1963 Norton Atlas
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With an experienced team and a lot of data.
The Norton Atlas appeared in 1962, named for the American intercontinental ballistic missile, and with an extra 100 cc for the U.S. market. It still had the featherbed frame, the Roadholder front forks and the largest version of Bert Hopwood’s 497 cc Dominator engine. The 750 cc twin was tuned to produce mid-range grunt and not rev much over 5,000 rpm, when the vibration became virtually unmanageable.
Hopwood’s Dominator began as the 497 cc Dominator 88, then as the 600 cc Dominator 99 in 1956, the 650 cc Manxman (for the U.S. market) in 1960-61 and the 650 cc Super Sport from 1962-66. The 750 cc Atlas came in above these models with 49 bhp, and dimensions of 73 x 89 mm – quite a long stroke. In typical British fashion the twin was a 360 degree motor, so both pistons rose and fell together, though only one fired at a time. The gearbox remained a separate unit, though it was durable and smooth shifting and the clutch was robust.
Norton reverted to its magneto spark and alternator lighting in 1962, though the voltage was boosted to 12 volts in 1965, which helped night time riding. The Atlas was detuned from the Manxman, with 7.6:1 compression – down from 8.91: and only one Amal carburetor. The lower compression was intended to reduce vibration, though that problem wouldn’t be solved until the “isolastic” rubber engine mounts of the 1968 Commando.
The Atlas looked much like the Dominator, with a four-gallon gas tank, big fenders and silencers and raised bars as Americans preferred. A pair of 40 mm monobloc carburetors were fitted in 1963 and instruments included a separate speedometer and tachometer.
Norton became part of Associated Motor Cycles with Matchless and AJS in 1952, though they remained separate. Hard times, however, forced a merger in 1963 and Norton moved in with the others in North London. In 1966 AMC was merged with BSA/Triumph and the joint corporation began to plan the Commando. Meanwhile, Norton motors were fitted into several Matchless frames, including the Matchless G15 roadster in 1963. The 1966 Norton-Matchless P11 and the 1969 Ranger addressed the American fascination with desert racing.
U.S. importer Joe Berliner wanted a desert racer, but Norton’s featherbed frame wasn’t suitable (despite being available as a scrambler), so in 1966 a Matchless frame was adapted to take the Atlas engine. The result was fast and handled quite well, though it was heavy, and many riders took off their knobbly tires to fit aggressive street tires for a dual-sport function.
The Norton Atlas remains a competent sports tourer, thanks to its featherbed frame, though it takes a strong hand to manage it at speed. The P11 and Ranger were much lighter, with a frame that resembled the Rickman Brothers Metisse design. The P11 (almost called the Cheetah) was fitted with wide reinforced handlebars, high exhaust, and under-frame bash plate. The steering was raked for off-road riding, the seat and pegs were ideal for standing up, and the bike could be steered on the throttle.
The P11 was revised in 1968 and the Norton-Villiers Ranger was introduced as a more roadworthy version, with broader seat and low pipes. There were at least four variations, with different oil tanks, handlebars, forks and frames. Mike Patrick won the 1968 California Desert Race Championship on a 1968 Norton P11. The entire lineup was replaced by multiple Norton Commando 750 cc and 850 cc models from 1969 until the corporation’s dissolution in 1977.