Norton P11 750 (1967) - Classic Review

1988 Harris Triumph T140 Review Price Spec BikeSocial
By Frank Westworth

Frank Westworth has been riding ratty old bikes for so long that when he started writing about them he was the enfant terrible of the newly classic motorcycling world. These days he’s forgotten most of what he once knew about classic British bikes, due to the appalling consequences of riding modern Harley-Davidsons…

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

 

The bike with no name? One of the greatest Norton twins ever made (and an alleged favourite of Clint Eastwood) was called the P11. Mostly. And you’ve never heard of it? Read on…

The history of the 1960s and 70s British bike industry is littered with heroic failures. Bikes which must have seemed like a great idea at the time but which the great buying public ignored in their millions. There are several. Choose your own from a long list. This heroic machine was not entirely a great success. In the UK. But in the USA…

It’s easy to criticise compromise. We all do it, probably. We wonder why our favourite bike builders missed golden opportunities to build a bike in, say, 1967 which would have been perfect for us in 2020. Why did they carry on building bikes just like all their other bikes, with maybe a splash of extra chrome here, or a new tank badge there…

The reasons why they were simple. They needed to do their best to keep their companies profitable, and that rarely means wild experimentation. The management looked long and looked hard at which of their bikes their customers bought, and which of their rivals’ bikes those customers bought - looking for ways to attract customers away from their rivals.

There are many who wonder why we in the UK received models which were so often dull in comparison to versions of those same models sold into different markets, most notably the USA? In the case of the Norton Ranger and the closely-related N15CS (a Matchless G15CS with a round tank badge), we know the answer because our riding ancestors in the mid-1960s were in fact offered these bikes. And they didn’t buy them. Americans did. In the UK, we preferred heavily-mudguarded, low-handlebarred roadsters to horny, monstrous hooligan bikes. The fast lads of the day were probably too skint, and the guys who bought new bikes were too conservative. Seems unlikely, viewed from today’s perspective, doesn’t it?

Our American cousins found uses for Brit iron which must have raised eyebrows in the more restrained British boardrooms. For example, they used ‘our’ bikes to race across ‘their’ deserts. Hold on; that wasn’t part of the design brief for the mighty Norton Atlas! Steady now.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

40lb less weight than a Commando, more ground clearance and a proper off-road frame – the P11 was built to take abuse

 

Americans had of course been desert racing for as long as there’d been deserts. And indeed Americans. Before motorcycles, they raced each other on horses. Americans are competitive; show them a road and they’ll race along it, show them a desert, and… The sensible big fuel tanks which we Brits demanded have no purpose if you’re only riding for a dozen fast miles, and the sensible heavy mudguards are merely excess baggage out there where the sun always shines; they make wheel changing more of a chore too, as well as restricting the sizes of tyres our tyros could choose.

It might come as a small surprise, but most of this Norton is actually a Matchless. A very great Matchless called, with startling wit and imagination, the G85CS. It was powered by a 500 single engine and was serious scrambly kit in the mid-late 1960s. Magnificent men threw these flying machines into the endless mud through which Brit racers apparently liked to race, and Americans raced them too, probably through mud – but also over deserts.

Those Americans liked them lots, they bought most of them and they raced them, as Americans do. Then they made the unsurprising discovery that when raced against, for example, a BSA or Triumph 650 twin, and if the course was, for example, long and often straight (like in a desert) the bigger twins beat the big banger. And, being logical kinds of fellows, as Americans are, some of them wondered how a super-trick, light’n’strong G85CS chassis would perform if someone were to, for example, squeeze in a big twin … a bigger twin than the 650 Beezers and Trumpets; a 750 Norton twin, maybe. And being Americans, they did not stop at the drinking and thinking phase; they built a couple. And they were good. In fact … they were very good.

