The bike that changed Steve Fox’s life!
Graham and Grant Tiller
This article went out in the October copy (issue 394) of the Norton Owners Club magazine – Roadholder
My Dad, Graham, and I were reading Roadholder 388 (April 2020) and came across the Article by Steve Fox “Nortons Change My Life”
Dad instantly recognised the numberplate ETX 66C, because it’s sat in his bike shed!
So we thought that we’d fill in a little bit of the history with our chapter!
Dad had an Ariel Huntmaster previously, but fancied something a little more light and nimble for his Sunday morning bimbles.
As I had got a Slimline Featherbed ES2 as a project the year before, we were both fast becoming Norton fans so we decided on a 650ss.
In July 2014 we found an advert for a bike that looked to fit the bill.
It was priced on the very high side, but it was described as “immaculate” and “concours” which was great – Dad was looking for a bike to ride, and not a fixer upper at this point, as we already had my ES2 on the bench.
The previous owner was a photographer, and had setup a website with an extensive set of photos of the bike. He had gone into considerable detail about his ‘no expense spared’ restoration.
It looked beautiful.
The previous owner, a Brit, had retired to Spain and had restored a few bikes out there during his retirement. His ethos was a good one – restore, ride for a while, then sell on to make room for the next project.
As he had decided to sell the bike, he’d got it shipped back to England and Dale Middlehurst’s care.
He asked Dale to give it the once over, and do any work that needed to be done prior to sale.
The DVLA put the bike back on it’s original numberplate ETX 66C!
So Dad bought it.
We later found out that a picture of the bike had been used for the cover of a novel.
So, it was a superstar!
On taking delivery of the bike, it wouldn’t start – turning on the fuel tap had one of the carbs pouring petrol all over the bike – no tickling required!
We dismantled both carbs to find two sunken Amal floats (they were both porous and we could see that they were full of fuel when held up to the light)
Further and closer examination revealed incorrect jets for the engine size.
The advert said floats, jets and needles were replaced – in fact in the big bundle of paperwork we got with the bike, there were receipts for new carburettors, and additional receipts for rebuild kits and the new stay-up floats. Very strange!
So, we fixed this, and got the bike running.
Once we got the bike running, we noticed pretty quickly that the head was running dry as the top end was clattering really badly – there was no oil being delivered to the head at all.
The standard oil delivery to the head is via a tee junction into the oil tank return pipe which was obstructed.
We also found that the left cylinder was running cold – the exhaust wasn’t getting hot at all.
On the grounds that the carburettor was ok, the plug was getting wet with fuel, and there was a decent spark, we put this down to the magneto cam and a difference in timing between left and right cylinders – so something else to investigate.
We noted that the front tyre walls were badly cracked and the rubber had gone hard – to be honest it was amazing that it was given a fresh MOT with that tyre.
Whilst the rear tyre was indeed new as advertised, it was very poor quality (possibly a remould, definitely not a brand we had come across before), and totally the wrong dimension.
There was a huge gap between the fork seal holders and bottom yoke fork shrouds that was hiding under the rubber gators – our first indication that something wasn’t right on the front end.
Later examination showed us that the forks had been assembled using a mixture of long roadholder and short roadholder parts.
Commando stanchions had been fitted (which are just over an inch longer) which made me wonder whether one of the previous owners was very tall, and found the Dommie too low? How tall are you Steve Fox?
There were damper extensions screwed on the top of the damper rods, so this had definitely been done intentionally.
There was a major modification to the centre stand, as an unmodified one would not have got anywhere near to the ground.
The side stand had also been taken off, I guess because it would have leant over too far with the frame rail over an inch higher from the ground.
The battery had a hole in it as there was inadequate padding in the battery box, and it was leaking.
Something that made us both laugh was the fact that there was hardly a single washer in sight on the bike – not under bolt heads, nor under nuts.
We guessed that you can’t get washers in Spain.
Most of the bolts on the bike were not torqued, and many were done up only finger tight. Worryingly, this included the front wheel nut and several of the barrel bolts!!
The rear chain cover was notched out and assembled loosely with metric bolts.
The BSF standoffs for the alternator had been replaced with M8 bolts.
The wires on the alternator were shorting, as they were damaged and showing bare wire around the resin area.
Several engine plate bolts were missing.
The head bolts were stainless allen caps not the correct high tensile items so they would be subject to stretch, if they were torqued correctly.
We found it odd that there were receipts for at least half a dozen head gaskets, but later found out why!
The chroming work had been done to a really poor standard.
It was quite thin and pitted in areas – real Friday afternoon stuff.
It was far from excellent quality as described in the advert.
Interestingly this bike had a lot of chrome on it – oil tank, battery cover, primary cover – all available on the pricelist at the time, but not something you see very often.
It was really nice to see Steve Fox’s picture showing the chromed battery cover!
The rev counter worked occasionally – we discovered that the incorrect cable was fitted and it was only engaging now and then.
Worryingly, we found that the left-hand exhaust valve was weeping – the advert said new valves were fitted, and there were receipts showing that!
The rear shock absorber bottom bolts were metric allen cap bolts, and were too slim in diameter, so were rattling around in the bushes.
We had discovered bits of old chain in the primary oil bath, and stuck to the alternator rotor.
Clearly judging by the amount of damage to the chaincase, something went wrong in there at some point!
Could this have been from Steve’s days, or had something happened more recently?
We also found that one of the rear wheel chain tensioners was replaced for an ill-fitting M6 bolt.
All in all, what we were discovering was leading us to think that a full stripdown was in order.
So, having taken the head off, we noted that it had been skimmed several times – and at this stage, it was almost to the first fin.
Actually, it looked more like a Combat head!
The valves were in a terrible mess – heavily recessed.
There was a new intake valve in one of the exhaust ports.
Filling them both with petrol and watching the leakdown was heart-breaking – they both drained away immediately and there was wetness around all four valve guides.
The next thing we noticed was that the spigot on the cylinder was way too high considering how much material had been removed from the head – explaining the reason for so many head gaskets!
The rocker spindles were in the wrong way round.
Plus the rockers had received some ‘polishing’ AKA butchery (they were hacked out in the wrong areas, and what was left was in my opinion dangerously weak)
Not only were the forty over pistons in the wrong way round, but the barrel showed quite bad ovality.
To make things worse, the conrods were not matching.
Just as we were going through this inspection process, and making a list of things to do, we had a stroke of luck.
The Norton Owners Club Roadholder magazine landed on the doormat, and in the back was a wreck of a 650ss for sale – it was all there, but had been left outside under a tarpaulin for many years, and didn’t have a log book or any paperwork.
It wasn’t a lot of money at all, so the deal was done, and Dad and his friend Ron took the short trip from Dorset to Bicester to pick it up.
Here is the bike without the barrel or head on – we took them off straight away to see what we had got.
This would be our donor bike!