Cliff Rees was born into a motorcycle family in 1938, he purchased a Norton Dominator 88 in 1959. He’s riding the same bike in 2016…have you worked it out yet?
A chance meeting at the Waterlooville Motorcycle Club run in Hampshire unravelled a motorcycle legacy nearly a century in the making, it would be my privilege documenting the full story; two biking characters that have been together for 57 years. It was the era when if something was broken you fixed it, you didn’t throw it away, a motto Cliff Rees has lived by; it was a case of having too in wartime New Malden, Surrey. ‘My earliest memories were of my parents with the Indian Scout my father bought in 1918, both he and my mother rode it. Unfortunately, I didn’t aid its longevity when I put sand into the crankcase as a toddler and it was sold for half a crown’. Cliff’s first job post-school meant passing the Villiers Showroom in Regent Street, where display models from both Francis Barnet and James cemented his decision for two wheels, the rest was just a question of savings. Borrowing his father’s Southport built Super-Corgi, the bike test was dealt with at sixteen. A BSA C11G soon followed, a 250cc single purchased new from Meeton’s Motorcycle Mecca at Shannon’s Corner in 1955. Four years on and Cliff was considering something more potent and one Norton advert had already caught his eye, he has that copy to this day stating ‘The World’s Best Road Holder’, it was the model 88 Dominator.
Post-war and Norton looked to Triumphs Speed Twin and its success with a certain envy; no doubt obtaining the services of Bert Hopwood ensured a power plant that would at the least compete. With his inside knowledge of Triumphs Twin during its development, Hopwood gave Norton what they needed by 1948. Designed to run on ‘ration fuel’ and offer 50mpg a mere 29bhp was on tap and the 1949 Model 7 Dominator enjoyed a heavy, pre-war frame until the ‘featherbed’ arrived on the ‘88’ version in 1952. By the time Cliff’s Model 88 left the showroom on 1st September 1955 things had moved on; slightly more power although the top speed remained at 92mph.
Acceleration had improved with additional revs from 6,000 to 7,000 available thanks to a new alloy head. The Dominator was sharpened up whilst retaining its smooth delivery. Weighing a hefty 30lbs less than the previous ‘7’ it’s 497cc could retain motorway speed limits all day. Even so, the (featherbed) frame and (Roadholder) forks combination could certainly handle more power and by 1956 the first engine upgrade arrived. The 596cc Dominator 99 closed the gap further on the competition and the 650SS of 1961 was considered a race winner straight out of the crate. Hopwood’s engine would remain largely unaltered through to 1976 and the last to be mated to the ‘Featherbed frame’ was in 1968 with the short lived but popular Norton Mercury.
To Retirement and Beyond
1st September 1955, the original buff log book records Cliff’s Dominator registered in the dealer’s name of Banks, followed by a Fred Carey of Tottenham just five days later. The next change was in March 1957 when a William Morrow took the Norton over to Northern Ireland, only to return to Surbiton in Surrey a year later. 28th May 1959, Cliff wrote his details into the document and this has remained untouched since; Elvis was number one in the charts, four-star fuel was 4s 9d per gallon, quite expensive considering a pint of bitter was 11d. The Dominator came complete with Craven panniers and fairing. ‘I bought the Dominator primarily because it looked great and the panniers gave the storage space needed for trips further afield. We were courting then and (wife to be) Sylvia got used to journeys in all weathers, it was the only transport we had. Grandma Elizabeth rode pillion at one time around 1960 and she would have been 90 years of age’ my host explained. ‘One of the first ride outs we had was to Southend with my dad on the back but on the journey home there was a terrible noise from the chain case. On inspection, it was completely dry inside and all the chain rollers had broken free and sitting in the bottom, so we came home running on the rivets; we knew then the maintenance hadn’t been kept up at all’. Another issue was a top end noise that worsened the more miles Cliff covered and with the head removed it was obvious the valves had seized in the guides.
Correspondence with the factory concerning the lack of lubrication that had caused this issue and consequential rockers and push rod wear resulted in a combination of new parts and some clever engineering. A design flaw meant oil enjoyed an easier route returning to the tank rather than continuing up to the cylinder head. This is one of many improvements Cliff worked on over the decades with some success, the lack of top end lubrication may also have caused some head scratching at the Motors Works in Birmingham. Whilst apart the twin enjoyed a re-bore, four new push rods, secondary chain, mag service and gearbox shim having covered 7348 miles by December 1961.
I asked Sylvia if being pillion passenger was something she enjoyed? ‘Oh yes, I loved the club runs, I would Sellotape the directions on Cliffs back and read them out to him on route, great times except for the field of stinging nettles’. Cliff confessed ‘yes, overtaking a car, that is overtaking another car is never a good idea. We were fortunate not to end up in the ditch on the wrong side of the road but knee deep in the nettles instead; I got into trouble for that one’. The paper work contained an estimate for repairs in October 1962 at £52 (a healthy sum for the time) which Cliff explained. ‘We were stationary when a car misjudged the corner and just drove into us and after getting up from the grass verge we realised the driver may have enjoyed a beer or two. He even complained that my language was unnecessarily harsh but paid up in full’. 1962 saw Cliff and Sylvia married in New Maldon but with housing more affordable on the coast, a move further South saw Cliff commuting the Norton firstly weekends back to Surrey and then with his new job some 15 miles away.
