the ohc story that concerns the big banger camshaft engine. This was based on the model 19 dimensions so was also of 597cc although always known as the 596. Few were built, all intended for sidecar use only, and they came into existence around 1936/37 with Harold Tozer racing an example at Donington in the earlier year. Some were built with iron heads and suitable cycle parts for the ISDT, but most went on to racing circuits. The big engine used the standard crankcase but its height called for a kink in the top tube to enable it to be squeezed in, while the frame itself was heavier than normal.”
A further reference has come to light in 2010 through John de Kruif’s blog ‘Vintage Norton Motorcycles’ in relation to a ‘596’ that has turned up in Indonesia:
HOWARD, Dennis; 1972. Norton. Ballantines Illustrated History of the Car; Marque Book No 9, p.99
- “Bracebridge Street never listed the particular engine for sale to the public, for the simple reason that it really did not exist as a production job…. The Norton works produced two versions of a 596cc single overhead-camshaft engine (82mm x 113mm), one in International and one in Manx form, there being some subtle differences internally between the two units…. roughly a dozen of each were manufactured, the frames being of stouter construction, and having a large vertical kink in the upper frame tube in order to accept the considerably taller engine. It appears the ‘Inters’ were primarily built for the leading Trials sidecar men of the period, while the hotter Manx version was more strictly suited for sidecar road racing. As several Manx ‘600s’ were doing battle in passenger machine races in the immediate post-war era, it is surprising to learn that few, if any, still exist.”
Comparing the quotes above indicates that there is a distressing degree of vagueness among the scholars as to the details of the machine.
Apparently a few did escape from their British captivity; early photographs of Victorian and South Australian competition indicate that one, possibly two, single cam 596’s made it to Australia. See:
KINGWILL, Mike; (no date), Touring and Sporting Motorcycles in Australia 1910-1966, the author. pp. 89, 108, 109, 112, 119,
Judging from some of these photographs, my machine may be the rigid frame ‘596’ raced by Bruce Rehn of Adelaide earlier in its life, but there seem to be various differences among the illustrations.
There was also the engine of a twin cam 596 in Sydney, but I have lost contact with the owner. A pity, as he very kindly provided me with a replacement magneto drive cover for my machine
In Dec 2010 exhortations from the UK prompted me to look for a number on the spare cylinder barrel that came with the Norton. A number 56859 was discovered on the base flange. Also a serious cleaning exercise conducted on the frame by a friend – a task somewhat akin to archaeology, which he hates – brought the number – 30-596 / 51506 -to light beneath several strata of paint and Castrol R on the engine mounting lug on the frame down-tube.
Once this frame number was available the following information could be gleaned from the Norton Owners Club in Britain:
The machine was despatched from the Norton factory on 15/10/1933, making it (due to Norton’s odd dating system) a 1934 model. The original engine number corresponds to the number on the ‘spare’ cylinder barrel and the numbers cited for the forks and the magneto correspond to my machine. Intriguingly, the gearbox number is recorded as 9892, while the number on the existing gearbox is 7892. The extensive welding stripes on this gearbox case may explain the fate of the original box.
Extras were listed as “To racing specification. Twin float carb. Special tune.”
The Agent/Dealer note was: “Tozer KM (ETF Adel) Aus S/Car TT”
The name ‘Tozer’ leads one to speculate that Harold Tozer, the UK sidecar rider may have had some involvement, but so far nothing to support this has come to light.
‘Adel’ seems most likely to mean Adelaide and the Adelaide Advertiser of 8 March 1934 records Bruce Rehn setting over thirty Australian and South Australian speed records at Sellick’s Beach on a “598 Norton”. Moreover, The Melbourne Argus, of Tuesday 29 January 1935 lists Rehn as winning the Australian Sidecar TT at Phillip Island – by two miles out of fifty- on a “590 Norton” outfit.
