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The 500GP Norton Four

This is the four cylinder Norton planned for 500GPs, on the cover of Built for Speed by John Griffith. They also built a 250 and started on the 500 with a 125cc single cylinder mule Gilera’s fours initially dominated the 500 world championship although poor reliability, Norton’s featherbed and Geoff Duke kept them at bay for a while. Gilera’s blueprint was quickly followed (or more accurately stolen) by MV Agusta. Arch publicist George Brough even spoke with Gilera about using their four to create a sporting four cylinder Brough Superior, something he longed to do. Norton started drawing up plans for their own four in the early 50s, even more radical than the Italians. For its time – work on the project was abandoned in 1953 – the Norton four had features not seen in post war competition including water cooling, forward facing carburettors with exhaust ports at the rear, and rotary valves . A complete engine was built and tested. Norton’s racing supremo Joe Craig spent a year with the BRM car racing team to better understand four cylinder racing engines. Everyone became convinced that the transverse four was the future of racing. When the Gilera Quattro arrived at the 1949 Dutch TT press reports mention the number of Japanese taking photographs from every conceivable angle. Clearly there were people on the other side of the world who appreciated that this was the future. As one time boss of Honda’s international racing effort Gerald Davison put it: “I used to say to the engineers, ‘if I gave you a blank piece of paper, it will still be blank in two weeks’ time. If I give you a set of drawings you’ll have improved on them by this afternoon’”. This is the way Japanese view art, repeating what looks like the same painting each time. It’s called kaizen, a belief that continuous, small, changes will eventually reap major improvement. It’s what the British did with their racing single cylinder motorcycles and it did indeed work – for a while. When a big leap forward came, with Honda’s inline four and mass production techniques, the British industry collapsed almost overnight.

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