A Story Of Motorcycles And Friendship
WORDS Jeff Dickson IMAGES Rob Collins
The Norton Atlas has always been one of my forever dream bikes. This story started quite a long time ago, with the aborted purchase attempt at my first one.
After regrettably selling my Commando, I had gone about a year and a half without a bike. I had always lusted over owning a featherbed Norton special, built up as a period-correct cafe racer. One day my dear friend and long-time motorbike mentor, Bib, called me to say that he'd like to sell me an Atlas special that he had owned for some 20 years. Some of you may know of Bib. Bill "Bib" Bibbiani had cemented himself passionately in the Norton community as a rider, collector, and builder of iconic British iron, serving as the fearless leader of the famed Southern California Norton Owners Club.
We had talked about this particular bike too many times to remember, drooling about it during every visit to his house — its Dunstall seat and hot rod motor held in very high regard by us both. I was shocked that he'd be willing to sell it to me. But it only took two seconds for me to proclaim that I'd take it, gathering up every penny I could muster, booking a flight to California. Unable to contain myself, I anxiously waited to take possession of it, agreeing that I'd meet Bib at his house on Saturday morning.
After landing in L.A. early Friday, I spent the day with my best friend, talking his ear off about the bike. I tend to get carried away when I discuss these things. Coffee and donuts were our ritual, and as we sat at the usual establishment, I called Bib to triple-confirm that we were all set for the following day. His response was painful: "I can't sell it. I cleaned the carbs and gave it a once-over as I prepared it for you, but after taking it for a ride, I decided I just couldn't let it go." I'm sure there was an awkward pause on that call as I searched for an appropriate response. I had just scraped together every bit of money I could find and flown halfway across the country. But I couldn't be mad; I respected it and would have felt the same way. "So where do we go from here?" I wondered. "Come up anyway," Bib said. "I've got an idea."
Saturday morning came and I headed to Bib's with a mix of uncertainty and excitement. There was no bike to buy that day, but Bib told me he'd sell me a different bike, a project that perhaps we'd build together. I had previously discussed with him my desire to build a featherbed Norton — a genuine machine built with real and original parts, just like it would have been done when these bikes were contemporary. Bib had always said that he'd never do such a thing; his preference was to build bikes as he saw fit and then sell them. He had no desire to deal with someone else's opinion and all the headaches that came with it. But he was going to make an exception in this case, likely because we had known each other for years and he'd become sort of a father figure to me. I could also see he felt bad for going back on the deal we had already struck.
The journey began with Bib dragging out another Atlas he had tucked away. A pessimist by nature, I left his place feeling skeptical, knowing what it takes to rebuild one of these old bikes. There'd be a long road ahead, taking time, money, patience, and hard work from both of us to complete. But I enjoy the process and always have, so I knew that with the small collection of parts that I had already gathered and Bib's experience, we could build a machine that we'd both be proud of.
A few months later I returned to Bib's to see the Atlas that he had allocated to me. It sat with the original-paint frame, a solid core of a motor and magneto, and that was pretty much it; there was no front end, no tank, no wheels, no carbs, no seat, no fenders. You get the idea. It was so far from the dream bike that I had in my mind. I handed him an envelope full of my hard-earned money to give it the green light. Of course, he refused to count it; we had done this before, we were friends, practically family, and I'd never short him a dollar and he'd never have a second thought that I would. I sweetened the deal with a couple of cases of his favorite beer.
On cloud nine, we shook hands and parted ways. The plan was for each of us to work on certain aspects of the bike, thousands of miles apart. We'd get together at specific stages and apply our progress. My mind was racing with anticipation as I drove away with his beautiful California bungalow and small shed of Norton treasures in the rear-view mirror. As I cleared the on-ramp onto the freeway, my phone rang. It was my mother, calling to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He suffered from Alzheimer's for many years, and losing him was devastating. We were close, and I've never had so much respect and admiration for another person in my entire life. Except maybe Bib. The two came together at that moment — Bib reminding me of my grandfather; the significance of both of them to me reinforced. The close proximity of both events added a layer of importance to what I was about to build.
No story would be good without a few bumps in the road and these are the types of things that either destroy or strengthen your love for something.
Over the course of the next 14 months, Bib and I got to work. We bickered along the way as to what was right and what was wrong, him winning nearly all the arguments. He was set in his ways and had decades of experience that I had to respect. Besides, I knew that no matter what we built, I'd likely evolve it once it was "finished" in order to get what I really wanted. Bib liked to set most of his bikes up with Mikuni carburetors, which I hate. He wanted the primary to be chrome, which I hate. He wanted to run an 18" rear wheel, which I hate. He wanted to use short reverse cone megaphones, which I, well, dislike. Lots of little things like that, coupled with a few changes based on parts that we either could or could not find at the time, determined the outcome of the bike's first iteration.
After just over a year of heart and sweat, the day had come for me to take full time ownership of its care. On my way, my buddy's truck broke down. I called Bib. He told me not to worry, he'd deliver it to me. As we backed it down the ramp of his trusty pickup, I was nervous about the impending moment of truth: kicking it and riding off in front of your mentor. But all went well, and that first ride was the purest of satisfaction. We had done it. We had conspired to build my dream bike, and at the same time, rescued another discarded machine.
I'll never forget the last touch. Bib handed me the tank badges, saving their placement for me alone. It was a thoughtful gesture that marked the passing of this machine from him to me — far more important and significant than the official signing over of the title. We spent hours talking, obvious he didn't want to leave. It was difficult for him to be done with it. After some time, we shook hands and I think I might have even given him a hug. It was that sort of moment.
These photos show the bike as it sits today, some ten years later, finally done in my eyes. It's evolved to be what I'd always held in my dreams: an honest machine, not overly restored, and certainly no trailer queen. We rebuilt and restored everything that needed to be redone, but didn't do anything that wasn't necessary. It's part survivor, part revival. It's a matching-numbers machine that runs as good as it looks and currently has nearly 16,000 miles on the clock. I ride, enjoy and maintain it as it was intended to be used by its maker. It has a few tasteful upgrades to make it safe and reliable, but nothing that detracts from its originality. Of course, no story would be good without a few bumps in the road — like the time I blew up the motor when a valve broke in half and brought everything to an abrupt stop, or my mild crash at about 35 mph. I suppose these are the types of things that either destroy or strengthen your love for something.
I could never buy such a story or such a machine. Unfortunately, Bib passed away a few years ago, and never got to see it quite like this. I know he'd be happy with it, and proud of what we did together. I know that I sure am.
This article was originally featured in Issue 025 of Iron & Air Magazine