Enter Norton’s P11. There was also a Matchless P11, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. An American called Bob Blair, of ZDS Motors, built the first Norton P11 and sent it to AMC, builders of both Norton and Matchless over in south London for their evaluation and education. They looked, listened and learned, and put the hybrid into production. The resulting street-legal hairy beast was offered for sale in the UK, and… Brits bought Norton Atlases instead. Featherbed frames, same engine. That sort of thing. Americans bought lots of P11s, and after a year or two they parked them up when a new toy arrived, and a lot of them have found their way back home. Like this one. This one is one of the very last of the Norton hybrids – as they’re generally known in classicland. For the last year of production the new Norton Villiers company gave their hairy beast a name, rather than just a number. And that name was … Ranger 750.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

Hard to think now that British buyers didn’t see the attraction in the 1960s

 

Norton P11 Ranger Price

These unusual machines have lots going for them, and all of these features shove up the price. They look great; they sound great; they go very great, and they are very rare. So they cost lots. They’re still coming out of the USA and returning to GB, and they do so in every imaginable condition, ranging from chopped about (some owners built choppers out of them – really) for maybe £4500 to original and unruined for £10k or so. Trader prices; you might pick one up for less privately. Or you might not.

Spares supply is excellent for the engines and transmissions, reasonable for most of the rest, although be considerably careful to check that the frame is undamaged, because there are none. The hand-bashed tinware is also somewhat elusive unless you know the right people.

Also – and this is the best-ever advice: make sure you know what you’re buying and take along someone who knows more than you do when you look at the bike you’re considering. Not all Matchless-framed Norton twins are P11s, and less yet are Rangers. It is too easy to make a costly mistake, as with all vaguely exotic machinery. A set of transfers costs very little…

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

Twin carbs for more power, serious air filtration to keep the desert on the outside

 

Power and torque

Norton twin engines – the big ones – have plenty of power and torque to match. The figures are hardly scary these days, but back in the mid-1960s the Ranger’s 56bhp at 6400rpm was serious stuff. Delivered with air filtration and silencing too, although noise regs were hardly as punishing then as today. The claimed torque figure for the Ranger was 54lb.ft at 4600rpm – much the same as an early Norton Commando, which uses essentially the same engine. The Ranger, however, weighed in at 360lb, while that early Commando squashed the scales at 400lb or so. And remember that the Commando and Ranger shared showroom floors for a short time. Which would you have bought?

What this all means is that if you are a genuine superhero with steel teeth and biceps like the Terminator you’ll be able to find a convenient off-road road and scare yourself witless with never-ending powerslides. Power comes in early, surfing the torque curve from 2500rpm, and by 4000rpm the thing is singing. On the hard road? On Tarmac? Do you enjoy a challenge?

It is entirely possible to ride a Ranger sedately around, to rumble through traffic without scaring the natives, but that does rather miss the point. It’s a beefy engine in a lightweight bicycle – Colour Me Fun, as the ads of the time suggested.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

First seen as a 500 in 1956, Norton’s big twin had grown by a strapping fifty per cent by its sixteenth birthday

 

Engine, gearbox and exhaust

When considering any ancient Brit parallel twin it is essential to remember that Triumph were first. And indeed last. All the other competing companies’ designers tried – and often succeeded – to improve on the Triumph original. The Norton twin – as seen here in its desert racer guise – is like that.

Norton’s boss designer, a fine fellow name of Bert, wanted to improve on the Triumph twin, while producing comparable performance at a comparable price. So, rather than using Triumph’s vintage external tubes to contain the pushrods which prod the overhead valves, he had tunnels cast into the cylinder block. That made the block more expensive, so he saved money by employing just the one camshaft, as opposed to the Triumph’s two. That shaft sits at the front of the engine, spinning in a trough of oil, and is rarely a problem… except when the occasional batch of soft steel was used, but that’s not a design flaw.

The next step was to cure the leaky top end, which was accomplished by casting the head and rockerboxes as one unit, which stops leaks between the top end joints … because there are no top end joints. Again, this makes for an expensive casting, and costs were saved elsewhere by using chains to drive both the single camshaft and the magneto, rather than the expensive precision gears employed by Triumph.