The following advertisement appeared in Adelaide Advertiser March 22, 1934 capitalising on the record-breaking run:
“MORE RECORDS TO CASTROL
BRUCE REHN ON HIS NORTON
MR. BRUCE REHN on his privately-owned 598 Norton, made the following records at Sellick’s Beach recently:—
One mile sidecar standing start, two way, Australian Class G. 75.15 m.p.h.;
1 mile sidecar standing start, two way, Australian Class H, 75.15 m.p.h.;
half mile sidecar standing start, two way. Australian Class G. 64.75 m.p.h.;
half mile sidecar standing start, two way, Australian Class H, 64.75 m.p.h.;
half mile sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian up to 600, 85 m.p.h.;
one mile sidecar flying start, two way, South Australian up to 600, 85 m.p.h.;
one kilo sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian up to 600, 85 m.p.h.;
quarter mile sidecar standing start, two way, Australian Class G. 52.94 m.p.h.;
quarter mile sidecar standing start, two way. Australian Class H, 52:94 m.p.h;
one mile sidecar flying start. two way, Australian Class G, 88.23 m.p.h.;
one mile sidecar flying start, two way, Australian Class H, 88.23 m.p.h.;
half mile sidecar flying start, two way, Australian Class G, 88.23 m.p.h.:
half mile sidecar flying start, two way. Australian Class H, 88.23 m.p.h.;
one mile sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian Class up to 600 c.c, 88.23;
half mile sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian Class up to 600 c.c, 88.23;
one kilo side car flying start, two way, South Australian Class up to 600 c.c, 88.23;
one mile sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian Class up to 1,000 c.c, 88.23;
half mile sidecar flying start, two way, South Australian Class up to 1,000 c.c, 88.23;
one kilo sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian Class up to 1,000 cc, 88.23;
one mile sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian Class un limited. 88.23;
half mile sidecar, flying start, two way. South Australian. Class unlimited, 88.53;
one kilo sidecar flying start, two way. South Australian Class unlimited, 88.23;
one mile sidecar standing start, one way. South Australian Class up to 600 c.c. 75.31;
one mile sidecar standing start, one wav, South Australian Class ur> to 1,000 c.c, 75.31;
one mile sidecar standing start. one way: South Australian Class un limited. 75.31:
one mile solo flying start, two way, Australian Class D. 102.85 m.p.h:
half mile 6010 flying start, two way, Australian Class D, 102.85 m.p.h;
one mile solo flying start, two way, South Australian Class up to 600 c.c, 102,85:
half mile solo flying start, two way. South Australian Class up to 600 c.c 102.85;
one kilo solo flying- start, two way. South Australian Class up to 600 c.c. 102.85.
As is usual, Mr. Rehn chose a standard grade of Castrol Motor Oil, as is recommended by the Norton factory, and in conjunction with all other riders experienced perfect lubrication throughout the attempts.”
So there are still gaps to be filled in and further research is in order; but allowing that motor sport journalists were unlikely to be more precise then in recording fine technical details (such as the precise number of cc’s of the engine) than they are now, I am cherishing the hope that my ‘Big Banger’ is in fact the rather heroic Rehn machine referred to.
It would appear that the 596 must have had positively orgasmic power, to apparently tear up one crankcase and two gearboxes during its racing career, so it will be most interesting to have it running again, even using it with the respect due to its great age and many infirmities – qualities it shares with its owner.
The 596 for 2015
The 596 engine is now dismantled and ready for cleaning and repairs. The photographs below show the general results.
Unfortunately, the engine (and the entire bike, for that matter) has been very poorly maintained in the past. Many screws and nuts & bolts have been substituted with the wrong threads, and will have to be replaced. During the dismantling I had to spend most of my time making up special spanners to cope with some very odd fasteners. I have acquired a good number of BSC and BSF bolts and screws which should overcome most of the difficulties, but there will still be some tedious filling ad tapping-out of holes to be done.
The frame, mudguards, etc. are stripped for repairs and painting, which may have to be farmed out to a panel beater who can handle the correct enamelling procedures.
The work is going on, but it will be a very demanding job.