The cafe racer scene was born in Britain in the late 1940’s, and flourished in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. A uniquely British take on custom motorcycle culture, it was fueled by the desire to do ‘the ton.’ Not confined to the relative safety of the track, these bikes were raced, at breakneck speed, from cafe to cafe on the streets.
At the time, no contemporary machines could quench the thirst for speed, and none provided the handling required by the lunatic fringe. Bars were dropped, ‘unnecessary’ weight was shed. Frames were chopped, engines were tuned and repaired. Certain engines were known to be the quickest; certain frames the most nimble. Components were painstakingly pieced together; they never came from the same bike, and rarely even the same make or model.
The “Triton” was easily the most legendary: a Triumph engine sandwiched into a Norton featherbed frame. They were relatively cheap to construct…and as fast as hell.
But if you really wanted the best, you built yourself a “NorVin.” This was a Vincent engine in a Norton featherbed frame. Vincents were the superbikes of the day: the fastest, most innovative, most expensive machines money could buy. The Norton featherbed frame was famous for its handling and cornering prowess. Originally developed for the Isle of Man TT, one of the most dangerous racing events in the world, the featherbed quickly made its way into Norton's customer bikes and was considered to be the best handling frame a café racer could have. The Norvin has since become the gold standard of British cafe racers.
Most NorVins you see today are built around the big 1000cc V-twins, which are hopped up Rapide unit engines. Vincent V-twin mounting kits for the featherbed frame are readily available and reasonably straightforward to fit. Featherbed frames are still made by specialist manufacturers, none of whom have needed to search out areas for improvement, so good is the original design.
British builder Peter Allen decided to take a far trickier route. Having completed a few restorations over the years, this was his first home build. Clearly not faint of heart, the 61-year-old retired pilot chose the excellent pre-unit single cylinder 500cc Comet engine, which is far more complicated to mount in a featherbed. The need to align perfectly the separate — and in this case, custom — gearbox with the engine means the precise engineering of specialized mounting plates. As you might guess, this requires a whole lot of patience.
The frame was an incomplete vintage wideline featherbed with a narrowline short swingarm. The engine was a set of Comet bare cases with no numbers, which would otherwise never have been used. They were sourced from the legendary Conway Motors in England.
The Comet engine packs a punch in its stock form, but not satisfied, Peter fitted a Terry Prince big bore kit, taking it out to 630cc; a stroker crank, making it around 9:1 compression; and a hot cam, just for good measure. The gearbox is a trick combination of AMC casings with five speed Quaife gears. He converted the primary to belt drive. “Lots of fun getting that to fit inside the Vincent case,” Peter says sarcastically.
Peter fitted a BTH modern electronic ignition and adapted the cylinder head to take two spark plugs. He rigged up an electric push button decompressor. The new system makes the bike considerably easier to start than the unpredictable stock configuration.
The regulator for the 12-volt Alton generator, a motor gear fuse/circuit breaker box, the small battery, and the rear brake light motion/decelerator sensor were all hidden neatly in the bespoke fabricated seat hump. He says the process involved “lots of cutting and learning.”
Additional components included an alloy rear brake plate, Lansdowne Commando forks, Smiths Electric clocks, and a Commando pea-shooter end can. The hubs were laced onto Akront shouldered rims.
The Manx Norton tank was off the shelf from tanker Evan Wilcox, but when fitted, Peter asked Evan for modifications: a pushing out of the classic Manx Norton bar indents, and a bigger cutout to facilitate the brute force of a 40mm Dellorto pumper carb.
Peter outsourced the bending of the exhaust headers, as well as the paint job on the tank, both of which were done beautifully.
The bike, which Peter named "Wee NorVin," took two years to build. He rolled it off the bench in August, but he acknowledges that “it’s a cafe racer. They are never finished.” When we asked him how much the project cost, he laughed and replied, “What’s a budget? If you kept the bills, you would have quit halfway.”
Peter says the low point of the build was the endless hours spent trying to align the engine and the gearbox, but these were easily eclipsed by having a beer each evening and looking at what he’d accomplished that day. Asked how satisfied he is with the results, Peter replied humbly, “I will do better next time.” We think he did a pretty fine job this time.