Nowadays, the idea of a twin-cradle perimeter motorcycle frame made of Reynolds steel tubing, with a twin-shock swinging arm rear suspension, can sound downright prehistoric. Indeed to many of today’s motorcyclists who were born at about the same time as Yamaha’s “Deltabox” frame, it probably sounds even older than that. But when it was introduced, it was just as revolutionary and undoubtedly paved the way for the design of many – if not most – modern motorcycles and even today in the 21st century, some motorcycles still use a derivation of this quintessential frame design. They called it the Norton Featherbed and it played a crucial role in the history of motorcycle frames.
Rex McCandless: Self-Made Revolutionary
Let’s step back in time. The year is 1949. Norton’s racing division realised that the “garden gate” plunger suspension frame of their successful Norton International (or “Cammy Norton”) had reached the end of its useful life and could be developed no further in order to stay on a par with the frames equipping other manufacturers’ racing machines.
Enter Rex McCandless, a self-taught motorcycle engineer from Belfast and his brother Cromie, who was a road racer of some note. For the past few years, the McCandless brothers had been racing a Triumph Tiger 100 with (amongst other things) a frame that Rex had heavily modified to accept a swinging-arm rear suspension using vertically-placed hydraulic shock absorbers apparently sourced from a French Citroën car. When needs must…
Aware of Norton’s plight, McCandles showed them this modified frame. Norton saw the potential of this new design and enrolled McCandless to work exclusively for them on the design of an all-new frame incorporating – and expanding upon – his existing modifications to his brother Cromie’s race bike.
Just two months after having received the design brief (a remarkably short timespan if one bears in mind this was in an age before computer-assisted design and manufacturing), the first prototype of what would become the Norton Featherbed frame was ready for testing.
Rex McCandless had come up with a welded twin-loop (or cradle) frame with a generously cross-braced headstock and swinging-arm rear suspension. The design was far from cheap: McCandless had used some 40 ft. of Reynolds’ best tubing, which was then hand-formed and sif-welded.
This didn’t deter his employers at Norton and testing began, first on track and then, in the winter of 1949, on the roads of the Isle of Man. The frame did what the Ulsterman had said it would and, despite the costly design, Norton decided that the frame would equip their works team’s machines. Since Norton’s workshops weren’t equipped for the tricky sif-welding process, the eight frames that Norton commissioned were fabricated by the McCandless brothers in their own workshop.
The Norton Featherbed – Taking the Tracks By Storm
Once the frames were ready, more testing took place in France at the Montlhéry track near Paris. These tests were a success, and the Featherbed frame was officially launched in the UK early in 1950. The first major proof-of-the-pudding test came at that year’s Isle of Man TT, where Featherbed-framed Nortons took the podium by storm in both the Senior and Junior TT races. Furthermore, Geoff Duke set a new lap record of 93.33 mph on a Norton Featherbed as well as breaking the race record, finishing in two hours, 51 minutes and 45 seconds. This success was all down to the fact that the new frame handled remarkably well over the bumpy and twisty Mountain Course.
The new race bikes, known as “Manx Nortons”, with their Featherbed frames and revised 350cc and 500cc single-cylinder engines, were very successful over the years in Grands Prix and later in Clubman racing. As for the frame itself, after having been reserved for racing purposes for a while, it made its way onto Norton’s road bikes first in its “wideline” variant (11.5” between the frame tubes at the rear of the tank) then, after many motorcyclists complained that this was too wide and therefore uncomfortable, in a “slimline” version with the tubes narrowing towards the end of the tank.
To the Next Caff – And Beyond: Norton Cafe Racer Hybrids
The Featherbed frame appeared at about the same time as the Ton-up Boys and their “café racer” bikes. Given its racing pedigree, as soon as it appeared on road-going bikes, it was an instant success with these leather-jacketed youngsters who hung out at transport cafés (or “caffs” as they used to say back then). This gave rise to a thriving business for bike builders such as Dave Degens, the man behind the fabled Dresda name.
Very soon, fabulous – and now legendary – hybrids started appearing on Britain’s roads: Tritons (a Triumph engine in a Norton featherbed frame), Norbsas (a BSA engine in a Featherbed frame) and, perhaps the most exotic of these specials, the Norvin (a Vincent V-twin engine in a Featherbed frame). To this end, many Featherbed-framed Norton road bikes were mercilessly broken up for their frame and nowadays finding an original, untouched Norton Atlas or Norton 88 can be a difficult task.
Fortunately, many bike builders decided to make their own copies of the Featherbed, not least because it made fitting non-Norton engines between its tubes that much easier. Anybody who’s taken on the Herculean task of building a Norvin using a stock Featherbed frame can bear witness to the countless gallons of sweat, tears of frustration, and blood from skinned knuckles – not to mention enough foul language to fill several large volumes!
BMW & Suzukis Inspired by the Norton Featherbed
Other manufacturers took inspiration from Rex McCandless’ design. In the late Sixties and on through the Seventies to the beginning of the Eighties, BMW used a frame that was closely inspired by the Featherbed for its flat-twin-equipped machines; in fact look at a Seventies R900S or R100RS and you can clearly see where the Bavarian company’s frame engineers got their inspiration from. Then, in the mid-Eighties, the bike that revolutionised road-going sports bikes, Suzuki’s mighty and intimidating race-replica GSX-R 750 – and its even more intimidating 1100cc sibling – used a frame that also took its inspiration from the Featherbed, keeping the “up-and-over” frame on the “Gixxer” until 1995.
By the way, do you know where the “Featherbed” moniker came from? Legend has it that Harold Daniell, Norton’s bespectacled works rider (and who in fact looked rather like he should have been working in their accounts department!) apparently commented that compared to the previous “garden gate” frame, this new design was like “riding a feather bed”. And in that more poetic age, the name stuck.
More Motorcycle History
Our Gentleman’s Lounge has more articles on motorcycle history, including motorcycle engine evolution, the history of motorcycle brakes, vintage motorcycle tires, and lots of articles on the colorful personalities of the early days of motorcycling, like inventor Glenn Curtiss, who arguably deserves a lot of credit for inventing the airplane, and had the giant stones to attach a blimp engine to a motorcycle. Ride on, and read on!