It’s 1959, and Brian Higgs, a teenage Teddy Boy, has fallen hook, line and sinker for a Norton International.
Six decades later and Brian, now 77, is just as smitten with the bike that’s been with him virtually his whole adult life.
“It was always a special bike,” he says, pushing the 1950 Norton out of the garage it shares with a more modern Suzuki GSXR750. “I could never get rid of my Inter because it was the ultimate. I loved the sound of it and the smell of the Castrol R.”
A rare bike even back then, the Inter had a race-winning pedigree in the Isle of Man TT, making household names out of pre-war riders like Jimmie Guthrie, Jimmy Simpson and Stanley Woods.
Works rider Guthrie set a one-hour world record on the bike at the concrete bowl track in Montlhery, France, clocking an average speed of 114.09mph back in 1935.
No wonder Brian, who aged 13 would ride a 1930 hand change, side valve BSA around fields opposite his home at Potters Bar, took a shine to the 500cc Norton.
Aged 19 and riding a Norton Dominator 55, his head was turned when a friend bought an Inter.
“A mate got one and I decided I wanted one too,” he says. “They were a rare bike – there weren’t many around, and it was really hard to find one for sale.
“Eventually I found one in Kennington near the Oval and paid £120 for it, which was a lot when I was earning £15 a week, but they were very sought after.”
Hefty price tag
With inflation, that equates to nearly £2,700 in today’s money, a hefty price tag for a nine-year-old bike.
To Brian though, it was well worth the money, and not just because it’s now valued at more than £30,000.
“All my mates say ‘why don’t you get rid of it, it’s worth lots of money’,” he says, digging out some old photos of the bike at his home near Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
“If I did sell it, two years later the money’s gone and then I haven’t got my bike either. I’ve had it all this time and it’s part of me – there’s no way I will get rid of it.
“The younger ones say ‘when are you old boys going to get rid of your bikes and let us youngsters have a go?’”
The answer, in Brian’s case, is probably never, with sons Danny and Steve set to inherit the bike one day in the future.
“Danny tells me he’s going to put it in a museum with a plaque dedicated to me,” smiles the former engineer-turned-carpenter, painter and decorator.
“I’d like him to keep it, but it’s up to them what they do with it after I’m gone.”
Born in south east London in August, 1940, Brian’s civil servant father moved the family to Potters Bar to escape the German bombs.
“I left school at 16 and dad said to me ‘get a job at the electricity board and you’ve got a job for life’,” says Brian, a grandfather of four.
“I got an interview and got on my motorcycle, an ex War Department Royal Enfield painted black, and went down to East Finchley to a coke-fired generating station.
‘Are you a Teddy Boy?’
“I was given an apprenticeship on a six-month trial, but at the time Elvis came along and I was a Teddy Boy. My boss came up and said to me ‘are you a Teddy Boy?’
“I said ‘yes, so what?’ He said ‘I don’t think you are suitable, this isn’t going to work’.”
Just like the mods and rockers yet to come, a minority of Teddy Boy gangs bent on rioting and violence had queered the pitch for the law-abiding majority.
“Dad simply said ‘you’d better get on your bike and get a job’,” says Brian, who did just that and joined a small engineering company at Potters Bar.
They had no objections to Brian’s fashion and music tastes, and Brian was still working there when he bought the Norton at the age of 19 in 1959.
“I’d go to work and back on it and my future wife would go on the back when we were courting,” he says.
“After we got married, every time I used to go out on it on a Sunday she’d say ‘you went out on it last week’. I would say ‘I loved motorbikes before I met you’. She said she thought I’d grow out of it.
“We spent our first wedding anniversary at Brands Hatch, so she should have known really!”
When he bought the Norton, it had been modified into a Manx-look bike and Brian set about putting it back to its original specification, selling the original EFK 1 number plate to fund the work.
“I wish I hadn’t flogged it now, but I had no money for the restoration so it was the only way I could pay for it,” he says.
“As I was restoring it, I quickly realised I was rebuilding it as a road bike and not what it actually was, a Model 30 Clubman’s, so I had to do it all over again with a different saddle, handlebars, chain guard etc.”
Back to its correct spec, Brian used the bike regularly for a number of years.
“My mate Harry and I on our bikes always used to take the girls down to Southend, and always got a puncture!” he says.
“It never broke down, I just remember we always got punctures and had to carry a toolbox and a spare plug everywhere.
“Me and Harry used to go down the Odeon in Barnet, park the bikes outside, put our helmets on the seat, go and watch the film and they never got nicked.
“The bikes had no ignition keys, just turn the fuel tap on and off you go. We would not do it now but we did it all the time then.
Fantastic to ride
“It was just fantastic to ride – it was different to other bikes and it did 105mph two-up. It had a straight-through pipe and I just loved the sound of it.
“The coppers in those days used to pull you over and say ‘your bike’s noisy’. They stuck their truncheon up your exhaust pipe to see if you had any baffles.”
Brian moved his young family to a new home near a good school in Welwyn Garden City, and the Norton was laid up for eight to 10 years while a Mini became family transport and a Norman two-stroke bike a more economical ride to work in Potters Bar.
By the early 1970s, Brian was persuaded to make a move from engineering to decorating, and bought and sold a number of bikes and cars over the years, including a shaft-driven Sunbeam S7 and a BSA 250 Greeves Scottish, also building a Westfield kit car with Danny.
Through it all, the Norton remained, despite one wobble in about 2011.
“I did put it up for sale on the Norton Owners Club site, and a bloke I’m still in touch with who restores old bikes wanted to buy it and came down to look at it,” says Brian.
‘I would be in tears’
“I was talking to a friend and I said ‘if I saw that bike going out of the gate for the last time I would be in tears’. She said ‘don’t sell it then’ and I didn’t and I’m pleased I didn’t.”
It gave Brian the impetus to get the Norton back on the road, and it has recently returned from a £5,000 restoration.
“The bloke who worked on it said he was so pleased to be able to work on one of these, he’d never seen another one,” says Brian, itching to get back on board the Inter for the first time in nearly 20 years.
“This summer I will be out on it. I want to ride it before I die! There’s no point in having it if I can’t ride it.
“I’ll just ride around locally, and I’ve said to my son when we get it going properly he’ll have to follow me in the car!”
Brian remains a Sunday morning regular at the Silver Ball Bikers Cafe at Royston, but it’s the ultra-reliable Suzuki that carries him there.
“I was very skeptical about Japanese bikes – all the gear changes are on the wrong side! But I went for a test ride on a Yamaha FZ750 and within a week I had found one and bought one,” he laughs.
“You just press the button and it starts, and you know you are going to get home.”
But what the Norton lacks in modern electrics and reliability it more than makes up for in soul.
And, while the Suzuki has more in common with white goods, the venerable old British bike is Brian’s own personal time machine, transporting him back to a carefree youth as a teenage Teddy Boy when anything seemed possible.
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