Second bite of a delicious apple

Nostalgia attacks at the Laguna Seca race track as I fling my leg over this lovely, iconic Norton ‘Featherbed,’ known the world over as one of the finest race motorcycles ever conceived: all the old familiar sights and sounds, the identical saddle, throttle, footpegs and lever ergonomics. I’m home again. It’s as if I never left. Great motorcycles—like great . . . anything—live forever.

The sensations are immensely pleasing. I am transported back to my youth as if by magic, watching Geoff Duke and John Surtees win on the Island, on Featherbeds, then having the chance to ride one as a motojournalist, wishing I could have raced it but waaaay too slow.

On track at Laguna Seca with a vintage Norton

Take a deep breath. Force down the upwelling of memories and concentrate. Make every instant count. The owner’s wife won’t let him ride this priceless beauty, ever. I am honored today.

Last time I rode a Featherbed was on the Isle of Man, eons ago. We start the 500-cc motor on this beautiful machine by ‘motorized roller’ applied to the rear wheel, so today no run-and-bump calisthenics are needed. Just as well: I haven’t applied this technique in anger in, ahem, several years. I lack the agility now. Aging is hell, better only than the alternative.

The open pipe barks melodiously but without an idle circuit in the carburetor I must blip it continuously to keep the fire lit. The only instrument is the tachometer. In the nearby pits I see that the throaty bellow sits poorly with visitors taking their lunch break, who flinch and put their fingers in their ears. This is one noisy maternal parent.

Time to launch. Let joy be unconfined. Remember the old British routine, distracted by more than one million miles on modern machines: rear foot brake on the left, gearshift on the right, also up for first, down for the rest of the gears in genuine race-bike format—a neuromuscular error could be costly. This bike has four speeds and that engine doesn’t demand more.

Mechanical brake and clutch controls embody friction and feel unknown to modern riders who use hydraulics, but these Norton levers and cables have a decisive, honest quality, a strong physical connection, an immediacy.

Compared with a modern machine managed by ECU, the sensation is like the difference between touch-sensitive, mechanical, or even assisted-mechanical aircraft controls and ‘fly-by-wire.’ Compare fly-by-wire systems managed by a modern DFCS (Digital Flight Control System), in the Navy F/A-18 Hornet I flew as a visiting journalist, that lack a genuine, direct feel—these days you’re flying a computer, not an airplane. Perhaps, in our digital age, it’s like trying to express emotion through a keyboard, phone or screen, rather than in person, or convey tactile sexual intimacy through the rods, levers and television screen of a nuclear-radiation environment. Not all change is progress. Here and now I’m back to basics, and enjoying every second.

I roll out of the pits, accompanied only by the camera car, and proceed to savor five laps of the track in splendid isolation, virtually owning the facility. Softly, softly: those narrow tires are new, cold and unscuffed. I must not toss this costly jewel down the road. The big TT Amal carburetor wants to breathe freely and won’t deliver clean response at low revs, so I must crank it up a tad, above about 1,500 RPM. There! It pulls cleanly now, but only to a conservative 6,000 RPM to respect a costly engine, not yet fully broken in.

I estimate that the engine is delivering about 50 smooth, linear horses, with excellent torque from mid rev range, quite unlike a modern racing two-stroke machine, which too often delivers ‘light-switch’ throttle response—‘on’ or ‘off’—and minuscule rev range, or a current race 600 of the world’s most popular classes, with ‘Everest’ power/torque curves. Both kinds of machine must be rowed along with the gear lever and kept on the boil. This magnificent Featherbed weighs, I estimate, 325 pounds at most, has mid-range grunt and lets you love it, while delivering its marvelous music.

Out on track, starting to get into the throttle, I traverse the diabolical, downhill Turn 2 buttonhook and all the sensations of control and feel, conveyed historically by the iconic Featherbed, come back strongly. Power through flat turns 3 and 4, grazing the pipe on the track, dive for the deep apexes of Turns 5 and 6, fly up the hill to the infamous Corkscrew with its 300-foot drop. This is living.

Compared with a modern race bike, the handling of this half-century-old design holds up well: honest and forgiving, great turn-in and side-to-side agility, follows the slightest pressures on the clip-ons to maintain line, ‘finishes’ the corners without drama. The ghost of self-taught engineer Rex McCandless, who created the original Featherbed frame back in the early 1950s, haunts me. He knew what he was doing, without the help of computers and CAD/CAM systems. All he had was a basic education in mechanical engineering, a slide rule and a brilliant ‘eye.’

Going is good. What about stopping? Consider those drum brakes. They’re beautiful but not modern disks. Don’t ask too much of them. By the time I reach the first-gear Turn 11 and tuck in tightly, up (‘down’) through the gears, past the start-finish line, floating over the crest of Turn 1, I know that I want this experience to continue forever. But Race Control has placed strict limits on my joyride: five laps or fifteen minutes, maximum.

Five laps in just over eleven minutes. Not quick. It passes like the sudden caress of a butterfly’s wing, a snatch of marvelous music or the momentary embrace of a woman whose scent lingers after a casual kiss. One longs for more.

Perhaps 99.99% of the human race will never know. But, oh, what they are missing.

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