Family arrived in 1967 and the Norton was laid up for a while as a magneto fault proved elusive and its unreliability became difficult, especially in the winter months. Returning to duty in the late seventies, more engine work was required during 1981 when Cliff’s long term concern over lubrication was finally put to bed; his homemade orifice plate installed in line provided enough resistance and motive force to encourage the oil towards the cylinder head. New high compression pistons were fitted along with wider type oil pump crankshaft seal and pressure gauge; his notes revealed 75psi cold and 40psi hot. Cosmetics weren’t ignored at this time with all of the Norton’s chrome receiving a new finish whilst the frame was re-coated in Silver Grey. The final major overhaul was carried out in 2009 and one part that proved troublesome was the fuel tank; after several attempts the finish was successful and still impresses seven years after completion by Altamura of Camberley. Several oil leaks were cured during this rebuild plus an electronic magneto was fitted along with a hand-made heavy duty wiring harness and key operated ignition switch. Cliff’s notes state new rear suspension bushes and a drive chain plus many adjustments and TLC. Two years ago the voltage regulator admitted defeat and a new electronic unit was installed after the original version caused the battery to boil over.
I wondered after all these years if there were any particular repairs or modifications that Cliff had found more satisfying? ‘The Britax headlight high-low beam switch that works via the left hand handlebar grip was a really clever idea, can’t understand why nothing became of that? I fitted a horn button to mine, meaning you don’t need to release your grip on the bars’. He went on ‘and a few years ago I realised my head rotation angles had diminished, especially at 60mph, the answer involved decent mirrors, whilst memory failure meant fitting an indicator panel of tell-tale bulbs attached to the previously mentioned mirrors, for when I leave the turn signal on. Finally, a small clock to remind me when it’s time for a nap’.
Over the years this Dominator has had three replacement speedos but what can be calculated adds up to a conservative mileage estimate of just under 100k, so how many more miles did Cliff plan to do? ‘Age is the problem now’, he confessed at just 78 years young ‘the problem I am having is getting on and off, with the bike getting taller every year; its either biker boots with Cuban heels or find something lower. Also, kicking the thing over is hard work, if it doesn’t fire up by the third attempt the old leg says enough but I still love riding, especially on club runs, so I will keep going as long as possible’. Whilst the Norton may not require replacement dome headed footrest bolts (Cliff confirmed wearing the last ones away in the 90s) during the course of our day together, we certainly left plenty of traffic in our wake. The stop-start nature of photographing this story also required him to re-ignite the 500cc twin at least twenty times. Impressive certainly, just like Cliff’s motorcycling career which no doubt has given him tremendous enjoyment and mobility. To own, maintain and ride the same bike for 57 years must surely be some sort of dominating record?
The Last Word from Cliff
Having begun my motorcycling career on a BSA C11G with plunger rear suspension, riding on the slippery, tarred wood block roads with the additional hazard of tramlines, found in many parts of London in the 1950s, I found the “Roadholder” Dominator front and rear suspension and superior frame much more stable and comfortable to ride particularly in wet weather, even when recovering from a front wheel skid when approaching a roundabout at possibly excessive speed. Even today with probably a good deal of wear and tear on the front and rear suspension when taking part in our regular club runs on the gravelly, one track rural country lanes in Hampshire and West Sussex, I find the bike very stable whereas one or two club members on new bikes feel some concern. I have adopted an unusual starting technique.
Turn on the fuel 10 minutes before the ride. Tickle carb. If starting does not happen within three kicks, then full throttle for a further kick. This generally works. In summer or winter the choke seems to have no effect. I would never sell the Norton, instead it will be passed on to one of my daughters and I hope it serves her as well as it has done me. I feel lucky in all these years of motorcycling to have only fallen off three times with the only injury, a broken collar bone. Saying that I do intend to pass the 60-year milestone in 2019 with a ride out; just as long as the Reynolds tubing hasn’t expanded any more causing the bike to grow even taller!
Cliffs 1955 Norton Dominator 88 specification;
- Engine: OHV parallel twin 497cc Bore & stroke 66×72.6mm compression 7.10:1
- Power: 29.5 bhp @ 7000rpm
- Top Speed: 90mph
- Carb: Amal 376
- Gearbox: 4 Speed foot change
- Dry Weight: 380lbs
- Wheels & Tyres: 19 in front & rear, Avon tyres preferred
- Capacities: Fuel tank 3.5 gallons’ / Oil tank 5 pints