Featured: This Norton 588 Is The Isle Of Man Champion That Broke A Decades-Long Losing Streak

This Norton 588 Is The Isle Of Man Champion That Broke A Decades-Long Losing Streak

Will_Broadhead By Will_Broadhead
December 18, 2017
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Photography by Will Broadhead

The man on the white bike wearing the pink helmet sits politely in the queue of other motorcyclists. There’s nothing polite about what’s about to happen though, and this is the noisiest queue you are ever likely to find, perhaps the most nervous as well. “19” is the number atop the nose of his machine, and he will be the 19th to be sent down the course. As the starter’s hand taps the shoulders of the riders in front, he rolls slowly forward, thrum of the 588cc Wankel engine beneath him, drowning out the thoughts in his head and the heart beating in his chest. Every ten seconds the starter’s hand lifts, every ten seconds an engine roars and another rider disappears towards the cliff-like descent of Bray Hill, and #19 edges closer to the start. He doesn’t know it yet, but this is to be the race of his life. All he knows at this moment is that when he feels that tap the clutch is released and the throttle is pinned. The clock counts down, the hand lifts, the leather is tapped and the White Charger is released onto the Isle of Man. Onward to speed, onward to drama and if you are brave enough and have luck on your side, onward to victory…

Making my way through the National Motorcycle Museum my eye is caught by a simple two-digit number, black against a white background, mounted on the flank of an all-white machine. Despite the hundreds of stunning exhibits around me, I know immediately what this is, and am drawn towards it instantly. 1992 saw possibly the greatest ever Isle of Man TT, certainly of the more modern era: a titanic battle between Steve “Hizzy” Hislop and Carl “Foggy” Fogarty. But this was about more than just the men holding the throttles open, this was the story of an British marque taking on the might of Japan on a shoe-string budget, a David vs Goliath story told at 150 plus. Fast forward to now though, and the very bike that was ridden to victory by Hislop that day is in front of me. It’s not the most polished bike in the halls of this place, it’s not even the most exotic or even the most unique from a mechanical perspective, surrounded as it is by any number of other Norton Rotaries for starters. But for my money, it is the prettiest thing in the whole place.

I was just 7 years old in ’92, my eyes that year were fixed firmly on Nigel Mansell’s Formula 1 dominance as well as the battles between Rainey, Doohan, and Schwantz in the MotoGP championship. At the time, the TT to me was just something that Dad would talk about in awe. I knew it was special, but it wasn’t something I really understood then.

These days though and I can’t think of anything that compares with this spectacle of motorsport. The Nordschleife is not to be sneezed at, but you won’t go there and see someone land on a solitary rear tire after jumping a motorcycle alongside a stone wall at full bore. The TT is rightfully steeped in tradition and a history littered with heroes, but it has its share of tragedy too, far too much really. But on that day of the Senior TT in 1992, there was room only for heroism.

Foggy was the fourth rider to leave the start line on his 750 Yamaha, a bike almost any rider would favor over the Norton of Hizzy, and lap one indeed went to him with a stunning pace of a 121.9mph average speed around the 37.74 miles that make up a lap of the mountain course. Now, it’s got nothing on the pace set by today’ s top superbike riders, but this was 25 years ago and the Norton was making up to around 130bhp, the Yamaha less. Come the end of lap two and Hislop managed to find himself ahead by just 2.8 seconds, but after the pit stops for fuel and new rubber Foggy had the edge once again. Hizzy was going to have a fight on his hands…

Seeing the same exact bike in front of me, I can’t quite believe what it accomplished, seeing it so motionless and silent. Just getting around a lap of the TT is an achievement. With its bumpy roads and jumps bucking riders off often, never mind the stress on the engine. To summarize, the course is harsh, and it will find any weakness in bike or rider. The Norton was quite literally built in a shed. It did its duty though, and now it shows scars from this use, sponsor stickers ripped unceremoniously off and slapped back on, the fairing worn and pitted with age. It has the patina of a machine ridden hard on the hardest of all circuits, but I can’t imagine it looked much better to begin with; it’s boxy and wide, ungainly even, for starters. But if you’ve ever heard one of these things at speed, you’ll forgive its heavyweight looks. It creates a noise that fills you up from the inside out, a bark that is more WWII fighter than screaming motorcycle. I can only imagine the added edge that must have given to proceedings 25 years ago…

Getting back to the race in ’92, the battle between Norton and Yamaha continued through laps three and four. Hislop had eked out a lead on the Norton, but yet again time was lost in the pits. The lap record had been dashed by both riders through the race, but it would all come down to the last lap, naturally.

Hislop lead into the final lap by 5.4 seconds, but the Yamaha of Fogarty was catching. 188 miles had passed by at breakneck speeds, and 8,000 feet had been climbed up Snaefell Mountain. Both bikes and riders were suffering by this point, and later on, Fogarty would reveal that his bike was literally falling apart—and the TV footage from the event clearly shows the handling problems he had—but nonetheless his last lap was incredible. Despite the stricken bike, he lapped at 123.61mph, a record that stood for seven years afterwards!

First to be sent down the road meant Fogarty and his Yamaha were first over the line. A nervous wait ensued in anticipation of Hislop’s result, and around the circuit the partisan crowd could sense a victory for a British bike for the first time in 30 years. Programs waved wildly above the crowd, people cheered in unison, and as the Norton emerged from Signpost Corner, it looked like the engine was going to hang on in there to the end. Hislop crossed the line 4.4 seconds faster than Fogarty. 4.4 seconds was all that separated the men after 226 miles at an average race pace of 121mph. The bike that was born out of the imagination of Brian Creighton—from an old Police motorcycle no less—had taken on Yamaha and the TT, and won.

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Evan BedfordRubens FlorentinoMark St Clair Recent comment authors
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Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford

Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but Snaefell is 2,037 feet asl, not 8,000.

Rubens Florentino

Superbly written… congratulations!!!
I always have a weakness for British bikes (saving my pennies now to buy a Triumph) and I didn’t know anything about this very interesting chapter of motorcycle history.
A Wenkel powered Norton… just amazing!!!!
Thank you so much for sharing this.

Mark St Clair
Mark St Clair

You really do need to give that lens a clean. I’m pretty sure that the bulk of us readers would rather see the bikes clearly, not peer through the murk of some cheezy post processing filter.