8 Ball In The Wind

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lil' Blackie

Have you ever had or ridden; a bike that was just sweet as hell to look at, wicked fast in a straight line, but could become just plain wicked going down the road?  I used to have one.  A chopped ‘70 Norton Commando, that I called  “Lil’ Blackie”.

At least that is what I named her when I first bought her and brought her over to a friends garage to get her up and on the road.  But when I was riding her, I was usually too busy trying to keep her on the road to call her much of anything. 
When I bought her, it had been an impulse buy.  I had run across an ad for a “mostly complete” Norton chopper and two “parts bikes” that was only a few miles from where I lived in rural Washington state.  At the time, I had some cash burning a hole in my wallet (and I have a weak spot for Nortons) , so I called the guy.  

I took a buddy’s truck and took a look at it.  When he rolled up the garage door, the first thing I saw was that long springer front end seeming to stretch way back to a set of drag bars.  There wasn’t anything else in the garage except the boxes of parts against the back wall.  The guy was showing her off to her best look.  Her stance was nearly perfect.  Long and black with that springer glistening in the front.  I was already on the hook, and unless I saw something that scared me off in the next couple of minutes, she was going to get loaded up and hauled to my friends garage where I was going to get her back on the road.  As I unloaded her from the truck back at Cowboys farm, I was a happy camper.

For the most part, her drive train was that of a stock Norton Commando.  With the exception of having a right hand side jockey shift.  Up front was a waaay over stock springer that was quite “springy” as I found out the first time I rode her.  I also found out the hard way that she had too much trail, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  The frame was a variation of the Amen Saviour frame style that was popular for some reason on choppers in the 70’s and early 80’s.  If you don’t know what was so ‘different’ about that frame style, let me tell you about it.  Probably 95% of the frame looked like a cool raked rigid frame.  No swingarm, no shocks, nothing that didn’t need to be there.  That is, until you got to the back where the axle passed through the frame.  Instead of having the axle plates welded to the frame, they were welded to vertical springs that were housed in tubes at the rear of the frame.  This was meant to give a little rear suspension.

On a bike with telescoping forks, like a Triumph chop I had a few years before, it worked fairly well.  At least enough it could be dealt with.  Even with a springer front end, it worked ok.  That is, as long as you were on a pretty smooth and straight road.  Since the rear axle was independent of the frame, when you would lean into a tight turn, the rear axle tended to try to remain perpendicular to the road.  Which could make for a fair bit of excitement if you need to suddenly make a hard sharp turn.

So Lil’ Blackie not only had springs on her rear axle, her front was mounted in an overly long (and more than a bit flexible) springer front end.  I found out on the first ride I made on her that the trail was off by a couple inches, so she turned with the ease of a toddler going bowling.  She looked bad ass sitting still with that springer on.  But it tended to flex a bit, and would “hop” the front tire like a pogo stick if the pavement wasn’t nice and smooth.  She was a city bar hopper, and probably wouldn’t have been too bad on the freeway.  But on the old, uneven twisting back roads where I lived, she was a scary bitch.

After I had her all together, and the motor chugging in that way only an English vertical twin does, I had to take her for a quick test ride.  Now I have owned and ridden Nortons before.  So I knew all about having a right side shifting transmission with a 1st gear up, 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear down shifting pattern.  
I had even ridden a jockey shift before.  But that had been a left hand side, tank mount set-up, with a foot clutch.   Still, it felt really weird to pull in the clutch lever with my left hand, then take my right hand off the throttle and reach down behind my ass to grab the shifter knob, make the shift, reach back up to the throttle and let out the clutch again.

I killed the bike a couple times trying to get rolling down the driveway.  Then again, when I went to pull onto Orting-Kapowsin Highway.  Having to make the turn onto the highway was an experience, as I took almost the whole road to make the right turn onto the road, and had to turn left almost immediately to turn onto 288th St.  Both times it took a lot of force to get over the issue with that springers trail.  Taking the whole road and a bit to make the turns.  
But I was on 288th St now, and wouldn’t need to make a turn for about 3 miles or so.  I spent the first mile or so just getting used to this new way of shifting until it began feeling a bit more comfortable.  That’s when I dropped her all the way down into 4th gear and grabbed a fistful of throttle. 

Lil’ Blackie’s pipes sounded great, as her throttle response was quick for an old Commando.  We were flying down 288th St, and I tucked in behind the drag bars enjoying the ride.  About then we hit a stretch of road that had settled, leaving ripples and dips and chuckholes and patches all along the road.  Suddenly I think we were flying, or at least trying to.  Between the rear axle bouncing up and down, and the front tire merrily bouncing around, I wouldn’t be surprised if half the time both wheels were off the ground at the same time.  The front tire caught hold of a crack in the road and pulled hard to the right.  I was hanging on to the drag bars for all I was worth, letting off the throttle and using the Norton’s rear drum brake to slow down a bit as we skipped across the road together like in some perverse polka.

Once I got her down to about 30-35 mph (she didn’t have a speedo) everything seemed to mellow out again.  As long as I kept her just putting along on that old road she was fairly sweet.  But if I tried to give her some juice, she turned into some sort of mechanical bucking bronco trying to throw me into next week.
I finally made it to Meridian Ave, and had to fight her to not take more than the road had to make the turn.  Since Meridian was a state Highway, it was a bit wider, and much smoother than 288th had been.  I brought her up to about 80, and just flew down the road with no trouble at all.  That is until I had to slow down for the light at 304th.  That is where I had planned on turning around anyway, so when the old Norton rear drum brake finally got me slowed down enough, I swung into the parking lot of the gas station at the corner, and rolled back through it the other way.  The parking lot being so much wider than the road, I didn’t have any trouble getting turned around.  Getting that “chopper flop” on the front wheel fixed was definitely going to be a top priority.  As well as replacing those springs on the axle plates with normal axle plates, to eliminate her wanting to dance around the road.

I headed back to the garage at a much more relaxed pace.  I knew what I had to do to make her “perfect”, or as close as I would ever need her to be.  When I rolled back into the driveway, I was getting used to how she handled, but still didn’t like it.  So I was planning on stripping her down to the frame, and having a friend replace the springs with axle plates, and to get another to help fab up some pivot arms to alleviate the chopper flop.  But that was going to have to wait, as I had a Dr’s appointment the next day, and that was to prove a life changing visit.

The Doc dropped a bombshell on me that next day.  I had a brain tumor, and couldn’t drive…and no way could I ride a bike again.  Since I didn’t have the money for all the medical bills that were coming, and I couldn’t see leaving what could have been such a sweet ride just sit, I sold Lil’ Blackie.  I sold all of my spare parts, and only kept one bike, my old Norton P11A ‘Lola’.  But in the end, I sold her too a few years later.  It was several years after they removed the brain tumor that I had recovered from it, and recovered from the side effects of the surgery.  I always knew I would ride again, and eventually I was back on two wheels where I belonged. 

I often wonder what happened to Lil’ Blackie, and if someone had taken the time to fix her properly to tame her wild ways.  I’ll never know, but somehow I think, or hope they did.  She would have been one hell of a sweet chop to ride after they did.

Catch ya on the road sometime…

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