This is an original Norton P11 from 1967. Though the P11 was built in England it had been developed in California by a team of Americans specifically for the wildly popular sport of desert racing.
Initially codenamed “Project 11,” the Norton P11 was intended to compete with the likes of the Triumph TR6C “Desert Sled” and the BSA Hornet. The P11 would prove highly capable, but it arrived on the scene a little too late to make a signifiant impression before the two-strokes took over, as a result, some have called it the “forgotten desert racer.”
Fast Facts – The Norton P11
- The Norton P11 was conceptualized in California by West Coast Norton dealer Bob Blair and his head mechanic Steve Zabaro in 1966. They envisaged a new desert racer to compete with the BSA Hornet and the dominant desert sled of the era, the Triumph TR6C.
- Blair and Zabaro took the frame from a 500cc single-cylinder Matchless G85 CS (Competition Springframe) motorcycle and fitted the parallel twin 745cc engine from a Norton Atlas, increasing power output from 41 bhp to 55 bhp while also significantly improving torque figures.
- The prototype motorcycle, named “Project 11” and later shortened to “P11” was shipped to England for evaluation. It was given the green light for limited production, and the first batch were shipped to the USA in March of 1967.
- The P11 proved a capable off road racer and it was more than up to the challenge of racing against the Hornet and TR6C. In 1968 the model was revised to the P11A, or Ranger, and made a little more tame for street use. It would leave production in 1969 and be replaced by the Norton Commando.
How To Build A Desert Sled
In the 1960s the sport of desert racing had taken off in the United States, in Southern California particularly given the region’s easy access to expansive deserts that seemed to go on forever. It was popularized by people like Steve McQueen, a Hollywood A-lister who was also a talented motorcycle racer, having competed in the 1964 International Six Day Trial (ISDT) on Team USA with Bud Ekins, Ekin’s brother Dave, John Steen, and Cliff Coleman.
Perhaps the most dominant race bike at this time was the Triumph TR6C, essentially a 650cc parallel twin road bike that had been given a few minor modifications for off road use. McQueen owned and raced a number of them, as did countless others, and there wasn’t a desert race that hadn’t been won multiple times by the TR6C.
Norton hadn’t had much luck developing popular motorcycles for the desert sled craze (though they had tried with the earlier Norton Atlas Scrambler), in the end they would need to be essentially pushed into the P11 project with a new prototype that had been developed in the USA by West Coast Norton dealer Bob Blair and his head mechanic Steve Zabaro.
Blair had tried to talk Norton into building the P11, initially called “Project 11,” by fitting the 745cc parallel twin from the Norton Atlas into the lightweight frame from the Matchless G85 CS (Competition Springframe), originally a 500cc single-cylinder motorcycle.
Norton said the engine wouldn’t fit and refused to build a prototype, so Blair and Zabaro did it themselves. It turns out the engine did fit with a little cajoling and a newly designed set of engine mounts.
“The Matchless single-cylinder engine was long in the tooth. We imported 70 G85CSs, which was most of the AMS’ production. They sold out immediately, but there wasn’t a lot of horsepower. The factory didn’t think it was possible to fit the Norton twin into the G85 chassis and said that they wouldn’t do it.”
“We decided to do it ourselves. We took a Norton N15CS Atlas engine and a used G85CS chassis and built the bike in about three weeks.” – Steve Zabaro, West Coast Norton Head Mechanic
The motorcycle they created retained the low-weight and good handling of the Matchless G85 CS, thanks in no small part to its Reynolds 531 chromoly steel tube frame. It also benefited from a significant horsepower, from 41 bhp up to 55 bhp – more than a match for the 46 bhp produced by the Triumph TR6C.
The prototype was sent back to England for evaluation at Norton, they agreed to put it into production and the first shipment of bikes arrived in the USA in early 1967. While the Norton P11 was a competitive motorcycle it arrived a little too late on the scene, the late 1960s saw the switch over from heavier four-stroke motorcycles to lightweight two-strokes from the likes of Husqvarna.
The Norton Commando also entered production in 1968, a model that took some lessons from the P11, and the Commando was selling exceedingly well. Norton did evolve the P11 into the P11A, or Ranger, for 1968, making it a little more street-friendly. But the writing was on the wall, and the P11-series left production in 1969.
The 1967 Norton P11 Shown Here
The motorcycle you see here is a restored Norton P11 from the first year of production, 1967.
It was bought by the current owner earlier in 2023. It has been subjected to an earlier refurbishment, including refinishing the frame and the bodywork, rebuilding the forks, replacing the wiring harness, adding new tires, new carburetors, and refinishing the gauges and wheel hubs.
The original 3.6 gallon fuel tank and side covers were repainted in metallic red over a silver base coat. The engine rebuild was completed by Competition Cycle Center of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2006. It included weight-matching reciprocating components and replacing the pistons, bearings, valve guides, carburetors, and gaskets.
The engine is also fitted with a Lucas K2FC Competition magneto, and importantly the bike is numbers matching with the number on the engine case being the same as the number stamped on the frame headstock.
The bike is now being offered for sale out of Jemez Springs, New Mexico on Bring a Trailer. If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can visit the listing here.
Images courtesy of Bring a Trailer
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