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Rebirth of a 1959 350

Manx Norton

Many historic racing motorcycle owners would like to have a bike with “History” - rode in this event, won that race or ridden by this famous rider.  And, this history becomes the ongoing story for that machine.  Every bike could tell a story about exciting rides, degree of care, injuries due to “offs” &tangles with cars and fences, improvements, rides where the full capability of the machine was reached and rides where the urge to go was there but the rider erred on the side of caution.  Some bike stories are famous and some, like this one are about survival and being reborn.  It is more about the people involved and their care and love of machinery and the journey to see a wonderful machine emerge from the ashes with many old bits, some new and some carefully created to complete the project. 

This article is also a tribute to George Begg, his wife Freda (a lovely Manx woman whom George met whilst racing on the isle of Mann) and his Hervey Bay mates George L, Walter W and Alan W.  George Begg the previous owner said that the 350 Manx Norton was a beautiful bike, fast, agile on smaller tracks, lighter and almost feminine - in a sexy way.  I agree and so it is now a “She”.George Begg’s love of machinery began in the South Island of New Zealand where he began racing on the local circuits including beaches.  There he met Burt Munroe (Indian motor cycle builder and speed record contender) and through out his life he helped Burt with his Indian by allowing him to use machinery in George’s engineering business.  George went on to become a motoring history author of some repute, one book of which is arguably the most accurate book about Burt’s life - “Burt Munroe Indian Legend of Speed”.  


George traveled to the UK where he went to the Norton factory and bought a new 500 Manx Norton and then raced on the IOM. 

( George's new 500 Manz Norton, IOM workshop 1950' )

Unfortunately, whilst there on this trip, his friend (who purchased a new AJS 7R) was fatally injured on the circuit and so George returned to NZ with Freda and there they built up their agricultural engineering business (helping Burt on the way).  He turned his love of motor racing to open wheeler cars and worked with McLaren before constructing 18 Begg race cars which are now collector’s pieces. John Surtees was his best friend. 

After retiring to Hervey Bay in Queensland George again returned to motorcycles, where he restored a 500 Manx Norton and his real love, a G50 Matchless which George’s grandson now owns. 

( Hugh Anderson astride George's restored 500 ( born January 18 1936 in New Zealand ) is a four-time Grand Pix motorcycle road race World Champion & 19 time New Zealand national champion. He is also a two-timer Isle of Man TT winner )

George then sold the 500 Norton and decided to restore a 350 Manx Norton. 

Now, these things don’t become available every day, even for some as well connected as George and so he purchased a bike in pieces and then began the painstaking task of acquiring the bits that were not there. 

(George Begg & the 350 Manz Norton March 2007 )

Like many old race bikes (except for the wonderful example of an original 500 Manx recently seen at the Cootha Classic in June 2009), motors were blown and discarded, wheels were altered, gear boxes were blown up and replaced, tanks were damaged beyond repair, clutches were worn out and rebuilt and this Manx is no exception.  By the start of 2007, George had acquired 90% of the bits required. 

And then life’s journey dealt him and Freda a terrible blow.  George had contracted cancer but being the engineer and fighter he was he continued to assemble bits to begin to build the little 350.  Unfortunately his disease became worse and he decided to sell her (the Manx, not Freda).  I was put in touch with George by Col, a great mate of mine and restorer from Brighton and we did a deal over the phone sight unseen.  Maria, my wife and I rode to Hervey Bay, met the family, ogled over the G50 and George promised that the Manx was mine but he wanted to finish her first, as his last project.  I said - “take as much time as you want” (me being the patient man - whilst quietly chewing my nails to the quick wanting to get my hands on a Manx Norton).

Unfortunately, George passed away a month later but before he died he said to Freda and his Hervey Bay mates, everything with Norton on it goes to Paul.  So, at Easter 2007 my friend Gerard and I travelled to Hervey Bay and spent a day trying to separate a 350 Manx Norton from a G50 Matchless - both in a 1000 bits.  We came away with 10 boxes of bits, a frame, bottom end, 2 wheels, lots of nuts and bolts, some photos (some of which you see here) and many notes.  Most bits are original including the crank cases which have been blown up and re welded and some are beautiful and new like the fuel and oil tanks from New Zealand that are works of art.  The motor is 1959 vintage as evidenced by the light house tower bevel drive mechanism but I think that the gear box is a bit earlier.  Who cares and a road racer in 1959 would not have cared as well, as long as he/she was out there and it went like the clappers.

And then began a 2 years 3 month journey to learn about each piece of a complex piece of machinery.  Having owned over 30 bikes in my time and rebuilt one or two, some things came together well whilst others took a lot of time.  I found that showers in the morning or sitting on the loo was great for problem solving (I told you this was a “people” story).  Getting the gear box and clutch sorted and cam box set up were challenges but there are people that will give you advice.  Many said that they would not do the job for me and that I had to learn myself and this was good advice.  Some bits I made from scratch and the finished products are a great source of pride.  I now understand what each little noise, vibration and smell (as you know, overheated clutches smell - a lot) means and can hopefully fix it.  

Overall, I am proud of the thing of beauty I have created and I enter a new era of my life to learn to ride it with skill and care, maintain it and maybe make a few improvements but not much - I like her just the way she is and she is rather sexy as George said.  But the journey was a great buzz and now, hmmmm for my next project I think I will build a????

The wonderful people who helped me along the way can not be thanked enough - Maria for putting up with hours in the shed (maybe that was a good thing), waking at 3am in the morning thinking about clutch mechanisms and talking in my sleep about cam timing; friends and engineers - Gerard P, Ray C, Tony P and Col R; advisers Rob O, Mike F, Mitchell B, Ken Mc, Gerry S and many others - thanks one and all.  My daughter Bree and son Daniel enjoy motorcycling as much as I do and hopefully they will carry on enjoying and caring for the little gal.

Who knows what journeys and adventures she will have in the next 50 years.

Paul Chesher June 2009

( Track day Morgan Park may 2009 )


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