Building steam with a rock and roll soundtrack, motorcycling’s enthusiast-driven market of the 50s became modern culture in the 1960s. Already a Hollywood favorite for casting villains, bikes and riders rode through 1960s theaters in every sort of film – from 007 to Elvis, heroes and villains. Eventually moving onto prime time TV, 2-wheels had become hip in all sorts of non-motorcycle advertising, even Playboy. Interlaced between national tragedies, cold war tensions and activist-driven music, those interested in motorcycles grew increasingly independent. The Rebel now had a cause.
For the makers, a new and uncharted market was materializing. With the price of economy autos dropping to reach more buyers, small displacement/urban runabouts quickly grew obsolete. Those acknowledging larger, more sophisticated designs would need funding to compete, specific Japanese and European factories budgeted for new designs with more personality and power. Plainly, it was a mistake to deny the manufactures in England that same support, resulting in a widespread merging that squeezed tradition to death. For the investors, a bountiful harvest in key segments; trials, sports and touring were growing. Factor in also the specialty builders, Europe’s endurance racing tuners and dirt/drag racing stateside. Each of these would in some important way dramatically effected what was in store for a new generation of riders. As the decade progressed so did all facets of engine technology and speed.
Featuring primarily large (750cc or over) motorcycles or trying to, this preview would be incomplete with recognizing the British parallel twin. Illustrated by the paragraph above, when I became a rider in 1977 British bikes were regarded as slow and leaky. At least in my circles, where the touring riders I learned from were hooking up with a wide variety of modern Japanese and Euro contemporaries. Given time to let it all sink in, a more accurate reality shows Britain’s greatness, as from this place came some of the most profound bikes, engineers, stylists and racers the world has ever known. Selling well and with a large following, England’s big three of Triumph, Norton and BSA all produced outstanding – and very fast – examples of their respective 650 twins. Some of the lessor names, like various Atlas powered AJS and Matchless “hybrids” followed, but generally, buyers preferred the Norton name. Things seemed to peak in 1965, with two special Works-spec models (Bonneville/A65 Clubman) were released. According to solid writings on the subject, Triumph’s Thruxton (resplendent in its original blue and white from Rowena H at RealClassic) was a tuning package the factory sold for years. Where’s the sublime Lightning Clubman 650 you ask? Read about that one here.
(One of many Dominator models, Norton’s 650 Sports Special was among the best. Featherbed frame and Roadholder forks became inside talk among the go-fast crowd. AJS and Matchless CSR-type sports ‘Hybirds’ fit Norton’s engine and some unique parts. Highly desirable. BSA’s A65 Spitfire used much of the tuning developed for 1965’s Lightning Clubman. Factory option list allowed greater speed and race-spec chassis components.
One might assume all conversation about 1960’s seven-fifties would begin and end with the Honda Four. Looking back it’s hard to argue it, but once again history shows greatness coming from other destinations too. From Britain came the earliest; Norton’s Atlas twin and Royal Enfield’s 750 Interceptor, the latter making its debut in 1963. Both could be (and were) tuned to make great power, but it took a redesign into Commando 750 form to smooth the fine handling Norton. Not so with the rather incredible R-E parallel twin, which by 1968/9 (in Mark I and Mark II form) was about as good as one could get. From anywhere. Fast, oil tight and somewhat more durable than any Brit twin before it, the Interceptor would give Honda owners fits, and boasted superior chassis. One last star appeared before the Four’s 1969 debut – two actually, counting BSA’s Rocket 3 and the Trident. Being serious competition for Honda, the triple set racing and speed records for decades. Triumph’s Slippery Sam proved what the triple could accomplish in Works tune, earning fame and championships as an endurance racing patriarch.
(Australian actor George Lazenby (007) in 1969 on his Rocket 3 (photo: charterhouse) Atlas 750 was bumped as range leader when Norton released the Commando 750 in 1968. ‘Norton Girl” adverts wildly popular in the 1970s. Royal Enfield Interceptor Mark II for 1968 1/2 – a vastly underrated classic.)
Special frames of the 1960s
Without question, any of the subcategories within this preview are worthy of a deeper dive, but there’s plenty of published info. That fact changes drastically when crediting those most responsible for advancing chassis technology in the 60’s, but not from a lack of trying. Penning some articles on the subject and planning more, I’ve seen public awareness and appreciation grow for these unsung heroes and their often outlandish bikes. Meeting rider’s needs by matching (or surpassing) chassis performance against the era’s most powerful engines, these builders were not only taxed with increasing stability, but securing the necessary funding to pull it off. Passion displayed, and the brilliance of this work reflects that.
There’s lots of speculation and mystery on who first slotted the Bonneville’s zippy T-120 twin into Norton’s far superior Featherbed frame, but it hasn’t affected the Triton’s considerable fame. Remembered best for the Dresda Triton using his frame, Dave Degens is best defined as a master fabricator with a championship pedigree. As with the others who took this on, Degens art of fabrication required the wearing of many hats; machinist, welder, engineer, tester, dish washer or whatever else needed to be done.
