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‘It was a pilgrimage for all of us’

Twenty years after Steve Hislop’s historic 1992 TT win for Norton, the main men behind the project reveal the real story behind the greatest Island battle

Steve Hislop’s 1992 Senior TT win on the Norton rotary was a fairytale writ real. It came 31 years after Mike Hailwood had won the marque’s last Senior TT, aboard a Manx, and was all the more special because for a long while no one had ever expected a British motorcycle to win again.

But what few people knew was that the race was also the company’s last chance to revive its ancient Island glories. Norton was spiralling towards bankruptcy.

“We were all scared to death because we knew it was going to be our last chance,” recalls Chris Mehew, the renowned engineer who joined Norton in 1990 alongside former Honda GB race boss Barry Symmons.

By early 1992 Symmons wasn’t only running a race team, he was also trying to fend off bailiffs who were sneaking into the race shop to settle Norton’s debts

“One day we arrived to find a bailiff’s truck loading up all the mechanics’ toolboxes,” remembers Symmons. “Another time they wandered off with the CNC machine. For a couple of months the mechanics weren’t getting paid, so Chris and I gave up our salaries so they got their money. It nearly drove Chris barmy, it nearly drove me barmy.

“The biggest problem was the whole project was absolute hell on earth. The factory was populated by the same kind of people who had said ‘oh, we don’t need to put starter motors on our bikes’. The guys on the factory floor were proud of what they were doing but the management hadn’t a clue. Except that they talked Chris and I into investing money in the company…”

Symmons, Mehew and the rest of the race team kept going because they truly believed in the project.

“It was a pilgrimage for all of us,” says Mehew. “We thought we were doing something important for the British industry. We put our hearts and souls into it. The financial restraints were incredible – we had a budget for a pot of paint. And we battled alone at Norton – we were very lonely people.”

The rotary had already done four TTs by the time Hislop got on the bike. Norton’s 1988 Island comeback had been a miserable affair and 1989 was no better, with three DNFs from four starts. The bike was fast but fragile, usually ruined by excessive heat, the rotary’s Achilles heel.

Things got better in 1990: a podium each for Trevor Nation and Robert Dunlop, fresh from victory at the North West 200 where he was speed-trapped at 189mph. The following June Nation briefly led the Senior before the engine overheated and seized.

By 1992 the bike was really coming together, with new gearbox and slipper clutch (borrowed from a Yamaha OW-01 and Kawasaki ZX-R750), Harris frame and wacky single-shock suspension system with secondary spring. Most crucially the original Amal smoothbore carbs were replaced by flat-slide Keihins.

“The engine was a pig, totally unreliable,” says Symmons. “A conventional engine produces about 800 degrees at the exhaust gate, whereas a rotary produces about 1200 degrees. The only way they could get any reliability was with the Amals which guzzled fuel. Essentially they were cooling the engine with fuel.”

The usual victim of the heat was the rotor bearing. “We ended up silver-coating the cages,” adds Mehew. “But the coating would come off, the bearing would go into distress and the engine would lock up. It was sporadic, sometimes they could go for ages, other times they’d go straight away. I still think it’s a fantastic engine though – it couldn’t help but make power and it was so easy to work on.”

When Symmons first offered Hislop a TT ride in late 1991 the Scot laughed it off. “You must be joking,” he wrote in his autobiography, Hizzy. “That thing will never last one lap of the Isle of Man.”

Just weeks before the 1992 TT Hislop split from Yamaha, leaving him without bikes for the F1 and Senior races. That’s when Symmons went into action, scratching together a budget to run the ten-time TT winner. If nothing else, Hislop thought that riding British iron might get him enough media attention to revive his flagging career.

His first test on the bike confirmed his worst fears. With just days to go before TT practice the rotary seized after just a handful of laps at Oulton Park.

“I could see Steve was a bit concerned,” says Symmons, with a hint of understatement. “I said to him ‘look, we’ll get this thing right or you won’t be riding it. Have no fear,’ and, God bless him, Steve took our word for it. Then we went to the North West 200 with Robert and blew up five engines getting the fuelling right.”

