Saturday, November 6, 2010


A 'barn find' 1956 Norton Manx 30M, featured on The Vintagent two years ago, will appear at the Bonhams Petersen Museum auction on November 13, 2010.  This machine was catnip to me when a friend forwarded the photos - a full-blown racer on the road! - but queries about a sale were rebuffed.  Now it appears the owner has changed course, and the story revealed behind the machine and its modifications for the road make it all the more desirable.

The text of the Bonhams catalog bears repeating, as its charmingly written:

"The argument over best-loved automotive writer of all time would last far into the night, but among the finalists has to be Henry Manney III. No finer wordsmith ever grasped a steering wheel or set of handlebars. For decades his pieces were required reading in Road & Track magazine, especially his "At Large" column, which often signed off with his trademark shorthand coda, Yr Faithfl Srvnt. It was Manney who famously characterized the sexy-swoopy Jaguar E-type as the "greatest crumpet-catcher known to man." He also wrote for R&T's sister magazine Cycle World, where his good humor, keen wit and wonderfully obtuse writing style were always welcome entertainment.

Manney, a trained dancer in his youth, was comfortable rubbing shoulders with the Grand Prix greats in Monaco or touring deep in the American South driving some European import the locals had never heard of. His personal garage often included at least one exotic four-wheeler from Italy, but on the motorcycle side he favored the Queen's Iron, as illustrated by the four Britbikes on sale in this auction.

Flagship of the motley fleet has to be his Manx Norton. As befits Manney's slanted view on life in general and transportation devices in particular, this is no ordinary Manx. In silhouette, all the familiar components are there. The overhead cam motor with its right-side bevel-drive tower and exposed valve springs. The innovative all-welded frame so ahead of its time it was said to ride "like a featherbed," a name that stuck. The bread-loaf gas tank and bum-stop seat, known to legions of privateer roadracers learning their craft, not least of which was a young Mike Hailwood. The conically shaped brake hubs, the front with a jutting scoop to collect cooling air. All standard Manx fare.

But look closer and you'll discern Manney's grand plan for his Norton. First clue is the Smiths speedometer alongside the usual tach. Gone are the low-mounted clip-ons, replaced my more comfortable tubular handlebars. A custom alloy bracket on one of the frame's front downtubes holds an alternator intended to be belt-driven from a pulley attached to the crankshaft. The engine breathes through a filtered Mikuni carburetor, easier to start and keep idling than the proper remote-float Amal GP (which is included in this sale). The rear fender is drilled and wired to accept a taillight. In deference to neighbors and the local constabulary, a sound-deadening flapper valve was fitted to the megaphone exhaust, cable-operated from the handlebars. Yes, Manney intended this Manx to be street-legal and road-ridden! 

His untimely passing in 1988 put a stop to the project. Since then, all of Manney's bikes have been in the care of son Henry IV, stored in a shed for decades and only recently brought back into the light of day. Obviously, it would take very little to put the machine back in race trim, but what fun to continue where Manney left off, complete the transformation and end up with a cafe-racer ne plus ultra, a genuine road-going Manx Norton with literary provenance.

Mike Jackson, former 'Sales Mangler' for NVT (NortonVilliersTriumph), relates the following:

"Denis Jenkinson [another giant among motoring writers] first knew Henry when he was based in Paris at some time in a late 1950s, at which time he was riding a Manx on the road.  It was so high-geared that as a result he coined the phrase, 'One Bang per Lamp-post*'!   Well, there's a chance that this Manx might be that very machine."

What a terrific provenance, and I wish Henry Manney IV had sold it to me then!

[* Ribald phrase; in pre-internet days, Parisian hookers could be found leaning on lamp-posts as their 'turf']