(Surprisingly stunning in white, this 1966 Rickman Triumph (T120) is reportedly the first street bike from brothers Don and Derek. It was kept by the original owner until 2016. Photo: Mecum Paul Dunstall also built Triumphs, Suzuki’s and more, but is best remembered for his Norton (Atlas) -powered ‘Dunstall Dominator’. Two examples: PD testing, and this full honk Dommie in the USA. “The Michigan Madman” A.K.A EJ Potter became a top drag race specialist in the 60s. Building whatever he needed around an injected Chevy V8, Potter was a tremendous influnce to his young 1960s audience)
(Once asking the great Fritz Egli (lifting this Egli-Vincent’s tank to give a peek at the frame) about his biggest challenge, his answer was insightful; “There’s always problems,” said the Swiss tuner. “It can seem overwhelming – wasting time and money, but that’s how we learn.” Egli would build around both Japanese and European engines, but helping the Egli-Vincent legend was colleague and UK specialist Roger Slater, who built this tidy example in green)
Nearly ten years after being discontinued, shipping company owners Tim and George Healey turned their passion for the Ariel Four into a business. “Tim and George were old friends and neighbors,“ recalls Roger Slater. “Looking at Tim’s Ariel 4G sprinter I suggested they wrap a proper road frame around it.” Critical in both development and getting working bikes on the road, the iconic Slater was quick to credit the brothers’ skill. Concluding in our correspondence that Healey’s prototype 1000/4 was essentially a remade-with-Ariel Egli, Slater confirmed it. “Following frames were patterned after Fritz’s design, but the first used an entire Egli/Vincent rolling chassis – even the alloy tank.” Indeed, as support came from a variety of proprietary vendors; Laverda or Grimeca drums, Metal Profiles fork, Dunlop wheels and twin Girlings all played a part in the 1000/4’s exceptional performance. Rare in this case, the Healey’s chassis is far superior to its bygone engine, but all together the 1000/4 produced a remarkably effective (and beautiful) sports package.
All that being said and when the dust settled, what lays claim to being the 1960’s fastest acclerating superbike? Kawasaki didn’t have to announce much when it released its 500cc Mach III in 1969 – the press and H2 owners were happy to display the 500’s through-the-gears dominance. Developed in Kawasaki’s Kobe motorcycle plant, the Mach III’s mission was blistering acceleration. Achieved (in part) by its fantastically reliable, heavily finned two-stroke three, the 498cc triple fit 6.8 comp pistons, auto/pressurized lubrication, three Mikuni 28mm carbs, long lasting surface gap spark plugs and CDI ignition for easy, reliable starts. Per factory practice a spur gear drives the 5-speed, but the accolades fade past the 500’s feathery weight and potent power delivery. Simply put, the tube cradle/tele/twinshock was poorly engineered; over stressed and unbalanced. These shortcomings were taken on by many, regardless, but not all were able to successfully tame the triple. Lessons learned, but as a statement bike, the Mach III served to launch the Kawasaki name.
Feature – Münch Mammut 4
Developing into a favorite and a decades-long study, my first look at Friedel Münch’s ‘Mammut’ 4 was on the pages of Laurie Caddell and Mike Winfield’s “The Book of Superbikes” (HP Books, 1981). At first glance the big roadster struck as a blobby auto/moto hybrid with its huge, NSU car engine. As other Münch fans have shared, the machine will captivate those who dare look closer. Far more than just a two-wheel giant, Friedel was a mechanical wizard who assembled much talent at the Münch works. Born on the Autobahn and bred for fast US expressways, power came from a variety of 1000-to-1400cc engines, built to order. Listed in chronological order, Caddell and Winfield commit the book’s only flaw by slotting Münch’s TT IV (Mammut not be officially used, due to copyright restrictions) just after Honda’s 1969 750. Thanks to Floyd Clymer, both Cycle and Cycle World tested a Münch 1000 two-years earlier, in 1967. Ripping off a 12.9 second 1/4 mile running on three cylinders and tall gearing, Cycle World concluded in a follow up 1973 test; “The Munch isn’t designed for the dragstrip, but intended to be the most powerful, awesome road burner ever built. There are plenty of people willing to pay the price for such a motorcycle, and it’s easy to understand why.”
For those who might now be developing an interest in the mightiest of all pre-Honda ass kickers, there’s a wealth of info about both Friedel and his Four online. Trained at a wartime mechanic and starting his racing career on a Horex, Friedel later caught on with the German firm, eventually buying the works when it closed in 1956, Skipping past the Horex specials coming from his workshop, sometime after 1963 a deal was made with NSU to supply the air-cooled, SOHC 1000cc inline fit to its rear-engine Prinz compact. Spun by primary gear, a revised Horex 4-speed was mated to the engine, a new (nearly 5-quart) sump and select speed tuning items from both NSU and Friedel. Following the Featherbed pattern, Münch’s ultra-strong cradle fit Rickman forks, and hand-formed aluminum or magnesium for a wide variety of components. These include the massive 255mm front drum, enclosed chain/swingarm housing (with precision adjuster) back wheel, headlight housing and more. Beset with production issues, Los Angeles moto-mogul Floyd Clymer stepped in circa 1968 to relieve Münch of promotion chores, then grouped the Clymer-Münch into his consortium of stateside exotica. Set for liftoff but not launching, it all ended when Clymer suddenly passed from a heart attack in 1970.
“The Münch isn’t designed for the dragstrip, but intended to be the most powerful, awesome road burner ever built. There are plenty of people willing to pay the price for such a motorcycle, and it’s easy to understand why.” (Cycle World, March 1973)
Here’s being sure something profound was missed in this longer than expected preview, but it is important to recognize Münch’s role in advancing the superbike concept. Most famous in 1137cc TTS form, Münch continued to develop and refine his powerful cross-country sprinter, and before the final versions were built (Münch was sold, for financial reason, sometime around 1978) the Four’s handling and road holding were earning rave reviews. With its squat wheelbase and heavily condensed mechanical workings, the design was quite an old-fashioned departure from the sleek Honda 750 appearing soon after. Yet, it is reported that Münch sold every machine he made, with orders awaiting more. Defined by its quality but remembered for its size, Friedel Münch’s Four could be the most outlandish superbike ever. Nolan Woodbury