Norvin Combines the Best of Norton and Vincent
Photography by Josh Clason for Petrolicious
The annals of Café Racer history are a dusty and half-remembered collection of anecdotes, second-hand stories, and overblown media reports. The reality of this unique 1940s and 50s British scene is now far less important than the fantasy—a pastiche of leather-clad youth with a disregard for law and safety and a lust for doing The Ton. But one kernel of truth of the Café scene needs no embellishment and has survived the endless retellings wholly intact: the machines.
Café Racing was a scene built out of custom bikes. Hardly just for vanity, no contemporary motorcycle was sold that satisfied the unique desires for speed and handling of this lunatic fringe of riding culture. Bars were dropped, frames were chopped, and engines were tuned and fettled. It quickly became clear which engines were the fastest, and which frames were the most agile. Of course, these were not on the same bike, or even from the same manufacturers. Thus special concoctions and mashups were built to exploit the very best of what was available. The Triton was easily the most popular: a Triumph engine plunked into a Norton featherbed frame. These were cheap and readily accessible parts that combined to make a formidable street machine. But if you wanted the absolute best—and had a little more cash than the average teenager—you built yourself a Norvin.
A Norvin is any hybrid consisting of the well-trusted Norton frame and a venerable Vincent engine. (Yes, that would be Vincent as in the Vincent Black Shadow.) Even if you’re sane enough to steer clear of motorcycle culture, you’ve likely heard the name Vincent Black Shadow. This is because the Black Shadow was Genesis—it was a new breed of sports bike and the fastest motorcycle in its day. It introduced a slew of technical innovations, as well as legitimized the sports bike genre. Fewer than 1,700 Vincent Black Shadows were made, and they were all hand-assembled beauties.
Because of this rarity, many Norvins were made from one of Vincent’s other engines. The example here was crafted using a Comet engine, a thunderous single cylinder 499cc power plant good for 28 honest British horses. Many technical innovations and racing inspired specifications were used on the Comet engine, making it the perfect heart of a Café Racer. The Norton featherbed frame, meanwhile, was renowned for its handling and cornering prowess. Originally developed for the Isle of Man TT race, it quickly made its way into Norton customer bikes and was widely considered to be the best handling frame that a café racer could have. It is still produced to this day by specialist manufacturers who have been hard pressed to find areas to improve upon the original design.
This, then, is what happens when worlds collide. A Norvin is a superhero teamup: a best-of album that will rock you without fail. This machine was and always will be more than the sum of its parts. One look at a Norvin tells you that you are on to something special. The dimensions, the stance, and the absence of trivialities tells you this a racer through and through.
Sadly, Vincent went bankrupt, making Norvins a unique moment in time, a capsule that brings together all the Café Racer scene into one beautiful machine. This beautiful machine is equally at home in a museum or attacking a twisting road. Even as the Café Racer scene continues to grow worldwide, the Norvin still holds its dominance as the Holy Grail of motorcycle builders. While stories of Ton-up boys and Chelsea jukeboxes continue to light up the imaginations of motorcycles to this day, the Norvin racer remains an unbelievable reality.