Mehew: “We had problems that had never occurred before. Dave Evans [the team’s tireless engine builder] flew back to Birmingham with some crankshafts and spark-eroded extra oil holes. We also fitted an auxiliary oil pump and after that there was no issue.”

Symmons felt that what they’d learned in Ireland would stand them in good stead for the Island. “We’d got a lot data, so we were quite happy that we could give Steve a bike he could run with but, to be frank, we’d been disappointed that many times we just wondered what was likely to go wrong next.”

The seizures weren’t the only thing that spooked Hislop. He was also concerned about the handling – the rotary’s unique power deliver always made the bike a challenge to ride.

“Some people would say the handling wasn’t good and I’d agree because we always had to concentrate on the engine,” Symmons explains. “We made a few chassis adjustments, got to the Island and Steve went out on the first evening of practice and was fastest. We thought ‘my God!’. He came back, made some comments and I asked Ron [Williams, the team’s chassis guru] to let him set up the bike the way he wanted it.”

Norton’s main opposition was Honda’s new hotshot Phil McCallen and Carl Fogarty, riding the OW-01 originally intended for Hislop.

During practice Norton continued to struggle with fuelling: too lean and the engine would overheat and seize, too rich and the bike wouldn’t even make two laps between fuel stops.

“We were always trying to find a balance between fuel consumption, engine cooling and performance,” says Mehew. “You’d pour in a five gallon drum of fuel and it’d just lick its lips and say thank you very much. It was a fine line: 22 litres for two laps, 11 litres a lap.

“We had two carburettor settings, one I wasn’t confident of, the other I was. So we went testing at Jurby and I asked Steve and Robert if they could run the richer setting and they said the lean setting is better. I said that’s not what I asked you. Steve said ‘you want me to say I can run the richer setting, don’t you?’ and he said ‘yes, I can.’

Practice week was cool and showery, F1 race day dawned warm and bright, just what Norton didn’t want. Hislop’s bike was soon overheating and Dunlop went out with a seized engine. Only after the race did Symmons discover that Dunlop had quietly switched to the leaner carburettor setting, thinking it would give him race-winning speed.

Hislop survived to finish second after his mechanics removed the front mudguard to improve cooling. McCallen won the race – his maiden TT victory – after Fogarty went out with a broken gearbox.

Now Norton had six days to get the bike right for the Senior – Hislop had endured more than a few scary moments during the F1 race. “I was hitting bumps, getting lifted out of my seat and the wind at those speeds was threatening to blow me off the back of the bike,” he said.

A taller windscreen and wider handlebars were the solution.

“The Norton’s torque would pull the back down and then the bike would shake its head, it was just an animal,” recalls Nation. “The plus side was the speed – you were absolutely cooking along.”

Nation had huge respect for Hislop’s TT riding ability. “I know the Isle of Man like my favourite album, but Steve was always so smooth and accurate, that’s where he got his speed from.”

By Friday the tension was huge. “It was incredible – everything was on for the Senior because we knew it was that or nothing,” says Mehew.

“I wouldn’t say Steve seemed confident but there was definitely something about him that day,” remembers Symmons. “After the F1 I’d slept better, whereas for the previous few weeks my stomach had been in a right state. Running a team at the TT is always nerve-wracking: you’ve got the added strain that when your rider goes off at the start you don’t know if you’ll ever see him again.”

Fogarty set a blazingly fast pace to complete the first lap a second ahead. By Ramsey on lap two Hislop had inched into the lead and pushed harder than ever over the Mountain to stretch his advantage to just under three seconds as they came in for their first fuel stops.

Norton were longer in the pits, putting Foggy back in front. “We changed the back tyre in the first stop so we wouldn’t lose time later in case we got into a close dice with Carl,” explained Hislop.

On lap three Fogarty was still ahead, but his OW-01 had gone off song. By the end of lap four Hislop was seven seconds in front.