So, we have a neat engine design with fresh thinking applied, gained from several years of experience watching how Triumphs performed in the real world. The first Norton twin engine displaced 497cc from internal dimensions of 66 x 72.6mm. The first of the several stretches came for 1956, when the engine was bored and stroked to 68 x 82mm, providing a rousing 596cc. 1960 introduced a stretched stroke, hefting the twin to 68 x 89mm and 646cc – the first of many Norton 650 twins. By 1962 the inevitable Americans were demanding more cubes and Norton obliged with the first 750 – boring their twin to 73 x 89mm and 745cc. Hurrah.

That engine was used in several models with three different tank badges (Norton, AJS and Matchless) and is in fact a completely cracking device, so when the freshly revived Norton Villiers concern was looking for a great new superbike engine to combat Honda and the like… this is the lump they chose. Which is why the first of the Commando line used the same engine as the Ranger when 1967 also produced Sergeant Pepper and the Norton Commando. Hurrah for both.

It was important that the revived – in 1966 – Norton concern continued to build and sell bikes while developing their bendy new superbike, and remarkably it was this same revised concern which introduced and sold the P11. We should all be pleased that they did.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

Separate gearbox only has four speeds, but shifts cleanly

 

Sitting behind the engine is the gearbox. It’s a separate item – Norton never managed to combine engine and box into a single unit on their production big twins. Introduced in 1956 and known variously as the AMC gearbox or the Norton gearbox, depending on who’s talking, the box in its later, strengthened, form stuck steadfastly to its original four speeds, although their spacing changed over years, as you’d hope. The shift is clean and precise, quick for a box of its type, and the 750 desert sleds do not appear to suffer the 3rd gear wear which can affect Commandos. The clutch is also of the sort used since the introduction of the AMC gearbox, and works well. It’s entirely conventional, multi-plate, 3-spring, and should be both light and progressive in use, as well as being up to the vivid acceleration which the engine can deliver at the twist of a grip.

Two main types of exhaust were fitted: high level and low level. Both could come with or without silencers. The latter are very loud, sound faster than bikes with silencers, and of course they are faster. Air filtration is sensible and removing it does nothing to improve the engine.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

This kind of behaviour is easier with the right suspension fitted and the additional damping that comes with enormous testicles

 

Handling, suspension, chassis and weight

Matchless were very famous for several decades for building traditional big bangers which were awesome in the mud of British scrambles. They also built gentler bangers which were awesome in the mud of British trials, and for some years the basic bicycles used for this were very similar. The engines were not, as you’d hope. By the mid-Sixties, pesty competitors from home and abroad were racing bikes which followed the twin gods of More Power and Less Weight, both of which are somewhat crucial in scrambles. In 1965, as the long night of the British industry was drawing in, Matchless built their ultimate factory scrambler, the G85CS. It was very fast and it was decently light, and handled very well off road. Ridden on the road, it tended to be very snappy, twitchy and harsh.

As we’ve already revealed, Americans (and others who had big wide empty country to play in) wanted more performance than an ohv air-cooled single could sensibly deliver, and cheerily slotted the Norton twin into the Matchless bicycle to produce the P11 / Ranger, as seen here. These are actually competition machines, but made effective for the road by using coil ignition and a 12V alternator to power sparks and lights. So what you actually have here is a top class scrambler fitted with a monster road twin engine and lights. The result is amazing – although the British press of the time wouldn’t agree.

Front forks came from the same Matchless stable as the frame, and are pretty much what the comp boys would have used in the deep mud. They work very well and boast decent travel and firm damping. They even come with a friction steering damper as standard, and using it is a good idea.

Round the back? The original Girling shocks will be well past their best – assuming they’ve survived this long. Off-road racers generally use decent quality replacements, though the bike in the pics was riding on shocks intended for road use – as of course were the originals.

And as you’d expect with a bike that’s 32” tall, slender as a trail bike and weighing 360lb or so, the handling is easy. A better word might be ‘lively’, because these machines most surely are that. Front end is non-adjustable, although changing the grade of oil changes the damping, and several rates of springs are available should you feel so inclined, and if your bike is fitted with standard pattern rears, they’re adjustable only for preload. None of this matters much if you intend to use the bike entirely on tarmac, which is the most likely scenario. The riding position encourages cranking the bike down in bends; just lay it down as far as your courage or the tyres will permit. Everything works together really well, and those narrow tyres on those tall wheels work well with the geometry, as you’d hope given that these were race winners when they were current..

