Stan’s Norton Model 50 jigsaw puzzle

Norton Model 50 Stan Harris

What’s the perfect Christmas present for a man who loves jigsaw puzzles almost as much as he loves motorcycles?

For Stan Harris, it was a Norton Model 50 which had been broken up and piled into a dozen or more boxes, jars and tins.

The Norton was a gift from Stan’s wife and biking partner Jean and son Peter one Christmas in the late ‘90s.

With the frame, spokeless wheels, and assorted boxes of bike scattered around his shed, he remembers surveying the wreckage of the 1957 Norton.

“I sat there and just looked at it,” he says, “oh right, yeah, OK. The old boy who owned it previously had dismantled absolutely everything, and just put the bits wherever, why I don’t know.

“It was a joy”

“I used to go in there when I came home from work and have a look through it all. It was a joy, especially when you found the parts that matched.

“It was like my jigsaws out there in the other room – I thoroughly enjoy them, I love them.”

We’re chatting about the Norton, and a biking life that started nearly 70 years ago, in 84-year-old Stan’s neat bungalow in the Essex seaside town.

It all began with a Matchless 350 he bought for his 16th birthday, having already ordered and received his licence in advance.

He had a pot of money available from compensation he received following a farming accident at work, when his foot became trapped in the lift section of a plough.

“My eldest sister’s husband was a dispatch rider in the army, and he said he’d get me a bike from a fellow he knew,” he remembers. “It cost me £45, which I could afford with the £100 compensation.

Birthday ride

“My brother-in-law showed me all the controls and how to start it etc, and on my 16th birthday I got  home from work and said to myself ‘I’m going to go for a ride on my motorbike’.

“I fired it up, rode down the road and I just kept riding, and riding and riding. I ended up riding from Pitsea to Dagenham. I came to a junction and said to myself ‘oh my God, where am I?’ I didn’t have a clue. Then I saw a road sign for Southend, and I knew we lived that way, and I came home via the old A13, which was a bad road then.

“I got home that night completely exhausted. I’d been out for hours and hours and went for miles.”

Stan hasn’t been without a bike since, moving on to a 650cc BSA Golden Flash, followed by a succession of Vincents, first a Comet 500 and then Rapide 1000.

“One of the blokes in the Vincent Owners Club (VOC) said ‘I’ll do a swap with you’, so I got his Rapide and he got my Comet,” he remembers. “He said ‘the only trouble is you can’t kick start it because it keeps breaking the kick start’.

“I said ‘what do you do then?’ ‘Bump it’. Being a little fellow, I needed a kerb to run alongside the bike, and there was one outside my house.

“I turned everything on, first gear, clutch in, run, and as I hit the seat I dropped the clutch and it fired, leg over, down the road, and I rode around for a little while, thinking ‘this is good’.

“I bumped it everywhere; as long as I had a kerb I was all right.”

The Rapide was traded in for a fully enclosed Vincent Black Knight, which Jean described as “like riding around on a robot”.

Stan and Jean took a BSA Super Rocket to the Isle of Man TT for their honeymoon, “the worst bike I ever owned – every time it rained the carb would freeze up”. 

When the couple’s daughter was born, it was clear they needed some passenger room, so another VOC contact put him on to someone selling their outfit.

The Black Shadow that got away

This is the story of the one that got away, because the bike in question was a Vincent Black Shadow with a Steib S501 sidecar, bought for a mere £112 in 1962.

The combination in good condition today would be worth around £100,000.

“I put it in part exchange for a 1949 Ford Prefect,” he says ruefully, “they gave me £200 in the deal.

“That Black Shadow is still running today – it belongs to a man in Kent. A friend of mine sent me a picture on his phone and said ‘have you ever seen this bike before?’ I looked at the number plate, VPJ 105, and remembered it straight away because I always said it stood for ‘Vincent Passes Jaguar at 105’.”

Stan remembers taking the bike to the Blinking Owl cafe on the A127 (now My Place Cafe), a renowned biker meeting place.