In the pits, the pendulum swung once again. Fogarty was in and out quickest and by Ballacraine on lap five he was three seconds ahead. Now Hislop started taking bigger risks than he’d ever taken on the Island. Between Glen Helen and Ramsey he made an astonishing seven seconds on Foggy to retake the lead, frightening himself in the process.

“I was riding the bike beyond its limits – I was totally out of control at 180mph,” he wrote in Hizzy. “At that speed, instinct takes over, and for the first time in my life I started thinking that maybe victory wasn’t as important as living. But that soon passed and I got my head down again.”

At the start of the last lap Fogarty was six seconds down but he refused to capitulate. Instead he just went at it harder, unleashing some short-circuit aggression. He had started the race two minutes earlier than Hislop so he crossed the finish line first. Then the waiting began.

“There was a big gap between them, which just heightened the anxiety,” says Symmons. “I was so excited that I pressed the wrong button on my stopwatch so we had to work off the grandstand time. The commentator was counting down as Steve came to the line. We were there with fingers crossed, legs crossed, praying that the bike wasn’t going to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke.”

It didn’t. Hislop took the flag with 4.4 seconds to spare, after Foggy had raised the outright lap record to 123.61mph on his final circuit. Norton had won the Senior. Dunlop came in third.

“The race was unforgettable, absolutely engraved on my brain,” says Mehew. “We knew we had that one chance because by then it was obvious Norton had no future. When Hizzy won I don’t think any of us could speak, we were so choked. It’s the only time I’ve ever partied till four in the morning!”

The party was big. “As far as I was concerned I had achieved the impossible,” said Hislop. “I deserved to get drunk, so I did.”

The celebrations began in Douglas’ Round Bar, then continued back at the team’s hotel, as Mehew recalls. “One of our publicity girls was a very good pianist and Meatloaf was playing at the TT that year, so we ended up with one of his roadies and this girl doing all the Meatloaf numbers on the piano in the foyer of our hotel. It was brilliant. This roadie guy ordered a load of champagne because we were broke by then. Then we had to head for the ferry to go home.”

There was no tickertape parade when the team arrived back at Shenstone to start preparing for the next British championship round. “Norton did nothing for us, not a single thing,” says Symmons. “We were a small team in an organisation that really didn’t want us. Chris and Ron and the mechanics all contributed so much, we were all in it together.”


‘We could’ve climbed mountains’


After the TT Norton returned to chasing the British Superbike crown. Although the future looked bleak the team was still developing the rotary, hoping against hope that they could continue into 1993.

The engine was now very fast and reliable, so it was time to work on the handling, but getting the chassis right for a rotary isn’t like getting a chassis right for a conventional motorcycle.

“The chassis issues were the early delivery and flatness of the torque curve, which made the bike sit down at the rear and forced us into springing for straight-line stability,” explains Chris Mehew. “But then the rear was so hard that just a touch of throttle at the wrong moment and it was gone.”

In 1992 the Norton used a wacky dual suspension system to cope with the power delivery. “The bike had a conventional single shock, then there was another contained spring that didn’t work until two-thirds travel,” Mehew adds.

But something better was needed. “Ann Haslam said we’ve got to fix this thing before someone gets badly hurt. So I sat up all night with a drawing board and then had a big discussion with Ron Williams.

“Ron came up with this new system – a rocking arm on an eccentric with tie bars from the top of the swingarm, so at two-thirds travel it was a normal system but for the last third of travel the leverage on the shock increased by about 30 per cent.

“We learned so much from that one thing that we were so excited for 1993. With one more year we’d have climbed mountains.”

But it wasn’t to be. In early 1993 the bailiffs closed for the kill.

“By then we were taking the race bikes home with us every night, so they couldn’t be seized by the bank. One morning we turned up in our van and there was this Russian guard on the gate – the bailiffs wouldn’t let us in. What they didn’t know was that we had what they were looking for in the van! Barry was as calm as calm could be.

“We were all very upset when the whole thing stopped. We’d had three years of very, very hard work but it was heaven!”

This story and many, many more can be found in the Kindle version of Zen and the rt of Motorcycle Racing, the second collection of my writings on MotoGP, the TT, World Superbike and so on…

E-Book available here