If the key to great handling is the excellent all-welded Matchless full duplex frame, it is super-important that you check out the frame of any Ranger you might be interested in, particularly around the steering head, the swinging arm pivot and the slightly complicated footrest mounting arrangement. If there is a single sign of a single crack, walk away – unless you are an expert welder.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

Single-leading-shoe brakes work well on lightweight commuter bikes and off-road motorcycles. On the road, you’ll need to look further ahead

 

Brakes

At this point it is worth reminding ourselves that the brakes were intended by the original American builders of the first of these hybrids to work well on the rough. And they do. They’re unimpressive on tarmac, although they are progressive and smooth in operation. Both hubs contain 7-inch sls drum brakes, and although the shiny alloy hubs look great and are full-width, the shoes themselves are a slightly uninspiring 1.12” at the front and a quite startling 0.87” at the back. Great on the muddy rough stuff and wet roundabouts, clenchingly exciting at the road speeds these machines are easily capable of.

 

Comfort

You sit high, you sit almost exactly above the bike’s centre of mass, the saddle is longer than solo and shorter than a 2-up perch. The bike is a scrambler, and it’s set up as one. The bars are wide, the controls rugged, with a slightly manly reach to the big levers. The seat is short on padding and the suspension is hard, even on a soft setting. The Ranger was built to go very rapidly on very loose surfaces, not to cruise around on a vintage club run. Rough riders stood up on those over-engineered footrests a lot. There is more than one reason for this.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

Because the most important thing you need to know while eight inches in the air is how many amps in the battery…

 

Equipment

You get twin clocks – a luxury – you get lights and a 12V alternator charging system to power those lights and the twin coils which spark the engine. You usually get a lightly dodgy sidestand. If you’re lucky you get a deep Candy Apple Red paint scheme. Who could ask for more? You want a GoldWing, buy one…

1967 Norton Ranger 750 Verdict

There are several reasons why these rare bikes command top dollar – and it’s not entirely down to their rarity and rakish good looks. They are addictive machines to ride, especially so if you enjoy a little light off-roading or greenlining. Nothing too tough, because dropping your Ranger will dent the bank account as much as your own pride.

There is a wildly excited owners’ group and unimaginably expert knowledge of all the 750 Norton hybrids is available at the flick of a mouse. They produce monster enthusiasm, enthusiasm which is entirely deserved. The first time I rode one was across a grassy hillside in remote Shropshire, not a road in sight. It was awesome. It flew. It made a dully average rider look and sound like Clint Eastwood (who rode one, back in that distant day). The next trip was a surprisingly enjoyable growl down Croydon High Street, where every head turned. Subtle and quiet they are not. Norton’s Rangers are serious money, but seriously great to ride.

 

Full review of the 1967 Norton Ranger 750

Cooler than Clint? We think so.

 

Three things I loved about the Norton Ranger 750

• Awesome torque

• Sheer riding excitement

• Outstanding handling 

Three things that I didn’t…

• Vibration when working hard

• Uncompromising competition set-up

• Weak brakes

 

1967 Norton Ranger 750 spec

New price

£397 4s 11d in 1967 (approx £7000 inflated to 2019 prices)

Current value

£10,000+

Capacity

745cc

Bore x Stroke

73x89mm

Engine layout

OHV parallel twin

Engine details

Overhead valves, two per cylinder

Power

52bhp @ 6400rpm

Top speed

100mph

Transmission

4-speed, chain drive

Average fuel consumption

40mpg

Tank size

3.0 gallons

Frame

Full duplex steel cradle, all welded

Front suspension

Matchless Teledraulic forks

Front suspension adjustment

N/A

Rear suspension

NJB (Norton units, tubular steel swinging arm

Rear suspension adjustment

Spring preload

Front brake

7.0-inch sls drum, cable operated

Rear brake

7.0-inch sls drum, rod operated

Front tyre

3.50 x 19

Rear tyre

4.00 x 18

Wheelbase

57.6”

Ground clearance

7”

Seat height

32”

Kerb weight

368lb

 

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