“I remember there were intersections, or gaps, on the A127,” he says, “and on my Black Shadow with the Steib on the side I used to go down to one of them, hit it at 30, turn sidewards, give it an almighty handful with the back wheel spinning like a good ‘un and come out the other side.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the bike, and when our son was born we changed the sidecar to a child / adult Watsonian and we all enjoyed our bike life.”

From Vincent to Honda

With the Black Shadow off to pastures new, Stan switched to Honda Gold Wings.

He survived two major health scares – three heart attacks in 1987 and a stroke in 2000 – before embarking on a 4,000-mile European tour with Jean and another couple on Gold Wings in 2009.

“The biggest joke of all was that the heart attacks weren’t caused by fags – I used to smoke about 60 a day – but by racing pigeon droppings,” he says.

“I used to keep about 200, but what comes out of their droppings gets into your lungs and affects your heart, so I had to give them up.”

Stan describes the four-week tour through France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy as the highlight of his biking life.

“We never touched any motorways at all,” he says. “We went up the Col de Turini and right down into Monte Carlo, bought an ice cream there – £7 for a cornet!

“We stayed in a different hotel every night, and ended up down near Nice, where we rented a B&B, and it was so beautiful.

“You could sit in their garden, put your hand up and take the cherries off the tree and eat them and they were beautiful. It was just a dream.

“A dream holiday”

“On the way back in Paris, we sat in our hotel and we could see the Eiffel Tower. The next morning we went to it, and that evening booked to see the Moulin Rouge and had Champagne. It was a fantastic day and night – a dream holiday.”

Which brings us back to the Norton, Stan’s one remaining bike, which shares a garage with his granddaughter Emily’s Kawasaki Ninja, in storage until she passes her Category A motorcycle test.

The Norton Model 50, powered by a 348cc pushrod OHV four-stroke single, was in production from 1933 until 1963, with a lengthy hiatus during and after the war, manufacture beginning again in 1956.

Stan spent nearly four years re-assembling the 1957 bike, which had only covered about 12,000 miles before its previous owner took it apart.

“His son said he had decided he didn’t want to ride it anymore, so he took it to pieces,” he says. “Even the carb was dismantled, all the electrical bits were in pieces, all the bearings were out, everything.

“But all the parts were there. The only thing I changed was the spokes, which had all been taken out, because most of them were rusty. I took the wheels to Hagon’s, who rebuilt them for me, and I rebuilt the engine myself. The electrics were taken to a bloke out in the country.”

Once the old Norton was finally in one piece, Stan fired it up and took it out for a ride around the island.

Norton a pleasure to ride

“I enjoyed it so much, because it was so light after everything else I’ve had, and it handled lovely,” he remembers. “I used to go out there, turn the petrol on, six ticks on the carb, two kicks and away I went. All you could hear was bom bom bom bom, and it was just a pleasure to ride. 

“It’s so easy to change gear, and nothing was too much trouble – easy, calm and collected.”

Stan joined the Vintage Motor Cycle Club (VMCC), and has since added another 4,000 miles to the odometer, mostly on local runs around Essex and London with the VMCC or the Maldon British Motorcycle Owners Club.

As well as being fun to ride, the Model 50 has great sentimental value.

Stan and Jean’s son, Peter, who acquired the bike, sadly died suddenly of a heart attack some years ago, and Stan hopes it will one day stay in the family.

He hasn’t ridden the Norton since just before Covid, but has vowed to join granddaughter Emily – pictured on the back of Stan’s Gold Wing in Ireland – on a ride out on her Ninja once she’s passed her test.

“She can’t ride it yet, so I’ve said I can’t ride the Norton,” he says. “We’ll definitely go out for a ride together.

“I’ve asked her if she’d like the Norton one day, and she said ‘I’d love it grandad’. If that changes and she doesn’t want it, then one day it will have to go.”

So where does the Model 50 rank out of all the bikes Stan has owned in a lifetime of motorcycling?

“We’ve had some good fun with them all, but as I’ve got older, the Norton is the answer because it’s light, quiet and pleasant to ride,” he says. “I don’t want to ride at 100mph and slide round roundabouts anymore!

“We’ve had a good life, a damn good life.”

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